What am I up to now?
December 1, 2023
Noah Robertson writes a very flattering article on my work with Team Afghan Power for the William & Mary alumni magazine. The article went to press before the Taliban’s campaign this summer, and paints an optimistic future for Afghanistan and our mini-grids. After the fall of Kabul, Noah followed up with me and published an article about the fantastic work John Gerlaugh has been doing to aid the evacuation of vulnerable populations.
My sisters were not as flattered by the article, and it’s my fault.
All this [travel] came as a surprise to his family, who rarely stray from home. Both of his sisters now live close to their colleges. His family is still in the Washington area. Meanwhile Levine hasn’t lived in the same place for more than 10 months since high school.
One friend who recently enrolled at W&M texted my sister Abigail, “I didn’t know you’ve never left your front porch.” Sorry!
While looking through the Fall 2021 Alumni magazine, I found this article about AidData’s new China aid-spending database.AidData is a W&M research lab; I worked for affiliated researchers in 2015 and 2018. The basic problem in analyzing the strategic consequences of international aid flows is that, unlike most donors, China does not report their spending. There is no transparency in where or how China gives aid: AidData fixed that.The OECD Development Assistance Committee has set the canonical reporting guidelines, but these are less than perfect. One of my favorite blog series is David Roodman on how these guidelines portray some rich countries as more generouse, at the expense of others.
“Our goal is to triangulate information on each project that the Chinese government is bankrolling with as many reliable sources as possible. We track down the grant and loan agreements published in the official gazettes and legislative repositories. We scrape all of the project-specific information that is posted on Chinese embassy websites. We review aid and debt information management systems of finance and planning ministries in host countries. We correspond directly with government officials, investigative journalists and contractors on the ground with firsthand knowledge about these projects. Then, after standardizing and synthesizing all of this information we’re able to see the big picture — the known universe of Chinese government-financed projects.”
In October, I spoke with one of our Sierra Leonean research assistants about his dissertation, which he’s writing to finish his Masters degree at a university here. His main data source is AidData!
Staying on the topic of alumni magazines, my friend Alex Coultrup was featured on the cover of her college’s magazine! Her headline-making adventure took her a lot further from home than just Afghanistan: Alex spent two weeks on a simulated Mars mission. She’s a human factors engineer working at a space company; they’re currently working on the most exciting concepts in LEO commercialization.
I finished three 1,000-plus page books in October. War and Peace was the only one I wished was longer. A third of the way through, I recommended the book to several friends as “Russian Gossip Girl,” and while Napoleon ruins the analogy slightly, Natasha and Denisov and Márya’s adventures are engaging and scandalous throughout.
Tolstoy the progressive is a fascinating historical character. He writes two characters, Pierre the Count and Andrei the Prince, who work halfheartedly for a better world. The author and his characters know they hold unjust amounts of power in an unjust society; they feel the occasional compulsion to free their serfs or promote liberalism, just as I feel the occasion compulsion to stop eating meat.
The underlying pessimism, Tolstoy’s “history as a river,” excuses a lot of aristocratic abuse: Tolstoy himself did not give up beating his servants till he was well into adult life. Count Pierre follows mysticism to egalitarianism, and eventually gets bored of egalitarianism and focuses again on mysticism. And though he is much more effective in wielding power to change the system, Prince Andrei finds caring to improve the world a burden.
He felt a pang. The day was so beautiful, the sun so bright, everything around so gay, but that slim pretty girl did not know, or wish to know, of his existence and was contented and cheerful in her own separate—probably foolish—but bright and happy life. “What is she so glad about? What is she thinking of? Not of the military regulations or of the arrangement of the Ryazán serfs’ quitrents. Of what is she thinking? Why is she so happy?” Prince Andréy asked himself with instinctive curiosity.
The second thousand-pager of October was Machester’s American Caesar, a biography of Douglas MacArthur. The titular simile is made in the introduction, and not revisited.
The two generals surrounded themselves with servile aides-de-camp; remained long abroad, one as proconsul and the other as shogun, leading captive peoples in unparalleled growth; loved history; were fiercely grandiose and spectacularly fearless; and reigned as benevolent autocrats.
MacArthur’s ego makes him easy to dislike, but the ego is justified in a way that makes him a candidate for the Great Man theory of history which Tolstoy spends so many chapters disparaging. Manchester’s portrayal of other Allied generalsAdmirals are tactfully excluded from similar criticism. in East Asia during and after WWII is uncharitable. The implication is that the war in the Pacific, and it’s aftermath, would have gone much differently in anyone else’s hands. MacArthur was especially well-regarded in the nations he protected and ruled, despite his reputation among American GIs. On his last visit to the Philippines, MacArthur
was moved—moved to tears—when he discovered that the government had kept a postwar vow that the name of Douglas MacArthur would never be permitted to die among the soldiers of the Republic of the Philippines, that it was heard every day when a roll was called, and that a sergeant always responded: “Present in spirit!”
This tradition persists. Too, does MacArthur’s near-deification in Japan. I picked up the book after a friend who studies constitutions mentioned that the Japanese constitution was written by MacArthur in one week in 1947, and has not been amended since. Much of Japan’s 20th century miracle was enabled by the reforms of the late 1940s, which the General micromanaged from his Tokyo headquarters. The most impressive of these achievements were public health:
In the first two years of the occupation, Sams estimated, the control of communicable diseases alone had saved 2.1 million Japanese lives—more than the country’s battle deaths during the war, over three times the number of Nipponese civilians killed in the wartime bombings, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The life expectancy of men had been increased by eight years and of women by nearly fourteen years, a phenomenon, in Sams’s words, that has been “unequaled in any country in the world in medical history in a comparable period of time.”
The other reason I picked up Caesar was because of a debate with my friend Graeme on what makes an occupation successful. On public health, at least, the US occupation of Afghanistan matched our Japanese track record.
The final tome of October was All the Young Dudes, a Harry Potter fan-fiction. Fan-fiction as a sub culture provides the main source of literature for tens of millions of Americans, and hundreds of millions worldwide. I asked my sisters to recommend their favorite stories, and All the Young Dudes was the consensus choice.One friend, after I shared what I was reading, told me that Taylor Swift is the true anonymous author of All the Young Dudes. Here’s a 28-minute YouTube video arguing for the theory. This rabbit hole goes deep. I finished it, so it must have been alright, but I took no notes and made no highlights on my Kindle.
I feel that, by not being on TikTok, that I’m missing out on a similar subculture, but by 100x. I haven’t downloaded the app because my current daily use of TikTok is a Nash equilibrium (0 minutes per day): if I download TikTok the next equilibrium is probably around 30 minutes per day. I’d probably be willing to give up 10 minutes per day to the algorithm, but that’s a difficult line to hold. Also on the topic of TikTok and Harry Potter, an in-depth look at TikTok’s algorithmic subcultures from Eugene Wei:
TikTok’s algorithm is the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter universe. Just as that magical hat sorts students at Hogwarts into the Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin houses, TikTok’s algorithm sorts its users into dozens and dozens of subcultures.
Wei has deep, and possibly true, insights into TikTok’s algorithm. I came away thinking the algorithm is both a lot dumber and a lot more impressive than I went in. He ends with a story about his trip to the headquarters of Newsdog, “the number one news app in India at the time.”
I looked through the stories, all in Hindi (and yes, one feed that contained the thirst trap photos of attractive Indian girls in rather suggestive outfits standing under things like waterfalls; some parts of culture are universal). Then I looked up from the app and through the glass walls of the conference room at an office filled with about 40 Chinese engineers, mostly male, tapping away on their computers. Then I looked back down at page after page of Hindi stories in the app.
“Wait,” I asked. “Do you have people in this office or at the company who know how to read Hindi?”
He looked at me with a smile.
“No,” he said. “None of us can read any of it.”
Four new (to me) albums dominated my listening this month according to Spotify analytics. All are pop or pop-adjacent.
- Liz Phair, “Liz Phair” (2003)
- Wilco, “Sky Blue Sky” (2007)
- Chairlift, “Moth” (2016)
- Jacob Collier, “Djesse, Vol. 3” (2020)
Also, my wonderful mother found someone to hand-deliver a birthday present, including a new pair of earphones (I was down to my third back-up pair!). Most-improved-record on the new earphones goes to Lizzo’s “‘Cuz I Love You.”
This section intentionally left blank.