Tag Archives: Society

United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good – Cory Booker

“What we need now, more than anything else, are people willing to serve as uniters–people in our communities who can rally others for the greater good, reject cynicism and winner-take-all politics, and embrace the more difficult work of this generation: to unite our country in common cause.” – Cory Booker

A man sees a child drowning in a river, jumps in, and drags her to the bank. As he gets the child to safety, he sees another one, dives in, and retrieves him. He sees more children, and keeps diving in, again and again. As he reaches his limits, he sees another man walking by. He yells at him to help – there are children in the river! The man ignores him, and starts walking faster. He yells again, and the man starts sprinting. The man yells a third time – what are you doing, there are kids in the river! The other man finally turns around and says: “I’m going upriver so I can find out why all those kids are in the river and stop it!”

Cory Booker is the fourth black person to be popularly elected to the Senate (the third was Barack Obama). His name was tossed around as a potential vice-presidential candidate for Hillary Clinton. At his best, he actively strives to appeal to left and right, focusing on making people’s lives better and serving the common good rather than partisan politics.

The book can be inspiring. Booker has done some amazing things, including a tremendous focus on reducing crime and encouraging economic development in Newark, where he became city counsellor and then mayor. He has in many ways forged his own reputation through his personal involvement in public service, and that’s a testament to his determination. My only complaint would be he occasionally misunderstands economics, such as when he discusses the tragedy of the commons, but then he is a lawyer by training, not an economist. An engaging read about a prominent US politician.

The Orenda – Joseph Boyden

“We had magic before the crows came…And we understood our magic.  We understood what the orenda implied.”

The orenda is a spiritual energy present in all natural things—humans, animals, plants, rocks, storms. If a hunter did well, his or her orenda was stronger than that of the game: a shaman had great personal orenda.

The Orenda is the story of three people: a Huron warrior; an Iroquois girl captured by the warrior; and a crow, a French missionary sent by his leaders to the Huron village. As the tale of early interaction between Huron and French is told, each of the three struggles wrestles to adapt and accommodate differences, with the two foreigners (Iroquois and French) each forcing the village to change in response to their presence.

Boyden carefully makes his characters complex: none of them are purely good or pure bad, but instead each has their blind spots and flaws. The Orenda takes events that many Canadians may be broadly familiar with and makes them visceral, giving us characters we can empathize with, even understand. The one odd note for me was the detailed descriptions of torture: though I appreciate he wanted to get historical facts right, I found I largely skipped through those sections, particularly after the first one.

The other note he strikes, one which has been controversial, is the issue of roles. He doesn’t paint the First Nations as solely victims: at one point, the narrator asks “what role did I play in the troubles that surround me?” There is a sequence of back-and-forth throughout the novel, as individuals wrong others and are wronged in turn—sometimes they forgive and grow past it, sometimes not.

I read this book in almost one sitting: I’d highly recommend it, though I might also recommend skipping the torture scenes. It won the 2014 Canada Reads Competition.

The Resilience Dividend – Judith Rodin

“Resilience building is a concept that can be learned and a practice that can be developed…Too often, however, resilience thinking does not really take hold until a galvanizing event or a major shock–such as Superstorm Sandy–brings the need into high relief.”

When we think of disaster response, we tend to think of infrastructure: levees in New Orleans, or rebuilding homes after an earthquake or tsunami. That’s fair, but it misses a key piece of the picture. Emergency response is in many ways about people. No one person (or almost no one) can have everything they need to weather a disaster, or rebuild after it. Networks have to come together to recover: communities, they used to be called. Rodin rightly highlights their importance, before and after, in ensuring the best possible response to crises.

Rodin practices what she preaches: as head of the Rockefeller Foundation, she has led disaster response programs in a huge number of regions. Urbanization, Climate Change, and Globalization, she points out, have each made the modern world potentially more vulnerable to volatile shocks, creating what Rodin calls a socio-ecological-economic nexus, where each creates problems that feed off the other two. Sadly, as a society we tend to ignore potential problems until they occur, at which point we often freak out and overreact, creating yet more problems.

The book sometimes feels poorly edited: it claims that Norman Borlaug retired in 1983 at age 65, then died 26 years later at the age of 95, for example. Even for Norman Borlaug, that’s tricky (he actually retired in 1979). It can also sometimes feel like a little brother to Taleb’s tremendous book on the same subject, Anti-Fragile. Rodin uses more examples, but doesn’t always seem to have thought issues through the same way Taleb has: she argues for centralized control of response without really considering alternatives, for example.

An important subject, and written by a hugely successful and important figure, but for me not perfect. It is important to highlight the essential role of people and communities in recovery, and the value of investing in them, but I would have liked to have seen it go a little farther, using some of the lessons from Anti-Fragile.

Unfinished Business – Anne-Marie Slaughter

“I want a society that opens the possibility for every one of us to have a fulfilling career, or simply a good job with good wages if that’s what we choose, along with a personal life that allows for the satisfactions of loving and caring for others.”

Ann-Marie Slaughter lit a fire with her publication of ‘Why Women Can’t Still Can’t Have It All’ in the Atlantic, arguing that women who manage to be mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. She suggested that there are limits – in time, energy, fertility, and desire – that are unavoidable, and that no one can do everything. She speaks from experience: she gave up a high-powered job under Hillary Clinton as secretary of state to return to a less demanding (though still very impressive) job as a professor at Princeton.

In her forthcoming book, she extends this argument, suggesting that though there are some unavoidable limits on humans, society also imposes a lot of artificial ones. She argues that most jobs can be sorted into caring or competitive roles: investment banking might be competitive, but sectors like healthcare and education are more about caring. Society underrates caring jobs, she argues, and those jobs have also traditionally been the responsibility of women. If we are to achieve a better society, we need to increase the value we place on those caring jobs, whether it is childcare or senior care, and also make the workforce more flexible to accomodate more mixing of options, allowing part-time work, more parental leave, and other arrangements. Society, she says, has unfinished business when it comes to workplace arrangements and to social norms.

It’s a solid point, and I quite like her almost Buddhist discussion of limits. Her analysis of the psychology of caring vs. competitive jobs can sometimes feel a bit trite, though: it’s well out of her area of expertise, and isn’t as strong as the similar discussion in Friend and Foe, for example. Still, she’s engaging with an important issue, and one that in the U.S. in particular is often dismissed. Things like parental leave programs can help give children that crucial good early start, and most countries could do with thinking it over a little more. In a sense, it’s a nice complement to Sandberg’s Lean In: Lean In describes how to do well in the world as is, whereas Unfinished Business seeks to suggest how the world should change.

Disclosure: I read Unfinished Business as an advance reader copy. You can read more reviews, or pre-order the book, on amazon: Unfinished Business. It is released September 29th.

The Geek Manifesto – Mark Henderson

“Precisely what politicians think is less important than how they think”

David Tredinnick, MP in the UK House of Commons, is concerned that the cycles of the moon affects surgeries, pregnancy, and hangovers (though he doesn’t mention werewolves). He has attempted to expense around 750 pounds on astrology software, and is a fan of homeopathy as a treatment for various conditions (including malaria), also known as medicine for which there is no evidence. Unfortunately, he also has a seat on the House of Commons Committee that oversees the Ministry of Health. Members on both sides of the aisle have expressed similar views, at best seeking to use what David Halpern calls ‘spray-on evidence’ to justify it, evidence that you pick after you’ve decided what you think.

The problem isn’t limited to the UK, of course. The Geek Manifesto argues that there is an opportunity to improve the situation: to force politicians to actually care about evidence and science, instead of ignoring it. Henderson doesn’t care what politicians think, or what side of the aisle they’re on: he cares that they use evidence to support their opinions, and base their judgments on facts and studies, not guesses and assumptions. The answer is to mobilize the geeks of the world, which he would define as those who care about evidence, and use them as a voting block to force evidence-based policy. Hence, Geek Manifesto.

Most of us would agree, I suspect. Unfortunately, he underplays how difficult it can be to rely on data even when it disagrees with our assumptions. He even falls into the trap on occasion, suggesting that teachers shouldn’t be accepted based on school performance, when the data does suggest teacher intelligence and ability does matter in student outcomes. Finding and using information that disagrees with us is something we all struggle with, potentially most of all intelligent people, because they are so good at convincing themselves why a study might be biased or wrong. I don’t know how to fix that, but I know it’s a challenge.

Elon Musk – Ashlee Vance

“Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to…well…save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.”

Anyone who has Tony Stark (of Iron Man fame) based on them has a pretty good story to tell. The world first met Elon Musk when a South Africa trade magazine published the source code to a video game he had written. It was only 167 lines of code, but then that is more than most 12 year olds manage. Since then, he has cut up logs in Vancouver, dropped out of a PhD program, binged on video games for days, told a venture capitalist that he was like a samurai because he would rather commit seppuku than fail, achieved what many thought was impossible in three different sectors – the internet with PayPal, space with SpaceX, and electric cars with Tesla – and is trying for a fourth.

He’s also a brutal boss, and sometimes seems to take credit for the work of others or shape narratives to his own advantage, not always truthfully. For that reason, he can be a controversial figure, despite his achievements. One of the first journalists to get full access, Vance aims to show the good with the bad: attempts to capture as much of the character and achievements of Musk as possible.

The biography is excellent: well written, insightful, and interesting. Despite his flaws, Musk comes across as an impressive figure: not perfect, but someone committed to serving humanity, with a towering intellect, tremendous drive, and a penchant for taking enormous risks and making them work through effort and focus.

My one complaint is something I’m not sure could be avoided, at least anytime soon. The fact that Elon Musk is not yet dead – indeed, is still middle-aged – means much of the final third of the book is based on speculation on what he will do, not what he has done. For the same reason the Ancient Greeks would judge no one happy until they were dead, it is still too soon to tell how some of Musk’s ventures will play out. Still, based only on what he has already done, he has played a major role in humanity’s development for generations to come. An amazing achievement, and one I hope others emulate.

To Sell is Human – Daniel H. Pink

“Selling in all its dimensions — whether pushing Buicks on a car lot or pitching ideas in a meeting — has changed more in the last ten years than it did over the previous hundred.”

You probably believe you have a job that isn’t sales (unless you are in sales). Perhaps you think you’re a university professor, a doctor, a machinist, or an electrician. That’s all well and nice, says Pink, but you’re kidding yourself. Almost all of us spend a large chunk of our time convincing other people to do things – as teachers, we convince students to learn, or as office workers, we convince our coworkers to help on our projects or our bosses to listen to our ideas. Despite the bad name of sales, says Pink, this isn’t a bad thing. In the modern world, salespeople can no longer rely on asymmetric information to bamboozle their clients: instead, in an age of free information, they have to rely on actually working in the client’s interest.

It’s an interesting point, and an interesting book. I’m not quite convinced, though. I agree we all spend a lot of our time convincing others of things, but I’m not sure that’s a modern phenomenon: I suspect that’s been true in almost any age. Man, said Aristotle, is a political animal, after all. I’m also not sure sales doesn’t – in part – still deserve its bad name. It’s true, the internet means you can look up a used car as well as the salesman, but even when the information exists, finding it isn’t easy given how much else is out there. Salesmen still have an advantage because they curate information, even if they aren’t the sole holders of it.

The book also has a bunch of cute stories, as these books often do. The first ‘elevator pitch’, for example: the man who figured out how to make elevators safe for people needed a way to convince them it worked, so he built an elevator at a world fair, hoisted it up, and cut the cable. To the gasps of the crowd, it plummeted…until the automatic brakes kicked in and stopped it. I’m not sure I agree with the book’s thesis, but for a quick summer read, it’s light, entertaining, and interesting.

Winter King – Thomas Penn

“For it is a strange thing, that though he were a dark prince, and infinitely suspicious, and his times full of secret conspiracies and troubles…As for the disposition of his subjects in general towards him, it stood thus with him: that of the three affections which naturally tie the hearts of the subjects to their sovereign,—love, fear and reverence,—he had the last in height; the second in good measure; and so little of the first, as he was beholding to the other two.” – Francis Bacon, discussing Henry VII

Henry VII is one of the lesser known kings of England. He is wedged between two notorious monarchs, arch-villain Richard III and his son Henry VIII. His legacy has also been controversial: he founded the Tudor dynasty, passing on power to his son in the first untroubled succession in more than a century. Yet there was also a lingering sense of tyranny, a monarch who was greatly feared, dominating his subjects to an unheard of extent and driving many of them into bankruptcy, while making the crown one of the richest in Europe. Shakespeare forbore to write a history play about him entirely.

Thomas Penn has written in Winter King a phenomenal biography of the man, who went from a lesser prince with little claim to the throne to the richest monarch in Europe, waited on by other kings. The story itself is fascinating: Henry VII faced challenges that sound like fiction, including multiple attempts by his enemies to take random people – in one case, a boatman’s son – and raise them to look like lost princes with a claim to the throne. As a result, he was perpetually suspicious, and oversaw an enormous spy network: one never knew when you were speaking to one of his agents.

He also developed an elaborate financial network to ensure loyalty. As suggested by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, taxes were assessed using a simple rule: if you led a high consumption lifestyle, you clearly had a high income, and so owed high taxes. If you were frugal, you clearly had a lot of savings, and so owed high taxes. Funnily enough, taxes were quite high.

In addition, he used a complex system of bonds and fines to ensure that any subject faced immediate financial destruction if they crossed him. If you did something wrong, you got a suspended fine, triggered if you disobeyed again: if you didn’t do anything wrong, you were asked to post a bond, usually more than you could afford, that you would lose if you did disobey.

The whole book is interesting, from Henry’s sophisticated use of financial instruments to the complicated politics he reveled in. It’s also probably something you know nothing about. Highly recommended!

How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t go Crazy – Michael Barber

“Increasingly, prime ministers are like CEOs or chairmen of major companies. They have to set a policy direction; they have to see it is followed; they have to get data on whether it is; they have to measure outcomes.” – Tony Blair

Laws and sausages are two things one should never watch getting made. Politics is trendy – see House of Cards, Borgen, Homeland, or any of the other political thrillers out there at the moment. What isn’t trendy is delivery, the part where the meat actually gets processed and squeezed into animal intestine. Of course, without delivery, you don’t get any sausages.

Barber presents his 57 rules for effective government programs – not advice in policy, or what you should be doing, but conditional on you knowing what you want to do, how to make sure it happens. Ironically for a man with 57 rules, prioritization is rule 1. Most of it isn’t revolutionary, but it requires a methodical and careful approach, something that is sometimes lost with all the excitement around strategy and blue-sky thinking.

Barber led Tony Blair’s delivery unit, and it’s no surprise he advocates for one in general. Basically, it’s a small team with direct access to the PM (or whoever), which is entirely focused on delivery of programs. They don’t pick what to deliver, but when it is picked, they design metrics, track data, and make sure everything is going to plan. Having a group focused on this means that data can’t just slip through the cracks, or never be tracked at all, and it’s a model that has been adopted in several places, from Malaysia to several U.S. states.

Delivery isn’t flashy, and though Barber does his best, it’s hard to keep the book interesting. It is chock-full of fun ideas, though: he hates 3 point scales, for example, because far too many people just stick in the middle. He always uses 4 point ones. Apparently, he also went through and rated every project done by the UK government by their probability of succeeding at their goals, an exercise I imagine irritated almost everyone. For someone interested in service delivery and how sausages are made, well worth a read.

The Face of Battle – John Keegan

“Battle, therefore…is essentially a moral conflict. It requires, if it is to take place, a mutual and sustained act of will by two contending parties and, if it is to result in a decision, the moral collapse of one of them.”

Much of military history has typically focused on battles, particularly the decisions of the generals or kings and their strategic goals. Keegan doesn’t mind the focus on battle: battle, after all, is to some extent what a military is for. What he objects to is the focus on leaders. As he points out, in a battle a general and a soldier may have very different, even hostile, goals.

The Face of Battle is therefore a study of the psychology of warfare, from the perspective of the individual combatant. What drives a soldier to risk death? A general might think of soldiers as members of their army, but it turns out most soldiers think of themselves as equals within a small group of 6 or 7 fellows: they fight for personal survival and out of fear of incurring the contempt of the rest of the group. Indeed, in the last century, modern armies have been reorganized around just that principle.

At its heart, The Face of Battle argues that battle is a psychological conflict. Until modern wars, most casualties were incurred when an army broke and ran; that was when truly horrific losses could be inflicted. As long as an army kept fighting, however, there limits to the damage weapons could do. Indeed, when a story describes one army as colliding with another, that almost never happens: one will almost inevitably flinch, even flee, the psychological impact rather than the physical one determining the outcome of a battle. Rarely was an army that had not yet fled truly unable to keep fighting – rather, once it had broken psychologically, so much damage could be done it lost its ability to fight.

The question of battle psychology is clearly an interesting one. Killing others, and risking death yourself, puts enormous psychological strain on most people, with effects we still don’t entirely understand. As usual with Keegan, I find his style a bit dense, but the book’s focus on three major battles – Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme – helps make it clearer by imposing more of a narrative structure on much of the book. An interesting and insightful reflection on the nature of war.