July 2021 Gwern.net newsletter with links on TODO
July 2021’s Gwern.net newsletter is now out; previous, June 2021 (archives). This is a collation of links and summary of major changes, overlapping with my Changelog; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.
Gwern.net: “link tags” system created
The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, 2019 (a quick journalistic tour through what is known of Kim Jong-un’s life up until quite recently; because of coronavirus, there hasn’t been much to report about North Korea in the ~2 years since. Stylistically, Fifield tends to the annoyingly-chatty/smarmy journalist type (it’d be improved if most of the attempts at humor were excised, to save the patient), and much of the contents will be familiar to anyone who diligently reads Western media coverage of NK, but the book is good anyway: what Fifield brings to the table is access to obscure relatives & their unpublished autobiography—this clears up a lot about the complicated, not to mention cruel, household dynamics of the Kim dynasty.
Both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il come off as deeply concerned about the succession problem; their solution, in a nominally monogamous Communist society, is maintaining multiple secret households of wives & children, winnowing through the offspring for an at least ‘adequate’ heir. Jong Un emerges as a last-minute victor when his siblings disqualify themselves: an older brother suffers an opaque hormonal issue rendering him unfit for anything but noodling around playing guitar (apparently remarkably well), while rival household’s Kim Jong-nam blows his lead by disqualifying himself as an impulsively incompetent hedonist; sister Kim Yo-Jong is ruthlessly effective (borderline sociopathic), but suffers from the fatal defect of being female in a nominally egalitarian Communist society. Jong-un was not a particularly sterling candidate, but was the best of the bunch that Jong-Il had to work with, and as Jong-il’s health problems accelerated rapidly (due to over-indulgence), he frantically seized on Jong-un.
Fortunately, Jong-un was young enough to be molded: the normal young basketball-loving boy who returned from school in Switzerland was made king of all he surveyed, and coached in megalomania. He was showered with paternal attention, allowed to order around aged generals as his playthings, and told constantly how brilliant he was by everyone around him. If Jong-un seems like a narcissist on par with Donald Trump, then Fifield’s account suggests this was not born, but made. Simultaneously, an even-more-absurd-than-usual personality cult was built up around Jong-un as the eponymous Great Successor—all of what making him so great being made up frantically as Jong-Il’s death loomed. When he died, Jong-un effectively seized and consolidated power, surviving the dangerous window when he was still illegitimate by extreme actions like murdering his uncle. One might think that could spark rebellion, but as much as they resemble a bag of cats, the Kims always agree on one thing: preserving the House of Kim.
His primary challenge is how to ride the tiger of development: by following the Chinese model and turning NK into another Tibet or Xinjiang, he may be able to pull it off. Fifield is permitted to visit Pyongyang, and records her amusement at how the nomenklatura there are gratified by the most trivial improvements: a ‘French restaurant’ here, some small ski slopes there, an aquarium over there, an outdated featurephone for this daughter and jeans for this son etc. But that’s exactly how to do it: if revolutions are triggered by elite disaffection and disappointed expectations, then doling improvements out as slowly and steadily as possible is how to do it, ensuring that each elite has “too much to lose”, never allowing a Schelling point for rival elites, and reining in any elite overproduction.
He has done so. Indeed, Jong-un’s most dangerous enemy now, judging by his obesity and reported health issues, is himself. But even there he appears to’ve produced at least one heir, and slimmed down considerably. Regrettably, under the current circumstances, Jong-un can look forward to a long reign. The regime must fall or change someday, because if something can’t go on forever, it won’t; but as Adam Smith remarked, “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation”, and NK has outlasted almost everyone who forecast that it would have to collapse soon.)
The Green Knight (2021; Hollywood has always been in love with telling stories about Hollywood, and The Green Knight is no exception—Sir Gawain becomes the hero of a story like he wanted, and discovers he doesn’t like it one bit, while everyone else (including the viewer) enjoys watching it and speculating about his impending death. The hero of a story, after all, can’t know how it ends. Long review after rewatch.)