Writing

The Blog of Frank Chimero

Sometimes, you come across the right art / essay / information at the exact right time. Whether due to serendipity or some greater cosmic force, the subject matter or its conclusion seems almost preternaturally tailored to you and your current situation, and provides some nugget of wisdom that guides your path forward. And no, I’m not talking about horoscopes.

I first came across Frank Chimero’s blog via two released released (and hugely popular) posts: A Modest Guide to Productivity and MVP Soundsystem, a guide to listening to music in our age of plenty. Both articles immediately resonated with me, as they presented methods for managing our relationship to technology in a way that works for you, as opposed to letting yourself be driven by technology and its designs on your time and attention (increasingly a popular topic, though ironically mostly in online circles.)

As much as I’m generally drawn to articles that offer methods or systems for greater organization / clarity / space for reflection, his posts and the advice therein seemed genuine  and uniquely human, based on his own experience and shared in an attempted to help others, rather than as a ploy to increase email subscribers or shill a book or course.

My favorite tip, from the Modest Guide:

Get enthusiasm on the cheap by buying a fancy wooden pencil to write everything down. A $3 pencil is now more exciting than a $2,000 computer. Many people will do the most mundane work just to feel a good tool fly.

I’ve since taken this advice to hard, though my apartment is now strewn with more $10 notebooks and $3 pencils/pens than I’d care to admit.

After reading these posts, I made a mental note to check out Frank’s blog and work in general, as he is a designer in “real life.” Last week, I finally visited the archive of his blog, and pulled out several non-design-related posts to read. Three posts in particular have stuck with me, and are the Best Thing I Read This Week™ (yes, I know I’m stretching the concept a bit – it’s my blog and I can do what I want!)

Jettison the Rest (October 2014) deals with the taking on of obligations, and the need to consiously pit those committments against your own desires, facing headfirst “the whiplash of modern life, to automatic and unchecked desire, to the anxiety created by spinelessness.”

I oftentimes feel this spinelessness after a long session of email digestion and response, where at the end I feel no closer to my initial intentions than when I started, yet find myself when reduced mental capacity as a result.

As Chimero counsels, himself inspired by Joan Didion’s 1961 essay on self-respect, “It’s best to identify and do what you’re required and able, then jettison the rest.”

I Can’t Read Walden (August 2014) follows my recent capsule review of reading Walden, where I contemplated what motivated Thoreau to write a treatise on his retreat from the modern world as a 30-year-old.

Chimero, who admits to not making it much further than 15 pages into Walden but successfully imagines its contents and conclusion, ponders Thoreau’s decision to leave behind to “noise” (both literal and figurative) of modern society and dissatisfaction of adulthood.

Chimero sees himself in Thoreau’s Walden, “reflected 150 years in the past, still just as foolish and making the same mistakes I make today.” However, Chimero openly questions Thoreau’s decision to flee from obligations and seek refuge in nature and his own mind:

Did escaping modern life leave you feeling curiously trapped? Were you running away or running towards? And, most importantly, were you ever able to reconcile the tension between enjoying the world and trying to set it straight? I want to ask because Thoreau ostracized himself, and seclusion, for some, can be just as addicting as any drug. It’s a defacto solution that feeds the problem which requires itself as a solution.

As someone who has taken the active step of moving continents, not necessarily beset by the same immediate struggles but certainly wary of the constant revolutions of modern life, this line of questioning opened me up to questioning my own desires of retreat, whether, as Chimero asks, “those fussy middle parts between the mind and nature  (family, your relations, workplace, city, nation, society, etc.) weren’t a crutch, but the third leg of a stool?”

Lastly, This One’s For Me (March 2014) is a reflection on the eve of his thirtieth birthday. In this post, Chimero takes stock of the various personas we assign ourselves as our identities become more congealed as working adults, and the associated traps that break the illusion of those “perfect personas,” including fear, judgement, and pressure – all enemies of modern life (and especially public life, online.)

The essay is incredibly personal, as it touches on his experience returning to work and the world after the traumatic and unimaginably difficult experience of losing both of his parents, months apart.

At the risk of merely repackinging his powerful words, I’ll just post them here below:

Two terrible years taught me the most important lesson about life I’ve ever learned on my own: you only become bulletproof when you refuse to disguise your injuries. This ends the show and deflates any notion that you have your shit together all the time. The wounds are a gift: with the mask gone, you get to be a person again. You learn how to accept help, and better yet, how to better give it.

Suddenly, all the stakes become much lower. Life is somehow more precious and less. You are a monkey in pants, after all. So what? There’s no need to be loud and stupid and desperate, because the desire that made you behave that way was so convoluted to start. What could those desires be for, and what would you ever do if they were fulfilled? You don’t know. But you shouldn’t feel bad for not knowing or for thinking such silly things. You’re just a monkey, kid, so cut yourself some slack.

Review – 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

You’ll have to forgive Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century for its title. In our age of listicles and countdowns vying for our attention across the internet, there’s a reasonable amount of skepticism that any reader should take into reading a book that professes to offer answers to societal and global ailments, let alone in our current attention-deprived and answer-seeking culture. However, after an ambitious (and wildly successful) examination of the past million-odd years of human history (Sapiens), as well as a reasonable perspective on the possibilities of next 100 years (Homo Deus), it makes sense that Harari would shift his focus to the present day. By pulling liberally from the central theses of his previous books and drawing on the research and reporting of others, 21 Lessons is a very convincing call to action (and inaction) for the globe, states, corporations, and individuals. However, my fear is that it will almost certainly fall on deaf ears in all of the aforementioned groups, for the very reasons outlined in the book itself.

21 lessons

While the book is neatly organized across 21 chapters spread across 5 parts, the book is principally an exploration of several key ideas, and an application of those core beliefs to subjects of global relevance. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century draws liberally from its two predecessors in these ideas: from Sapiens (the importance of stories / fictions in creating widespread cooperation), and Homo Deus (the looming potential of biological inequality and castes), to try and draw attention to how we find ourselves at an extreme pivot point – faced with global existential challenges yet polarized, factionalized, and looking to build walls and close doors. As Harari explains, the three major stories of early 20th century (liberalism, fascism, and communism) contracted into two with the fall of Hitler, and one following the fall of the Soviet Union leaving us with the Fukuyaman End of History and the triumph of liberalism. However, growing resentment across the world has poked holes in the inevitability of liberalism, and now we’re left with no story. This is the principal context of 21 Lessons.

The first fifth or the book, entitled “The Technological Challenge,” makes a compelling and thought provoking case for the looming confluence between biotech (the ability of computers to assist us in understand our own bodies and biologies) and infotech (the ability of computers to process, interpret, and learn from massive data sets, including algorithms, AÍ machine learning), and how this technological revolution will fundamentally revolutionize society as we know it. As artificial intelligence continues to improve, most jobs will become obsolete, as even so-called “creative” fields like music composition can become the domain of machines. Even more imaginatively, merging the history of music with intimate knowledge of indicators within our own bodies and emotions will create a uber-intelligent DJ tailored to your needs: providing songs and playlists conditioned to your personality and current mood.

While this narrative follows much of the recent discussions on automation and the need for retraining and redistribution, Harari manages to advance the discussion significantly by framing the debate in both political and global terms. As Harari explains, advances in industry beckoned the rise of democracy and communism, creating more equal societies and supplanting monarchies and feudalism, as humans (in masses) were needed to fulfill the demand for labor. However, in the “technology” era, the need for human labor will be significantly diminished, and computers will be able to make the “best” decisions for a given society or state, removing the impetus and need for a decentralized decision-making structure (e.g., democracy).

Solutions like universal basic income, while potentially useful in select states, will no reasonably travel across borders, especially not to places with high levels on unskilled labor and little-to-no natural resources, such as Bangalore or Bangladesh. Tax revenue from corporations at the vanguard of industrial intelligence, such as Google, will have limited taxation in places like this, and there is little reason to expect any sort of generosity on the parts of the tax-levying countries. It will fall to the governments of these states to deal with the fallout of automation, to protect workers rather than trying to impede technological progress by protecting bygone industries and jobs. Even more pressing, Harari is concerned about the human capacity to manage this constant change and need for constant retraining and reimagination, declaring humans as having insufficient “mental stamina.”

Interestingly, Harari sees the Orthodox Jewish sections of Israel as example of a successful ‘post-work’ society. Per Harari, over 50% of Orthodox men never work, and the majority of the population is subsidized by the Israeli state. Despite this abject poverty, Orthodox Israelis are consistently polled as being more satisfied than Israelis with significantly more means, amounting to their purpose (studying biblical texts) and close-knit communities. In recent discussions with Israeli friends, they negate Harari’s ideal of the Orthodox in Israel, who are seen as living in squalor.

Even more bleak, Harari sees the unification of bio- and info-tech as not only leading to an elimination of political power, but also a shift from economic equality to biological inequality. As science continues to advance, the privileged will be able to augment their minds and bodies, and even extend their lives, leading to the Homo Deus moniker employed in Hararis’ second book. While gaps already exist in the health and wellbeing of rich and poor around the world, Harari’s Homo Deus concept would drastically exacerbate these indicators.

As seen in recent debates in Europe and the United States and explained by Harari, humans still have the power to control their destinies, in the form of their personal data. As infotech and biotech expand and improve, the importance of data will increasingly grow. Like human labor before it, the power of data lies in its breadth, as the data of a select few hundred (or even thousand) people is far insufficient to create reasonably successful algorithms. While humans  still maintain the power to control their data, Harari laments that “domesticated” humans are willingly ceding that power to corporations for minimal gains (e.g., Google Maps). Per Harari, this question who owns and is able to regulate data may be the most important question of our era.

The second fifth (“The Political Challenge”) frames the modern history of the world as a battle between competing ideologies and ideas: feudalism, communism, fascism, democracy, capitalism, all vying for supremacy against their respective foes. Harari contends that the world is dramatically more uniform than it has ever been, from a broad agreement on basic assumptions such as currency systems, medicine, and science, and even diplomatic norms, including regarding statehood and participation in international institutions like the United Nations. Even a state like North Korea, considered to be as foreign of a actor as we currently have, engages in bilateral trade with other nations, and even participates in international organizations like the Olympics and submits to nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

However, despite our growing uniformity, we are far from unified, as Harari lays out in chapters on nationalism, religion, and immigration. These three concepts are principally ones of identity, manufactured fictions by one’s religion or state leadership to drive mass cooperation and consolidate power. Along these lines, Harari contends that without these often-abhorred devices, it is more likely that we would descend into tribal chaos that achieve world peace.

Amid fomenting nationalism and religious fervor, Harari paints a picture of the three principal challenges of the near-term: the nuclear risk of existential elimination, the ecological challenge borne of climate change, and the aforementioned technological challenge. In all three cases, nationalism either prevents or runs counter to productive action, which require solutions on a global scale and widespread cooperation. In this way, nationalists around the world are clutching to an outdated and insufficient mode of thinking that moves us further away from answers to these massive problems.

The third fifth (“Despair and Hope”) continues along the lines of the second (I’d contend that the chapter on ‘Immigration’ actually belongs in this section), touching on war and terrorism, God, and ultimately, our need for humility. The book drags a bit in this section, and reads more so as one-off philosophical proofs or debate club arguments seeking to further outline Harari’s worldview rather than advance the aforementioned discussions. Each chapter reads as a short essay on a specific topic: why terrorism is massively effective in its impact, but mostly under control, why wars fought over land and power are mostly of the past, why claims in the name of “God” are biased towards the behavior of its devotees, and finally, why secularism’s key tenets of minimizing pain and doubt are compatible with other ideologies, push the reader to change their minds, or at least their conception of these concept. However, they are all arguments that are convincingly made elsewhere, and do not substantively add to the book’s central premises.

Where the does succeed is in its last two fifths, entitled “Truth” and “Resilience,” which seek to provide answers to some of the presented problems, or at least the tools to pursue them head-first. Harari offers scant, but useful solutions that should be heeded, including paying money for the information you consume (otherwise you are submitting yourself to data collection and manipulation), engaging with the scientific literature behind the issues that are important to you, and most captivatingly, encouraging scientists to write science fiction (to be adapted into popular films) that contend with the aforementioned questions of AÍ, bioengineering, and climate change in order to raise popular awareness of these looming crises.

However, Harari doesn’t portend to have the answers for what’s to come, and explains the need for humility and ignorance in talking the challenges to come. Harari’s ignorance is worn like a badge of honor: as he mentions regarding his conception of the near future: “if somebody describes the world of the mid-twenty-first century to you and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably false. But then again, if somebody describes the world of the mid-twenty-first century to you and it doesn’t sound like science fiction it is certainly false: change itself is the only certainty.”

For a book this massive in scope and intention, it does feel like Harari’s inclination is to shrug in the face of it all: humans are creatures programmed by their emotions that naturally cling to their communities and identities to preserve meaning, and are unlikely to change their behavior if faced with facts. As mentioned throughout, Harari doubts our capacity as humans trapped in the matrixes of our own minds as capable of contending with this world of “discontinuity,” and recommends that we seek out pharmaceutical and psychological innovations, as well as more timeworn solutions (more on that below) to contend with these changes. In discussing “meaning,” he rejects any notion that the universe has any design or plans for us as individuals, rather emphasizing the need for us as individuals to construct our own meaning from the universe itself.

21 Lessons is a much more personal book than relatively straightforward histories of Sapiens and Homo Deus, touching on his identity to illustrate his points. For example, the chapter on humility (again, I’m choosing to include this in the Truth section – maybe the book could’ve used a better division?) on “Humility” deals with his Jewish identity to illustrate the false superiority and overstated importance that we place on our “tribe’s” importance in human history, and our to ascribe our own individual superiority by association. In the case of the Jews, despite his formative education otherwise, Harari capably explains that the so-called “Jewish Enlightenment” and the disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes won by Jews were the result of the groundwork laid by “Gentile thinkers” laying the groundwork, and more broadly engagement with secular ideals. It’s an effective case study that I believe is even more credible by bringing his experience into the picture, though then again, maybe as a Jew myself, I’m just identifying with the specific line of argument due to my knowledge of the subject.

In addition, there’s an expectation on Harari’s part maybe that the book is meant for open minds, the types of people who are overly likely to be among the last to succumb to these massive societal shifts. Harari himself acknowledges himself “checking his privilege” and attempting to widen his scope to address the issues of the most needy and first impacted. However, many of his solutions seem directed at this privileged class: the business, civic, and societal leaders. In this way, 21 Lessons almost be interpreted as an exercise in empathy, sympathy, and (maybe) action in the face of massive change.

Harari ends the book with a personal essay on his experiences with meditation, which he initially began as a 24-year-old graduate student frustrated by the narrow focuses of the University and a lack of answers for questions of mortality. As Harari explains, he has become a devotee of meditation in the years since, committing to two hours of meditation daily and one-to-two months of retreat a year. Reading this chapter last, it’s clear that his worldview, of focus on the infinitesimal, the individual, and the calm presented in the face of these imminent and longer-term catastrophes, as well as his solutions for these issues (“de-domesticating” as humans, developing mental fortitude) is informed by his study of meditation. However, I don’t see this as discrediting whatsoever, and in fact just a further endorsement of the powerful of mindfulness to those who commit themselves to a lifelong practice void of expectations.

It’s not a book that was necessarily asked for (in fact, in the acknowledgements Harari admits that his Penguin Random House UK editor “first came up with the idea for this book”), but amid our current age of identity-based politics and internecine conflicts – between religions, nations, races, classes, ages, etc – it’s a worthy call for unity and a call collective embrace of the futility of many of these fights,

What I’m Expecting from Round 2 of the Brazilian Presidential Elections

Tomorrow (Sunday, October 28) is the second round of the 2018 Brazilian Presidential election, almost inarguably the most consequential in the modern history of Brazilian democracy.

After a landslide first round result which saw Jair Bolsonaro win 46% of the vote (short of the 50% required for an outright victory), Bolsonaro will face off against Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad (winner of 29% of the primary vote) in a battle of the insurgent outsider versus the entrenched party politician; with one side promising to blow up the existing political institution, and the other one promising stability and a continuation of the Workers’ Party regime of Lula and Dilma Rousseff.

Since the October 7 primary, the polls have narrowing slightly, but continue to predict a rout for Bolsonaro: from an 18-point advantage (59/41) on October 18th to a 12-point advantage (56/44) this week. Late breaking news, including an endorsement of Haddad by the former head of the Supreme Court, Joaquim Barbosa, and an overtly apolitical non-endorsement by 3rd place finisher Ciro Gomes (positioning himself for a 2022 run), are unlikely to change the minds of many Brazilians.

In Brazil, the sides are as polarized as ever: to Bolsonaro supporters, and even just anti-Lula/PTistas, the idea of a Workers Party victory is so anathema that I genuinely fear how a Bolsonaro loss / Haddad victory would be received: almost certainly cries of electoral manipulation would follow, as well as manifestations across Brazil. Whether or not this would lead to violence would depend on the response of Bolsonaro himself. As we’re increasingly seeing in the United States, mild denunciations of violence are insufficient for avowed extremists. Given Brazil’s existing culture of violence and the already-incensed extremists among Bolsonaro’s faithful (resulting in acts of violence and even murder), it is safe to expect the absolute worst.

While many Bolsonaro supporters would consider themselves committed to Brazilian democracy, the prospect of 4 years of PT rule would likely lead to calls of a military intervention. Army Chief Eduardo Villas Boas has been mostly silent since his comments on the Supreme Court decision on Twitter regarding the imprisonment of Lula. Maybe alarmist, but if Haddad seems primed for victory, I would expect a response of some sort from General Villas Boas on Twitter.

In the increasingly more likely instance that Bolsonaro is elected, I would expect outward jubilation from Bolsonaro’s supporters, with manifestations in support of the newly elected President. Given the empowerment already felt by many of his supporters, there may be violence in the event of a Bolsonaro victory as well, violence that I suspect would be more targeted against supposed enemies – feminists, LGBT individuals, and other minorities. In the days following, I would expect to immediately assume a muscular posture through anti-gang and trafficking actions, followed by other punative actions meant to demonstrate his ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards criminals in Brazil.

Meanwhile, the international press has been near-united in its opposition to Bolsonaro (as well as its general antipathy towards Haddad) and the expected consequences of the election and Brazilian democracy.

  • The Economist editorial – Containing Jair Bolsonaro (October 27): “his corrosive rhetoric may make Brazilians more receptive to autocracy in the future.”
  • A letter published in The Guardian – Bolsonaro threatens the world, not just Brazil’s fledgling democracy (October 25): “The international community, and in particular France and the European Union, must take action and support Brazilian democrats, regardless of the outcome of the presidential election.”
  • A letter published in Le Monde – Brazilians, don’t give up your values (October 26): “we wish to express our immense concern by addressing in particular Brazilian voters still undecided, so that they position themselves in favor of democracy.”
  • The New York Times editorial – Brazil’s Sad Choice (October 21): “a sad day for democracy when disarray and disappointment drive voters to distraction and open the door to offensive, crude and thuggish populists.”

Further, the New York Times has provided a consistent anti-Bolsonaro soapbox via ongoing editorials from Brazilian politicians (Lula – August 14), celebrity activists (musician Caetano Veloso – October 24), authors / commentators: (Vanessa Barbara – October 24 and October 2), and researchers (Robert Muggah – October 8).

The only pro-Bolsonaro editorial that I came across leading up to the election was from the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Brazilian Swamp Drainer” (October 8). Doubling as an endorsement of Bolsonaro, the article lauds Bolsonaro’s supposed “outsider” status, frames his alarming rhetoric towards racial minorities, LGBT, and other threatened communities as “traditional values,” and claims his opponent’s economic policies to be from the “Hugo Chavez playbook.” After recounting the failures of the PT era under Lula and Dilma Rousseff, the editorial concludes: “After so much political turmoil and corruption, it’s hardly surprising that Brazilians are responding to a candidate who promises something better.”

Taking into account the financial markets’ reaction to Bolsonaro’s result in the first round, the Journal’s editorial makes a lot more sense. The morning after Bolsonaro’s result, the Brazilian stock exchange, Petrobras (the national oil company), and the Brazilian real against the US Dollar, all bellwethers of international sentiment towards the Brazilian economy, all shot up. The conclusion is clear: the international financial markets and global capital are clearly placing their hopes on President Bolsonaro and the neoliberal economic stewardship of his minister Paulo Guedes. Again, how much this indicates a vote of confidence in Bolsonaro himself, or a statement against the Haddad and the Workers Party, is difficult to ascertain (a running theme.)

In the likely event that Bolsonaro does win, it will be interesting whether markets will rally further in Brazil’s favor, or whether much of the impact of Bolsonaro has already been priced in following the primary result.

The emerging markets investor Jean Van de Walle offered a more nuanced look at the published economic plans of both Haddad and Bolsonaro, entitled: What is it that the foreign press doesn’t get about Brazil’s Bolsonaro?. After acknowledging Bolsonaro’s tendency towards “loose lip[pedness],” Mr. Van de Walle points to a sentiment shared by many Brazilians: the Workers Party’s presiding over a disastrous span where Brazil’s economy failed to capture the growth in emerging markets to the long-term benefit of the country. Through mismanagement (and corrupt usage) of state-run assets and growing indebtedness during their tenure, the PT has become synonymous with wasteful spending, uncompetitiveness, and corruption. And per Van de Walle’s analysis of the published plans of both candidates, “Haddad offers a continuation of the failed policies of the past without any explanation for why they would now work, while Bolsonaro hopes to bring about a complete break.” While Bolsonaro’s plan, focused on privatization, decentralization, and free market orthodoxy, is certainly far too extreme for any country, let alone one as complex as Brazil, it is easy to see how the financial markets, where capital famously has no ideology, would pit their short-term bets on Bolsonaro’s ability to create a short-term turnaround bolstered by this market confidence.

However, as the New York Times and The Economist have pointed out, Brazil’s growing deficit and public debt loads and to-date unaddressed needs for pension and tax reform are creating a looming fiscal cliff, whereby Brazilian could reach 100% of GDP and trigger a recession. If no action is taken to reduce Brazil’s pension obligation by 2020, any gains over the next year or so would disappear, and Brazil would likely lose all investor confidence. Bolsonaro’s desire, and subsequent ability to push through these deeply unpopular reforms through a Congress where he will have few formal alliances will quickly prove Bolsonaro’s ability to effectively make difficult decisions that extend beyond mere rhetoric.

Meanwhile, as I speculated in my post on US/Brazil ties in the event of a Bolsonaro Presidency, Bolsonaro has begun to ramp up his rhetoric against the Chinese, signaling a likely cozying up to the United States following his election. Per Reuters in a fascinating analysis of Chinese-Brazilian relations, China is now scrambling to position themselves as a continued partner to the Brazilians and trying to sure up an annual $75B bilateral trade agreement. No doubt leery of many of the short-sighted trades of capital in exchange for control offered up by many emerging markets, Bolsonaro has positioned himself against Chinese involvement in Brazilian infrastructure investment, stating in a recent interview that: “China isn’t buying in Brazil, China is buying Brazil! Are you going to leave our energy in the hands of the Chinese?”

Considering his plans to privatize much of Brazil’s state-run energy sector, Bolsonaro is already sending a mixed message to the international investor community. Whether his rhetoric against China is a strategic attempt to woo the Americans, or an indication that Bolsonaro plans to pursue a Trump-esque nationalist trade strategy of alienating friends and enemies alike remains to be seen, but in either case runs counter to the economic orthodoxy of his supposedly deputized Minister Guedes. Either way, one has to feel some level of sympathy for Chinese class of diplomats and political and trade advisors, who will now have another confounding leader on the global stage, adding to what I’m sure has been a dizzying few years.

On “Nardis and the Curious History of a Jazz Obsession”

In an (long-time, ongoing) attempt to shift from consuming less to reflecting more, I’m hoping to start a new weekly routine, which I’m calling (working title) the best thing I read all week.

While I read tens of articles / news stories / blog posts every week, I end up forgetting most of them hours later, let alone retaining them by the end of the week and beyond.

However, every once in a while there’s an article / podcast / “thing” that completely captures my attention and engages me in an intellectual and oftentimes surprising way. Those are the articles that I hope to highlight here, once a week.

Hopefully, by intentionally singling out a single essay / article for attention and reflection, I can more closely hone in on what’s meaningful to me, and simultaneously spend less time trying to stay on top of the endless news/newsletter cycles.

At the very least, I’ll end up sending less of these articles to my family and friends directly via email, which I’m sure they’ll appreciate.

Broken Time: “Nardis” and the Curious History of a Jazz Obsession, by Steve Silberman

The article takes on two separate forms, woven masterfully: a profile of Bill Evans, one of the most enigmatic jazz musicians ever (saying something, as every jazz player seems to have their own idiosyncrasies) and a personal essay on the author’s “full-on musical obsession:” the jazz standard “Nardis,” which was written (though never recorded) by Miles Davis but popularly performed by Evans throughout his career.

Silberman covers Evans’ arrival onto the jazz scene playing with Miles Davis as a white musician in a then-black-dominated jazz world, onto his formation of the Bill Evans Trio, and his descent and ultimate demise from drug addiction. Incredible stories are interspersed throughout, including Miles’ initial recognition of Evans (“I know that motherfucker”), his initiation into Miles’ band, the legendary sessions behind Explorations and the Village Vanguard Recordings, and the last chapters of his life, where he was penniless and strung out, yet still seeking out inspiration and pushing the boundaries of his craft.

The author’s background as a science writer focused on the brain and autism provides a unique lens into the work of Bill Evans, who is considered an especially cerebral player. As the author describes, Evans demonstrated a “nearly mystical immersion in the music: a state of pure, undistracted concentration.” While many of his contemporaries grew more frenetic, skittish, and fast-paced in their explorations of free jazz and fusion, Evans’ playing remained meditative and almost-methodical, seemingly seeking out a ‘zen’-like state through his playing. Per Evans himself: “it’s more the mind ’that thinks jazz’ than the instrument ‘that plays jazz’ which interests me.”

In addition, the piece is a study of the act of interpretation, re-interpretation, study, and homage. The author has become something of a scholar of ‘Nardis’ as a piece of performance art, dutifully cataloging and ranking his favorite versions of the song, which span genres as wide-ranging as Latin Jazz and ska. Silberman’s top two versions of Nardis are two different Evans recordings, followed by a gypsy guitar version by Ralph Towner, and then Richard Beirach’s epic version (which sounds very much in the vein of Kamasi Washington). In his drive to understand the song and its enduring appeal to the musicians who’ve played it, Silberman goes to lengths to speak to some of the more inspired interpreters, asking for their own favorite versions of the tune.

Throughout the magic of music streaming catalogs, over one hundred of these versions are conveniently (mostly) available via Spotify, which I’ve compiled below (yet unranked):

The author masterfully weaves his own personal relationship with Nardis with Bill Evans’ relationship with the song, which remained a standard tune played at Evans’ gigs until his death. Despite its mainstay status, Nardis became a vehicle for Evans’ experimentation, including “unusual harmonies, dissonant lines, [and] spontaneous themes.” Later in Evans’ life, as he openly struggled with heroin followed by cocaine addiction (heartbreakingly dubbed the “longest suicide in history” by jazz critic Gene Lees), Nardis was played night-after-night. Up until his death, Evans’ mental energy focused on continued exploration into the depths of jazz music, even as his body increasingly succumbed to its chemical dependencies. Silberman again: “”Nardis” became [Evans’] way of projecting himself into the future–of conjuring another resurrection out of the sheer force of his craft.”

In many ways, “Nardis” is a story of Jazz’s ongoing struggle of breaking through convention while staying true to its founding principles and roots that continues to alienate, frustrate, and captivate fans of jazz, including myself.

After discovering Blue Trane and Kind of Blue as a eager 14-year-old, I remember my frustration with my inability to find things that resembled these two melodically pleasing masterworks. In my mind, jazz followed a single convention: one or two leading horns playing leads and alternating solos with a backing rhythm section keeping time. Over time, led by a continued exploration into these two masters’ discography and continued exploration, as well as my own journey through the catalogs of Blue Note, Impulse, Black Jazz, Atlantic, Colombia and plenty of others, my tastes, as well as my appetites, expanded.

Beyond merely seeking to enjoy the music, I began to try and understand it: its evolution, the setting and context behind the recordings, and their relative importance to jazz music. Each of these musicians, while mostly uniformly trained, underwent their own personal evolutions and explorations deeper into the music. Throwing on a random song by Cecil Taylor, Roland Kirk, Albert Ayler, or Sun Ra might leave listeners confounded by what they are listening to, but with a bit of historical context and background, one might find themselves inspired, or at the very least provoked into thought.

I continue to marvel at jazz’s refusal to sit still, with each era mixing in new ideas and fusing with other music to expand conceptions of the genre, led by 70s jazz fusion like Bitches Brew and On the Corner, the 80s jazz downturn and its adoption of disco and dance music, the 90s revival, led by the Marsalis family, as well as the funk-laden stylings of Maceo Parker or Roy Hargrove, into the 2000s hip hop-infused work of Robert Glasper. At the same time, each era has its own share of with its own series of radicals and pioneers, requiring the listener to try and engage with what they are listening to (try if you don’t believe me, or some of ECM’s catalog). In short, the spirit of Bill Evans lives on, not only through new interpretations of “Nardis,” but also via the unabated exploration of jazz by its practitioners.

Expectations for Bolsonaro, Trump, and US/Brazilian Ties

Brian Winter from Americas Quarterly (my former intern-employer!) wrote a useful explainer entitled What to Expect from Jair Bolsonaro. It’s a realistic and useful look at what’s to come in the wake of Bolsonaro’s likely 2nd round election on October 28th. Underlying this likelihood, the first DataFolha polling released post-Round 1 has Bolsonaro winning 58% of the vote.

One aspect of the article that I left uncovered in my last post was Bolsonaro’s likely impact on US-Brazilian relations, and the expectation that he will firmly tether himself and his policies to Trump’s.

Per Winter:

Bolsonaro’s team has held meetings with U.S. officials in recent months – common practice during campaigns – and made clear that if elected he will be an exceptionally loyal ally on foreign policy. “It’s like (Washington) made a list of what it wants from Brazil, and they read that list back word for word,” said one person with knowledge of the discussions.

Indeed, you may have to go back to the “carnal relations” of Argentine President Carlos Menem during the 1990s to find a South American government that aligned so enthusiastically with Washington. What does it mean in practice? A much tougher line against Venezuela (and Cuba), full cooperation on anti-drug issues, the possible move of Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, and enthusiastic support for Washington at the United Nations and other international bodies.

While alignment on these mostly US-centric policy goals may seem like minimal concessions to a country historically unconcerned with regional, let alone international policy, I’m especially curious to see if Bolsonaro will join Trump in its actions against China, which I believe is a much trickier tightrope to walk, given China’s existing entrenchment in the country.

It’s not impossible to imagine the US and Brazil joining forces in their economic strategy towards the Chinese. As I’ve written in the past (Trump, China, and the Americas – Part 1 and Part 2, and US/LatAm policy update) Trump’s distance and general incoherence towards a foreign policy in Latin American has created a vacuum that the Chinese has eagerly begun to exploit, propping up supportive, autocratic leaders via investment and long-term loans in exchange for access to land, consumers to purchase Chinese products, and benefits to Chinese soft power in a part of the world traditionally dominated by United States influence.

However, Bolsonaro’s ascendance may have essentially solved Trump’s LatAm problem for him – if President Bolsonaro completely parrots the US stance towards the rest of the world, and especially its antipathy or conflict-seeding towards China, a substantial wedge would be created in Latin America, where most of the countries are connected via free trade agreements. A muscular Brazil aligned with the US seeking to exercise its will as a regional power could force smaller Latin American countries to renegotiate trading terms with China, and fall in line with the new Brazilian order.

In the process, Trump/Bolsonaro and their respective trade and finance ministers could also set the stage for a US-Brazil free trade agreement along the lines of similar agreements recently signed with our Asian allies (useful explainer on Trump’s trade ‘strategy’ here per the NYTimes: Trump’s Trade Strategy is Coming into Focus). While likely inconsequential for Trump, I imagine this would prove incredibly popular in Brazil, where consumers routinely pay exorbitant markups on electronics and other imported goods, making Brazil the most expensive place to buy an iPhone in the world. Even Brazilians wholly unconcerned with politics would likely laud this accomplishment as a tangible result of Bolsonaro’s tenure and further his popularity in the country.

Winter concludes that Bolsonaro’s cozying to Trump is likely to result in less US (and international) criticism for extrajudicial killings and torture, as well as other actions that fall outside of the constitution or broader Democratic norms. If Trump’s defense of actions by Putin, Kim Jong-un, Duerte, and other leaders is any indication, this is a fairly safe assumption to make, and a dangerous outcome for a country that will become increasingly in need of international watchdogs and accountability.

For Bolsonaro and Trump, the likely election result seems like a win-win – in exchange for his fealty to Trump (something that Trump is sure to appreciate), Bolsonaro is likely to receive cozier economic terms and increased bilateral trade as a bulwark against China. In the process, there will be ample invitations to the White House, and plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his leadership in the country, region, and broader international landscape (something Lula unsuccessfully tried to do via quixotic mediations on the Iranian nuclear program, socialist/capitalist relations in Cuba, Venezuela, etc.)

For the “Brazilian Trump,” as he’s increasingly being labelled, Trump himself represents a gift-wrapped reset for the two countries, and vice-versa for the Donald. What a world.

Brazilian Elections Update – The people’s will: a Face-off between 2 polarizing candidates

Over what was a relatively slow news weekend considering our daily newscycle whiplash, the world turned its attention to the first round of the Brazilian elections, which took place on Sunday (10/07). Even John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight turned his attention to the state of affairs in Brazil, which is both a useful summary and much more entertaining than what you’ll read below.

If you’re still with me and eager to catch-up, here’s a quick round-up of my election-related posts over the past months:

Just to toot my own horn a bit, here’s my take back in March, three months into my time in Brazil:

As familiar as this story [Bolsonaro] sounds, the Brazilian people that I’ve spoken with aren’t yet convinced of the inevitable ascendance of Bolsonaro. As if seeking to validate my hypothesis on the ability of outsiders to evaluate a political temperature, they claim that cooler / more sensible heads will prevail, and that a more palatable, middle-of-the-round candidate (such as former Governor of Sao Paulo Geraldo Alckmin, or former Governor of Ceara Ciro Gomes) will rise above the fray to become the next President of Brazil, as if asking a populace to eat its vegetables, as opposed to the more immediate and attractive short-term “sweets” of Bolsonaro – the law and order, by any means necessary, candidate. To me, this seems like an inevitable outcome and a continuation of the global populist trend.

I’m oftentimes reluctant to offer predictions with any level of certainty, given my conviction in the occurrence of Black Swans and the reality that in fact no one really knows much, but in this case, considering my status as an outsider looking in, I feel like this diagnosis is appropriate. Regardless, an exciting year to come.

While there has certainly been a great deal of twists and turns since March, the economy has remained sluggish, with extremely high rates of unemployment and unabated and alarming crime statistics. Several weeks ago, the Financial Times published a series of helpful charts that contextualized much of the malaise felt by Brazilians leading up to the Presidential elections, entitled In charts: what is bothering the Brazilians?.

While not copying at risk of reproach from FT’s draconian copyright policies, the highlights include:

  • An unemployment rate in excess of 12%, the highest in Brazil’s recent history (since 1984)
  • A country whose GDP contracted 7% from 2015-16 and continues to slowly recover from its worst recession in history, levels unseen since the pre-Real days of hyperinflation in the 1980s and early 90s (another plug for this enjoyable NYTimes op-ed on the topic)
  • Over 64k ‘intentional’ and documented homicides over the past year, a number that exceeds the United States and all of Europe combined (h/t John Oliver for the comparison)

Combine these depressing statistics with Operation Car Wash, and it is easy to see why Brazilians are so disgusted with the state of affairs in the country, leading about 85% of voters to conclude that the country is heading in the wrong direction. The wide-ranging investigation into political corruption implicated most of Brazil’s ruling political class and leading political parties, namely the Workers Party (PT) (home to the now-jailed Lula), the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB, President Michel Temer’s party) and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), as well as several of its prized private and private-public sector enterprises, including Odebrecht (construction), Petrobras (oil & gas), and JBS (meat) in graft, bribery, and corruption that totals in the tens of billions.

Amid these circumstances, Bolsonaro’s first round supremacy, where he captured somewhere around 46% of the vote (just short of the 50% threshold for outright victory) is hardly surprising. In a now all-too familiar story, despite Bolsonaro’s lack of access to the typical political organization and traditional campaign tools (including the support of a political party and minimal representation on tv ads), he was able to achieve a massive victory. Using social media (the NYTimes amazingly reported that Bolsonaro spent just $235,000 in support of his campaign, against Haddad / PT’s $6.3M), specifically Facebook and Whataspp, to spread political memes and personal messages directly to the electorate, Bolsonaro was able to build a broad coalition of individuals young and old and across the country (excluding the North East). Like Trump and as a seven-term representative, Bolsonaro was hardly an outsider, but he sold himself as incorruptible and unconnected to the political class, which is technically true, given his limited record of actual Congressional legislative success.

Brazilian voter dissatisfaction did not merely extend to the Presidential elections. Impeached President Dilma Rousseff, who continues to be seen as a martyr by her supporters after being impeached from office in 2016, was romped in a senatorial election in her local Minas Gerais that she was expected to win on name recognition alone. Former Environmental Minister Marina Silva, who won over 21% of the vote in the 2014 elections, received just 1% of the 1st round vote, just shy over 1m votes. To the delight of most Brazilian voters, many of the mainstream politicians have been thoroughly rebuked.

As the world is beginning to notice via the #EleNao campaign and international election coverage, Bolsonaro is a well documented homophobe, misogynist, and racist, as well as a former military commander who expresses sympathy for the torture-laden military dictatorship regime that led Brazil for more than 20 years. In one of the world’s largest (and relatively young – just since 1988!) democracies, a man who is being likened to Trump (somewhat simplistically), and more recently to Hungarian President Viktor Orbán and Filipino President Rodrigo Duerte for his populist and authoritarian bent is just three weeks away from assuming the Presidency.

The always-fascinating Robert Muggah of the Instituto Igarapé, a Brazilian think-tank, wrote an op-ed piece in the NYTimes that I think is a useful summary of the uphill climb that Brazil must undergo over the next years, which will only be further complicated by Bolsonaro inevitable election. Trust in politicians, whether at the local, state, or national level, is as low as it’s ever been, which is part of Bolsonaro’s appeal. His solutions are extragovernmental, or overly simplistic so as to ignore the political process.

His challenger, the PT’s Fernando Haddad, winner of 29.3% of the vote, represents a party that was at the forefront of much of the graft and corruption that has made Brazil a source of national embarrassment, and continues to be maligned by much of the Brazilian populace.

The New Republic optimistically posted an article in the wake of the first round results, entitled The Man Standing Between Brazil and Authoritarianism. In the coming weeks, I believe we’ll see many such articles imploring Brazilian voters to unite around Haddad as the lesser of two evils. Unfortunately, I believe this article, and the hopeful opinions of many are too optimistic about Haddad’s chances. While I believe the economist and University Professor Haddad is much more of a centrist than he lets on (or at least hardly the radical communist his detractors paint him as), his party has chosen to tether him directly to the jailed Lula, rather than trying to offer any nuance to the Brazilian electorate. As lampooned in John Oliver report (and personally seen in campaign posters), the Workers’ Party has essentially created a situation where Haddad is a glorified Lula ‘stooge,’ as the Party has tried to capitalize on the jailed former President’s popularity rather than actually try and field a differentiated candidate.

Two interesting graphs shared by economist and Linkedin commentator Ricardo Amorim contextualize the ubiquity between Haddad, Lula, and the Workers’ Party, and the PT’s decline in popularity, and continued stronghold on the Northeast region of Brazil. As many point out, Lula’s tenure saw millions of Brazilians brought out of poverty, both via macroeconomic headwinds and as recipients of Lula’s most famous government program that won plaudits around the world, the cash-for-school attendance Bolsa Familia.

Graph one:  The States (in red) where the Workers’ Party won the majority in the First Round

pt_graph_one

Graph two:  The % of the population (per State) who participate in the Bolsa Familia financial assistance program:

pt_graph_two

As seen by the lower proportions in the South and Southeast regions of Brazil, it is not hard to see how resentment has been stoked by the right-wing Bolsonaro against the PT and the North East, leading to further division and a stark choice between the right-wing Bolsonaro and leftist Haddad. Playing into this false dichotomy, the Brazilian real and stock exchange (up 5%) were strongly positive today, indicating a clear-preference for Bolsonaro’s simplistic calls for privatization and market friendly policies, and his temporary deputization of the economy to the Chicago-educated Paulo Guedes. For those in the US reading this – remember Gary Cohn?

In a country with tens of political parties, it is hardly surprising to see the second round results pit the anti-party Bolsonaro (with 50% disapproval ratings) against the entrenched Workers’ Party (with 50% disapproval ratings). Unfortunately, most centrist voters who voted for other candidates in the first round are likely to opt for Bolsonaro over the Workers’ Party. The socialist failure of Venezuela is at the forefront of the minds of many, and given the pandering / squandering of the Dilma Rousseff regime (Lula’s successor from the Workers’ Party), with its political corruption, redistribution of wealth, and mismanagement of government-run businesses.

As the Economist summarizes in an article alarmingly entitled Brazil is shaping up for a unique kind of financial crisis, the next President of Brazil will have to tame an ever-increasing government spending situation, including a bloated pension system that will only continue to grow (now at 55% of public spending). As the Magazine notes, an inability to adequately address the fiscal deficit and indebtedness in the 2020 Budget will spell near-collapse, and certain capital flight, a falling currency and rising bond yields.

This is the situation that the next Brazilian President will inherit. Outsider or not, we will soon see the result of the will of the Brazilian people, and its downstream impact. In typical lighthearted yet dour Brazilian fashion, all I can say is that it won’t be boring, and will continue to be educational.

Capsule Reviews: July – October 2018

For whatever reason, I’ve worked my way mid-way through a ton of books recently, without the urge to finish them, let alone write about them.

Below I’m going to attempt to share some thoughts and capsule-reviews of some of those books:

Thoreau’s Walden and Civil Disobedience

walden

I initially started this book over the summer while on vacation in the American West (along with the more readable Fourth of July Creek). After making a significant dent in it from Montana to Colorado, I’ve plodded through it since. I still have a bit left to go in Walden before embarking on Civil Disobedience (reading the Penguin Classics compilation of the two).

My primary impression of reading Walden was Thoreau’s attempts at rationalization, followed by a personal sense of recognition.

The first third of Walden almost reads as a letter written by a runaway to their loved ones: Thoreau explaining his decision to “leave it all behind,” foregoing the busybody grind of 19th century Massachusetts by selling his possessions and squatting on Walden Pond, where he constructed his own home and created a new way of life for himself. Thoreau seems almost too self-assured, convincing himself as much as the reader of the rightness of his decisions.

Early in my reading of Walden, I felt compelled to research a very specific fact about Thoreau. Reading Walden felt very familiar: his disillusionment with the ‘real’ world, his desire to find meaning in the day-to-day, and his fatigue with keeping up with the news. Sure enough, Thoreau was 28 when he embarked on his journey (though Walden wasn’t actually published until 1854, 10 years [and 10 drafts] later.) Being 28 myself, I couldn’t help but feel kindred in Thoreau’s desire to take stock of his post-schooling life, evaluate the social contract of American adulthood, extract meaning from the mundane, and set out on a path of intention, observation, and discipline.

We Cast a Shadow, by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

shadow

Ruffin’s debut novel is a satire on race in America in the vein of Paul Beatty. My girlfriend, an astute observer of my reading habits, sent me a copy of the galley in advance of the January publishing date (for One World!)

The book has a lot going for it: it creates a cutting postmodern New Orleans / Louisiana dystopia, stratified and segregated in a way recognizable all too reminiscent its past (both historic and more recent), even present. In addition, the protagonist is a credible picture of a striving careerist enduring daily humiliation and a slow degradation of his identity and past as a Black Man.

However, my struggles with the book fall under the fine line(s) between satire, humor, and fiction: a delicate balance between incisive commentary and humor while still advancing the story and creating well-rounded and multi-dimensional characters. The book is enjoyable, but I find the balance a bit overdone on the former at the expense of the latter.

Diary of the Fall, by Michael Laub

diary

 

I’m trying to make a meaningful effort to read more Brazilian / Latin American fiction while in Brazil, a habit that I’m sure will only be realized when I eventually return from the region. This effort is complicated by the fact that a large majority of Brazilian fiction isn’t translated into English, with the exception of a few modern authors (Daniel Galera, Chico Buarque), and the classics (Lispector, Amado, de Assis, etc.) I haven’t taken the brave leap to try and read in Portuguese, which will only open up my world to the vast universe of Brazilian literature.

Michael Laub’s Diary of the Fall is a slim book translated by Vintage in the UK based in incredibly familiar territory: it is an autobiographical novel written by the grandchild of Jewish immigrants and Holocaust survivors that touches on the protagonist’s experience growing up among Jews and non-Jews: first in a private Jewish school, and then at public Middle and High Schools. Replace Brazil with the United States, and the book’s set pieces could be my own.

The book is ingeniously weaves together the divide between subsequent generations, beginning with the Grandfather’s immigration to Porto Alegre (Southern Brazil) following the War, his father’s experience witnessing his father’s retreat into his memories, and the protagonist’s experience as a grandchild of survivors. The book mirrors the journals kept by the protagonist’s grandfather, both early in life via his documentation of his new home in an attempt to learn Portuguese and adapt to his new surroundings, and later in life as a cataloging of his Holocaust experiences. Both experiences were kept in journals that were discovered by subsequent generations to inherit and attempt to understand.

The book is a beautiful depiction of families across generations, and questions our inherited identity over time. One of the beautiful things about reading non-American fiction is the ability to draw parallels to other’s experiences around this world. It was especially rewarding to read an experience so close to my own, one that truly could have been my own if not for the fates of our grandfathers, choosing new homes and building new lives in foreign places.

Meaningful Work: A Quest to Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul, by Shawn Askinosie

meaningful

As covered in a previous post, I continue to seek out opportunities to learn more about coffee in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer. While my enthusiasm remains unabated, I was kindly reminded by one of Brazil’s foremost coffee entrepreneurs that the coffee industry involves many different individual stages: cultivation, production, exporting, etc. One of my goals for the coming months is to build my understanding of the coffee trade, especially the commercial ties between the US and Brazil, and try and seek out opportunities to get involved to jumpstart my learning further.

Meaningful Work is an attempt to better understand how the practice of ‘direct’ trade works – the process of sourcing inputs directly from the producers themselves. In his book, Shawn Askinosie tells the story of waking up as a mid-40s criminal defense attorney to discover his inherent dissatisfaction with his job, and his desire for a true mission, a ‘vocation.’ Over the next few years, Shawn created Askinosie Chocolate, a speciality chocolate manufacturer that sources its chocolate from Tanzanian, Filipino, and Ecuadorian cocoa. Askinoise Chocolate grew from Shawn’s experience at a monastery, where he leaned into his sorrow following the death of his father, and his commitment to improving the lives of others for the second half of his career.

What makes Askinosie special is its committment to its communities, both in the local Missouri area where his operations reside, and the international communities where he sources his raw materials, and his work in tying those far-flung locales together. Through local investment and more specific, human-focused efforts (fellowships, planned trips, etc.), Askinosie tries to convince readers of the need to find fulfillment in one’s work, and how to seek out opportunities to improve one’s workplace and communities in any company.

The book is a convincing management book as well as a useful resource for those interested in getting involved in direct trade, or starting any business. It’s a useful reminder to emphasis our connection as humans above all, and not lose sight of our motivation and mission in pursuit of our ‘vocation.’

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas

winners

I initially came across this book from the Author’s podcast episode with Ezra Klein, as it covers a favorite topic of mine: exposing hypocrisies and illuminating the inner-workings of the powerful and much derided ‘elite.’

The book begins with a profile of a well-meaning recent college graduate pitted with the familiar challenge of trying to make the difficult decision between making a direct impact or succumbing to the argument increasingly made by the firms that recruit thousands of elite students across the world: gain the skills needed to ‘change the world’ in the finance or consulting industries, and figure the rest out down the line. The author points to the anxieties felt by the indebted millennial generation, and how these firms are seeking to blunt the transition into the ‘real world’ via ‘hiring classes,’ cohort trainings, and an established recruiting process. While this topic was blown into a full-length book by Kevin Roose (the underrated Young Money), the book’s strength is its ability to delve deeper into the underlying structures and systems that create this reality, versus Roose’s reportage.

The book targets its aim at a familiar punching bag: the so-called Davos ‘elite’ and the well-meaning but ultimately misguided or insufficient extra-governmental solutions for solving global issues. The author attends these multi-thousand-dollar conferences attended by the capitalist elite and rails against their use of language such as ‘revolutionary’ or ‘disruption,’ while serving as the source of much of the disruption in the first place.

However, as Klein gets at in his worthwhile interview with the author, aside from common prescriptions of more robust taxation of the rich and increased trust in government administration to solve problems, the book lacks many answers to match the increasingly common railings against inequality brought on by the tech industry and global capitalism. Then again, I enjoyed the incredibly relevant conversation and longer-form book.

Dream Big by Cristiane Correa

dream

For someone working in Brazil and keeping track of the players at the top of the private sector, the book serves as a useful guidebook, names like 3G Capital, BTG Pactual, ABInBev, Jorge Paulo Lemann, and Marcel Telles. The latter two, along with their partner, Carlos Sicupira, exploded onto the national stage with their purchase of Heinz (along with Warren Buffet), and subsequent purchase of Burger King. Few were aware that these titans were already the owners of the Belgian-Brazilian-American brewers Anheuser-Busch InBev.

Both purchases have gone on to even greater success via scale-building mergers (creating KraftHeinz and Restaurant Brands International [BK-Tim Hortons]), and have become well-known for their brutally efficient zero-based budgeting cost cutting, and the massive incentives paid out to successful managers to incentivize and retain top talent.

In the vein of Buffett’s classic biography The Snowball, the book is a hindsight-laden chronological look at early risks, mid-career failures, and corporate / boardroom dramas. The book does a reasonable job of demonstrating the source of their management philosophies, and the individuals characters that collectively equal 3G’s collective success. The book definitely drags a bit at points (as any book about corporate turnarounds is likely to do), but it’s a useful history for those interested in learning more about the Brazilian entrepreneurs in Buffet’s orbit.

Grant, by Ron Chernow

grant

 

Meanwhile, I’m also 14 hours into the 48-hour audiobook of Chernow’s Grant biography.

One takeaway that constantly fascinates me is Grant’s relatively late success in life. After a last-minute acceptance to West Point, where he was incorrectly recommended as Ulysses Grant and excelled alongside many future Civil War generals, and early heroics in the Mexican-American war, Grant spent much of his thirties poor and indebted, eventually working for his father’s leather goods store as a clerk.

It wasn’t until the Civil War that Grant’s skills as a military operator and strategic became highly relevant, and he rose within the ranks of the Union Army to become one of its foremost generals.

Chernow addresses Grant’s drinking from the book’s introduction onwards as a complicated, nuanced subject. Grant’s struggles with drinking are a recurring theme throughout the book, and the author contends with correspondence from Grant and those close to him chronicling his struggles with alcoholism.

While I have yet to make it through the Civil War and into his Presidency, I am enjoying the audio experience of the history genre, a sentiment shared by author Andre Dubus III in this week’s NYTimes Book Review By the Book

Refugees, Immigration, and You (and Me)

One of the (very few) upsides of living in a city with poor public transportation is the opportunity to converse with cab / Uber / ride sharing drivers. Unlike the unspoken rule of leaving everyone else alone on the subway / metro, cab drivers are normally eager to chat a bit, with limited refuge in the quieted radio, and a near-constant presence of traffic to slow things down further.

One particularly memory encounter of late via a hellacious 2-hour jaunt to the municipality of São Bernardo do Campo (onetime homebase of Lula, as well as the highly recommended Cantina do Zelão) to resolve some Brazilian bureaucratic nightmare and meeting a second-generation Japanese-Brazilian driver. He told me about his experience growing up in outer São Paulo alongside hundreds of other Japanese immigrants sent to Brazil, and we chatted about the baseball-playing Brazilian population, mostly of Japanese descent. This was a conversation I would’ve never had if not for the inviting nature of the cab ride chat.

Over the weekend, I took an all-too-short trip back to the United States to visit an ailing grandparent and help out however I could. My Uber driver back to JFK was named David, who informed me shortly after we set off on the 1.5-2 hour trip that his English wasn’t very good, as he was from Venezuela. Seizing the opportunity, we began chatting in Port-onhol-glish — a hybrid of the three languages which enabled us to understand one another.

The story that he shared with me was one that I was familiar with from the newspapers, but had never heard in person. David was a civil engineer in his native country, previously working on Caracas’ metro system. However, two years ago he fled his country, immigrating to the US and joining an Uncle of his wife’s in New Jersey. Along with David, many in his family had left Venezuela, dispersing across South America, the United States, and Europe, joining millions of others who have fled the failed state as its leader, Nicolas Maduro, continues to rob the country of its resources while creating civil, social, and fiscal disfunction.

As he shared stories of living with hyperinflation and empty supermarkets, rationing, starvation and senseless and pervasive violences, oftentimes crying or fighting tears, I began to reflect a bit on refugees and our common responsibility to the suffering of individuals succumbing to state failures across the world.I pushed David on some of the latest news out of Venezuela: who did he believe was behind the drone-bomb-assassination attempt against Maduro? (Maduro himself, who had previously regulated drone flight and seemingly orchestrated the parade for such an event.) What of Trump’s rumored support of a military coup against Maduro, and the United States’ history of supporting coups against democratically elected leaders in favor of military strongmen promoting stability and rooting out communist influence? As previously recounted, David pointed out that the military are just as corrupt as Maduro, and deeply involved in the illegal drug trade. Better to round them all up and start over, leaning on the pre-Chavez Venezuelan Constitution. Would he go back? In a heartbeat.

While I could hardly argue against David’s answers, I felt like answers to the situation were somehow incomplete (sidenote: useful editorial in the NYTimes for thinking through the situation.) In addition to driving for Uber, David had risen within the ranks of his day job to become a supervisor, and was building a life for his wife, two children, and himself in just two short years in the United States. But David was fortunate to have skills and a college education, and even luckier to know someone to support his immigration to the United States, and the means to get there. Millions of venezuelans are not as lucky, and are either stuck in the country (and starving) or fleeing to neighboring countries. In one example, after seeing hundreds of Venezuelans crossing the border into the quiet Brazilian town of Pacaraima over the past year+, and given support by the Brazilian government, the citizens of the town pushed back against the massive influx of Venezuelans and their strain on the small town, destroying migrant camps and other acts of violence against the Venezuelans trying to survive.

Across the world, refugees seem as unwelcome as they’ve ever been. Nicaraguans fleeing the right wing repressive regime of Daniel Ortega have flooded into Costa Rica, leading to more than 200 asylum cases per day. Today, Nicaraguans make up 1/10 of all people in Costa Rica, putting strain on the country and its civic systems. Hundreds of thousands of other Central Americans have fled violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, mostly heading north via Mexico to the United States, and meeting President Trump’s no tolerance policy towards the border (short of an actual wall.)

As This American Life exposed in an incredibly powerful and informative episode called Let Me Count the Ways, Trump is not only trying to limit immigration via US’ Southern border. Refugees from Haiti, Syria, Sudan, and other war- and weather-stricken parts of the world, and even talented STEM workers (yes, the “best and brightest”) have been turned away from the United States through well-oiled US immigration routes, met with Trump-appointed bureaucrats empowered to delay, obfuscate, and generally make the United States a less welcoming place to those in need.

Unfortunately, this anti immigrant environment is far from limited to the United States. In Sweden, notoriously one of the most refugee-friendly countries in the world (welcoming 163,000 Syrians in 2015 alone), the misleadingly folksy, “keep Sweden Swedish” far-right Sweden Democrats party has grown into a formidable political force, forcing one of the country’s more moderate political parties to build a coalition with a party with Neo-Nazi roots, lest the centre-right and left band together (gasp.) Across Europe, from Germany’s emboldened Alternative for Germany, to France’s National Front and Italy’s Five Star Movement, we are seeing a widespread backlash against refugees, and immigration in general.

I have many more question than answers in this post, but I’m left contemplating the stark reality that in today’s society, with global warming continuing apace and natural disasters damaging cities and claiming lives across the world, how the world will accommodate the continued (and likely growing) influx of refugees with compassion for their hardships, and recognition for the passion, intelligence, and perseverance, not to mention skills, that these people are bringing to their adopted countries. People like my Uber driver, David, and millions of others.

Latest Polling and Pension Paralyzation in Brazil

One continued theme of my analysis of the Brazilian Presidential election has been the parallels between the insurgency of Trump in the United States, and the continued rise of Bolsonaro in Brazil. In both cases, the candidates have been able to leverage their status as outsiders to the political system, general dissatisfaction with the status quo within the electorate, and a general weakness / unlikeability among mainstream candidates to their advantage. Both candidates have been doubted for their ability to win over female and minorities voters based on unhinged campaign comments, and for their inability to competently govern if/once elected.

The main difference between the two candidates is their likelihood of being elected – while Trump was seen as a long shot even on election night, Bolsonaro has managed to capture the vacuum from Lula’s ineligibility and fracturing among the left to take the lead in the polls, and is now seen as a near-certainty to make it past the October 7th first round and into the second round of the Presidential election.

Late last week, the Folha de Sao Paulo released its latest polling data from its research apparatus, Datafolha and another data company, IBOPE, the first credible polls released since Bolsonaro’s stabbing in early September (covered last week).

For the first time (that I’ve seen), the data is broken out to provide a clear picture of the Brazilian electorate and their preferences by sex, age, race, region, education level, and wealth. The data provides an surprising picture of Bolsonaro supporters, and some similarities and other breaks from the parallels seen between Trump and Bolsonaro and their assumption to the Presidency.

Per exit polling that has since become canonized by op-ed reporters, analysts, and aspiring bestselling authors since, Trump was able to take the White House on a coalition of voters that leaned male, older, and white. Indicators along education and wealth followed one’s race – both poorer and less educated and richer and college-educated whites leaned Trump, while poorer, richer, educated, and uneducated non-Whites alike overwhelmingly voted for Hillary. Trump dominated among catholics and evangelicals / protestants, while Hilary was even stronger among Jews, Muslims, and atheists / non-practicing individuals. The data demonstrates that US partisanship and division is as strong as ever, and drawn along very clear-cut lines: age, race and religion.

Surprisingly, the polling data seems to indicate the Bolsonaro has managed to create a wider and more diverse coalition than the left/right divide in the United States:

  • Sex: Bolsonaro dominates among men (35%), but also boast a much smaller %, but still leading % of female voters (18%)
  • Race: While Bolsonaro dominates among ‘white’ Brazilian voters, growing to upwards of 35% of the vote in the past week, Bolsonaro also leads among ‘black’/’brown’ voters (22%) and ‘others’ (20%), widening his lead in each category over the past week.
  • Age: Interestingly, Bolsonaro has managed to capture the imagination of voters across all age groups, from as young as 16-24 (28% of the vote) to voters 55 and over (26%)
  • Education level: Bolsonaro has a slight advantage among less educated voters (19%), but a surprisingly large lead (29%) among the electorate with a ‘superior’ level of education, referring to college educated voters
  • Income: Bolsonaro narrowly leads among a crowded group for poorer voters, while his support grows as income levels grow – reaching 35% for individuals making 5x the minimum monthly salary
  • Region: With the exception of the Northeast, long seen as a stronghold for the Workers’ Party and Lula (though interestingly Ciro Gomes, not Lula’s handpicked successor, Fernando Haddad, leads), Bolsonaro carries the other regions of the country, with as much as 37% of the vote in the generally whiter, more religious, and more conservative South region of the country
  • Religion: Among evangelicals, catholics, and ‘others,’ Bolsonaro leads. While Trump managed to attract Evangelicals for lack of a better option, it is interesting that Bolsonaro leads ahead of Marina Silva, an outspoken Evangelical herself.

As expected, the stabbing seemed to underline the message that has continued to resonate among Bolsonaro voters – the need to reign in public safety and security ahead of all other considerations in the country — the economy, education, etc.

One interesting wrinkle that helps explain some of this data was covered in detail this weekend as part of the Financial Times’ ‘Big Read’ section: ‘Robin Hood in reverse’: the crisis in the Brazilian state.

As the article explains, Brazil is an incredibly unique country for the stark contrast between its  tax levying apparatus and tax rates that rival developed countries like the United States and United Kingdom, and government services, investment spending, and economic / social indicators comparable to poorer countries across the development world. At the core of this juxtaposition is its incredibly bloated, inefficient and unfair pension system, consuming 23% of GDP.

As deftly recounted in Michael Reid’s book Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power (reviewed here), Brazil has long mismanaged its investment spending, concentrating its focus on public universities (free for attendees), military spending, and lofty infrastructure projects (most famously the World Cup and Olympics), while ignoring more fundamental education, healthcare, and infrastructure investments. In the process, Brazilian public-sector, civil, and military servants have created an increasingly bloated and unstable pension system, making any course correction or investment reallocation extremely difficult.

Even Michel Temer, whose unpopularity gave him a mandate to shore up some of Brazil’s most intractable and democratically difficult competitiveness issues, was unable to push through any changes to the pension system, which understandably continues to be the most politically toxic issue in Brazil.

While the US and UK concentrate its income transfers to the poorer classes through systems such as welfare and social security (92% to the poorest 10% in the UK, versus 2% for the richest 10%), just 31% of all income transfers go to the poorest 10% in Brazil, while a comparatively ridiculous 23% go to the richest 10%. Even more egrigiously, in state pension systems 53% of income transfers go to the richest 20%, with an embarrassing 2.5% going to the poorest 20%.

As a NYTimes investigation back in 2015 explains, the average retirement age in Brazil is 54, and many early retirees manage to collect full pensions for the remainder of their lives. Through commonly-known loopholes and Brazilian laws, oftentimes spouses and families of former civil servants and military servicepeople are able to collect pension benefits even after the receipt has passed away. Politicians and judges have long been seen as the most lucrative recipients of the pension system estimated to earn $4,000 – $6,000 per month on average by the FT.

As the FT article explains further, crony capitalism limits tax receipts to government-affiliated companies and others through a series of well-intentioned (but unrealistic) legislation initiatives, incentives and loopholes, has placed an undue tax burden on relatively poorer individuals, who do not benefit from the incentives given to small- and medium-sized businesses. Brasilia-based special interest groups serve to perpetuate these benefits and loopholes, deploying their electorate and pocketbook power to protest any changes to the existing system.

In the process, Brazil has seemingly copied the US income-based taxation system and the Chinese example of state-led encouragement of industrialization through tax benefits and incentives, and combined it with a Scandinavian approach to labor laws and a Greek pension system. The result is a system that “already consumes more than 90 per cent of the federal budget and, if nothing changes, will reach 120 per cent in the next decade.”

Bolsonaro, as a former member of the military and neither an economist nor a(n) (experienced) politician, has demonstrated little will to change the lucrative pension system nor any of the other existing loopholes, likely winning him significant support among Brazil’s vast civil service and aging electorate, akin to Trump and Clinton’s (and every US Presidential hopeful in recent memory) insistence that they will not touch the faltering and unsustainable US social security system.

Rozane Siqueira, a professor of economics at the Federal University of Pernambuco, has coined this system “Robin Hood in reverse,” whereby the rich are inordinately rewarded relative to the poor.

When Siqueira was asked why are the poor not out in the streets in protest of these gross inequities, she responded: “That’s a question I ask myself. It’s shocking.”

Sam Hinkie and the Future of Reading

Yesterday, former Sixers GM (and savior / saint in the eyes of many), current Stanford GSB Professor and investor Sam Hinkie launched his personal website with an encouraging welcome: “Hi. You’re in the right spot.”

The rest of the landing page was filled with ideas, or “side projects,” that he’s been mulling over and shared with the internet public. His entreaty was fairly simple: “Shoot me some thoughts — or even better a prototype or design — I’d love to hear from you.”

Many of the ideas surrounded books and reading, including an engine to personalize book recommendations (with the complementary quote: “Life is too short to not be reading the very best book you’re aware of at every given moment.”), “explainer” videos for books, and companion pieces to written works (e.g., “Build companion pieces for people to explore Robert Caro’s writing in different ways. Like this visualization of Hamilton lyrics. Or a wiki-style set of source materials.”)

As someone with a lifelong passion for reading who has devoted his career to books via the publishing industry, my curiosity was immediately piqued, and I began compiling an email that drew on ongoing ruminations on books, publishing, reading and learning in our modern age.

I’m publishing my email in full (with some annotations / added hyperlinks) prior any response (and with no expectation of receiving one) to hold myself accountable to continuing to iterate and build on the ideas below.

In Hinkie-esque fashion, if any of this resonates with you, please feel free to reach out.

Hi Sam (& Team):

Thanks for opening up this dialogue – I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes of it.

My passion for reading and books in general led me to working in the publishing industry, where I’ve worked in a variety of strategic and financial roles at Penguin Random House since 2015.

One of the major takeaways that I’ve gained during my time at PRH is the fundamental economics of the publishing industry and the emphasis on the “frontlist” (i.e., books published over the last 12 months), at the expense of the vast fount of already-licensed/under-contract works published over the last 50-2000+ -odd years.

As a result, books filled with relevant and important perspectives, are unknown, or at best under-marketed, -exposed, and -utilized, and mostly floundering out of print or in need of a refresh. One immediately apparent example came out of your discussion with Patrick O’Shaughnessy – the Durant’s Lessons of History.

In addition, as you allude to in both your recommendation engine and explainer video prompts, the way people consume content at scale has changed dramatically over the past few years. While reading is certainly not going anywhere, and podcasts like Hardcore History and the continued double-digit growth of audiobooks are encouraging, the “knowledge” medium is undoubtedly moving shorter and towards video.

An idea that I’ve been thinking through over the past few months is how to translate the longform reading experience in such a way that allows for absorption, retention, and meaning, without the necessary time commitment to read “Lessons” (let alone the entire Civilization series), and minute-by-minute distraction that has become a reality in the developed world.

Along these lines, the “business”/self-help/motivational book market, little of which represents genuine innovation and much of which draws liberally from existing thinkers and texts, continues to be a gigantic market, second in “runaway” success capability to thrillers. The most recent example of this is Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules, but Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene have sold hundreds of thousands of copies following this formula.

I am thinking about a platform that would combine the recommendation engine and explainer concepts that would provide introductions / “on-ramps” to great ideas, books, thinkers, and concepts in a digestible and discuss-able format (akin to the weekly BBC show In Our Time, though more accessible and less British).

Would love to discuss further. Thanks Sam.