by Ray Dalio
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017

I don’t often read books by celebrity CEOs. They can be jejune; more a testament to the author’s ego and less about providing any real insight or substance. Principles by Ray Dalio is a partial exception. There’s ego here for sure, but a good amount of substance too.

Principles - cover

Dalio is the founder of Bridgewater Associates, one of world’s largest investment management firms. It serves institutional customers like pension funds, foundations and even governments. Currently it manages about $160-billion in assets. Principles originated as internal company training material. Published last year, it was Amazon’s top selling business book for 2017.

Let’s clear up one thing from the start. To me, the word “principles” refers to a few fundamental rules that form a code of conduct or the foundation for some field of study. The Ten Commandments, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Peano’s five axioms, even Amazon’s fourteen Leadership Principles are all fine examples.

Well this book is not that.

Instead it’s a well thought-out, hierarchically organized set of a couple of hundred heuristics refined over Dalio’s forty year career that are designed to help you get the most out of your life and work – whatever your definition of “most.”

The core idea of the book is that we should live our lives in a continuous cycle of growth or evolution. We set goals and attempt to achieve them; sometimes we succeed but often we fail; we reflect on our failures and try to learn from them; we adjust our principles based on what we’ve learned; and finally set new (and bigger) goals. Most of the book, and most of the principles, are about how to do these things effectively.

Dalio encourages us to reflect on our experiences and to refine our own set of principles as we go through life. This requires developing a certain amount of detachment. He suggests thinking about ourselves as a machine. Most of the time we’re operating “inside” our machine, going through our daily lives, executing our plans, etc. But it’s important to take the perspective of the machine’s designer and “look down” on it from time to time. See how it’s working. Does it need repair, or a tune-up, or a complete redesign? As we embark on new goals, or evaluate our progress against existing ones, this dual perspective is really useful for evaluating our situations and deciding whether and what changes are needed.

But it’s the ideas of radical open-mindedness and radical transparency for which Dalio is most famous, or perhaps notorious. These two ideas – principles in their own right – reoccur throughout the book. To make the best decisions, we must seek out the best available information and advice. That means being open-minded enough to consider ideas that conflict with your own, or that you’ve completely missed. It also means being transparent, sharing your ideas and opinions openly knowing they might be criticized or contradicted, but knowing also that respectful debate and disagreement lead to ideas being sharpened, strengthened and improved. It’s essentially a call for humility that I wouldn’t normally expect from a powerful CEO.

In practice, however, it’s led to accusations that Dalio takes these ideas to extremes, running Bridgewater like a cult, with all meetings recorded and junior employees being publicly criticized in front of their peers.

The book is divided into three parts. This first third is a brief autobiography, well a hundred and twenty-odd pages anyway. The second part is covers life principles and the final part covers work principles. Apparently there’s a follow-on book that will focus on finance and economic principles.

I read about half the book. I skipped through most of the autobiography, read the life principles section in detail and skimmed the work principles section. Frankly you don’t need to read the whole thing either. Instead, I think you can treat it as a useful reference book, returning to it from time to time when you’re faced with new or difficult situations.

Unsolicited Feedback

I can’t say I discovered any revolutionary ideas in Principles, but taken as a whole they form a solid framework for identifying and addressing work and life problem to help you meet your goals. I do wish this book had been available when I was younger though. Having a framework like this and developing the habits Dalio encourages early in life or career could have a dramatic effect over many years, kind of like compound interest. Older readers will probably have worked out many of Dalio’s principles for themselves, even if they haven’t codified or organized them as neatly as he has.

Related Links

Principles web site

Mastering the Machine, a 2011 profile of Ray Dalio by John Cassidy

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Trump v. Hawaii

Supreme Court

Reading through the Supreme Court’s decision in Trump v. Hawaii – the Muslim travel ban case – is like drifting off to sleep on an ordinary commuter train headed for home and then being jolted awake when it shudders to a stop, only to discover that you’ve arrived in Mordor.

It all starts off so reasonably as the train gets under way. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, sets out the task before the Court: to decide whether President Trump had the legal authority to issue Presidential Proclamation #9645 and whether its terms violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

He takes us through the history of the Proclamation — #9645 is the third version – and the various legal challenges to it.

Next there’s a quick stop at Justiciable Station just to make sure the Court actually has the authority to decide this case. (The Supreme Court gets to decide whether it gets to decide.) Not surprisingly, it decides that it does indeed have the authority, or rather it assumes it has the authority, and presses on.

Now we come to the first major uphill pull, the question of whether the President had the legal authority to issue Proclamation #9645. That authority, if it exists, comes from section 1182 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The Court examines the text of this section in minute detail and concludes, not surprisingly, that the terms of the Proclamation are well within the authority granted to the President.

We’re at full speed now as the Court briskly dispenses with another challenge, that the Proclamation violates section 1152 of the INA prohibiting discrimination in the issuance of entry visas. Irrelevant, cries the Court, this Proclamation concerns eligibility for admission which is a “different sphere” than visa issuance.

The train slows for another brief stop, this time at Standing Station, to determine whether the plaintiffs in this case are eligible — have standing — to bring a constitutional challenge before the Court. You can’t just show up at the Supreme Court and challenge a law because you don’t like it, you have to demonstrate a specific and personal harm under the Constitution. The plaintiffs show their tickets to the conductor and are not booted off the train.

Picking up speed once more, we come to the final question of whether the Proclamation violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In other words, does it discriminate against Muslims? The Court reviews numerous blatantly anti-Muslim statements uttered by candidate and then President Trump, including his infamous call for a

“… total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 27]

The Court says its job is to not denounce these statements but rather to decide how to weigh them against a “neutral” Proclamation that falls within the core of the President’s responsibility.

It says that as long as there’s a good reason for the policy, what it calls a “rational basis”, it will uphold the policy regardless of any “extrinsic” statements. At this point you can hear the heavy thunk! of a railroad track switch and the train veers off in an unexpected direction.

In short order the Court finds that the Proclamation does have a rational basis: national security. It reverses the injunction granted by the lower courts and hands the case back for further proceedings. As the train squeals to a stop with a final lingering hiss of the brakes, the Proclamation goes into full effect.

The United States Supreme Court has just upheld President Trump’s travel ban.

You look out the window in terror. You don’t recognize this place. How the hell did we end up here?

* * *

Let’s go back and take a more detailed look at some of the key points in the case.

Proclamation #9645 is the third version of a ban on travel to the US affecting people from predominantly Muslim countries. The first two versions were challenged in court and then revoked and revised by the Administration. 9645 restricts entry into the United States by persons from Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen, ostensibly to prevent threats to public safety. (Chad was later removed from the list because it improved its identity management practices.) It exempts lawful permanent residents (Green Card holders) and people from these countries who have been granted asylum. There is also a waiver program under which foreign nationals can request an exemption if they meet certain conditions.

The suit challenging the Proclamation was brought by the State of Hawaii, three individuals, and the Muslim Association of Hawaii. These plaintiffs claim the Proclamation violates the INA and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it is based on anti-Muslim bias rather than any real concerns for national security. The three individual plaintiffs claim harm from this Proclamation by being separated indefinitely from family members who live in the affected countries. The Court acknowledges the harm and grants them standing.

So there were two issues for the Court to decide in this case:

  1. Does the Immigration and Nationality Act give the President the legal authority needed to issue the sweeping travel bans contained in Proclamation #9645?
  2. Do the terms of the Proclamation violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, that is, do they infringe on the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom?

In my view there was never much doubt about the first question. The text of the Act is pretty clear: it does grant the President broad authority and flexibility to determine who is granted admission into the United States and under what terms and conditions. Other Presidents have issued similar travel bans; President Carter issued one banning visas for Iranian nationals, and President Reagan blocked immigration to the US by all Cuban nationals.

The heart of this case, then, and the real controversy around it, lies in the second question.

The First Amendment to the Constitution states,

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The first part of the Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” is known as the Establishment Clause. It prohibits the government from establishing an official religion for the United States, from giving preference to one religion over another, and even from giving preference to religion over non-religion.

The plaintiffs allege that the Proclamation unfairly discriminates against Muslims in direct violation of the Establishment Clause. Donald Trump’s numerous anti-Muslim statements, as a candidate and as President, form the basis for their lawsuit. Indeed, it’s impossible to read those statements and not believe that the Proclamation was influenced and motivated by the President’s obvious hostility, or animus, towards Islam. The legal question is whether or not that animus is sufficient grounds to invalidate the Proclamation.

The Court extensively reviews Trump’s anti-Muslim statements but then decides that such “extrinsic evidence” will be ignored if there’s a reasonable justification for the policy.

“As a result, we may consider plaintiffs’ extrinsic evidence, but will uphold the policy so long as it can reasonably be understood to result from a justification independent of unconstitutional grounds.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 32]

This is the most important sentence in the entire decision. In fact, you can stop reading right here. The Court is saying loudly and clearly that it will not decide against the President, despite all his hateful rhetoric, if there’s even the slightest justification for the policy. It’s over, folks. It’s a walk-off grand slam for Trump.

Why? Because the justification provided by the Government, and accepted blindly by the Court is national security, the modern scoundrel’s last refuge.

A few pages later, the Court delivers the final blow.

“Under these circumstances, the Government has set forth a sufficient national security justification to survive rational basis review.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 38]

This is the Court saying, in effect, “Well the Government told us this is all about national security and we believe them so we’re going to give the President a pass.”

You have to wonder if there’s anything Trump could say that would convince the Court of anti-religious bias infringing on the Constitution. Turns out they were quite clear: no there is not. They didn’t just give him a pass, they gave him a blank check. He can, and will, continue to spew and tweet bigoted vitriol for the rest of his administration with complete impunity.  All he has to do is sprinkle a little national security pixie dust here and there the Supreme Court will roll over in supine deference.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement just a few days after this decision was delivered, wrote a brief opinion supporting the majority. In it he urges elected officials to adhere to First Amendment guarantees even in matters like foreign affairs where the Courts have limited power to scrutinize or intervene. He ends with,

“An anxious world must know that our Government remains committed always to the liberties the Constitution seeks to preserve and protect, so that freedom extends outward, and lasts.” [Kennedy dissent, p. 2]

Noble sentiment. Too bad he didn’t do more to preserve and protect those liberties here. If that was his parting gift to the nation then good riddance, I say.

* * *

Defeating the travel ban Proclamation was always going to be an uphill battle. The Supreme Court has a long history of deferring to the Executive branch in matters of foreign affairs and national security.

So it’s not surprising the Court ruled the way it did. Disappointing, but not surprising.

But to understand just how bad this decision is, we need to look at two other cases.

The Masterpiece case concerned a Colorado bakery whose owner refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple because he opposed same-sex marriage on religious grounds. The couple complained to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission claiming discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Commission decided in favor of the couple and the lower courts confirmed that decision. Now the Supreme Court had to decide whether the Commission itself violated the Constitution.

The Court ruled that the baker’s constitutional right to freedom of religion had been infringed because some members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission made comments that showed anti-religious bias during hearings in his case. This decision was handed down just two week prior to the decision in Trump v. Hawaii. The glaring double standard was not lost on Justice Sotomayor who wrote in her dissenting opinion,

“Unlike in Masterpiece, where the majority considered the state commissioners’ statements about religion to be persuasive evidence of unconstitutional government action, … the majority here completely sets aside the President’s charged statements about Muslims as irrelevant.” [Sotomayor dissent, p. 26]

You might expect the Court to hold the President of the United States to the same standard as it holds members of a state-level commission, if not higher. Apparently not. Maybe the Court would have decided differently if national security had been a factor in baking wedding cakes.

Even more frightening is the case of Fred Korematsu. During World War II, the US government ordered the forced removal of about 120,000 people of Japanese descent, including roughly 70,000 American citizens from the west coast of the United States to inland internment camps. Korematsu, a native born American citizen challenged the removal order on the grounds that it discriminated against him solely on the basis of race. He lost his case in the lower courts.

In 1944, in what is widely regarded as one of the worst decisions in its history, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decisions on essentially the same grounds as those here in Trump v. Hawaii, national security. Today’s Court chose Trump v. Hawaii as the occasion to finally overturn the decision in Korematsu, calling it “gravely wrong the day it was decided.” Yet the Court maintained that Korematsu is unrelated to this case:

“The forcible relocation of U. S. citizens to concentration camps, solely and explicitly on the basis of race, is objectively unlawful and outside the scope of Presidential authority. But it is wholly inapt to liken that morally repugnant order to a facially neutral policy denying certain foreign nationals the privilege of admission.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 28]

But of course it’s the same flawed reasoning and the same unquestioning deference to the Executive branch that underlies both decisions, as Justice Sotomayor points out:

“This formal repudiation of a shameful precedent is laudable and long overdue. But it does not make the majority’s decision here acceptable or right. By blindly accepting the Government’s misguided invitation to sanction a discriminatory policy motivated by animosity toward a disfavored group, all in the name of a superficial claim of national security, the Court redeploys the same dangerous logic underlying Korematsu and merely replaces one “gravely wrong” decision with another.” [Sotomayor dissent, p. 28]

The decision in Trump v. Hawaii fills me with dread. The Supreme Court is heading down the same tracks and making the same mistakes it did in Korematsu. And it may get worse if more conservative-leaning judges are appointed to the Court. You can easily imagine more cases like this making their way through the courts in the coming years, perhaps involving detention camps for undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, for example. Anyone expecting the Supreme Court to act as a reliable check on government action in cases like this is going to be disappointed.

Related Links

Opinion: How the Supreme Court Replaced One Injustice with Another by Karen Korematsu (daughter of Fred Korematsu)

A primer I wrote a few years ago on reading through Supreme Court decisions

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Carpenter v. United States

Supreme Court

Today, instead of a book review, I’m going to take a plunge into law review. I want to look at the decision of the United States Supreme Court in a case called Carpenter v. United States announced on June 22. This is a very important case about the privacy of your cell phone records.

If you’re interested in reading the full text of the Supreme Court’s decision, you can find it here. They might seem a little intimidating at first, but these legal decisions are really not hard to read. A few years ago I wrote this primer if you’d like an introduction.

The Case

This case is about a fellow named Timothy Carpenter who appears to have been the ring leader in a series of armed robberies in Michigan and Ohio in 2011. Police were able place him at the scenes of these crimes by obtaining phone company records of his mobile phone connecting to nearby cell towers. Based on these location records and other evidence, Carpenter was convicted and sentenced to over 100 years in jail.

Carpenter appealed on the grounds that the phone company location records had been obtained without a search warrant.

The Question

The central question which the Supreme Court had to decide in this case was: Can the Government trace your past movements by getting hold of phone company records collected from cell phone towers without a search warrant?

Legal Background

The requirement to get a search warrant comes from the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Here it is in full:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Now a search warrant is not always required. The police can search your person (pat you down) and your possessions at the time of arrest, for example, without a warrant. It is only when a search would be considered “unreasonable” that a warrant is required.

The courts have long recognized that the basic purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to “safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions by governmental officials.” Included in this interpretation is that the Fourth Amendment also protects individual’s expectations of privacy in many cases.

To make its decision, the Court reviewed two sets of previous cases involving the expectation of privacy. The first set concerned expectations about the privacy of your physical location and movements. When you take a walk outside, you’re in a public space. You could be seen by your neighbors, by shopkeepers, by passersby, even by police officers on routine patrol. Your walk isn’t private and you should have no expectations of it being private. On the other hand, if someone, especially the police, were to track your every movement for weeks on end, comprehensively recording the starting location, destination, time and duration of each trip, well that seems to cross a line into surveillance. Your expectations now are probably quite different.

The Court thinks so too. The Court has noted that new technologies like GPS have made this kind of surveillance easier, cheaper and far more precise and thus raise serious legal concerns about privacy.

The second line of cases concerns information about yourself that you choose to share with others. In general, if you share information with third parties, the Courts have ruled that you cannot have any expectation of privacy regarding that information.  This is known as the “third party doctrine.”  For example your bank statements, checks and deposit slips are shared with your bank and its employees and you can’t reasonably expect them to be private. So the police can demand these records from your bank with a subpoena, but they don’t need a warrant. In other words, your bank records are not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Similarly, the phone numbers you call are not protected because you have “shared” them with the phone company for purposes such as call routing and billing.

Your cell phone is constantly communicating with the wireless network — several times a minute in fact – to connect to different cell towers when you’re moving around, to check for email, to send and receive text messages, to retrieve social media updates, cat photos, etc. The phone company makes a timestamped record of each of these connections, called a Cell Site Location Information (CSLI) record. Taken together, these CSLI records form a detailed chronological history of your movements.

Do you voluntarily “share” this information with the phone company? After all, using a cell phone, taking it with you everywhere you go, leaving it on all the time, are all your choices. Can you really expect that information to remain private? Or does this kind of comprehensive recording of information constitute something different, something that is entitled to Fourth Amendment protection?

So the question in this case,

Can the Government trace your past movements by getting hold of phone company records collected from cell phone towers without a search warrant?

can be refined into a more precise legal question:

Do you have a reasonable expectation of the privacy of CSLI records collected by the phone company and are those records therefore entitled to protection under the Fourth Amendment?


In a few very quotable pages, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, slices through these knotty issues.  He argues that technological developments now enable effortless, comprehensive collection of detailed and precise information about a person’s location and movements. This requires the Court to carefully consider whether or not to apply legal precedents.

“When confronting new concerns wrought by digital technology, this Court has been careful not to uncritically extend existing precedents.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 20]

In this case,

“A cell phone faithfully follows its owner beyond public thoroughfares and into private residences, doctor’s offices, political headquarters, and other potentially revealing locales.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 13]

This means,

“… when the Government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 13]


“Whoever the suspect turns out to be, he has effectively been tailed every moment of every day for five years, and the police may—in the Government’s view—call upon the results of that surveillance without regard to the constraints of the Fourth Amendment.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 14]

But this position does not recognize the impact of new technologies.

“The Government’s position fails to contend with the seismic shifts in digital technology that made possible the tracking of not only Carpenter’s location but also everyone else’s, not for a short period but for years and years. Sprint Corporation and its competitors are not your typical witnesses. Unlike the nosy neighbor who keeps an eye on comings and goings, they are ever alert, and their memory is nearly infallible.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 15]

Furthermore, cell phone users really have no choice about whether or not they share all this data.

“Apart from disconnecting the phone from the network, there is no way to avoid leaving behind a trail of location data. As a result, in no meaningful sense does the user voluntarily “assume[] the risk” of turning over a comprehensive dossier of his physical movements.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 17]

Which leads to this conclusion:

“Before compelling a wireless carrier to turn over a subscriber’s CSLI, the Government’s obligation is a familiar one—get a warrant.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 19]

“We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information. In light of the deeply revealing nature of CSLI, its depth, breadth, and comprehensive reach, and the inescapable and automatic nature of its collection, the fact that such information is gathered by a third party does not make it any less deserving of Fourth Amendment protection. The Government’s acquisition of the cell-site records here was a search under that Amendment.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 22]

Decision & Dissents

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Appeals Court, and sent the case back to the lower Courts for re-consideration. The cell phone location information collected by the police without a warrant is now inadmissible evidence. I don’t know whether this means Carpenter’s convictions will be thrown out, or if he will be tried again without the cell phone location information being used as evidence against him. Regardless, Carpenter won his appeal.

This case was decided by a 5-4 majority, with Justices Breyer, Ginsberg, Kagan, and Sotomayor supporting Chief Justice Roberts.  Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Kennedy and Thomas disagreed and each of them wrote individual dissenting opinions.

Justice Kennedy contends that cell-site records are no different than any other business records which the government already has the right to compel (via subpoena) third parties to release.

Justice Thomas noted that the cell-site records did not belong to Carpenter, they belonged to the wireless carriers. He maintains the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply here because none of Carpenter’s “houses, papers, and effects” were searched.

Justice Alito agrees with Thomas that the records in question belong to the phone company and not to Carpenter. He further argues that there’s a significant distinction between the government sending its agents (i.e. the police) into a person’s house to search through their papers and an order that simply requires a third party to search through and produce some of its own documents.

Justice Gorsuch, the newest member of the Court, makes the most interesting, and the most entertaining dissent. He argues that the legal precedents in this case are a mess and that their conclusions about our expectations of privacy related to Fourth Amendment claims are so flawed and ill-defined as to be useless, resulting in “unpredictable— and sometimes unbelievable—jurisprudence.”

“Take Florida v. Riley, 488 U. S. 445 (1989), which says that a police helicopter hovering 400 feet above a person’s property invades no reasonable expectation of privacy. Try that one out on your neighbors.” [Gorsuch dissent, p. 9]

He also argues that just because a third party holds information about you, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should have no reasonable expectation of privacy, let alone that you have relinquished all Fourth Amendment rights. I get the sense that Gorsuch was sympathetic to Carpenter’s appeal and might have sided with the majority if their rationale had been different, or if Carpenter has made his appeal on different grounds.

Unsolicited Feedback

The judgement in this case is a victory for individual privacy.  (It’s also a bright spot in an otherwise dismal term in which the Supreme Court term upheld President Trump’s travel ban in Trump v. Hawaii.)

You might not like the fact that a convicted felon like Timothy Carpenter could be let off the hook on a “technicality”, but the technicality here involves our precious and rapidly eroding privacy. So much of the information we create and collect, and that is created and collected about us, is now held by third parties. Our “papers and effects” are no longer just physical objects and are very often not in our direct possession. Short of swearing off modern technological advancements like cell phones and GPS, it’s virtually impossible to prevent third parties from accumulating vast amounts of information about us. In my view this means we have a greater interest than ever in the privacy of the data about us that is collected and stored by third parties. Our expectations about the privacy of that information are just as worthy of protection as the physical papers we keep at home.

So I think it’s gratifying and appropriate that the Supreme Court recognizes that technological developments require the courts to re-think previous legal precedents, and not to apply them blindly. It’s good to see the Court grapple with the implication of new technologies and come to novel conclusions.

That said, I think Justice Gorsuch raises some interesting and valid concerns about the muddled state of the legal precedents in this area, especially around the third party doctrine.  It seems the Court has more work to do here.

One final note: I’m starting to think that Chief Justice John Roberts has a special interest in the intersection of technology and privacy. This is the second time I’m aware of where he has written the majority opinion in a case involving cell phones and privacy rights. The first was Riley v. California in which the Supreme Court decided unanimously that the police require a warrant to search the information stored on your cell phone. (My review here.) It will be interesting to see if he continues to take such an active role in future cases in this area

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Seven Books in Seven Days

I recently did one of those social media challenges where you’re supposed to post one thing each day for seven days.  In this case, the “one thing” was the cover of a book you love.

I thought I’d recap my choices here.  So these are seven books I love.

Thomas Jefferson bought most of the western United States from Napoleon for $25-million.  A fortune at the time.  He sent a company led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on an expedition to find out what he’d bought.  This is their story.

Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose - cover

Everyone loves One Hundred Years of Solitude, and so do I, but this one is also very good — and the characters’ names aren’t so confusing!

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - cover

I’m a big fan of Tom Friedman. His latest book walks us straight into the whirlwind of accelerating change buffeting us all. Good thing he’s an optimist!

My full review here:

Thank You for Being Late by Thomas Friedman - cover

Shortly before midnight, Louis Wu walked out of his own birthday party and teleported to a city one time zone to the west. He went alone, “jumping ahead of the midnight line, hotly pursued by the new day. Twenty-four hours was not long enough for a man’s two hundredth birthday.”

That’s just the opening teaser in this breathtakingly imaginative story. One of my favorite hard SF novels.

Ringworld by Larry Niven - cover

I admit this one’s a bit esoteric, but much of Havel’s writing is as relevant today, when democracy is under attack or in retreat in many places around the world, as it was when he led Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution and was elected its first post-communist President.

Open Letters by Vaclav Havel - cover

I know we’re saturated these days with Sherlock re-makes, updates and spin-offs, but the original stories, especially with the illustrations and formatting from the Strand Magazine, really are wonderful.

The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle - cover

This book provides a brilliant framework for thinking about and taking action on the environment: living within a system of planetary boundaries.  The book warns starkly about the consequence of inaction, yet provides some direction and much needed hope that we can rescue ourselves and our planet.

If you read only one of these seven books, please read this one.

My full review here:

Big World Small Planet by Rockstrom and Klum - cover

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Fascism: A Warning

Fascism: A Warning
By Madeleine Albright
HarperCollins, New York, 2018

When she spoke to an adoring, packed house at Seattle’s Paramount Theater on the evening of April, 24, 2018, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated clearly that she was not accusing President Donald Trump of being a Fascist. But, she said, there are “worrying signs.”

After reading her latest book, Fascism: A Warning, I think we should all be worried. And not just about Donald Trump.

Fascism - Cover

In this book, Albright examines the origins of Fascism in the 1920’s and 30’s with the rise of Mussolini and Hitler. Then she takes us on a round-the-world tour, surveying autocratic or autocratic-leaning countries including Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Venezuela and North Korea, looking at the conditions and the leaders driving each of them down the path to Fascism. Her warning is mainly about America. That’s the subject of the final chapters of the book.

What is Fascism?

But first, what exactly is Fascism? This is where the book starts. Albright struggles to come up with an exact definition. Apparently there isn’t one that’s broadly agreed-upon in academic circles. She settles for identifying Fascism’s most important characteristics:

  • Nationalistic, often focused on a single ethnic group or race
  • Authoritarian
  • Anti-democratic
  • Driven by the resentment or humiliation of a group that believes it has been unfairly treated
  • Often violent

Fascism might be hard to define because it doesn’t have a universal end-goal, unlike Communism. Albright even suggests Fascism might be more a set of behaviors for seizing and maintaining dictatorial power than a political ideology.

She does a better job defining a Fascist:

“To my mind, a Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary – including violence – to achieve his or her goals.” [p. 11]

Fascist leaders have often been charismatic, sometimes building a cult-like following. They show no respect for democracy or for democratic institutions like a free press or an independent judiciary. They actively and often violently suppress any opposition.

Fascism in your country?

No matter where you live, the answer is: yes, it’s possible. That’s the clear message of this book. While she is focused on answering this question for the United States, Albright’s survey of the rise of Fascist tendencies around the world reveals disturbing commonalities:

Fascists undermine democracy using democratic means. Hitler and Mussolini both exploited weaknesses in their respective democracies to rise to power. Once in power, they subverted democracy by suppressing and killing opponents, and by destroying competing centers of power like independent media. Albright shows us similar events happening in other countries. You can see it unfolding almost daily in places like Turkey where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first elected democratically in 2002, has become increasingly autocratic, especially since a failed coup in 2016.

Fascist leaders enflame and thrive on resentment. Humiliating defeats in World War I provided receptive audiences for the rhetoric of Mussolini and Hitler. Restoring Russia’s power and influence following the collapse of the Soviet Union has been one of Vladimir Putin’s overriding goals. Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela following two decades of mismanagement that left its economy in ruins. Slobodan Milošević roused Serbian anger at past military defeats by the Ottoman Turks and the Nazis to help him seize power in Yugoslavia.

They claim to speak for a single ethnic, religious or racial group. Whether it’s Aryans in Germany, Magyars in Hungary, or Serbs in Yugoslavia, Fascists elevate one group at the expense of all others, show no respect for minority rights, and make no attempt to collaborate with anyone outside their base.

Many writers have called attention to the ways that globalization, technological change and mass migration are straining western democracies – economically, socially, and politically. Albright’s warning is that these strains can create the conditions for Fascism to take root almost anywhere.

Fascism in America

You don’t need to read this book to see signs and omens of Fascist tendencies in Donald Trump’s behavior. He attacks the media, the FBI and his own Justice Department. He incites resentment against foreigners, claiming immigrants are criminals and trading partners are cheaters. He panders to his white male base.

Albright is highly critical of Trump throughout the book.

“Trump is the first anti-democratic President in modern U.S. history. On too many days, beginning in the early hours, he flaunts his disdain for democratic institutions, the ideals of equality and social justice, civil discourse, civic virtues, and America itself. If transplanted to a country with fewer democratic safeguards, he would audition for dictator because that is where his instincts lead.” [p. 246]

As much as she criticizes Trump for undermining American democracy, Albright is equally concerned with the impact he is having globally. She argues that Trump’s behavior is “catnip” to autocrats and dictators.  If Trump accuses U.S. media of always lying, how can we criticize Vladimir Putin for saying the same thing? If he talks about locking up his political opponents, how can we protest when dictators elsewhere actually do lock up theirs?

At the same time his words and actions diminish America’s reputation and influence around the world.  His “America first” rhetoric and his disparaging views about international agreements and organizations send decidedly mixed signals to our allies and friends, without whom, Albright argues, no important global problems can be solved. We cannot be afraid or unwilling to engage constructively with the world.  She says:

“The idea that the United States is a nation of chumps that has spent the past fifty years getting ripped off by wily foreigners is absurd. The suggestion that our country can back away from its responsibilities in an era at least as dangerous as any other is just plain sad.” [p. 245]

Fascism - Albright

Albright offers no concrete solutions to the rise of Fascism in America or around the world. She does encourage us to ask careful, critical questions about prospective leaders in order to identify whether they have autocratic leanings. In the end though,

“This generosity of spirit – this caring about others and about the proposition that we are all created equal – is the single most effective antidote to the self-centered moral numbness that allows Fascism to thrive. It is a capacity that can be found in most people, but it is not always nurtured and it is sometimes, for a period, brutally crushed.” [p. 65-66]

Unsolicited Feedback

Madeleine Albright is first and foremost an American diplomat. She believes that America is the “indispensable” nation, that it has a special role to play in the world, and that its President has a special duty to advance American values at home and abroad. These beliefs permeate her book. They might be old fashioned but in today’s climate I find them refreshing.

I enjoyed the many stories of her own family and career that she’s woven throughout the book. It’s striking how much of her autobiography has been touched by or directly involved in key historical moments of the last eighty years in both Europe and America.

That said, I could have done without the occasional burnishing of her own track record, especially in comparison to the administration of George W. Bush, such as on North Korea.

In person Albright is more engaging, humorous and self-deprecating than in writing. I hope I’m as articulate, clear-headed, and funny at 83 as she was that evening in Seattle. There are hints of this in the book, for example, when she refers to herself as “a former somebody” but overall her tone is far more serious, as the subject demands.

Albright describes herself as “an optimist who worries a lot” and she wrote this book because of the worrying signs she sees around the world. I think Fascism: A Warning is required reading for anyone concerned about what is happening here in the U.S. and anyplace else where democracy and democratic values are under attack.

On one fundamental point, I disagree with her. I think Donald Trump is a Fascist, and I think this book proves it. (Perhaps Albright, ever the diplomat, has tempered her conclusion.) He meets almost all the criteria listed in the book. While he hasn’t used physical violence to suppress his political opponents, he certainly appeared to condone it during several of his 2016 campaign rallies.  And no one is spared from his indiscriminate verbal violence.

The question now is how far will he get? Here I think there’s room for cautious optimism. The U.S. has a deeply rooted democratic culture and strong constitutional safeguards against tyranny. And Trump himself is so undisciplined and mercurial I question whether he could execute a long-term strategy, if he even had one.

However, we must not be complacent. There are indeed worrying signs.

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All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See
By Anthony Doerr
Scribner, New York, 2014

I’m not quite sure what to make of this book. It’s beautifully constructed, like an intricate puzzle box. All the pieces fit together with precision and artistry. But it just didn’t move me.


A blind girl named Marie-Laure flees Paris with her father in 1940 ahead of the advancing German army, taking refuge in the home of her great-uncle in the walled port city of Saint Malo. They carry with them a jewel, the Sea of Flames, a legendary diamond with mythical powers. But are they a blessing or a curse?

Meanwhile in Germany, a young orphan boy named Werner discovers he has a gift for building and repairing radios. Soon he is drafted into a military academy to hone his skills and from there into the army to help the Nazis detect and shut down Resistance radio transmissions.

All the Light We Cannot See tells the story of their lives, how they are swept up and eventually brought together by the great historical torrents of their time.

It’s about people trying to do the right things under excruciating circumstances. For a few, courage and resistance come naturally, instinctively. Others must overcome fears and phobias before they can act. Some just need to survive long enough so they can grow up enough to even recognize what the right thing is. And many more must seek some measure of redemption after the fact for the evil they have committed or through inaction allowed to be committed.

I think the book is also about fate.  Is our fate determined by our actions, or by supernatural forces, or by random chance?  And how can you tell?  There are examples of all three, or at least the possibility of them, throughout the story. The book is inconclusive on this, and maybe that’s the point.

Anthony Doerr shows us a panorama of wartime Europe, from the poverty of German coal miners to the opulent apartments of upper class city-dwellers in Berlin, from the specimen-packed Museum of Natural History in Paris to the snail-encrusted outer walls of Saint Malo, and overshadowing all of it, the brutality and destruction of World War II. His imagery is vivid and evocative without being ostentatiously “great writing,” though there were some scenes I found especially striking.

In the end though I just didn’t connect emotionally with the story or the characters. I’m not sure why. It’s a long novel and I got to the end feeling detached and thinking, “Did I miss something?” Was there some detail I skimmed over that would have pulled me in, or an “aha!” moment that would have caused me to see the story in a completely different light? I kept waiting for something like that to happen but it never did.

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Tom Wolfe: A Tribute

I first encountered Tom Wolfe’s writing, or at least his books, as a young child, when a hardback copy of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby arrived at our house in Oakville, Ontario, about 25 miles west of Toronto. If I recall correctly, it came in the mail, probably as part of my mother’s subscription to the Book of the Month Club, which I’m stunned to discover, still exists. I don’t ever remember my parents actually reading the book, or discussing it at the dinner table, but it stood on top of the bookshelf in the living room for years. The title of course bemused me.

Later, as an adult, I read The Right Stuff when it first came out and then started working my way through Wolfe’s back-catalog which had been republished to capitalize on that book’s spectacular success. Now I have my own copy of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, in paperback, its pages considerably yellowed, along with half a dozen more of his books. I’ve even got a file folder full of magazine articles by and about Wolfe that I’ve collected over the years.

I never read much of his fiction though, just The Bonfire of the Vanities.

He died on May 14, 2018 at the age of 88.

Two things inspired me about his writing, and still do. The first is the sheer exuberance and unapologetic over-the-top-ness of his writing style. That, combined with the sarcastic smirk which was his default literary stance. You could recognize a piece of Wolfe’s writing even without his by-line just from the style, much as you can instantly recognize Glenn Gould at the piano, or Mark Knopfler on guitar. I think his example encourages writers to find their own voice and to be confident about using it.

The second thing is what he wrote about, which was essentially anything and everything. He delved into the nooks and crannies of American culture with seemingly unending curiosity. I learned much of what I know about modern architecture from his book From Bauhaus to Our House, and about post-modern art from The Painted Word. And for anyone interested in the tech industry, his lengthy 1983 Esquire essay, The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce, is probably the definitive origin story of Silicon Valley. He proved you can find interesting, compelling people and stories just about anywhere you look.

In a 1989 article in Harper’s Magazine, Wolfe, reflecting on both these aspects of his writing, pointed out that most people who decide to become writers do so because “they realize they have a certain musical facility with words.” Very soon, though, writers must confront the “damnable problem of material,” of what to write about.

Tom Wolfe wrote mainly in scherzo, with virtuosity and flair, drawing upon the inexhaustible supply of material he found in modern American life.

Related Links

Tom Wolfe, 88, ‘New Journalist’ with Electric Style and Acid Pen, Dies
New York Times, May 15, 2018

Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel
Harper’s Magazine, November 1989

The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on Silicon Valley
Esquire Magazine, December 1983

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