A Year at Home

March 5, 2021 is an anniversary of sorts. Today marks one full year since I started working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When I said goodbye to my colleagues at work on the evening of March 4, 2020, none of us knew how long we’d be out of the office. All we knew was that the county Department of Health had just recommended that anyone who could work from home should work from home, and our company, along with many others in the Seattle area, had agreed.

I figured we’d be out for a couple of months. I thought that once we got comprehensive testing and contact tracing in place, we’d get a handle on the disease. Then, with proper safeguards and procedures, we’d be able to come back to the office. There would be occasional outbreaks, I imagined, when we’d have to work at home for a few days or a week. But we’d come back once things settled down again. I guess I thought we’d end up like South Korea or Australia.

Fat chance!

If you had told me back then that we’d be working from home for at least a year, maybe eighteen months, I would have thought you were nuts.

I had no idea.

Picture of empty downtown Seattle streets

Downtown Seattle streets emptied during the COVID-19 pandemic, March 18, 2020. Source: Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut

In early March, there were signs of spring all around. The camelia bushes at the front of our house were showing their first blooms. In the backyard, a couple of deer visited every few days to nibble on new shoots at dawn.

Do you remember the fear of those early days? The first COVID deaths in the US occurred near Seattle. We were all on edge. No one really knew how contagious COVID was or how it was transmitted. Was it like SARS? Could you get if from surfaces? We didn’t know but we kept wiping down countertops, faucets and doorknobs anyway. Did we need to wash our groceries – fruits, vegetables, canned goods, all of it? And what about those Amazon packages?

Asthma runs in our family. We’ve been very cautious. We started getting our groceries delivered, take-out food delivered, even wine and liquor delivered. We try to tip generously but I’m well aware that we’re paying people to take risks that we’re not willing to take ourselves right now; people who may not have the same luxury of choice that we do. Similarly, we rely on everyone behind the scenes, all those people keeping the packages moving, the shelves stocked, and the cash registers staffed. I’m in awe of the courage of doctors and nurses everywhere.

In the early days my wife made cloth masks for everyone in the family. N95’s weren’t available and in any case we were encouraged not to buy them so they could be distributed to frontline health care workers. It seemed shameful that the world’s supposedly most advanced country had to rely on a cottage industry to produce face masks. It’s still shameful.

Late one evening we heard a rumor that Trump was going to declare martial law the next day. From a reliable source, or so we thought. I’m ashamed to admit that at 11:00 pm we rushed out to our local 24-hour Safeway and bought a couple of shopping carts worth of supplies, yes, including toilet paper.

Gradually routine settled in, and monotony.

Fortunately our house is spacious and comfortable. It’s been our safe haven this past year but also our self-imposed confinement. My wife and I each have our own offices. We got used to spending the day on Zoom or Teams or BlueJeans.

I still get dressed for work in the same business casual clothes that I used to wear to the office: usually a button-front shirt and chino pants. At the end of the day, I change into jeans. The routine helps me keep a clear separation between work time and personal time. I think it helps.

I go out for a walk almost every day after work, through my neighborhood and down to a small nearby lake. About forty-five minutes. It’s calming to watch the ducks paddling around on the gently lapping water. I’ve watched the seasons change on my walks, seen the cherry and dogwood trees blossom and the leaves come out. On one corner there’s a house that looks unoccupied with a big old apple tree in the front yard. It dropped hundreds of apples on the ground back in September. One time, someone I didn’t know said hello to me and said they saw me walking past their house every day.

Since April, my wife has been cutting my hair. She’s got really good at it. Amazing what you can learn on YouTube.

Speaking of hair, I think mine is getting thinner. Maybe it’s stress. Or it could just be age.

One bright summer day I had to go to the post office to get a document notarized. As I was getting out of the car I reached into my pocket for a mask and realized I’d forgotten to bring one. Drove back home. Grabbed a mask. Drove back. Since then I’ve had dreams where I’m going somewhere and I realize I don’t have a mask and wake up feeling panicky.

When Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the country after the murder of George Floyd, we wanted to join the local marches but our health concerns, our fears, held us back. We made donations instead. It’s not the same, I know.

We’ve almost completely stopped watching television. My wife and I have always been avid readers and we’ve become even more fond of books this year. It’s not just escapism. In fact I read mostly nonfiction. I think it’s because we spend all day online involved in our own real life streaming video shows. The last thing we want to do in the evening is turn on another screen and watch another show.

In the fall we had our back deck replaced. It had been slowly rotting away for years. We were able to enjoy a couple of socially distanced gatherings with family and friends on the new deck before the rain and the cold drove us indoors for the winter.

We’ve done Zoom calls and FaceTime calls with local friends we can’t hang out with and international friends we can’t visit. Family too. It’s nice. It helps maintain connection. But it doesn’t really cure the isolation.

At Christmas we hosted a family lunch. In our garage. With the doors open.

It’s a particular cruelty of COVID-19 that it turns friends and loved ones into potentially lethal threats.

We got a dump of snow in February. In a normal year the schools would have declared a “snow day” and the kids would have stayed home.  This year every day has been a snow day.

This week there are signs of spring again. Daffodils are blooming in the parks. Our camelias are starting to bud, and the deer have returned to sample our shrubs once more.

Picture of a lake with ducks

A year into the pandemic, I’m much calmer. I think it’s a combination of vaccines starting to roll out and Trump getting booted out. It feels like there’s an end in sight.

I know I’m one of the lucky ones. One of the privileged. I have a lot to be thankful for.

I’m alive.

No one in my family has had COVID (unless they were asymptomatic). We had one close call over Thanksgiving when a neighbor who I walk with about once a week got COVID. After twenty-four hours of near panic our tests came back negative. Our neighbor recovered.

We have great health care coverage.

I still have a job. A good job. I work with terrific people. My company has been very supportive.

The internet is working remarkably well. We’ve had a few outages, but mostly they’ve been brief. When you think about how much additional bandwidth has been required to support all that video conferencing, it’s amazing how resilient and reliable the internet has been.

Here again, I need to acknowledge my privilege: There are lots of people who cannot afford or cannot access high-speed internet.

I don’t have school-aged children at home. I know that home-schooling young kids is incredibly demanding on working parents, especially moms who inevitably bear more of the burden. And I’m not a student myself facing disrupted classes, delayed graduation and uncertain career prospects.

And then there are the vaccines! The fact that scientists have developed not one vaccine, but many, in just over a year is a stunning scientific achievement. The way these new mRNA vaccines work, getting your cells to manufacture some of the coronavirus spike protein to stimulate your immune system to create new antibodies, is just incredibly clever. I’m fortunate to be alive at a time when we have developed all that scientific know-how.

Picture of Pfizer COVID Vaccine Vials

Vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. Source: Sebastien BozonAFP via Getty Images

I’m eagerly awaiting my turn to get vaccinated. Actually, I’m starting to get antsy. I’ve tried to live in the moment as much as possible this year, not making any plans, not thinking too far ahead. Now with the vaccines so close, I’m feeling restless this spring, wanting to break out of my lockdown cocoon and fly.

I’m looking forward to seeing – and hugging — family and friends again.

I’m looking forward to traveling.

To dining out.

Going to concerts, visiting galleries and museums.

And doing it all without fear.

Still, I don’t really know what life will look like after the pandemic is over. I don’t think we’re going back to “normal” because the old normal doesn’t exist anymore.

I think we’ve all been traumatized to some extent by the pandemic. I can see myself wanting to wear a mask indefinitely in certain situations. It’ll be a while before I feel comfortable getting onto a crowded bus or a crowded elevator.

I don’t think we’re going back to the old 5-days-a-week at the office routine either. I imagine most organizations will adopt some sort of hybrid model. There are some disadvantages to working from home: the inability to quickly ask a question or clear up a misunderstanding, the lack of serendipitous conversations or impromptu meetings, the loss of social contact, but video conferencing works remarkably well.

I think we could see permanent hybrid education too, at least as an option for some students. One thing is virtually certain: there won’t be any more “snow days.”  Classes will just switch to remote learning on days when bad weather prevents students from getting to school.

Frankly, the old normal needed some shaking up anyway. So we’re going to have to create a new one.

What could it look like?

I hope it’s a new normal where we’re a little humbler and a little more compassionate.

I hope we’ll recognize that we need to take better care of each other, starting with fixing our broken, inequitable public health system. Because we’re all at greater risk when any of us can catch or transmit a deadly disease. I hope we understand that whatever the cost of health care for everyone, it’s cheap compared to the trillions spent recovering from this pandemic.

I hope we realize that we must take better care of our planet too. The pandemic has shown us that Nature doesn’t care about borders or political affiliations. Human activity is disrupting Earth’s entire biosphere. Like it or not, we must now take responsibility for looking after it.

I hope we’ve learned that we’re all knit together into one global community living in an increasingly fragile world. We need to find better ways to collaborate on solutions to our common problems.

Lastly, I hope we can hold on to the memory of this year — the fear, isolation, loneliness and boredom – as a reminder of what a blessing family, friends, colleagues and community really are.

In the past year over half a million people have died in the US and hundreds of thousands more around the world.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I got off lightly.

A year at home. It doesn’t feel right to celebrate. But we should still commemorate.

Stay safe, everyone.

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The Good Ancestor

We were warned.

Lots of people warned us about the possibility of a global pandemic years before the outbreak of COVID-19. But we didn’t listen and we didn’t prepare.

We’ve known for decades about the catastrophic effects of greenhouse gas emissions on Earth’s climate. We are starting to listen and act, but we’ve left it dangerously late.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we so often fail to take action on these and other long-term threats?

One reason is that most of the time, most of us are caught up in the short-term, in the here-and-now, and we don’t really know how to think about global scale long-term problems.

The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking by Roman Krznaric shows us how to think long-term by teaching us to be better ancestors to future generations.

Roman Krznaric (pronounced kriz-NAR-ik) is a public philosopher who grew up in Sydney and Hong Kong. He studied at Oxford University and earned his PhD in political sociology at the University of Essex.  He’s the author of several books and a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation.

Cover of The Good AncestorThe Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking
By Roman Krznaric
The Experiment, New York, 2020

I first learned about the idea of being a good ancestor from Bina Venkataraman’s book The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age (book, review). She suggests that we should think about the Earth as if it were a precious family heirloom; something to be used but also cared for and passed on to future generations. We should aim to be good ancestors, she says, by preserving for our children and grandchildren the resources and the freedom to make their own choices for themselves and for their children.

While The Optimist’s Telescope takes a journalistic approach, Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor is more prescriptive: it provides a toolkit of six different ways to develop long-term thinking.

The book is divided into three parts. First, Krznaric looks at the question of whether humans are even capable of long-term thinking. Good news: we are. He dives into history, anthropology and sociology to show how we developed that capability over millennia.

The second part, the core of the book, is about the six approaches to thinking long-term. I’ll come back to these in a moment.

Finally, Krznaric looks at how small groups of activists, organizers, students and policymakers – he calls them “time rebels” – are putting the six ways into practice in various places around the world.

Six Ways to Think Long-Term

Krznaric devotes a chapter to each of his six ways to improve long-term thinking. They’re all detailed and interesting. I’ll just summarize them briefly.

The first step to developing long-term thinking, he says, is to stop obsessing about the short term, about the latest meme on social media, the latest fashion trend or must-have gadget, even the latest election cycle. We need to develop deep-time humility, an understanding that all of human history is just an eyeblink in the lifespan of the universe.

Krznaric quotes the writer John McPhee who puts this into perspective brilliantly:

“Consider the earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the King’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.” [p. 49]

We need to think about time differently. In the modern era we perceive time as linear, like an arrow, but this has disconnected us from natural cyclic rhythms – tides, seasons, lifetimes, generations. Lines can be shortened, he says, but circles are inherently infinite.

Take a walk in the woods and look at the trees, he suggests. Trees are in a sense slow running clocks with their leaves and rings marking the passage of seasons and years. They can be hundreds of years old. Tress can reconnect us with longer-term cyclic time. Maybe, we should start thinking in “tree time.”

The second approach, a legacy mindset, helps us think about how we want to be remembered by future generations and what gifts or bequests we would like to pass on to them. Krznaric emphasizes that the most important legacy is a healthy planet on which future generations can thrive and flourish. This echoes Bina Venkataraman’s suggestion about treating the Earth as a family heirloom.

If you shoot an arrow through the woods and injure someone you didn’t see, you’ll be judged guilty of negligence. To improve long-term thinking, we need to extend our concept of justice across time as well as distance. We need to develop norms of intergenerational justice. Nuclear waste, for example, is like an arrow flying through the woods for thousands of years, posing a constant danger to everyone and everything. So are greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have a responsibility to take action today to mitigate the future impact of the arrows we fire. In fact, the fewer we fire, the better.” [p. 81]

Krznaric urges us to consider the consequences of our actions not just on our children and grandchildren, but on our descendants down to the 7th generation, about two hundred years into the future. And not just our families but all of humanity.

Exterior picture of the Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain. Source: sagradafamilia.org

Have you ever been to Barcelona and seen the Sagrada Familia, the basilica designed by the renowned architect Antoni Gaudi? Construction of this amazing building started in 1882 and it’s still not finished. It’s a perfect example of cathedral thinking: the idea of undertaking multi-generational projects. So is planting trees that take generations to mature.

Krznaric’s fifth tool for long-term thinking is holistic forecasting.  How do we plan decades or even centuries ahead?  One way is to consider historical patterns of growth and development. The most prominent of these patterns is the S-curve, also known as the sigmoid or logistic curve. You’ve seen this before: a slow gradual take-off in the adoption of some new technology, say mobile phones, followed by a period of rapid exponential growth, followed by a plateau and sometimes even collapse. Economist Vaclav Smil gives many more examples of the S-curve phenomenon in his encyclopedic book Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities (book, review).

Nothing grows forever, Krznaric warns, and we should use the S-curve as the template for long-term forecasts.

Finally, to focus our long-term thinking and to be good ancestors, we need to adopt a transcendent goal for humanity. Krznaric advocates the goal of “one-planet thriving”, which means not using more resources than the Earth can generate nor creating more waste than the Earth can absorb.

In practice, it means living within “the Doughnut”; a set of outer boundaries defined by Earth’s critical ecological systems that we must not exceed, and an inner set of goals for human well-being that we must not fall below.  The Doughnut was conceived by economist Kate Raworth and explained in detail in her terrific book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. (book, review)

Krznaric and Raworth are married, and you can certainly see the influence that each has had on the other’s work. The two of them must have very interesting dinner table conversations.

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It’s hard to argue with any of Krznaric’s six ways to develop long-term thinking. They’re all sensible and useful and clearly explained with lots of background deail and examples. And the overarching idea of thinking and acting like a good ancestor is a real paradigm shift.

It’s adoption that’s the problem. How do we get people, especially elected officials and policymakers, to start thinking long-term?  Krznaric gives some examples in the book that are encouraging, but we really need to scale this up. In some cases structural changes to our political systems will be needed. The two-year cycle for congressional elections in the United States virtually guarantees short-term thinking in perpetuity.

Here’s one simple suggestion for long-term thinking that you can start right away: place a leading zero in front of the year whenever you write a date.  Instead of February 28, 2021 write February 28, 02021. Looks different doesn’t it? It tells you that this year is part of a much longer timespan. OK, it’s not going to change the world, but I think it’s a useful mental nudge.

We need to start thinking like good ancestors ourselves. We need to let long-term thinking inform our decisions about what we buy, how we live and who we vote for.

The Good Ancestor is a great guide to getting started.

Future generations have no voice in the actions we take, or do not take, today. Yet they will be profoundly affected. Instead of bequeathing them radioactive waste, acidic oceans and an overheated climate, shouldn’t we leave them a planet that can sustain them, a world in which they and their children can flourish?

Related Links

How to Be a Good Ancestor
TED Talk by Roman Krznaric, October 02020

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Always Day One

Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever by Alex Kantrowitz takes its title from an Amazon corporate motto. “It’s always Day 1” is designed to inspire Amazon employees with a startup mentality; lean, fast, and driven.

Always Day One, the book, examines how Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft have created corporate cultures that aim to preserve their industry dominance by capturing that Day 1 spirit.

Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter at Buzzfeed News. He writes the Big Technology newsletter and the Big Technology podcast.

Cover of Always Day One
Always Day One
By Alex Kantrowitz
Portfolio / Penguin, New York, 2020

The Engineer’s Mindset

Kantrowitz distinguishes between two types of work:

  • Idea work: inventing, designing, problem solving, engineering, and creating
  • Execution work: production, manufacturing, ordering, data entry, accounting, product support

A hundred years ago, employees at an industrial company would perform almost exclusively execution work. One or two people would have had an original idea or invention and turned it into a business.  Everyone else worked on execution.

Today’s tech giants are different, Kantrowitz says. They continually invest in automating or eliminating execution work in order to free up people and time for idea work. They know that a new technology or a new competitor could emerge tomorrow that might make their current business obsolete or uncompetitive.  They know they must keep inventing in order to survive.

For a glimpse into the awful fate that awaits Amazon, or any company, that fails to maintain its Day 1 work ethic, check out this 1-minute YouTube video of Jeff Bezos explaining what day 2 looks like.  Go ahead, it’s worth watching.

So the tech companies have created corporate cultures and internal systems to ensure that new ideas get the chance to be developed into new products.

At the heart of these corporate cultures, Kantrowitz says, is the engineer’s mindset. The engineer’s mindset consists of democratic invention where anyone in an organization can come up with new ideas, a flat hierarchy that values direct communication with senior leaders instead of a chain of command, and deep collaboration within and across organizational boundaries.

Using the engineer’s mindset, these companies have honed their capacity for invention, for idea work, and turned it into an economic moat – a lasting competitive advantage.

Always Day One gives us a peek into the inner workings of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft, looking at how the engineer’s mindset plays out at each of them.

You might think it odd to include Microsoft in this group. It has the reputation of being staid and past its prime. I thought it odd at first too. I worked at Microsoft for 19 years and witnessed some of its internal dysfunction. But its new CEO, Satya Nadella, is changing the company’s culture to be far more collaborative than it used to be.

No, the outlier in the group is Apple. It’s a company designed around a visionary leader, Steve Jobs. But Jobs is dead and Tim Cook, despite being a a very capable executive, is not a product visionary like Jobs. Apple’s products under Cook have essentially been enhancements of products created by Jobs.

I think the most interesting aspect of the book is the comparison between Amazon and Apple. Kantrowitz dives into the details of some of Amazon’s innovative practices, like its famous six-page memos, showing how they enable anyone in the organization to propose an innovative idea. In contrast, Apple, as Kantrowitz describes it, is divided into rigid silos where collaboration is difficult if not outright discouraged.  And designers rather than engineers dominate the company. Just like it was when Jobs was CEO. Apple appears to be struggling to develop an innovative culture like the other companies profiled in the book.

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Always Day One is a quick read but a little lighter than I had hoped.

I think the chapter on Amazon is the most detailed and the most interesting. The other chapters tend to focus more on the company leaders, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Microsoft’s and Satya Nadella.

While Kantrowitz doesn’t shy away from exploring some of the controversies surrounding each of these companies, Always Day One is not a critique or exposé.

His sources for the book were often ex-employees of the various companies. Not surprising really since most firms don’t want to discuss their internal workings with journalists. But it does mean that some of his information may be a little out of date.

And then there are the last two chapters. The first explores a few dystopian scenarios that could arise given current technology trends, especially the use of AI. The second looks at some topics in corporate leadership and management. These are interesting and worthwhile topics, but they seem like complete non sequiturs here. They left me wondering if Kantrowitz ran out of material and tacked them onto the end of the book.

He does make an interesting point right at the end though. The five tech giants have nurtured the engineer’s mindset to develop sustained competitive advantage. But it’s not their exclusive property. If the engineer’s mindset were adopted more broadly, Kantrowitz suggests, then more companies would be more inventive, more competitive and more successful. And that could mean that the power and wealth concentrated in these five companies might be distributed more widely.

I’d make one final observation: The cultures of direct communication and deep collaboration at these companies produce not only new kinds of products but also new kinds of employees. Kantrowitz describes how the culture at Google, for example, enabled an engineer named James Damore to argue on internal discussion forums that women are inherently less capable engineers than men. It also enabled employees to protest against Google selling AI technology to the Pentagon and to organize an employee walkout sparked by a $90-million payout to a departing senior executive accused of sexual misconduct. Cultures change how people behave and not always in ways that leaders want or expect.

Thanks for reading.

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A History of Future Cities

People make cities, but cities also make people. That’s one of the key messages from Daniel Brook’s 2013 book A History of Future Cities.

The book tells the stories of four cities, St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai. All four cities are in the East but were designed by their rulers or occupiers to look Western, to be Western. All four were deliberately catapulted into the future from small, undeveloped towns or settlements into advanced, modern cities designed to be gateways to the rest of the world.

Brook starts with St. Petersburg.

Hermitage Museum, St. PetersburgHermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Photo by Victor Malyushev on Unsplash

In 1697, the Russian Tzar Peter the Great toured Europe incognito to learn about modern cities. He was particularly fascinated by Amsterdam, then the wealthiest city in Europe.  Upon returning to Moscow, he decided to build himself a new capital, a modern city that would emulate the European ones he had visited; a port city that would connect Russia to the outside world.

He chose a swampy location where the Neva River flows into the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. The fact that there was already a small Swedish fort at that location was a minor inconvenience. Construction of St. Petersburg began in 1703, led by hundreds of imported European architects and artisans. Within a few decades it becomes one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe.

“And yet Russian autocrats soon had to reckon with the modern people their city had made. The new Russian capital had been built as a stage set of modernity, an experimental metropolis where, liberated from the constraints of budget and existing cityscape, if an architect could draw it, he could build it. But the modern city with its newly erected universities and science museums, all built and initially staffed by imported Western experts, changed the city’s people. And as they became broad minded and literate, they grew less willing to accept a social contract that offered them futuristic wonders in exchange for medieval obedience.” [p. 7]

It’s no surprise that the Russian Revolution started in St. Petersburg.

In Shanghai, already a bustling regional market town, the British, French and Americans carved up the land amongst themselves after the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing forcibly re-opened China to trade with the West. There they built replicas of British, French and American cities which eventually merged into a vibrant cosmopolitan Western outpost on China’s shore.

The pattern repeated in Mumbai where the British built the largest most cosmopolitan city in India starting in the 1850’s. They also educated and trained a new middle class of Indian administrators and professionals to run their city; talented and capable people who grew to resent being perpetually subordinated to their British overlords.

Modern Dubai is probably one of the most diverse cities on Earth today, but its population is over 90% expatriates who don’t have citizenship and can be ejected from the country at the whim of the government. It’s a fascinating experiment in building a cosmopolitan city from the ground up, starting in the 1960’s, but it’s too early to tell what social or political impact the city or its people will have on the United Arab Emirates or the larger Arab world.

Cover of A History of Future CitiesA History of Future Cities
By Daniel Brook
W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2013

Daniel Brook is an author and journalist. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine and The Nation. In writing this book, he lived for a month in each of the four cities.

They’re all port cities, looking outward, with their backs to their own countries.  They all tend to produce people with more tolerant, liberal, occasionally rebellious viewpoints.

Sometimes their outward looking, cosmopolitan make-up has alienated them from their own countries.  St. Petersburg, Mumbai and Shanghai have, at times, been ignored and even suppressed by their national governments. Yet at the other times, national leaders have come from these cities.

Brook details the history of the four cities, right down to their evolving streetscapes and architectural styles. He charts how they were shaped by autocrats and occupiers, but also by larger political forces from their countries and the world. In fact, one thing seems clear from the book: while cities and their people can be powerful agents of change, they can never entirely escape those forces.

This makes it all the more strange that Brook appears so optimistic about the liberating influence of these cities and their people.

For example, writing about St. Petersburg under the autocratic rule of Vladimir Putin (himself a Petersburger), Brook says,

“But one thing is certain: despite the miserable slog of Russian history, as long as there is St. Petersburg — a city where even at midnight, a glimmer of sunlight still peeks out over the horizon — there is hope.” [p. 294]

Hope for what? A more liberal, tolerant, democratic Russia?  Unlikely. Maybe he means that the mere existence of St. Petersburg can give hope to the rest of Russia, but the evidence he presents in this book doesn’t leave me very optimistic.

Similarly, on Dubai, the newest of the four future cities, Brook says,

“Yet if Dubai is truly the latest chapter in a tale begun in St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai, the only question is when, not if, its people will seize the opportunity its autocrats have unwittingly created. As with the great East-meets-West cities before it, ultramodern metropolises built by dictatorial fiat with coolies and serfs, Dubai has assembled a stunningly diverse cast of characters who can seize the reins and build a true city of the future.” [p. 386]

This strikes me as nonsense. I’m not sure what a “true” city of the future is, but I strongly doubt it will be created by the corporations and temporarily posted expatriate contract workers who make up the bulk of Dubai’s population.

Oddly, the city that seems to disappoint Brook the most is Mumbai – the only one within a democratic country.

A History of Future Cities will probably appeal to a fairly narrow audience, but, despite what I think is Brook’s misplaced optimism, I found it rewarding. I’ve never visited any of these places so I learned a lot from this book. I had intended to read about just one of the cities, but Brook’s well-paced storytelling got me hooked. After all,

“While it was once a tiny, largely self-selected percentage of Russians who moved to St. Petersburg, Chinese who moved to Shanghai, and Indians who moved to Bombay, the journey from developing-world hinterland to globalizing city has become the defining journey of the twenty-first century.” [p. 387]

* * *

Thanks to Katie @ Doing Dewey for an earlier review that prompted me to read this book.

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Meditations, written nearly two thousand years ago by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, is one of the most influential books in Western philosophy. It deserves years of study. I’ve read it just once.

So I won’t be “reviewing” this book in the normal way. I’ll refrain from critiquing the writing style or the flow of idea. And I won’t be giving my usual unsolicited feedback either — that would be an act of, well, hubris.

But I do want to share my impressions of the book, what I learned and how it impacted me.

Regular readers of this blog (bless you!) may remember that, a few months ago, I reviewed Eric Weiner’s wonderful book The Socrates Express (book, review). In it, Weiner explores the lives and ideas of fourteen philosophers. The very first chapter is about Marcus Aurelius and stoicism and getting out of bed each morning. I had heard of Marcus Aurelius and stoicism before but I didn’t know much about them. The book intrigued me. Then a friend suggested listening to The Daily Stoic, a podcast written and produced by Ryan Holiday.

Anyway this stoic slippery slope led me to Meditations.

Cover of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

By Marcus Aurelius, translated, and with an introduction, by Gregory Hays
Modern Library, New York, 2002

I read the Modern Library edition translated by Gregory Hays. Hays provides a lengthy and useful introduction which sets the context for the book. He covers Marcus Aurelius’ life and times, and the prevailing cultural and philosophical ideas, including an overview of stoicism.

Meditations is not really a book in the conventional sense. It’s essentially a collection of Marcus Aurelius’ journals, written, so far as anyone knows, between 170 and 179 CE. The entries are short, often a single sentence, rarely longer that a couple of paragraphs. He’s writing notes and reminders to himself, sometimes encouraging, sometimes scolding himself. Though Meditations is divided into twelve short books, there’s no apparent organization within or between them. Marcus – everyone seems to call him by his first name – would probably be horrified that anyone is reading his scribblings today. Or maybe he wouldn’t care. After all, he was a stoic.


These days, when we describe someone as stoic, we mean they’re able to endure suffering and adversity calmly and without complaint. But that only hints at the full meaning of stoicism as a philosophy.

The ancient stoics, according to Hays, believed that “the world is organized in a rational and coherent way.”  One of the more profound implications of this belief is that most of what happens to us during our lives– say, for example, a pandemic — is entirely outside our control. Since these events occur as part of an ordered universe, they must be good. The only rational course is for humans to accept them without complaining. One event in particular which Marcus repeatedly stresses we should not complain about, nor fear, is death.

We can control our actions, however. Here the stoics believe that we have a duty to be active in our communities and in the world. We should gracefully accept the destiny that the universe has assigned to us and devote our thoughts and our energies to fulfilling it.

A few meditations

Meditations was never intended to be a textbook on stoicism, but you can certainly learn a lot about stoicism reading it. You can learn a lot more too, about life and living and work and standing up straight.

Here are a few excerpts from Meditations. They’re surprisingly modern. And practical. The numbers refer to book and entry.

On work:

5.1: “At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do?”

2.1: “Concentrate every minute like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions.”

6.19 “Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.”

On living fully:

7.56: “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”

12.1: “And if, when it’s time to depart, you shunt everything aside except your mind and the divinity within … if it isn’t ceasing to live that you’re afraid of but never beginning to live properly … then you’ll be worthy of the world that made you.”

Here’s a two thousand year-old reminder that is particularly apt, especially for us here in the United States:

10.33: “And keep in mind that nothing can harm one of nature’s citizens except what harms the city he belongs to. And nothing harms the city except what harms its law. And there is no so-called misfortune that can do that. So long as the law is safe, so is the city – and the citizen.”

“Straight, not straightened.”

I think this one is my favorite entry in the whole book, at least based on my first reading. It appears a couple of times, in 3.5 and 7.12.

I think what Marcus means is that we should stand up straight as an act of will, not in response to some external force or pressure. We have a duty to stand straight. And not just to stand, but to speak straight and act straight. We should do what is right because it is right, not because we are forced.

If I ever create a family coat of arms, I think this might be the motto.

Modern yet ancient

As I said earlier, many of Marcus’ notes are surprisingly modern. This may be partly due to Hays’ translation, but I think it’s also because Marcus was writing for himself in plain language.  Yet it’s still very clear that this is an ancient work. Some of the underlying ideas just don’t fit into our modern worldview.

First and foremost is this assumption that the universe is rational and ordered.  Few would believe this today. I think many people would accept the stoic idea that much of our lives is beyond our control, but not because of some natural force imposing reason and order, but because of sheer, blind, uncaring randomness. You can blame Schrödinger and Heisenberg I suppose for putting an end to this ancient belief. And while lots of people still equate “natural” with “good” when it comes to food or medicine (often mistakenly, I think), I doubt most of us would extend this benefit of the doubt to diseases or disasters.

Second, although Marcus and the stoics encourage us to work and be active, they don’t specify any purpose other than leading a good life. In the modern world, we are, for better or worse, obsessed with the idea of progress. We work to advance the human condition, to reduce suffering, to have impact, to make a difference, “to make a dent in the universe” as Steve Jobs once said.  Listen to any talk or read any article by Bill Gates and count the number of times he uses the word “innovation.” I’m no classical scholar but I think the idea of progress would have been completely foreign to Marcus and to everyone before about 1750.

Lastly there’s the idea throughout Meditations that we each have a destiny, that we’re born to do something that has been predetermined for us. “But wait,” you say, “what about a growth mindset?”

“A whatset?” Marcus asks, incredulously. You cannot change who you are. And you certainly cannot avoid your destiny, at least not if you endeavor to live a life of virtue. It is folly to think that you can make your own destiny. Oh! you incorrigible modern, fuggedaboudit!

All that said, stoicism is still very influential. In fact, stoicism seems to be enjoying – dare I say it – a renaissance these days. It resonates strongly with me too even though I’m just learning about it.

Meditations is a great introduction to stoicism and to so much more. It lets us peek into the life and mind of one of history’s greatest philosopher-kings.

I have a hunch that I’ll discover something new, many things actually, each time I read Meditations.

One thing is certain: after this last year of disaster and strife, there is some peace to be found in accepting, as gracefully as possible, what we cannot control and in focusing our efforts and our energies on the things we can.

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Measure What Matters

Do you make New Year’s resolutions? It’s only mid-January 2021 so there’s still time.  On the other hand, it’s mid-January and plenty of people have already abandoned theirs.

Maybe New Year’s resolutions are broken so often because they’re so vague, like lose weight, exercise more, save money.  Plus it’s not enough to have a goal, you need a plan for achieving it. You need both the what and the how.

Organizations face the same problem when they do their planning: how to set clear, meaningful goals, and how to lay out a plan for achieving them.  Many organizations, especially in the tech sector where I work, use a system called Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs.

Measure What Matters, by John Doerr is the reference manual for OKRs.

Cover of Measure What Matters by John DoerrMeasure What Matters
By John Doerr
Portfolio Penguin, New York, 2018

John Doerr is chair of Kleiner Perkins, one of the most important venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. He calls himself the Johnny Appleseed of OKR’s.

OKRs were pioneered by the late Andy Grove, formerly CEO of Intel Corp.  Doerr worked at Intel early in his career and seems to have been taken under Grove’s wing. It was there he learned the nuts and bolts of OKRs. He clearly idolizes Grove and calls him the “Father of OKRs.”

The OKR framework is deceptively simple.

  • An Objective is a goal. It describes what is to be achieved. Objectives should be concrete, action oriented, significant and ideally inspirational. A corporation might have an objective to lead the market in some product or service. A basketball team could have an objective to win the league championship. A personal objective might be to pay off your credit card debt.
  • Key Results are milestones that measure how we get to the objective. They are specific, time-bound, measurable, and verifiable. At the end of the time period, there should be no doubt or debate about whether a key result has been achieved.  Key results should be aggressive yet realistic.  Examples of key results might be gain 10% market share by June 30, increase average points scored per game to 90 by the end of the season, or create a budget for monthly personal expenditures in the next 30 days.

In Measure What Matters, Doerr details how organizations and teams can adopt OKRs, and what the benefits and challenges are. He provides numerous case studies of organizations that have adopted them, like Google and The Gates Foundation.

The first challenge, and also the first benefit of OKRs is focus.  An organization cannot succeed if it has dozens of objectives. Neither can an individual. OKRs force you to focus on the most important things to work on, in other words, to focus on what matters. This can be a painful exercise. Everyone has pet projects, and no one likes to see them postponed or dropped. But in my experience with OKRs once you narrow your focus down to the small handful of things that really matter, OKRs give you great clarity.

They also give you permission to say “no.” When someone – your manager, a peer, or someone in another department – asks you to do something unplanned, you can say, “I’m sorry that doesn’t fit into my OKRs for this quarter. Can we talk about doing it next quarter?” This is really empowering.

Another important benefit that Doerr describes is alignment. OKRs help different groups align their efforts to achieve shared goals. For example, the objective I mentioned earlier of leading the market in some product will likely have implications for the marketing, production, sales, and research departments of the company. Each of these departments will need to formulate OKRs to achieve their part of the overall objective.  Similarly, teams within departments and individuals within teams will each have their own OKRs that cascade from higher-level objectives. (Doerr warns about cascading too rigidly.) OKRs also need to be aligned across teams since groups often need to collaborate on larger objectives.

Doerr stresses that OKRs are not just a mechanical, hierarchical goal setting and tracking system. They require a cultural shift within organizations too, especially towards transparency and accountability. He says OKRs should be openly published by everyone in an organization, from the CEO on down, and everyone needs to be accountable for achieving theirs. This isn’t intended to be punitive. Instead, individuals should honestly assess their performance against their OKRs at the end of each period, and when they’ve fallen short, analyze why so they can improve and grow.

Many of the case studies that Doerr presents in the book show how difficult and lengthy these cultural changes can be for organizations that adopt OKRs.

Successfully managing a team or on organization isn’t simply a matter of setting the right goals and measuring progress against key results.  Managing is a human activity. So Doerr recommends doing away with annual performance reviews and moving towards continuous performance management using CFRs: conversation, feedback and recognition.  The last third of the book is devoted to understanding and implementing CFRs in conjunction with OKRs.

One area of the book that I found a little unclear is the relationship between OKRs and employee performance reviews, specifically raises and bonuses. Doerr says that an individual’s performance against their OKRs should not be the only factor used to set salaries and bonuses. Abusing OKRs in this way will stifle risk-taking and experimentation and lead employees to “sandbag” or set less ambitious objectives.

But Doerr doesn’t provide much guidance on how evaluations should be done. Maybe he didn’t want to be prescriptive here because performance evaluations are done very differently at different companies. I’ve spent most of my career working at places where evaluations are done by managers using some sort of “calibration” process. (Stack ranking employees has thankfully gone out of fashion in recent years.)  However, I know there are many companies where evaluations are mainly determined by peer feedback. Still, it’s inescapable that performance against your OKRs will have significant impact on your overall performance evaluation and on your compensation.

Unsolicited Feedback

Measure What Matters is a quick but informative read. There’s not much management theory here, it’s all very practical. I’d say nearly half the book is made up of case studies about companies and non-profits that have adopted OKRs. I skimmed through some of these, but they do contain useful lessons about the challenges of fully implementing OKRs.

Doerr is a chatty writer. The book is filled with incidents and stories from his own career. Sometimes he gets a little carried away with his enthusiasm:

“Like OKRs, CFRs champion transparency, accountability, empowerment, and teamwork, at all levels of the organization. As communication stimuli, CFRs ignite OKRs and boost them into orbit …” [p. 176]

Still, whether you’re aiming for leadership in a particular market, or just trying to stick to your New Year’s resolutions, OKRs are a valuable framework for planning and achieving your goals.

Measure What Matters can help get you started.

Related Links

Ted Talk:  Why the secret to success is setting the right goals by John Doerr, April 2018.


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Notes on An Insurrection

I usually post book reviews on this blog, but the books about Wednesday’s armed insurrection by a mob of violent white supremacists at the US Capitol, instigated by Donald Trump, have not yet been written. I’m not going to wait. Until those books are published, we’ll have to make do with the reports of journalists and commentators.

In this post I’m going to highlight some articles and essays that I’ve found most insightful. I’ll be adding to this list in the weeks and months to come.

I hope you find these useful too.

It Was No Accident

Let’s start with a first-hand account. Pramila Jayapal is the Democratic congresswoman representing Washington State’s 7th District. She was trapped in the Capitol gallery during the riot. In this interview by Rebecca Traister in The Cut she recounts her thoughts and experiences.

‘It Was No Accident’ Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal on Surviving the Siege, by Rebecca Traister in The Cut.

Photo of congresswoman Pramila Jayapal

Capitol Police direct Representative Pramila Jayapal to stand for arrest as she joined demonstrators calling for an end to family detention on Capitol Hill June 28, 2018. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

As a woman of color, Jayapal felt particularly vulnerable – she could not hide or blend in with the crowd. She was equally concerned for the safety of her female colleagues. She tells how she was relieved to notice very few women on the floor of the House when the insurrectionists broke in.

It’s clear from Jayapal’s account that Congress and Capitol Police had plenty of warnings about the January 6 demonstration and the potential for violence.

“They’ve been planning this in the open, and Donald Trump has been encouraging this in the open for days. Actually, he’s been encouraging it pretty much for his whole presidency.”

And her main point: this was no accident.

“The lack of security at the Capitol is not an accident. It is very clear to me that there were breaches of our law-enforcement agencies. The fact that there were no barriers, that they were essentially allowed in. And again, the discrepancy of what would have happened if these had been peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters … Believe me, they would not have been anywhere near that building. And there would have been a lot of arrests.”

As a final insult, Jayapal is now quarantining because she was moved to a secure location with about 100 other people, including many Republicans who were not wearing masks.

Update (Jan. 12, 2021): As she feared, Pramila Jayapal has now tested positive for coronavirus after sheltering in a crowded room for several hours with some Republicans who refused to wear masks.

“Our lives and our livelihoods are at risk, and anyone who refuses to wear a mask should be fully held accountable for endangering our lives because of their selfish idiocy.”

says Jayapal in this Washington Post report.

The Privilege of Not Being Taken Seriously

Writing in The New Yorker, Masha Gessen, author of Surviving Autocracy (book, review) argues that one possible reason why there was so little security is that the insurrectionists were not taken seriously by Capitol Police.

The Capitol Invaders Enjoyed the Privilege of Not Being Taken Seriously by Masha Gessen in The New Yorker.

Photo of the US Capitol shrouded in smoke

An armed mob storming Congress seemed familiar enough to authorities to be dismissed as clowns. Photograph by Leah Millis / Reuters

Paradoxically, Gessen calls this a privilege. It’s a privilege because white supremacists were not seen as a threat by predominantly white police. They were not seen as other, whereas Black Lives Matter protesters were other to the police and were met with force and aggression as a result.

“Black Lives Matter protesters are other to the Capitol Police. So are survivors of sexual assault or women who protest for the right to choose. But an armed mob storming the Capitol, and their Instigator-in-Chief, are, apparently, familiar enough to be dismissed as clowns.”

Gessen notes that more people were arrested protesting the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in September 2018 than were arrested on January 6th invading the Capitol.

They conclude with:

“The invaders may be full of contempt for a system that they think doesn’t represent them, but on Wednesday they managed to prove that it does. The system, which shrugged off their violence like it had been a toddler’s tantrum, represents them. It’s the rest of us it’s failing to protect.”

Pictures Show Biased Policing

Many, many reporters noted the discrepancies between how police treated insurrectionists on Wednesday compared to their treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters earlier this year. Nicole Chavez at CNN.com wrote this article which shows the difference in a dramatic set of comparative photographs.

Rioters breached US Capitol security on Wednesday. This was the police response when it was Black protesters on DC streets last year by Nicole Chavez at CNN.com.

National Guard troops on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial

National Guard troops deployed at the Lincoln Memorial on June 2, 2020, during protests held in Washington, DC, over the death of George Floyd. Source cnn.com

This picture, for example, shows National Guard troops deployed at the Lincoln Memorial during protests in Washington, DC on June 2, 2020  over the murder of George Floyd.

So Do the Numbers

This report by Maggie Keorth at FiveThirtyEight.com, highlights recent research comparing police responses to demonstrations by right-wing and left-wing protesters

The Police’s Tepid Response To The Capitol Breach Wasn’t An Aberration by Maggie Keorth at FiveThirtyEight.com by Maggie Keorth at FiveThirtyEight.com.

Photo of police and pro-Trump demonstrators

Source: FiveThirtyEight.com

The research was conducted by Roudabeh Kishi and her team at the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Though the data set is limited, the research showed police more than twice as likely to break up left-wing protests, mainly Black Lives Matter demonstrations, than right-wing ones, and were more likely to use force when they did so.

Still, last Wednesday, one pro-Trump demonstrator was shot and killed by Capitol Police. A professor of criminology cited in this article suggests that right-wing groups may now believe the police have broken some sort of “implicit pact” of tacit support and may respond with even more destructive behavior.

In addition, police, stung by criticism for their weak response, may respond with more force, perhaps against both left- and right-wing protesters.

Wednesday’s insurrection at the Capitol was a step function escalation in violence by the right. It is likely to result in more violent protests and more violent responses from law enforcement.

Into the Abyss

By far the most thoughtful analysis of the insurrection and the history surrounding it comes from Timothy Snyder, Levin professor of history at Yale University.

The American Abyss by Timothy Snyder in The New York Times.

Photo of rioters entering the Capitol

Outside the Capitol, the crowd cheered as rioters stampeded into the building, 2:10 p.m. Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII, for The New York Times

In this lengthy New York Times essay, Professor Snyder divides the Republican caucus into two groups: gamers and breakers. The gamers are happy to game the current system to maintain power with a minority of voters. Chief among them is Mitch McConnell. The breakers on the other hand, let by Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz are aiming to break the system and have power without democracy.

The breakers are seriously dangerous people. By supporting Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen, the breakers have set a precedent for all future Republican presidential candidates to challenge the legitimacy of any election which they lose. Even without a shred of evidence.

“It never alleged that there was fraud, only that there were allegations of fraud. Allegations of allegations, allegations all the way down.”

Trump, of course, has never accepted the legitimacy of American elections. Even in 2016, despite his win, he claimed without evidence that millions of people fraudulently voted for Hilary Clinton. His big lie of a stolen election in 2020 is simply a continuation. It’s focused on a few key states, with large urban centers where Black people live and vote.

“At bottom, the fantasy of fraud is that of a crime committed by Black people against white people.”

The lie will persist long after Trump fades from the scene, carried forward by the likes of Cruz and Hawley. The prospects for further violence and insurrection in 2024, as Snyder presents them, are frightening. America, Snyder says, needs concerted action and a renewed commitment to facts and truth.

“The racism structured into every aspect of the coup attempt is a call to heed our own history. Serious attention to the past helps us to see risks but also suggests future possibility. We cannot be a democratic republic if we tell lies about race, big or small. Democracy is not about minimizing the vote nor ignoring it, neither a matter of gaming nor of breaking a system, but of accepting the equality of others, heeding their voices and counting their votes.”

If you read only one of the articles I’ve listed here, I recommend this one.

“As Christian Nationalist As It Gets”

Update (Jan. 30, 2021): Thomas Edsell, writing in The New York Times, explores the movement known as Christian Nationalism and its close ties to the far right, including the movement’s influence and participation in the January 6, 2021 insurrection. It’s a really good survey article. He’s spoken to a number of prominent researchers and commentators, and provides links to their books and articles.

Here’s a quote from one of his sources about the nature of Christian Nationalism.

“It includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious.”

Many more, equally alarming in the article.

* * *

Echoing some ideas from the book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (book, review), I think the insurrection on January 6 wasn’t so much about the 2020 election or even 2024 but about 2042. That’s the year the US Census Bureau predicts whites will no longer make up a majority of the American population. White supremacists, like the people who invaded the Capitol last week, see this coming. They’re trying to hold onto their power and privilege against the demographic tide. They showed last week that they prefer a white America over a democratic America.

If you’ve read any other articles or analysis about these events that you found particularly helpful, please let me know in a comment.  Thanks.

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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Reading, and writing about what I read, helped me stay sane this awful year. I’m glad to wrap up 2020 with Isabel Wilkerson’s acclaimed book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

Caste book cover

Source: //isabelwilkerson.com

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
By Isabel Wilkerson
Random House, New York, 2020

Caste examines the problem of racism in America from a different angle. The main idea of the book is that American society is a caste system and has been since well before the founding of the country. Wilkerson draws parallels between America’s caste system and those of India and Nazi Germany. She compares the experiences of people in the lowest-ranked castes: Blacks in America, Jews in Nazi Germany and Dalits in India.

“A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed superiority of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.”  [p. 17]

In America, race is the immutable trait used to assign caste. In Nazi Germany caste distinctions were based on religion and minor physical variations within the white population. In India, caste is determined by a wider range of factors including skin color and also birthplace and occupation.

In all three instances,

“Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.”  [p. 70]

In a key section titled “The Eight Pillars of Caste,” Wilkerson lays out the mechanisms by which caste systems are created, justified, maintained and brutally enforced. Heritability is one of the pillars; the characteristics used to assign caste are inherited, fixed and unchangeable. Caste is a life sentence. You cannot earn or marry or convert your way out of it. Caste, she stresses, is different than class. A prosperous white man can lose his job or squander his wealth and slide into poverty, but he will still remain a member of the white caste.

Although I can’t be certain, I think Wilkerson uses the term “caste” to describe what other authors such as Ibram Kendi would call systemic racism. Why introduce another term into an already complex subject? And what difference does it make?

Wilkerson notes that race and caste frequently overlap in the US. But she thinks it’s important to use different words to disentangle the structures that separate people and keep them in their assigned place in the hierarchy from the racial antipathy and stereotyping that are used to make value judgements about people. “Caste is the bones, race is the skin,” Wilkerson says. Because she is focused on the structure, on the bones, she mostly uses the terms “dominant caste” and “subordinate caste” rather than “white” and “black” throughout the book.

I think caste is also a more generalizable concept than race. It allows us to recognize instances of similar power structures in other parts of the world where race isn’t necessarily the distinguishing characteristic. In fact, I suspect there are additional caste systems not mentioned in the book, like apartheid in South Africa, or China’s treatment of Tibetans and Uighurs.

It’s less clear what difference this makes. Does a caste-based analysis lead to any different conclusions or insights than a race-based approach?  Does the idea of caste enable agency – taking action to achieve change – any better or any differently than ideas about dismantling systemic racism?  Unfortunately, Caste does not answer these questions.  

Photo of author Isabel Wilkerson

Source: //isabelwilkerson.com

Isabel Wilkerson is an award-winning journalist, author and lecturer.  She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for Feature Writing as The New York Times’ Chicago Bureau Chief. Her 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and numerous other awards.  She’s taught at Boston, Emory and Princeton Universities.

Wilkerson writes with eloquence and power. Caste contains a lively mixture of detailed historical research and personal narratives of her own and others’ experiences.

Over and over again, she uses both history and narrative to describe the horrific impacts of caste on those at the bottom rung. Many of these accounts are painful to read.

She also points out the price paid by those in the privileged castes. After desegregation in the 1960’s there were towns in the South that shut down public schools or filled in public swimming pools rather than integrate, depriving everyone in the community. We are all less safe when our criminal justice system is more likely to convict a Black man simply because he is Black while the real criminal walks free.  Society as a whole suffers when we are deprived of the creativity, talents and energy of people in lower castes who are not permitted to develop or exercise their abilities.

And here in the US, we lack a robust public health system, in large part, Wilkerson argues, due to the caste system. A caste system is toxic to our sense of shared responsibility for caring for everyone in society. People in the dominant caste perceive a threat to their own prosperity and status if the system looks after everyone equally.

“Caste is more than rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.”  [p. 290]

Wilkerson’s analysis of the 2016 presidential election is interesting, but here too I wonder whether the idea of caste helps us understand the results any better.

No Democratic nominee has won a majority of white votes in presidential elections since civil rights legislation was enacted by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960’s. (This held true in the 2020 election too.)  Donald Trump appealed directly to the fears and grievances of dominant caste voters in 2016 (and 2020).  Dominant caste groups – white men and women – mostly voted Republican, while subordinate caste groups such as Hispanic and Black men and women mainly backed Democrats.

Democrats are missing the point, Wilkerson argues, if they think white working-class citizens are acting against their own economic self-interest when they vote for Republicans. In fact, they are voting to protect their caste status.

But the most important year in the book isn’t 2016 or 2020, it’s 2042. That’s when the US Census Bureau predicts whites will become a minority in America.  This poses an existential “dominant group status threat” that has galvanized the dominant caste into action. It explains, among other things, the increasingly anti-democratic behavior of the Republican Party, from voter roll purges, polling station closures, voter ID laws, all the way up to numerous attempts to overturn or delegitimize the results of the 2020 election. These actions are aimed at preserving dominant caste status.

Wilkerson quotes the civil rights historian Taylor Branch, who asks,

“If people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” [p. 352]

Unsolicited Feedback

Caste made me ashamed of my own ignorance.  Despite having read several books about racism over the last two years, there was so much in this book about the history of racism and the experiences of Blacks in America – past and present – that I either knew nothing about or was only dimly aware of. As a white male I still have a lot to learn. Being raised in a Jewish family doesn’t give me a free pass and being an immigrant from Canada isn’t a valid excuse.

I do keep coming back to the question of whether the term “caste” makes any real difference. I think it’s a useful concept for separating the systems of dominance from the characteristics used to divide us. And it also enables us to recognize similar systems of oppression in other parts of the world.  But in the US at least “caste” does not seem to add anything substantial to our understanding of the problem.

More importantly, I don’t see how it helps us address those problems.  This is my main disappointment with the book.  Wilkerson says we need to be more empathetic towards each other, look beyond racial characteristics and recognize each other as full human beings, and be vigilant against the ever-present threat of old prejudices and jealousies reasserting themselves. All perfectly valid, but she doesn’t propose any specific approaches for dismantling the caste system.  If anything, the fixed and immutable nature of caste makes the prospects for change even more daunting.

Perhaps that wasn’t Wilkerson’s objective in writing Caste. The book is subtitled “The Origins of Our Discontents” so maybe she was aiming to provide a new paradigm for exploring the history and the impact of America’s racial divisions. I think Caste succeeds admirably there.

In the end, it’s up to all of us to work for change, especially those of us in the dominant caste/race. As Wilkerson says, when you buy an old house you become responsible for it. Even though you didn’t build it, didn’t lay its foundations and are not responsible for causing its flaws, you have to deal with them. Ignoring the sagging roof or the bowed walls or the moldy-smelling basement will not make them go away. And if you pretend those problems don’t exist for too long, they will turn into devastating crises.

* * *

As always, thanks for reading.

Best wishes for a happier, healthier and just plain better 2021!

Posted in Books, History, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments


What would it mean to “restore” Earth’s environment?  Scientists are warning us that climate change, deforestation, mass extinctions and a host of other environmental problems are driving the biosphere to a tipping point. How do we pull back from the brink?  How do we go even further and restore ecosystems so they are thriving and resilient?

One new approach to ecosystem restoration that’s getting some attention these days is called rewilding.

Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery by two British ecologists, Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe, takes a look at the origins, theory, approaches and challenges of rewilding. It’s an eye-opening book that got me excited about new thinking and new approaches to healing the environment.

Cover of RewildingRewilding
By Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe
Icon Books, London, 2020

What is rewilding?

According to Jepson and Blythe, there isn’t a single definition of rewilding yet. It’s a new and evolving field. However there seems to be agreement that its main goal is restoring ecosystem function and resilience. Rewilding focuses on restoring natural processes and capabilities so that ecosystems become self-sustaining and self-regulating again. Rewilding differs from traditional conservation in that successful rewilding results in ecosystems that need no human intervention, support or management.

The result of rewilding is “self-willed” nature.

There are several different approaches to rewilding explored in the book. I think it’s useful to describe them briefly to get an appreciation for how broadly some people are thinking about this and why it’s generated some controversy too.

Passive rewilding:  The simplest form of rewilding involves humans releasing control of the land and its features in a given area. Dam removal is probably the best-known example, at least here in the Pacific Northwest. Another example would be removal of fences when marginal farmland land is abandoned, allowing wild animals to move freely.

Translocation rewilding: The reintroduction or “refaunation” of large animal species into an area where they have been wiped out. For example, moving a small number of tortoises from one Pacific island where they are plentiful to another island where they have been hunted out of existence. The new species will never be identical to the one it replaces, of course, but it should perform the same ecological function.

Trophic rewilding: Here the idea is to restore ecosystem function over a large geographic area under the “management” of apex predators. The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park in the US is the most famous example. Trophic rewilding is also known as the “cores, corridors and carnivores” approach.

Pleistocene rewilding: Now here’s where it gets a little, um, wild. Let’s restore ecosystem function by reintroducing prehistoric megafauna like mammoths, aurochs, and saber-toothed cats that went extinct in the late Pleistocene epoch, or the closest functional equivalents to these species that we can find, breed, or engineer.

Wooly mammoth

Wooly mammoth. Source: britanica.org

These differing approaches all take a holistic view of ecology – looking at nature as a web of interlocking flows and cycles. As the book makes clear, rewilders are not trying to preserve individual endangered species, or protect specific local landscapes, important though that work may be. They’re trying to get entire ecosystems up and running on their own again.

Why rewild?

The main motivation for rewilding is to restore biodiversity. Jepson and Blythe are not the only authors to advocate rewilding for this reason.

David Attenborough says the loss of biodiversity is humanity’s greatest mistake. In his book A Life on Our Planet (book, review), he calls for rewilding the Earth, lands and oceans, to restore biodiversity and stabilize the biosphere.

Biodiversity loss is one of nine planetary boundaries – a set of limits on human activity that define a safe and sustainable operating space for humanity – identified by Johann Rockström and Mattius Klum in their book Big World Small Planet (book, review).

Restoring biodiversity is one of the most important things we can do to enable us to live more sustainably on Earth.

Rewilding can also help address climate change. Rich, healthy, biodiverse soils, for example, sequester far more carbon than forests worldwide.  Restored mega herbivores in Arctic regions could help control dwarf tree growth through their grazing. In the Arctic, reducing tree cover would help fight climate change by allowing more sunlight to be reflected by snow and ice back into space.

And of course, exposure to natural spaces has well-documented benefits for humans too including physical activity, stress reduction and positive emotions.

Forests and herbivores

I was already familiar with the critical role played by carnivores, especially apex predators, in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. But I was really fascinated to learn about the importance of large herbivores too, like wild cattle, horses, deer, and elephants. Rewilding describes how grazing and trampling by these megafauna has profound effects on the landscapes they inhabit. When they’re present in healthy numbers, they probably restrict the growth of forests and enable grasslands to flourish.

When I learned about biology as a kid in school, we were taught that forests represented the final stage, or “climax” of plant development in an ecosystem. But according to research cited in the book, it’s much more likely that a patchwork of woodlands and grazing pasture was the norm before humans emerged from Africa and spread around the world. We hold forests in high regard today, for good reasons, but maybe the extensive temperate forests that covered much of Europe and North and South America grew so large because humans killed off most of the megafauna, removing the “governance” of forests provided by these animals.

The absence of wolves from Yellowstone led to over=grazing of the vegetation by deer and elk. The absence of mega herbivores from temperate and Arctic zones may have resulted in under-grazing and excess forest growth.

Unsolicited Feedback

Rewilding is only 170 pages, but I learned a huge amount from this book. I even read some of the scientific papers listed in the Further Reading section.

Jepson and Blythe do a nice job presenting the thinking and the research underlying the idea of rewilding. They dive into details about several rewilding projects around the world, illustrating various approaches.  They also describe some challenges and resistance to rewilding. Rewilding projects need to consider social, political and economic factors too, they say. This means inviting participation from community members, leaders and other stakeholders in planning and implementation.

One consistent message I got from the book was the need to move beyond traditional conservation towards a more holistic approach, restoring the capabilities and processes of whole ecosystems. And that means we need to understand the subtleties and the complexities of the interlocking systems and flows that make up an ecosystem.

This leads to my main concern about the book and about the whole idea of rewilding – hubris. We need to move quickly and urgently towards ecosystem restoration, yet we also need to be humble. Too many times in the past humans have made changes to the environment without fully considering the potential side-effects.  For example, reforestation seems like a no-brainer, at least it did before I read Rewilding. But perhaps we should focus just as much on soil restoration and encouraging a mixture of wooded and grassland areas to thrive, and maybe even recognize that in some places, like the Arctic, we might need to reduce forest cover rather than enlarge it.

So I like the fact that many rewilding projects are still at the experimental stage.  We should do more of these in more places all over the world.  We should learn and measure and evaluate and proceed carefully, but still proceed.

In his wonderful book Origin Story (book, review), Prof. David Christian notes that humans are now managing the entire biosphere whether we like it or not, and “we can do it well or badly.”

Let’s do it well.

* * *

Thanks to Liz at Librofulltime for an earlier review of Rewilding which pushed this book to the top of my reading list.

Related Links

Biophysical feedbacks between the Pleistocene megafauna extinction and climate: The first human‐induced global warming?
By Christopher E. Doughty, et al, published in Geophysical Research Letters, 2010

Rewilding complex ecosystems
By Andrea Perino, et al, published in Science, 2019

Trophic cascades in Yellowstone:  The first 15 years after wolf reintroduction
By William J. Ripple and Robert L. Beschta, published in Biological Conservation, 2011



Posted in Books, Environment | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Promised Land

I don’t often read biographies, and I almost never read memoirs, but I made an exception for Barack Obama. His presidential memoir, A Promised Land, covers his early life and career through the first two years of his presidency, up to the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It’s over seven hundred pages long, and this is just Volume 1.  But A Promised Land is much more than just a chronological retelling of events.

Cover of A Promised Land by Barack ObamaA Promised Land
By Barack Obama
Crown, New York 2020

Whether you’re interested in politics, history, civil rights, leadership, management, psychology, or the minutiae of campaigning, you’ll find plenty to interest you. It is a long book, and I did skim through some parts of it, mainly the historical background of certain events I wasn’t all that interested in. Despite its length though, A Promised Land is well-paced and does not drag. Obama is a talented writer.

The theme I found most striking throughout this book is Obama’s desire and his ability to bridge divisions – divisions within his Cabinet, the country, and most importantly within himself. He doesn’t always succeed, and he’s often met with obstruction, but this is the impulse that runs through his life.

Race and Identity

The basic facts of Barack Obama’s background are well known by now: the only son of a white mother from Kansas and a Black father from Kenya who was born and grew up in Hawaii and lived for several years in Indonesia.

In the early chapters of the book, Obama openly discusses his struggles as a young man to integrate the contradictory facets of his background and identity into a whole, balanced person:

“It was as if, because of the very strangeness of my heritage and the worlds I straddled, I was from everywhere and nowhere at once, a combination of ill-fitting parts, like a platypus or some imaginary beast, confined to a fragile habitat, unsure of where I belonged. And I sensed, without fully understanding why or how, that unless I could stitch my life together and situate myself along some firm axis, I might end up in some basic way living my life alone.” [p. 9]

He started reading and journaling, first as a high school student and continuing through his time at Occidental College and Columbia University. He became inspired by social movements and leaders like Gandhi, Mandela and Dr. King while trying to figure out, like many young people, how to make a difference in the world, how to marry his ideals to the practical realities of work and life. But he also somehow learned to question his own assumptions and to be wary of the revolutionary fervor of some of his fellow students.

“Certainly that was true when it came to questions of race. I experienced my fair share of racial slights and could see all too well the enduring legacy of slavery and Jim Crow anytime I walked through Harlem or parts of the Bronx. But, by dint of biography, I learned not to claim my own victimhood too readily and resisted the notion held by some of the Black folks I knew that white people were irredeemably racist.”  [p. 13]

Obama fully recognized how often America fell short of its ideals: the horrific injustice of slavery, the slaughter of Native Americans, “the blundering exercise of military power and the rapaciousness of multinationals.” Yet like many leaders before him, especially Black leaders, Obama fell in love with the ideals and the promise of America, with the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

They define, he says, “an America that could explain me.”

Power and Impact

I think Obama’s ability to integrate the contradictory parts of his identity is the key to understanding his political vision too.

It’s clear that he sees parallels between the divisions within himself and the divisions within the country. As he strived to reconcile his internal contradictions, he also envisioned a different kind of politics for the country, a politics that could bridge the gaps of race and class, that could reach across the urban-rural divide. This vision runs through his entire political career and I think it inspired millions and millions of Americans. It inspires me.

He seeks power to enact change, and yet at every step in his journey, he is confronted with the limits of power.

After graduation he worked as a community organizer in Chicago for a couple of years. He says this experience got him out of his own head and served to ground his politics in a connection to the problems of ordinary working people.

But he soon became frustrated by the slow pace and limited impact he was able to achieve as an organizer:

“On every issue, it seemed, we kept bumping up against somebody – a politician, a bureaucrat, some distant CEO – who had the power to make things better but didn’t. And when we did get concessions from them, it was most often too little, too late. The power to shape budgets and guide policy is what we needed, and that power lay elsewhere.”  [p. 16]

“Elsewhere” at first meant the state capital, Springfield, Illinois. Obama launched his political career winning election as a state senator. Democrats were the minority party in the Illinois legislature and even as a senator his achievements were limited to whatever concessions he could wring from the Republican majority. Moreover, to address some of the structural changes needed to really help people, for example with health care, Obama concluded that he needed to “speak to and for the widest possible audience.” That meant seeking a state-wide office: a seat in the US Senate.

Obama won his US Senate seat in 2004, but in that year George W. Bush also won re-election as President and the Republicans retained control of the House and the Senate. Here too Obama found himself in the minority party with only marginal influence. After witnessing the devastation caused by the US invasion of Iraq and the destruction along the Gulf coast caused by Hurricane Katrina, Obama again grew impatient with the slow pace of change. All this motivated his long shot run for the Presidency in 2008.

Winning the 2008 election gave Obama the greatest opportunity to implement his political vision, but even the President of the United States is constrained – by the checks and balances of the US Constitution, by the decisions of his predecessors, and in his case by the utter intransigence of the Republican Party:

“… who would deploy with impressive discipline for the next eight years, a refusal to work with me or members of my administration, regardless of the circumstances, the issue, or the consequences for the country.”  [p. 258]

Despite these constraints, his legislative achievements during his first two years as president were staggering, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the $787-billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” Repeal Act, plus signing a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.

(Compare all this to Trump’s signature legislative accomplishment, passed when Republicans held majorities in both houses of Congress: a tax cut that overwhelmingly benefited the rich.)

After the rout of the 2010 mid-term elections, when Democrats lost their majority in the House, Obama’s power became even more constrained, and he began using executive orders more frequently to get things done.  I presume he’ll cover this in Volume 2.

If he’s frustrated by all this, he doesn’t write about it with bitterness, though he does have a few choice words about some of his opponents, like Mitch McConnell:

“But what McConnell lacked in charisma or interest in policy he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness, and shamelessness – all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power.”  [p. 245-6]

And Lyndsey Graham:

“You know how in the spy thriller or the heist movie you’re introduced to the crew at the beginning … Lindsey’s the guy who double-crosses everyone to save his own skin.” [p. 505]


Obama’s ability to hold and to reconcile conflicting perspectives is also reflected in his leadership style. As he and many others have pointed out, the issues that reach the president’s desk are complex and messy. The easy stuff gets taken care of by cabinet secretaries or lower-level bureaucrats.

For presidents, making a decision usually comes down to weighing probabilities and uncertainties. Here, the decisions are rarely either/or and never satisfy everyone. With the ability to hold conflicting ideas in his head, Obama makes a point of considering all the available facts and evaluating the possible options.

He stresses the importance of having a good process for making decisions. For example, when deciding on implementing a set of “stress tests” for major banks during the 2009 financial crisis, he says:

“Just as important, I felt assured that we’d run a good process, that our team had looked at the problem from every conceivable angle, that no potential solution had been discarded out of hand, and that everyone involved – from the highest-ranking cabinet member to the most junior staffer in the room – had been given the chance to weigh in.” [p. 293]

Obama was often criticized for making decisions so slowly, such as sending more troops into Afghanistan. But he makes no apologies for this and I, for one, am grateful he took the time to consult, gather facts and consider a diversity of viewpoints. It might take longer but it leads to better decisions:

“But with a sound process – one in which I was able to empty out my ego and really listen, following the facts and logic as best I could and considering them alongside my goals and principles – I realized I could make tough decisions and still sleep easy at night, knowing at a minimum that no one in my position, given the same information, could have made the decision any better.” [p. 294]

This emphasis on process reminds me of Oxford professor Archie Brown’s book The Myth of the Strong Leader.  Brown points out that so-called strong leaders who disdain experts, ignore facts, and “go with their gut” often make disastrous decisions.

Politics is Personal

A Promised Land is a deeply personal book. Obama is remarkably open about his inner struggles and self-doubts.  In addition to detailing his effort to define himself as a young Black man, Obama also reveals the strains that his chosen career placed on his marriage and the burdens that fell on his wife Michelle.  He questions his motivations for running for president:

“Why would I put her through this? Was it just vanity? Or perhaps something darker – a raw hunger, a blind ambition wrapped in the gauzy language of service? Or was I still trying to prove myself worthy to a father who had abandoned me, live up to my mother’s starry-eyed expectations of her only son, and resolve whatever self-doubt remained from being born a child of mixed-race?”  [p. 71]

He worries also about the effect growing up in the White House and in the public eye will have on his daughters.

Yet when Michelle challenges him to explain why he needed to be President when there were plenty of qualified candidates in the race, Obama responds:

“I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around this country – Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fin in – they’ll see themselves differently too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone … that would be worth it.”  [p. 77]

He was right. Obama changed the trajectory, bent the arc of history, for Black Americans and for Hispanics. And for girls and women too. And maybe even for middle-aged white guys like me.

Was it a permanent change?  After all, the country elected Donald Trump too.

It was.

A Black man named Barack Hussein Obama was elected US President, not once but twice. America did that. We did that. Nothing can ever take that away, not even the election of Donald Trump.

I find that inspiring and hopeful for the country.

Posted in Books, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments