President Jason Shea, 2012

Jason Shea was born in Washington, DC in 1946. His father, Jackson Shea, was a former war hero turned politician; a few years after Shea’s birth, he would become Vice President of the US under Eisenhower. His mother, Shawna Shea, was the daughter of a prominent lawyer. Jason had two older sisters, a younger brother, and three half-siblings from his father’s first marriage.

His childhood was marked by upheaval. During the Red Scare, VP Shea’s enemies accused him of being a Communist. The charge was absurd - all anyone had against him was some ill-advised comments where he had praised a book about 1930s labor activism - but in the climate of the day, they threatened his political career. Angry mobs protested in front of his house; he received letters threatening his wife and children. Around this time, Jason’s older sister committed suicide - we don’t know the exact details - and VP Shea decided enough was enough. He sent young Jason to live with relatives in Iowa, while he continued fighting for his political life.

Shea spent his teenage years in the town of Long Grove, Iowa. He apparently hated it there - his relatives were strict disciplinarians, and he was forced to do backbreaking labor on their farm. After less than a year, he surreptitiously bought a train ticket for Washington and tried to return home, but his mother refused to let him in. He was arrested by the police as a runaway, and eventually taken back to Iowa, where he lived for seven more years.

At 22, he was accepted to Harvard, where he studied engineering. At some point during his studies, he reconciled with his family, and began to consider politics as a career. After graduating, he took a job working for General John Bowers, one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an old friend of his father’s. For the rest of his twenties, he went back and forth among various government jobs, including a stint where he visited China on a fact-finding mission. He ended up as a consultant, spending a few years each with municipal governments in Richmond, Miami, Raleigh, and finally New York City.

He split his time half-and-half between New York - where he was rising higher in city government and making important allies - and Harvard, where he was pursuing a PhD in political science. In 1996, he succeeded on both counts - he received his PhD, and he was elected as New York mayor. He was known as an unpretentious, relatively bipartisan technocrat who did a good job tackling corruption and making the city work effectively.

In 2004, as his mayoral term expired, Shea - now in his mid-50s - ran for Senate and won. He gained popularity from a series of successful projects - including helping run the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and made friends in the diplomatic corps for his interest in (and encyclopedic knowledge of foreign affairs). In 2007, despite being a freshman Senator, he decided to run for President.

He started with some built-in advantages. After eight years of Republican rule, the country was ready for a Democrat. The only Republican who’d had half a chance, super-popular Texas governor Bo Shelley, had been caught taking bribes from organized crime early in 2007, and was fighting to avoid prison. Shea, with his Harvard education, New York experience, Iowa roots, and story of overcoming adversity during the unfair persecution of his father, had something for everybody in the Democratic base. He got a high-profile endorsement from Bill Clinton, won the nomination, and coasted to an easy victory over Republican John McCain in 2008.

Then he declared himself dictator-for-life and imprisoned half the inhabitants of Alaska.


In Le Ton beau de Marot , Douglas Hofstadter discusses philosophy of translation.

Take for example the Chinese characters 孔夫子. “Kong Fuzi” is a very literal translation, but means nothing to most English-speakers. “Master Kong” is less literal, and conveys a little more information. “Confucius” is a terrible translation for many technical reasons, but probably the best way to give the English-speaker useful information.

What would it look like to try an even less literal translation than that? One possibility - don’t laugh - would be “Aristotle”.

That is, imagine you’re watching some Chinese movie, and some character says “As 孔夫子 says, we need to place virtue over personal gain.”

If you’re totally unfamiliar with Chinese history and culture, translating the characters as “Kong Fuzi” or “Confucius” doesn’t help. It just sounds like a meaningless name. The speaker could be naming their friend, and saying that she’s worried being unvirtuous will disappoint them. Or it could be the dictator, and recommending virtue because the secret police will arrest unvirtuous people. Translating it “Aristotle” succinctly conveys that you should be virtuous because a widely-respected ancient philosopher said so.

When I was working on the Dictator Book Club entry for Xi Jinping, I frequently found myself lost in unfamiliar Chinese names and concepts. For example, from Xi’s Wikipedia page:

In Fujian, Xi made efforts to attract investment from Taiwan and to strengthen the private sector of the provincial economy. In February 2000, he and then-provincial Party Secretary Chen Mingyi were called before the top members of Central Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP – General Secretary Jiang Zemin, Premier Zhu Rongji, Vice-President Hu Jintao and Discipline Inspection Secretary Wei Jianxing – to explain aspects of the Yuanhua scandal. In 2002, Xi left Fujian and took up leading political positions in neighbouring Zhejiang. He eventually took over as provincial Party Committee Secretary after several months as acting governor, occupying a top provincial office for the first time in his career. In 2002, he was elected a full member of the 16th Central Committee, marking his ascension to the national stage.

None of this made sense to me the first ten times I read it, and I wanted to experiment with ways to convey it more efficiently. So I tried to “translate” the story of Xi Jinping into the story of Jason Shea, 44th US President.

Overall I had fun, but I don’t think it was very successful. The main problem was running into systematic differences between China and the US that made some parts hard to translate, or forced me to bend the truth.

For example: during his career, Xi served as party secretary of four different areas: Zhengding, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai. A faithful conceptual translation would have had Shea serving as county supervisor of some small county in Virginia, then mayor of Miami, then governor of North Carolina, then governor of New York. This career progression doesn’t make a lot of sense in a US context (except for this guy!), so I turned him into a consultant in Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina before becoming NYC mayor. Maybe I should have just let him be governor of a bunch of states and let it be implausible, I don’t know.

The other thing that didn’t work was the timing. Xi’s father was purged in 1962, which was a little too late for the Red Scare. I moved Xi’s birth back a bit, but I didn’t want to go before World War II. That meant I was a bit coy about how old Shea was when he was sent off to Iowa - if we go by the historic Red Scare, Shea should have been 7ish, but Xi was 16 when he got sent to Shaanxi. Likewise, Xi became President of China in 2012, but the US election that best fit Shea’s story was 2008, so I moved everything forward four years and made him a stand-in for Barack Obama.

I consider this mostly a failed project, which is why I’m showing it to subscribers only and not releasing it to the wider world.

PS: The picture on the top is what happens if you ask theArtbreeder AI to make Xi Jinping’s face look like a white person. I think it’s pretty good!