Dissent: Summer 2019

This summer’s issue of Dissent focuses around the concept of the nation, with discussions about nationalism, open borders, colonialism and immigration. It’s an interesting edition and has some good articles and reviews as well. There’s an interview with former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, the history of Ghanan independence, and the recent political history of Turkey.

The Frontier Closes In: Perhaps the one article that I’ve found myself thinking about the most is this review of Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. Given the spate of mass shootings that plagued El Paso and Dayton this past week, people are searching for answers to the question why these young white men are committing these atrocities, and how the President’s rhetoric is spurring on this racism and white nationalism. Grandin’s theory is that as American expansionism ran out of room as the frontier was closed, American interests took a colonialist turn toward the Pacific and Caribbean. Following the invasion of Iraq it’s had nowhere to turn, and has since focused on the southern border with Mexico. This historical expansionism has long been used to distract or delay the reckoning of America’s social ills, and now that it is no longer available, we find ourselves having to deal with these problems.

Two Paths for Millenial Politics: Timothy Shenk asks what millenials are going to do next, and who they’re going to look to for political leadership moving forward. As the first millennial candidate for president, Buttigieg gets a thorough critique here, and is contrasted with Bernie Sanders, millenial’s seemingly current favorite. The author is not kind to Mayor Pete, and catalogs Mayor Pete’s political shrewdness and the difference between the presentation of his memoir and his stump speech.

Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto (on my to-read list) gets a good bit of mention in this article, mainly as a riposte to Buttigieg’s liberal posturing. There’s a lot of talk about the ongoing war within the Democratic party and the future of political organizing around climate change.

Share this one with Pete Buttigieg fans.

Ursula K Le Guin’s Revolutions: I’ll admit that even though I’ve been a huge sci-fi fan over the years, I’ve never read any of Le Guin’s work. I may have picked one of the Earthsea novels when I was a pre-teen, but I don’t think I made it very far into it before abandoning it. Sarah Jones’s short piece is a nice homage to Le Guin and the unique voice and politics that she brought to the genre over her decades-long career.

There’s a good portion about The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (pdf), which is a short four page story that is one of Le Guin’s best known works. While Jone’s description of it didn’t make me give it another thought, it did coincidentally turn up in my attention a day or two later when I turned on one of Sam Harris’s lessons in the Waking Up app where he read the entire thing. I clearly recall having a visceral reaction to it. Harris’s piece doesn’t seem to be available outside of the app, but he specifically mentions this episode of the Very Bad Wizards podcast, where they discuss the story at length.

The Nation Magazine – Spring Books 2019

I’ve had a subscription to The Nation for just over a year now. Tom Nichol’s book with Robert McChesney, People Get Ready, was my gateway drug. I was a bit underprepared for the sheer amount of material that they publish, since the articles and reviews are rather lengthy. They have a really weird publishing schedule as well. The schedule is irregularly regular, certain months are four, three, or two issues. I’m sure there’s an story as to why it’s like that, but it’s just strange.

And don’t get me started on the crossword puzzles. Just reading the notes makes me anxious. I’m sure I’ll never…

Each issue has at least two hours of content if one reads cover-to-cover. Obviously, keeping up with the publishing schedule, and my other subscriptions, causes me to get pretty backlogged, and I usually have four or five issues in my to-read stack. I just finished the June 3rd issue, so that’s probably closer to seven. I’ve started to skip through most of the beginning features, the opinion and more recent event stuff, since by the time I get to the issue it’s already several cycles behind. I do read the features, and probably enjoy the book and media reviews in the back the most, since they’re usually more outside of the pressing issues and offer more of a historical context to things and people that I’ve never heard of before.

In spring and fall they put out their bi-annual books issues, which forgo the features in favor of more reviews. This is where I’ve just finished. I find that these reviews, both in these books issues and the regular editions, offer me a pretty thorough synopsis of not only a book or three about a subject or by the same author, but also about the history or background of the subject. I enjoy the exposure.

Everything to Lose: review of David Wallace-Wells The Uninhabitable Earth and Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth. Wells was recently on the Team Human podcast, which is also worth checking out. Since we now live in an age where climate disaster is all but certain, the question becomes what do we do now with our daily lives to adjust to it. I for one, after trying to work within the political process and Democratic party for the past 4 years, have become skeptical that our existing political system can dig us out of this mess. More radical measures will be needed, but we’re not likely to have the organizing power to affect this change until more of the effects are being felt, and more of the old guard has passed on to make way for younger generations. By that time, the amount of climate change that has been baked into the system in addition to what we’re already facing may be more than we can deal with. We’ll see what the next decade holds.

Box of Wonders: review of Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. Ever since I deleted Facebook off of my iPhone months ago I’ve become to realize how toxic much of the online lifestyle has become to the human spirit. I’ve managed to stay away from it completely for some time now — don’t touch my Twitter, though! — and it’s been apparent how addictive these social media platforms are, and the damaging influence they have on society. My meditation practice is a way to cope with this, and in response I make it a priority to be present around my children whenever possible, or when I’m out with others. One thing I’ve rediscovered during this practice is the joy of doing nothing, and the tendency for the human mind to find something to focus attention on, whether it’s discomfort of the body in the present, regrets of the past, or anxieties about the future. Just being content in the moment is a really important skill and one that I am trying to teach to my kids. It’s also helping me break that habit of reaching for my phone during every period of waiting or those transition moments between activities during the day. The algorithms haven’t won yet.

The Language of the Unheard: review of Sylvie Laurent’s King and the Other America. As someone who has been very interested in the work that Rev. D. William Barber II has been doing with the revived Poor People’s Campaign, histories of Martin Luther King’s original Poor People’s Campaign always gets my attention. I’ve written about King’s radicalism elsewhere, and how he’s been sanitized and co-opted by everything from corporations to the conservative right. His tendencies toward social-democratic politics are well documented. Some might even say he held socialist views toward the end of his life. Who knows where we might be today had he and Robert Kennedy been able to keep this movement from failing?

Principles by Ray Dalio

I got a copy of Ray Dalio’s Principles for Christmas this year, and I’ve been keeping it very near to my desk over the past six months. The book is a list of the rules that Ray has come up with in his personal and professional life over the past 40 years as the founder and CEO of Bridgewater Capital, one of the most successful and important investment firms in the world.

Dalio made the podcast rounds last year after his book came out, showing up on Tim Ferris’s and a few others. Then I started hearing his book mentioned by others about how good it was, so I decided to put it on my Christmas list. It’s as good as gold.

The book is three parts: the first, a brief biography and history of Bridgewater; the second is his life principles, and the last, almost half the book, is his work principles. In the intro, Ray invites the reader to skip past his bio and get right into the core of the book, which I gladly did. The physical book itself is laid out very well as well, black and white and red colors, with not one but two ribbons (black and red) to be used as bookmarks.

The center of the book has a summary of the life and work principles for easy reference, about 20 pages in total. A lot of thought has gone into the layout, and they’re grouped together in a orderly and consistent fashion. One can either skip to the principle one’s most interested in, or do as I did, and read straight through. I actually started with parts two and three before finishing part one.

But enough about the book itself.

Ray’s Principles have a couple of overarching themes, the two that most struck me were around his ideas of radical transparency and automating your decision-making process. The concept of radical truth comes from the principal of ’embracing reality and dealing with it,’ which he says is ‘invaluable for rapid learning and effective change’. He uses a type of OODA-loop for planning, executing, gathering feedback, and planning the next iteration, for which this is valuable. But the impact of this transparency in work and personal relationships is important as well. It’s also about being open-minded, both to avoid convincing yourself that you are right, and to accept feedback from people who are more ‘believable’ about certain topics that you. This topic of believability comes up in many principles, and is most relevant when it comes to settling disagreements.

The sections under the section titled ‘to build and evolve your machine’ are my favorite, and are ones that I keep coming back to in my day-to-day life. It’s helped me to step back and focus on my life and work as a system, allowing me to do a sort of meta-analysis around my daily habits and routines, and around the business processes that I take part of at work. As someone involved with a small business, the ‘perceive and don’t tolerate problems’ principle is one I’m taking very seriously. There’s a lot of leadership and management stuff in here as well that I’ve tried to incorporate as well.

I’ve been treating Principles as sort of an operating manual. It serves as a workbook for thinking about the way that I interact with colleagues and how I approach my job. I’ve been trying to get buy-in with my team, and have considered buying everyone a copy in order to do so. Dailo has given a great gift to the world with this book, and I cannot give it a higher recommendation.

You can get a digital copy of the book via the IOS app.

The Overstory

So I first heard about Richard Power’s The Overstory last week through a tweet by Naomi Klein. A review in the replies called it “the decade’s most important novel”, and my local library had a copy of it, so I picked it up. I barely put it down over the next 24 hours, and plowed through all 500-pages while ignoring my family. 

It’s basically a story about trees, but ultimately a story about humankind’s relationship with nature. It’s about expanding our concept of time, and understanding our puny lifespans in comparison to the lives of the kings of the plant kingdom. It’s about activism, environmental destruction, tech and artificial intelligence, and so much more. Powers draws on science that shows that trees are not solitary organisms, but that are able to communicate through their root networks and via the release of chemicals in the air that affect not just their neighbors but perhaps us as well. 

The plot is interesting, the characters as well, and Power’s prose is quite amazing. There’s so much science and literature quoted in here that it feels quite educational. The breadth of the story, mainly the multi-generational setup and ensemble casts reminds me both of Cloud Atlas and Neil Stephenson (Anathem, The Baroque Cycle, &c…)

I’m waiting for my wife to read it next, to see what she thinks of it, but it has already affected my thinking in some ways already. I’ve decided to let part of my backyard go wild, and I’m no longer looking at the weeds in my lawn with quite the same vindictive rage. 

The book also makes me recall Paul Stamets 2008 TED talk about mushrooms. Paul was first brought to my attention through Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind. These sub-surface networks of mycelium are perhaps the largest organisms on earth, transporting minerals between trees and may form the basis of some sort of nervous system for the forest. 

As one who is very distraught about the state of the world when it comes to climate change, the urgency of this book is very critical. What is perhaps the most telling or affirming part of the book is that no matter what happens — even if we lose — that what comes next will prevail, even if it is beyond the span of a human lifetime, or event the lifetime of the human species. So even while 400+ pages of the book seem to be ultimately fatalistic about our heroes being on the losing side of battle after battle, even after the majestic chestnut and redwoods are felled by disease or loggers, there is still the sense that nature will survive, and renew itself after human society has ceased to be. 


“Red Dawn”: Dumbest ’80s remake ever? – Salon.com

Yea, I think I’ll skip this one.

[T]o release a movie today that celebrates the moral right — nay, responsibility — of well-scrubbed American children to kill invaders is like giving a giant middle finger to the people around the world who see us as the invading army, and whose children have died by the thousands already. “Red Dawn” is a ghoulish parody of reality, served up earnestly and obliviously, to an audience whose enjoyment will, perforce, be directly proportional to its ignorance.

via “Red Dawn”: Dumbest ’80s remake ever? – Salon.com.