Locklin on science

A review of “The Man Who Solved the Market” (and “the Captain”)

Posted in Book reviews, history by Scott Locklin on November 29, 2021

Most systematic hedge funds are a racket; they either got lucky, or have a strategy that only works in one market regime. There’s a couple of hedge funds out there who have beat expectations year after year. Ed Thorpe’s Princeton Newport and its successor TGS Management is collectively one of them. Rentech is the one that lasted the longest, and is best known. They’ve also got the biggest bags and the principals were and are much more admirable people than the TGS principals. It helps that I actually know some of the people in the Rentech story, and people like Jim Simons are friends of a number of friends of mine, so it’s something I know a little bit about on a personal level. Rentech is also remarkable for the sheer density of actual great men involved. People who accomplished great things before and after their Rentech days. Let us name some of the names: Lenny Baum, Nick Patterson, Sandor Straus, Elwyn Berlekamp, James Ax, Bob Mercer, Henry Laufer, Robert Frey, Peter Brown and Jim Simons himself. It’s a lineup of machine learning, statistics and fundamental mathematics rock stars. They’re all very different personalities as well: though they were welded into one of the greatest and most successful firms which ever existed. The story is sort of like the great WW-2 movie, Kelly’s Heroes.

Probably the most important fact about this book is the fact that it was an unauthorized history of Rentech. As such, the people who talked were people with grievances; grievances dating back in some cases to the 1970s. I’m not sure how aware the author was of this psychological dynamic, but it was evident in the extreme to me. There are lots of specific examples I could point out where the history listed is questionable. This is valuable though, as by highlighting the social fractures, we can learn a lot about how Simons managed to weld these oddballs into a money-making machine. Imagine if Kelly’s Heroes was told from the point of view of harvesting anecdotes from Oddball, Petuko, Big Joe, Willard and the German Tank Commander. That’s what we have here. Actual anecdotes from Kelly (aka Jim Simons) and some of the other important characters is missing. And of course old beefs are going to seem more important to some people than they really were to everyone else at the time.

Simons always had hustle; he built a world class mathematics department at Stony Brook mostly through personal charm. He was also always a risk taker; driving a Vespa with a gang of scooter nerds from the East Coast to Columbia (oddly many of the known details of this trip are left out) before he went to grad school.

One of the amusing things about this account is the sepia toned 70s-ish of it the early days. Simons got up in the spirit of the times; being fired from the code-breaker squad for opposing the war in Vietnam, spending time on a psycologist’s couch -later doing primal scream therapy and having an early marriage go spectacularly sour. James Ax was also a stereotypical man of that time; a competitive, angry, genius womanizer-misanthrope living on a boat.

The early experiences of Simons and Lenny Baum are illustrative; they started out with an actual algorithm running on a PDP-11. This in itself was a huge innovation. Baum was one of the creators of the Hidden Markov Model; a tool which has direct applicability to financial problems. I assume they were using something like this, probably looking for trending states. They had problems with it though; one must remember at the time they were inventing a lot of things. Even using data from a database in making trades was pretty innovative, let alone using decent statistical modeling in making the trades. For a while they were just winging it trading on logic and instinct, to varying degrees of success, but ultimately this wasn’t a satisfactory solution for anyone. The stories are familiar to anyone who has ever tried it: discretionary trading is extremely stressful.

The next iteration, Axcom, was with James Ax and Sandor Straus. In this period the models grew more mathematically sophisticated; still using Markov ideas on Straus’ rapidly growing collection of intraday data. I think Sandor Straus deserves credit as the world’s first “data scientist.” His account of cleaning data is probably the earliest one of performing this task. Cleaning data is the fundamental task that defines data science as a role: statisticians and economists buy clean data from somebody. The team also used a lot of Kernel Regression in this era; something I know is still an important part of Rentech and its spinoffs, but which seems to be of little interest to anybody else but me; hell I can’t even get TDA people to look at it. The real breakthrough came, however, when Elwyn Berlekamp showed up, became a majority shareholder in Axcom and moved the firm into the Wells Fargo building in Berkeley. It’s obvious in hindsight Berlekamp treated it as a probabilist involved in error correction codes would; developing a technique for using multiple edges in one unified trading system. Though the book doesn’t say so he also probably added a rational bet-sizing system for optimizing to the geometric mean: a really sweet thing that only someone like Berlekamp would have thought of (to be fair, Thorp definitely thought of it as well). The team also narrowly avoided being caught up in a commodities broker going tits up in this era, which probably would have killed them in those days. It’s good to be lucky as well as smart.

Berlekamp and Simons had a difficult long-distance relationship, as remote work wasn’t a thing back then excepting for frequent phone calls. Frequent phone calls are incredibly annoying to people who are concentrating deeply. Eventually Simons bought him out and moved the rodeo to Long Island. Two important figures from the post Berlekamp days was cryptographer Nick Patterson and mathematician Henry Lauffer who were responsible for various of the innovations that we take for granted today, and a few which people would no doubt like to have access to. Robert Frey was also recruited from the Stab Art world. Another set of key hires in the 90s were Bob Mercer and Peter Brown; a couple of speech recognition specialists from IBM research (there’s that Markov model stuff again), and David Magerman, a programmer also from IBM research. Taciturn saturnian Mercer and talkative mercurial Brown seemed like Castor and Pollux; opposites who meshed well together like a couple of gears, grinding out wonderful results. Brown is still CEO of the company.

Magerman, on the other hand, seemed like an asshat. He converted the company from C to C++ to make himself more valuable (a complete waste of time; 90s era C++ mostly just adds complexity for no obvious benefit over C) and blew up a live trading system by backdooring a computer. Magerman seemed to bring some computer science discipline to a company filled with sloppy-coder mathematicians and he was obviously a crucial guy who solved important problems, but the dude was a jerk. People who are good at programming are often perfectionist mindset types; meticulous people who can track down a subtle bug or manage large amounts of complexity. Unfortunately what you get with that mindset are often …. jerks. People who throw things when they don’t get their way: jerks. People who think 90s era C++ was worth using, despite nobody else in the company being able to use it: jerks. People who raise hell with OSHA because the CEO is a heavy smoker: jerks. People who alienate their boss and benefactor with sperdo like “why don’t you liiiike meeeee” behavior: jerks. People who have the CEO removed because he voted for the wrong political candidate: jerks.  I’ve known people like this throughout my career and have endeavored to always see the best in them I possibly could. Frankly his story in this book convinced me to never hire a person like this excepting as contractors. They bring bad luck, bad social interactions and you should banish them from your village. It’s an astounding account in part because it must have largely been told to the author by Magerman himself.

One of the keys to its success: Rentech shared the loot. People who uncovered new alphas were important, but fixing code, cleaning data….. all received big bonuses when the company did well, which aligned everyone’s incentives. Lots of work is necessary, but not so sexy, and this keeps people working on the necessary. The company, at least in the earlier days also seemed to have tremendous mission intensity; just like other type-1 organizations such as the Sidewinder era of China Lake. One of the things that didn’t work so well: new employees shitting on the old employees who to their mind “didn’t do anything anymore.” Not sure if they ever found a way to deal with this. Probably by paying people more. One of the things which stuck out was Simons knowing what his company was worth, and taking large performance fees: Simons had after a long struggle a genuine golden-egg-laying goose, and he wasn’t giving these returns away to goofballs who only wanted to pay 2 & 20. It was also amusing that many thought Rentech to be some kind of Madoff like scam; I have acquaintances who went through the interview process and thought it might have been some weird money laundry for Columbian drug dealers (he did make friends in Columbia from his early scooter trip there). Through the whole arc of Rentech, Simons had an awful lot of terrible luck in his personal life, which is really unfortunate as he seems like a genuinely nice person.

The rest of the history laid out here is boring HR drama, so I won’t talk about it. It’s more interesting to focus on the great years, and how they made it succeed. Big brains working together as a team, with great intensity and great rewards.

Bonus review: During one of the Simons video interviews (with James Ax’s son) he also mentions a book popular back in his day called “The Captain” by Jan de Hertog. This is definitely a period piece; a sequel to a book that was a sensation under the Nazi occupation of Holland, on a young tugboat captain. Very intense, as it involved running German blockades. While it’s a great read for entertainment purposes, it’s also got some important leadership lessons, as he pointed out. It is a very good book for this sort of thing; being decisive, motivating very different groups of people, distracting people who need to be distracted and generally being a combination matador and stage magician. The crew in The Captain were a bunch of non-motivated odd ducks who needed to be convinced to follow the eponymous character, as well as being motivated to do a good job in general. Half of the early drama in the story was dealing with this.


Edit add: Ben Gimpert had a nice review back when the book came out, making notes of a lot of the interesting technical bits: https://blog.someben.com/2019/11/notes-on-man-who-solved-the-market-jim-simons/


America Against America: the Chinese de Tocqueville

Posted in Book reviews by Scott Locklin on November 3, 2021

Imagine if a hyper-intelligent and perceptive communistic space alien landed in America of 1988, and wrote an account of his impressions of the country.  The book America against America, published in 1992, is such an account. The author, Wang Huning is one of the most important people in China today; China’s “grey cardinal.” You’d think the meteoric success of China, and the ridiculously precipitous decay of America, incidentally predicted in every detail by this book would make America against America a widely studied book by US intelligentsia, but it’s so forgotten there isn’t even a wiki entry for it for me to link to. It isn’t available on Amazon (have a look at what Amazon thinks you’re looking for and despair), nobody talks about it, and you have to be resourceful to find it. People do know about Wang Huning; I had read something about him before the recent Palladium article in WSJ and Foreign Affairs, but somehow his seminal book remains un-commented upon and presumably largely completely unread. A book telling us what the Chinese elite think about their greatest geopolitical rival; seems somewhat relevant to current year.

The Chinese Grey Cardinal

I assume the legendary American incuriosity is partly at fault here; modern “political scientists” will have better careers catering to baizuo obsessions, like how to get people to eat more insects. Such gibbering ninnyhammers labor under the delusion that the Chinese are merely a variety of technological and industrial serfs; inconsequential exotic looking peasants who make their nerd dildoes, rather than a 3000 year old civilization with the world’s largest economy, and poised to overthrow the world hegemon if it wants to. Hell, the baizuo don’t even think much of Chinese-Americans, considering the efforts they go through to keep Asians out of their schools. Having more court eunuchs and persecuting uppity American peasants seems to be of more pressing concern to American alleged “political scientists” than the view of America presented by one of the most powerful men in China. I assume if contemporary political scientists actually read his book, a model of perceptive clear thinking, they’d mostly wrinkle up their noses at it. Perceptiveness and clear thinking are anathema to our modern mandiranate, who revel in red herrings, nebulosity, complicating simple problems and the fumes of hypocritical moral preening; preferably preening about progressively more grotesque causes detached from physical reality and offensive to neurotypicals. Read the Grey Cardinal’s book on America? Naaaah. The task falls to an obscure barbarian bit twiddler writing in his underpants.


Mr. Wang goggles at the material prosperity of America from the perspective of a 1980s Chinese. Kids these days are no longer familiar with the phrase “starving children in China,” but it was a phrase still in current use in the  United States of the 1980s. China’s 1988 GDP per capita in current year dollars was less than $700/year. The idea that every American house would have multiple telephones, automobiles; even the concept that the average American had his own house was heady stuff to the young representative of the Middle Kingdom. The idea that one could get these wonderful things without ration cards (and the wonderful magnetic strip ration cards Americans use) seemed utterly bewildering to young Mr. Wang. Mr. Wang also wondered at the productivity of the American farmer; he describes one man with 800 acres and 2000 pigs, and foresaw that the individual farmer, would give way to some form of collectivization, which it very rapidly mostly did. America of 1988 was already past its historical apex, which I peg as somewhere around 1965, but the outline of the actual triumphant America was still present, and the contrast to $700GDP/cap-year China will probably never be so enormous.

Young Mr. Wang then contrasts the mainstream and prosperous American with phenomena like the Amish (or the Amana, who I never heard of beyond their microwave ovens). People in the most industrialized country on earth chose of their own accord to live like Chinese peasants without the blessings of electricity and automobiles. This is extremely weird to a person from a third world country (remember, sub $700 year GDP/capita), but he recognized the Amish and other such religious groups are an important part of America’s cultural DNA.

National character

Mr. Wang saw most Americans as being relatively culturally conservative, though open to the world and cultural and technological change. He praises our inventiveness, wonders at the horror of modern architectural atrocities, weird fashion and punk rock haircuts. He also thought we have a particular talent for demystification. Most people with souls are  mystified by the sky, the ocean and nature; Americans mostly aren’t. We’re the children of the scientific (or at least scientistic) method in ways that no other culture is. Nothing is holy to the American; leaders aren’t particularly respected, and even scary stuff like ghosts are demystified by the American ritual of Halloween: a holiday which turns the terror of the supernatural into something fun for kids. This gets at something really deep in the American character compared to normal people. Especially when combined with his observations about the solemnity of workaday events like elections and sporting events, and the sacralization of insipid oafs like football players, newscasters and other celebrities. I guess he saw the religious impulse being used in strange ways in America; it really is pretty strange.

Mr. Wang viewed working Americans (he disdained those who refused to work) as generally in possession of good work ethic and diligence; almost wondrously so. He correctly identified the old protestant work ethic, and wondered that it had persisted well past the sell-by date of Protestantism. He noticed that a lot of people worked hard for Maslowian self-satisfaction, and judged this a useful system for getting people to work harder. The phrase “work hard, play hard” was illustrative of an attitude which is almost uniquely American. Making fun of people who forget to play hard is also something American:

The Japanese have a famous saying, “work until your pee is red”. Many people in the United States also work hard, but there is a difference between them and the Japanese.Americans have a special word to describe this kind of people, called Workaholics, directly translated as “alcoholic workers”, consisting of the words “work” and “alcoholism.”

Mr. Wang attempted to come to grips with American and general Western sexual ethics, and compared the skimpy ethics of 1988 to those of  Westerners from 100 years previous. He noted there was a broad spectrum of private opinions on porn, gay rights and non-marital sex, but that the sexual revolution gave all such opinions sort of equal cultural standing. He did not approve of liberal views on sexuality. I assume $700/year 1988 China didn’t have time, wealth or public health resources for the kind of antics Americans get up to, as they were too busy working in the fields. I wonder what he makes of current year Chinese sexual ethics? Many of the Asian strongmen decided it was pretty useful for social control: “muh dick” types don’t tend to make effective revolutionaries, and they make decent enforcers of the existing order when you tell them dissidents want to take their cummies away.  He also saw the side effects of social atomization, divorce and promiscuity; a lonely, alienated people: America has always been a lonesome place.   He also discusses a group of problems with socialization and introversion he probably didn’t realize were fairly unique to WEIRD college types -before the Chinese came up with the splendid baizuo sobriquet. A few of his anecdotes of upper middle class WEIRDos are too precious to not relate:

A delegation from the Japanese business community came to speak at a university, representing some of Japan’s major corporations and important academic institutions. The Japanese are rich and already known to the world. At the reception, many Americans treated the Japanese representatives with respect and looked for things to say. One woman official from the local government held the hand of a Japanese man for several minutes, smiling all over and saying straight out that the Japanese man had a beautiful tie. I felt uncomfortable looking at her. In fact, she was trying to get some Japanese investment for the local area. Americans mostly despise Japanese, but their attitude towards Japanese and what they think inside is different.

I’m with Mr. Wang; I’d have to look away in horror as well.

Social regulation

Mr. Wang was from a country with central planning, so the idea of using basic Keynesian fiscal and taxation controls to organize society was probably particularly foreign, and the way he pulls it all apart gives hints as to how the Chinese would eventually accomplish this themselves. Other subtle forms of governance which seemed noteworthy to him: for example, private sector accreditation.  His observation that pervasive technology of all kinds was a form of social regulation was insightful. Most American political scientists treat technology as a sort of external thing that happens, rather than a force for social regulation that both fit and shape the broad outlines of the culture. People become accustomed to their place in the vast machinery of society; becoming rather machine-like themselves. He had some interesting thoughts on regulatory capture, which is one of the major problems afflicting the US today (arguably not so much in China). Also worth mentioning: though he didn’t reference the thinker, he described Sam Francis’ idea of “anarcho-tyranny” where ordinary law-abiding people are regulated to the smallest detail, and criminals are allowed to run wild. Essentially the current year situation in America where inhuman monsters terrorize the ordinary law abiding citizen from above and below. He laughed at our tax code which is ridiculously complicated and causes absurd amounts of lost productivity. He did seem fond of the totalitarian possibilities for social control opened up by the fearsome IRS’s fancy-pants databases and national ID number which allowed for total control of the productive part of the population. Again, you can see the future Grey Cardinal rubbing his hands together over database technology; prelude to what was coming in China.

Generally Mr. Wang wasn’t a fan of the detailed regulations Americans have inflicted on themselves; he blames individualism for this. He might very well be right; a nation of individualists gives very little thought to social harmony unless there are laws requiring it. One of the wittiest bits of his book is his listing of animal control regulations; he just gave the broadest outline of the insanity of dog and cat laws, while the actual laws are considerably more detailed and absurd, working himself up to the following:

With a little more discussion, one can feel that American society is not so “free” and not as free as one might think to do whatever one wants. Even dogs and cats are not free, and those who have cats and dogs are bound by them, and in my opinion, by choice. Although some people love dogs like life itself, and the dog and cat industry is thriving, dog houses, dog cars, dog clothes, dog food, everything. But dogs and cats are very restricted. If dogs and cats had any sense, they would have gone to Washington to demonstrate and demand “dog rights” and “cat rights”.

Political Forces

Wang nails it early in this chapter: the two parties are a uniparty of the ruling class. Classic communist theory, which in this case happens to be a good description of reality. That’s why we can’t have nice things, and why outsiders breaking into the system caused an all-hands freak-out after the 2016 election. He arguably idealized the system too much stating, “The policy ideas that both parties talk about actually summarize voters’ problems, and then propose solutions.” I mean, it might have been true in 1988, it certainly wasn’t true from the 1990s through now. On the other hand, the CCP more or less does this today, from the block captain level on up. I’m guessing at least partially inspired by Wang’s experiences in the still mostly functioning US. People are easier to manage when they’re basically happy with how things are going, with their everyday concerns taken care of; something the budding totalitarians in our ruling caste of human soybeans would do well to recall. If it costs you a few hundred workers worth of effort to make the peasants happy, it’s a lot cheaper than paying for a policeman for every 10 people to keep them under control. He describes something bizarre that Americans accept as being the normal state of affairs in divvying up post-election political spoils with appointments; he names names, goes into details, something the incurious numskulls in the American media basically stopped doing almost 100 years ago in the FDR administration.

Special interest groups and lobbyists, he sees as an inevitable consequence of capitalism. He takes a sort of “schoolhouse rock” idealistic view of lobbying and special interest groups, but he immediately realizes the problem with it: the powerful group gets its way, and the regular people pretty much have no say in the matter of concern to special interests. He also called out the ridiculous Pentagon to Lockheed dynamic that makes much of American politics around military procurement so ridiculously corrupt. Obvious problem to a visitor who was only in America for 6 months; somehow nobody who lives in the place in current year considers it a serious issue, despite all the cost overruns and technological turkeys we’re afflicted with from the military industrial complex.

Soft governance

Wang had an amusing adventure getting an American ID card, I think in Iowa. The idea some insignificant local state-level bureaucrat rather than a policeman or the Federal government would issue identity documents is pretty objectively weird to most people on Earth. He attributes this to the American love of freedom, which is probably how it got that way, along with the fact that the state-level institutions existed before the invention of things like ID cards. He was also fascinated by the database system backing it all up, and the idea that people could feel freer by not visiting a bunch of intimidating armed ogres at the police station, despite the ogres having total access to all the information. Obviously the roots of the social credit system happened somewhere here. Wang Huning really liked American databases.

Mr. Wang saw the coercive and totalitarian possibilities of business; after all, a lot of conformity and soft power in the US is enforced by employers; from ever more byzantine “civil rights” enforcement (generally compliance serves business since it invents new reasons to fire people; keeping the uppity peasants in line) to vaccine passports: none of which actually increase the rights and power of American labor. He thought the American system of management was pretty tough on labor, and figured it would never fly in China; even on a social level. It was probably too close to the time of Mao for that, though for all I know there is still some kind of social informality between Chinese employer and employee which we don’t have in the US.

His adventure examining a county human services agency is illustrative; he was interested in the fact that this agency was designed to resolve some of the inherent contradictions of capitalism (of course, young Wang Huning was an orthodox Marxist). As a good political scientist studying a very foreign culture, he was intrigued by the management chain of command, and the various social problems, such as “Americans are known to beat their wives.” You can imagine the conversations that led to that conclusion. He wonders at the vast sums spent on this, and whether it can be maintained in the long term. He also traces the social services tradition back to old England in the 1500s, which was something new to me.

No visit to America would be complete without a visit to the Coca-Cola company. Seemed like mostly a wash; gawking at the beautiful investment grade art in the inconspicuous building. Also the fact that they donate ridiculous amounts of money to thinktanks and pressure groups to get political favors so they can sell more caffeinated diabetes juice. He’s a political scientist rather than a businessman, so he’s most interested in power relations. He’s too polite to call this what it actually is; a byzantine form of bribery, but he’s probably thinking it.

Like Coca Cola, Christmas is an American tradition, and he helpfully includes information (presumably for his mostly Chinese audience) on the origin and actual celebration of the institution. He also wonders at the ugliness of most of the churches, and the modernist and desacralized way the American Christian religion perpetuated itself via radio, TV, modern music and various good works. He takes the marxist sociological view of the function of religion in our society, and seems to think it’s over all a pretty good influence on American culture, with valuable social cohesion effects and few downsides. He doesn’t think Americans are particularly superstitious, as I suppose is the orthodox Marxian view of religion, and he argued that Americans of 1988 take a pragmatic approach to religion much as we used to with technology and virtually everything else. He mentions the downsides in the form of the various goofy televangelist scandals which were happening at the time. You’d need a petrified diaphragm to avoid laughing at the antics of Bakker and Swaggert and the rest in the late 80s and early 90s; Mr. Wang had a good laugh as well.

Educational institutions

Mr Wang mostly admired US educational institutions; I assume the Chinese ones of his day were a mess, and the US ones were still pretty impressive back then. Some of the social observations are interesting; the idea that education was a collaborative experience, and that the universities had tremendous soft power in spreading American influence abroad -these are things most Americans take for granted to the extent we’re unaware of them. He also examined government training institutions like the Kennedy and Maxwell Schools. I take it from his comments that many  80s era ChiCom functionaries were not so well educated, and were often fairly ineffective. He thought the military academies were of supreme importance, as was the political indoctrination which took place in these schools. He recognized the powerful cultural influence of football and what it revealed about the American national character; Americans respect honor, strength and are very outspoken; all characteristics on display at a humble football match. I hate football, but his account of the game was oddly touching and innocent.

Wang esteemed the various policy setting think tanks in existence at the time. These are institutions he eventually reproduced back home in China. He considered them to be a different form of postgraduate educational institution, which in the best case is what they actually are; albeit one with a particular ideological bent. He also marveled at the intricacies of the inter library loan system; something that didn’t exist in China of 1988.


Now the good stuff; the overt undercurrents of decay. The first thing he observed was how bizarre American families had become. He thought the decline of the family was a result of …. liberalism and individualism, which of course is exactly correct. Americans are individualists even down to child rearing practices: Americans isolate children from family from early ages, to cultivate individualism and sense of self. This is probably crazy-making for many -at least it seemed so to a 1988 Chinese man. The lack of care for family members was bizarre and disgusting to Wang, and the atomization into pure individualism caused him to ask questions which resonate with thoughtful people today such as,

Is human nature adapted to living a life with or without family emotions?

What kind of emotions should human society maintain in addition to sexuality?

Wang commented fairly extensively on the extreme ignorance and utter barbarity of the television generation, and the failure of primary schools to educate citizens to basic levels of human competence. He was shocked at the re-wilding of teenagers, the numerous runaways and juvenile criminals. I suppose the latter social problems aren’t as bad as they were in the 80s. I assume the lower testosterone levels of kids these days keeps them from running off and knocking each other up as they were when I was a kid. Kids are now raised by their telephones instead of the television, and are mostly too physically broken and mentally unwell to try to run off and make it on their own. He didn’t understand how America could continue to be American without basic civilizing of children and educating them to the culture of America:

If the transmission of basic knowledge is problematic, how can the basic values and beliefs of society be transmitted? How can they be socialized? This is the greatest challenge not only to American society and economy, but also to American politics.

Drugs were a problem in 1988; this problem has metastasized to being all-pervasive with  giant tent cities of discarded half-human madmen and druggies. The very fiber of Americanism resists doing anything about it; we’re the country of freedumb after all. Why not let people be crazy and do all the drugs they want?  He saw the nefarious machinations of various drug gangs being a huge potential threat to both civil society, the social order and the government itself. The Sackler family hadn’t blessed us with their entrepreneurial ventures yet in ’88, but I’m certain Wang would have recognized them for what they are: evil drug dealers who subverted both American government and sowed chaos in American civilization.

Drugs are encroaching on the United States with a force that, I fear, exceeds the various forces that have impacted the country throughout history.

Black lives mattering: Wang saw relations between blacks and whites as one of the most obvious and threatening social fractures. He observed the social and legal progress of the black community; still fairly recent in 1988. He also couldn’t help but notice the hypocrisies of white people, the fact that most of the bums and beggars were black, and that the ghettos were horrific and dangerous. He was horrified at the violence of blacks against Chinese-American people who obviously had nothing to do with black problems; something which persists to this day. He saw the cycle of black poverty for what it was; a social dysfunction of weak families that is passed on from generation to generation. Oddly, Wang talked a lot more sympathetically about the plight of the half a million American Indians than black people; probably because he was less likely to be sparechanged or mugged by an Indian. Both sets of racial problems seemed not remotely solvable to Wang. I wonder what he thinks of the racial situation now, with another 70 million or so people from all corners of the globe added to the population.

Spiritual crisis: Mr. Wang was very concerned that even elite university students knew little to nothing about the history and culture of the society to which they belonged. His heart was at least somewhat with the neocons of the day; mentioning Alan Bloom and his best selling 1987 jeremiad against the ignorance of contemporary university students. Mind you: the morons described by Bloom and Wang are now professors in the universities and high officials in government. They’re still ignorant pustules, now responsible for creating ever more callow gelded toads to infest the crumbling halls of American power. He identified the cultural nihilism of the baizuo all the way back in 1988; the upcoming tribe of people who would run the country into the ditch didn’t understand it, and didn’t much care for most of its inhabitants either. Dr. Professor Wang was/is a communist, so he understands that without some kind of ideological didactics or indoctrination, you can’t perpetuate your society. Without basic common values, you don’t share a common culture or society.

if society is left to develop naturally, traditional values will be difficult to preserve, and the trend of social development will always be to constantly eliminate the past, the new generation will inevitably have no concept of the past, and without education there will be no continuity. ….  Who, then, will perform this social function? Everyone who thinks about social stability and development, I am afraid, must first think about this issue.

Japan: OK, of course this was written in the 1980s, and it really looked like the Japanese were taking over back then. Since then, they sort of mutated from terrifying threat into a benign country of autistes who make reliable products and don’t reproduce. Whatever he says about Japanese hegemony in those days goes triple for China today, except somehow most contemporary people don’t recognize it as a commercial and cultural threat the way we feared Japan in the 80s. The problems of affluenza in the US eventually hit Japan, and is now a problem the Chinese elite are dealing with. Notice how they’re now limiting video game use, celebrities, reigning in their oligarchs and banning overt cultural subversion? All the people doing these things probably read this book, and saw the dangers of following America into such minefields. They understand the American cultural disease can spread to their own population and are trying to prevent it from ruining the heroic gains they’ve meticulously built up over the last 30 years.

A thoroughly enjoyable read; I learned much about my own society by viewing it through the eyes of a perceptive stranger who visited 34 years ago. I’ve always liked Chinese people for their frankness and open nature. Wang Huning had that quality in spades; a curious and pleasant, but very foreign guide to peak America and a diagnosis of its illnesses. It’s difficult to relate to current year people how much of an outsider Mr. Wang was when he visited. He was merely from another culture, but the effect was as if he was from another planet. I don’t even know if it’s possible to be that foreign any more now that we have internets. Mr. Wang is a sort of communist Chinese Virgil guiding the reader through the outer circles of American hell. Even if you don’t give a shit about the rise of China,  Americans will learn more about their own society from reading this than anything  published in America in the last 50 years.

This book should also tell you that America is probably going to lose in any serious confrontation with China, if that weren’t obvious enough from current events. Consider the China/Alaska summit in the early days of the Biden administration. Classic baizuo diplomacy; new administration, first meeting with Chinese counterparts, what do you do? Apparently someone thought it was a good idea to bring some ridiculous “broken branch” purple haired freakazoid, then harangue the Chinese about their internal affairs, and generally engage in unhelpful moralistic preening and grandstanding, as if the US were morally or physically capable of lecturing them about anything. It’s like the nose-ring twitter activist who lives in their parents basement insisting society change completely to suit their neuroses. This is pretty standard fare for the self-regarding bozos presently running things. Bringing someone that offends the diplomatic counterpart you’re dealing with, then lecturing them why they’re horrible people is a pretty major flex; sort of like Caligula’s horse. This might have worked in the past, or with weaker countries, but this time the Chinese were not impressed, and gave us a good foretaste of what an assertive China will look like, and how it will deal with the pathetic dorks in the American diplomatic corps.

While Mr. Wang gets some small details wrong in his book, or interprets the facts in a weird way because of his own cultural orientation; in general he’s dead right about everything. He and people like him are calling the shots over there. The American managerial class actively works to prevent accurate understanding of …. pretty much everything. At this point, you can’t join this social class of managerial parasites without overtly denying reality a half dozen times before morning coffee. That can be a useful social sorting mechanism when you have a bunch of over-educated grubinses knifing each other to get the good seats; but that only works when the corner office doesn’t confer any responsibility with real world consequences. You don’t get to remain the world hegemon when you don’t even vaguely understand your own society, let alone that of your geopolitical rivals. People with normally functioning nervous systems understand that baizuo-run America isn’t even worth living in, let alone fighting for. Good luck trying to recruit competent soldiers to fight for the rights of Taiwanese people to go to a gay bar or whatever it is I’m supposed to care about in baizuo-America’s ridiculous, unnecessary and completely ham-handed confrontation with China.

If you want to understand the problems we have in America as a technocrat, or even how American actually functions as a political society, consider the book of comrade Mr. Dr. Professor Wang Huning; our potential new overlord.  He’ll also shed some insight onto the successes of China. I hope he’s  laughing his ass off how unutterably stupid the leaders of the US became in one generation.

Michael Pollan is a public menace

Posted in Book reviews, five minute university by Scott Locklin on October 7, 2021

I used to live near Pollan; probably stole his parking spot a few times at Berkeley Bowl. I remember him as one of those mincing ninnies who went in transports over the 100 different varieties of pepper or apple available in this place. This sort of consumerist “foodie” affectation is a common sort of snobbery among atheistic Berkleyites. People with Berkeley style moral autism get their pre-religious purity rituals from consumerist virtue spirals, rather than attempting to be a good person in any recognizably human sense. People who fly all over the world on a whim are more likely to drive an electric car than a V-10 truck. People who stick miles of wart-laden ding-dongs up their own assholes end up being more persnickety about sticking, say, Oscar Meyer hot dogs in their gobs. This sort of poseurism overlooks the fact that humans are basically able to do pretty well on a diet of pure seal blubber, but ultimately I can forgive such tendencies as a mild mental illness resulting from poor parenting techniques or too much soy or whatever.

Pollan, though, has gone too far. I have already gone on record stating the man has blood on his hands for his advocacy of CIA mind control drugs. I know at least two victims of his idiocy who have had very serious mental health problems because they read a book or listened to a podcast involving this blockhead, and I have strong suspicions about a third. I’m not someone who suffers fools or psychedelic users gladly, so I’m sure my sample is biased away from people susceptible to hippy dippy BS there are tens or hundreds of thousands more out there.

Now Pollan wants us all to give up coffee. Oh yeah, and he also wants you to try opium and mescaline, which are available in common household plants he wants to tell you about.


As is usual with our, um “elites” this pile of dung will pay no price for the outright evil he has wrought. In fact, as usual, his PR weasels have made it seem like his, erm, “ideas” (mind you; quit coffee, do mescaline and opium, because we’re short crazy people and junkies and have too many productive people in America) are an important part of the “national conversation.”

Back in the dark ages before we had “enlighted”  dunghills like this yutz, people would actually consider whether or not the fashionable interests of the upper middle class might have a bad effect on the lesser orders. That was back before we had a “meritocracy”  -the old elite were big on common decency and looking after their social inferiors, if only because lower orders had to man their factories, the armies and industrial concerns. Modern upper middle class and upper class dorks think non-millionaires are moral defectives who didn’t study hard enough to go to Harvard, or were too stupid to have parents that sent them to summer in Europe. The idea of singing the praises of addictive and mind-altering chemicals wouldn’t have occurred to the regressive pre-meritocratic upper middle classes. Sure, De Quincy wrote a book about being a hop-head junkie in 1820; it wasn’t meant to tempt office workers into trying it out.

Modern upper middle class buffoons can usually survive an encounter with psychedelics, or becoming addicted to opiates or dealing with caffeine withdrawal headaches. Middle class through poor people mostly can’t. The complete lack of care for such people displayed by twee knuckleheads like Pollan really harshes on my mellow. At best it evinces an utter lack of thoughtfulness. At worst, a hostility bordering on genocidal.


muh consoom muh substances

Then there is the mawkish superannuated adolescence of it all.  What sort of degenerate zero in his 60s finds meaning in something as insipid as quitting coffee for a month or dropping peyote or …. opiates. These are trivial experiences, best avoided all together; only a twee urban narcissist could find them of any interest. Of course, twee NPR listening urban narcissists are to first approximation the Michael Pollan Reading Public in America these days. Unfortunately, the same people are administrators of many American institutions, which is probably why everything is so incredibly shitty current year.

Here’s a suggestion for 60 year old adolescents, whose subject appears to be sticking various substances in their meatsacks: become addicted to nicotine, and quit. Nicotine makes caffeine look like mid-afternoon naps for powers of concentration, and is a more intense experience to quit. There are delightful forms of it which wouldn’t even involve a risk of cancer or lung damage: I favor Freiborg and Treyer snuffs. It would actually be daring for a Michael Pollan to do this, as it violates the folkways of the twittering pustules in his social circles, who all probably think nicotine is some dangerous carcinogen (it’s not). While he’s doing this he can take up bodybuilding and steroids on a no-carb ketogenic diet; at the very least he’ll end up less of an annoying fucking nellie; at best, maybe he’ll have material for a further book. My suggestions are considerably less physiologically and psychologically dangerous than taking up opiates or cactus-mescaline, and are vastly more profound than quitting morning coffee. They also require considerably more grit and determination than Pollan’s lotus-eater habits. And if people imitated these hobbies, it might actually do people some good, quite unlike something like quitting morning coffee.

I could go into more details, but it’s mostly dull: his soliciting a Loompanix-famous nutty muslim junkie to help him conspire to violate drug laws by growing his own opium is both weedy and boring; this is literally the kind of antics I got up to when I was 15.  The coffee section had questionable history, even more dubious science, and … boring. The San Pedro cactus section is predictably florid and Bay Area retarded, featuring a hippy lady with fake-indian “ceremonies” and “traditions.”  You’ll find deeper insights and vastly more interesting experiences for free on bluelight or erowid.
I mean really, what’s next Michael Pollan? Are you going to take up smoking amphetamines while exploring ethical non-monogamy and Tantric pegging? Igobaine suppositories to quit the opium habit, with a side dish of traditional African bush meat while on photo  safari?  Perhaps Michael Pollan will smoke PCP at Burning Man, stick needles in his scrotum in an S&M ceremony and claim it helped him with his depression? I still think the nicotine to steroid bodybuilder to Janae pipeline would be more entertaining, but all of these are good options. How about the ancient Wall Street tradition of snorting blow off the ass of hookers? I could easily imagine him copying out some horse shit he read about Chimu indians making sex0rz pottery while hoovering lines off of women’s hineys, then with a slightly pretentious wikipedia tier digression on whores and coke used by the Arditi in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s anarchist Fiume. The book will culminate with him participating in the traditional ceremony; counting his loot after his last book sale, then delicately hoovering some blow off of Annie Sprinkle’s derriere, while she shoots ping pong balls out her hoo-ha, spooking his two cats, and causing some sort of cod-profundo realization about how he always wanted to be a DJ.

Honestly, Michael Pollan is the wine and cheese writer for the free local hippy “community” weekly newspaper. The one with the ads for strip clubs and pot stores in the back. Somehow he escaped from his rightful place in the world as obscure community paper foodie scribbler, and now he afflicts us all with his nonsense. I mean, if you actually take this ridiculous goober seriously, you do realize that people are laughing at you, right?

Books which inspired Robert E Howard

Posted in Book reviews by Scott Locklin on September 22, 2021

“My tastes and habits are simple; I am neither erudite nor sophisticated. I prefer jazz to classical music, musical burlesques to Greek tragedy, A. Conan Doyle to Balzac, Bob Service’s verse to Santayana’s writing, a prize fight to a lecture on art.”

Robert E. Howard books; Conan and Bran Mak Morn are a sort of peak pulp storytelling of a certain kind, just as his friend HPL’s stories are peak pulp horror. The main problem with his books are there aren’t enough of them. The man killed himself at age 30, so he wasn’t drawing on a particularly deep reading life. You have to figure there was a lot of Conan taken directly from the stuff he read, and Conan fans might get a kick out of his literary interests.

Howard of course had a basic background in classic literature, as most high school graduates did in his day: Shakespeare, The Bible, Beowulf, The Norse Sagas, Arabian Knights, the Greeks and Romans. For a small example, Conan was a Cimmerian; Cimmerians were the Scythians of ancient history, written about by Herodotus. Howard was also interested, as were many in his day, in Theosophy and their weird ideas about Atlantis and Lemuria. He was  a fan of Kipling, Sax Rohmer, Jack London, Rider Haggard (who is amazing and largely forgotten) and Edgar Rice Burroughs and the myriad of Authors in Adventure magazine. I could talk about these guys in detail, but I figure it is more useful to outline some more obscure pieces I’ve read fairly recently.

Harold Lamb was a big influence on Howard. One of the writers for Adventure magazine, he churned out what can only be described as pulpy …. but extremely accurate historical fiction. I felt like I got more out of reading his “Theodora and the Emperor”  than I did out of reading Procopius. It’s not high literature, but it portrays the protagonists as complete characters in a way that historians are unable to, which is a considerable work of imagination. I’d put this book below something like the I, Claudius books, but maybe close in quality to Robert Graves Count Belisarius (same characters, completely different interpretation of them). Graves treated Belisarius as a sort of good guy tragic Mary Sue, and the Emperor and Empress as sort of malign ciphers. Lamb wrote his work a couple of decades later, and concentrated on the psychological furniture of Justinian and Theodora, who were, to say the least, obviously very complicated and interesting people. Justinian was an educated peasant who was adopted by maternal uncle, an illiterate but extremely capable soldier who eventually became Emperor. Justinian himself had no military experience, but was a political genius who oversaw a reconquest of large swathes of the Roman empire, revised roman law, rebuilt the city and oversaw many momentous events. Theodora was a former circus worker;  a sort of circus porn star and prostitute. From these humble beginnings she became a powerful and beloved leader, and one could say an early advocate for women’s rights from a woman who suffered greatly in her past life. As such they’re a lot more interesting as characters than Belisarius, who, frankly does kind of come across as a sort of tragic Mary Sue in the chronicles. Howard never read this specific book as it came in the 1950s, but it and Lamb himself is quite a find for historical fiction fans, and gives views of the type of author which inspired Howard. I have only thumbed through his other books on  Crusaders and Gengis Khan, but they look real promising also. We know REH had read Tamerlane and The Crusades and I stuck ’em on my Kobo for a rainy day.

Howard also read Flaubert’s undeservedly forgotten Salammbo. My pal Marty Halpern suggested this as a good book to read while on vacation in Lisbon, for the Carthaginian feels. In fact it was pretty appropriate appropriate, especially for the month long Santos Populares festival, which mostly takes place in former Carthaginian neighborhoods of Alfama. The book tells a bizarre story about some mercenaries hired by the Carthaginians and the Eponymous princess to fight for Carthage, and what happens when Carthage can’t pay up. It’s … brobdingnagian, energetic, sensuous and basically a fully formed sword and sorcery story written with the highest French literary qualities by Gustave freaking Flaubert (of Madame Bovary fame) and published in 1862. This makes absolutely no sense. It makes even less sense he lifted it all from an actual historical event in Polybius’ Histories. Nobody reads it any more because it was a “minor novel from a major novelist,” but I think this assessment is a mistake. It’s great fun, and as it literally invented an enormous genre of fiction, it is at least as important as the invention of modern literary narrative in Madame Bovary. I figure the type of weedy literary schnerd who pretends to ajudicate the importance of old novels is more comfortable with the neuraesthenic middle class people portrayed in Madame Bovary than they are with human-sacrificing witch-queens and barbarian mercenaries, even if the latter were actual people who really lived and did precisely the things described in the book. Flaubert himself wrote the book to be the diametric opposite of Bovary, to avoid becoming typecast as that guy who writes claustrophobic psychological novels about neuraesthenic middle class schmedleys in France. Anyway, don’t listen to the literary schnerds; read Salammbo if you like Conan books, or history or any other kind of books involving sword and sandal.

Salammbo; note this isn’t painted by Frazetta in the 70s; Henri Adrien Tanoux in 1921

The Book of Invasions. Howard like many Americans had a romantic identification with his Irish ancestry. Conan’s god Crom was actually an Irish god, Crom Cruach. Conan himself has an Irish name. The Book of Invasions; a weird book compiled in the 11th century, telling the possibly true tales of multiple tribes invading the island of Ireland. It’s considered mythological these days, because you know, modern people are real good at not believing in false and stupid horse shit, but back in Howard’s day it was considered to be at least partially conventional history. It’s a completely bonkers piece of literature; there are pre-celtic tribes, huge plagues, several supernatural races of demigods, and eventually the Irish show up. It’s more bizarre a document than any sword and sorcery background mythos I’ve ever read; positively Lovecraftian in places, with supernatural races and epic battles galore.


Insanely awesome online scholarship on the books REH read:

The Robert E. Howard Bookshelf