“Candles” by Daughter

“Candles” is the most recent song that I have taught myself on the guitar. I liked learning it because it wasn’t too easy, neither too hard. As always, I found that syncing the singing and the playing was the hardest part of the whole learning process.

Here is the original song. Daughter’s voice is very high, which was difficult for me to replicate. I tried my best but, can’t nail it perfectly.

In case you wonder, the video is dark because I filmed it in the morning. Unfortunately, I can’t really do anything about that.


Candles – Daughter

Here are other songs that I’ve learned:
– Don’t Know Why – Norah Jones
Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley


 

Patagonia

“Let My People Go Surfing”, Yvon Chouinard

“Let My People Go Surfing” is the most inspiring book I’ve read in a while. It was written by Yvon Chouinard, the founder and owner of Patagonia, Inc. Originally, the book was intended to be a philosophical manual for the company’s employees. But, to the surprise of everyone at Patagonia, it gained popularity, became a bestseller and succeeded in influencing people all over the world.

Personally, I stumbled upon “Let My People Go Surfing” because my dad was reading it. I knew of Patagonia before and have admired them since hearing about the way that they conduct business. However, I was unaware of there being a book about Patagonia, describing how Yvon runs his company. I was therefore thrilled to hear that “Let My People Go Surfing” existed.

Yes, for those who wonder, the book is definitely advertisement for the company. But, that doesn’t make reading it uninteresting. There’s a lot to learn from Patagonia. It’s an unconventional company that genuinely wants to do good in the world. If I ever start a company, Patagonia will definitely be the first one to pop into mind when in need of inspiration. They are, without a doubt, my favourite clothing company.

The part of the book that I particularly enjoyed was the one about Patagonia’s philosophies. I took notes while reading and made a short summary of what I found compelling here:

Notes:


  • Financial philosophy

    – Profit happens when “you do everything else right”. Making profit is therefore not even part of the company’s mission statement. The amount of good that the company can accomplish is more important.

    – A few of Patagonia’s unwritten rules regarding finance:

    1. No debt.
    2. Growth at a “natural rate”.
      The company grows when the products are constantly out-of-stock and customers are frustrated. Demand should not be created artificially by advertising for people that don’t need the products in the first place (such as advertising in the Vanity Fair for example).
      Why? Because it’s hard to keep the company running the way you want it to – without sacrificing core values – when it is growing very fast. “It’s easier to try to be the best small company than the best big company.”
    3. Transparency when dealing with the government.
      Even if it is possible to legally modify the reported earnings from one year to the next, this shouldn’t be done. Taxes should be paid with ‘honesty’.
    4. “Our intent is to remain a closely held private company, so we can continue to focus on our bottom line: doing good.”

  • Product design philosophy:

    The company strives to “make the best quality product” of its kind. Yvon believes that, contrary to taste, quality is objective. He developed a checklist of criteria that would help Patagonia’s designers develop quality products. Here is a small part of the checklist:

    1.  Is the product easy to care for/ clean? This is important because the postsale care of a clothing product has the environmental impact of as much as 4 times the entire manufacturing process.
    2. Is the product repairable? “A zipper should be sewn in to be easily replaced without the entire jacket having to be taken apart”.
    3. Is the product functional/ multifunctional? “Why buy two pieces of gear when one will do the work of two?”
    4. Does the product cause any unnecessary harm?
    5. Is the product as simple as possible? “Good design is as little design as possible”.
    6. (…)
  • Product design philosophy – personal thoughts

Creating quality products is extremely important for Patagonia. I love that this isn’t tied to profit. The company will, for example, repair clothes for free and make decisions that won’t directly benefit them in terms of money. They do these unconventional things because building a company that they are proud of is more important than making money. They also trust (as stated in the financial philosophy part) that profit happens when “you do everything else right”.
So, why worry about money?

Also, I want to add that the product design checklist above has taken years for Patagonia to develop.  Implementing each point is difficult and I think that they are still working on perfecting the quality of each of their products. For example, Yvon wrote in the book that “the way to cause the least amount of harm in the making of clothing is to be aware of what you are doing in every step of the process from the farmer’s field or mill to the customer.” This is, however, easier said than done. For instance:

The air circulating system wasn’t functioning properly in one of Patagonia’s stores (it was just recirculating the same air). This was noticed when employees started complaining about headaches. It was later found that they had been breathing in formaldehyde.
Instead of simply fixing the air circulating system, questions were asked. Apparently, most 100% pure cotton clothing is only 73% cotton. The rest is composed of chemicals (formaldehyde) used to prevent wrinkling. Patagonia was unaware of that fact until the incident. They have since switched to organic cotton but, if questions hadn’t been asked, they wouldn’t have known about the importance of organic cotton.


  • Human resource philosophy

    Ultimately, Patagonia wants a company where the employees see work and play as the same thing. Additionally, the employees should be able to view themselves as the customers for the products they create.

    Culture: Patagonia seeks diverse and passionate people that love the outdoors. “We can hardly continue to make the best outdoor clothing if we become primarily an ‘indoor’ culture”.

    Benefits: (you can learn more about the benefits here)

    * Let My People Go Surfing flextime policy: employees are allowed to work flexible hours, as long as it doesn’t negatively impact others and as long as the work eventually gets done.
    Why? “This flexibility allows us to keep valuable employees who love their freedom and sports too much to settle for the constraints of a more regimented work environment. We’ve found that rarely has an employee abused that privilege.”
    * On-site child care.
    * Paid maternity/paternity leave: 16 weeks for the mother and 12 for the father – fully paid.
    * Cafeteria with healthy organic food.
    * Comprehensive health insurance.


  • Environmental philosophy

Finally, a large part of the book examined what the company does to “inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”. This chapter was super interesting to me. More information about it can be found here.


 

On flow and Ayurveda

On Flow and Climbing

A few days ago, I came back to Stockholm after having spent a week with my family in Brussels. To tell the truth, I was sad to leave and felt the characteristic ‘sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach’ as the plane took off. Yes, I know that I’ll see my family again soon and I’m truly happy to be living by myself in Sweden. Nonetheless, knowing this doesn’t make goodbyes any easier. The ‘sinking feeling’ will probably always come back to me when it’s time to say bye to my family and the people that I love.

As soon as I arrived, I went climbing. I hadn’t climbed in almost a month and, as I did, I forgot about all of my prior thoughts and emotions. It’s amazing how a simple activity such as climbing can almost immediately allow you to forget about worries, time and sometimes even about your sense of self. Usually, how well I climb doesn’t even matter. Of course, it’s always nice to send problems that I’ve worked hard on. But, just being there, with a clear challenge in front of me, in an environment that I really like, makes me happy – in a peaceful kind of way.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

These thoughts made me think of a book called “Flow”. I can’t write a thorough review of it because I read it too long ago, but, I believe the author was right when he argued that incorporating “flow” activities in your life is a key component to happiness. I think, if I remember correctly, that he defined flow as the process of ‘losing yourself’ while engaged in an activity. He mentioned a few conditions that are usually present during flow experiences:

  1. Engagement in a challenging activity.
  2. Concentration on the activity.
  3. Clear and well defined goal(s) that can be reached within our control,
    • winning the lottery is therefore not a good example.
  4. Immediate feedback,
    • with climbing, you fall or you don’t; alternatively, the movements feel good or they don’t.
  5. Effortless involvement in the activity,
    • I never feel like I’m working out while climbing. Of course, some of it is hard but I definitely want to be there and the activity as a whole feels almost relaxing.
  6. Sense of control over actions,
    • the better you get at climbing, the more you can control what you’re doing (obviously) – and that feels good.
  7. Concern for self disappears (= “losing yourself” in what you are doing).
  8. Alteration of time,
    • I can easily spend 7 or 8 hours in the climbing gym and feel like I’ve spent 2.

I thought it was interesting to realise to what extent climbing is a flow activity for me. I’ve also felt a similar flow while playing guitar, reading, practicing yoga or when solving challenging physics problems. The book “Flow” in itself was a bit too long and repetitive for my taste. However, I still liked reading it and it might be interesting for people that are looking to find flow in their daily life.


 

Why I’m becoming vegan

Wether or not I should eat animal products has been on my mind for a long time. At 15, I tried vegetarianism but, not for long. My doctor advised me to stop as she claimed that my deficiencies were due to the fact that I wasn’t eating fish and meat. I left it at that.

This past year, I’ve become increasingly aware of animal cruelty. But, I believed that because I rarely ate fish and meat, as well as, only bought animal products that were organic, came from local farms and had “free range” labels, I probably wasn’t part of the problem – it didn’t concern me. And even if I did contribute to the problem, I wasn’t going to stop eating animal products and do what my doctor and loved ones didn’t think I should do, right?

Yet, I kept having the feeling that something was off, changed my opinion on this subject countless times and often felt bad about not knowing what I thought was right.

Recently, I’ve done more research on this subject and have realised to what extend animal cruelty is really cruel. I also realised that, contrary to what I thought, I am part of the problem. I don’t always know where the animal products that I buy come from. Furthermore, I didn’t even know what the labels that were ‘so important to me’ meant. What is “free range”? Does ecological meat mean that the animals were treated better? Or, is it just about my health? How can I claim that I’m not part of the problem when I don’t know anything about the problem?

In addition to these realisations, I’ve also understood that it is possible to eat vegan and still be healthy. That I can get the right amount of nutrients without eating animal products. Now that I know that, I wonder, is it morally okay to take animal’s lives when you don’t even need to eat them to survive? Yes, I’m aware that it won’t taste the same and I know that veganism requires effort, but, isn’t it worth a try?

In this post, I am going to talk about why I’m becoming vegan instead of only vegetarian and how I am going to eat to prevent the typical deficiencies people get on a vegan diet. I’m changing the way that I eat mostly because of animal cruelty but, the environment is also a big factor in my decision. The environmental impact of animal-based industries won’t be covered in this post though.

Also, I would like to add that I know that veganism isn’t a viable option for everyone. My decision to not eat animal products is personal and necessary for me, but I don’t claim that I know what is right for you. However, I do think it’s important to be educated and to be aware of what you eat so that you can make an informed decision based on what you think is right and what works for you.

The WHY – (why do I want to be vegan and not just vegetarian?)


DAIRY

Why do cows produce milk?

  • It probably sounds stupid, or rather ignorant, but, I only recently became aware of the fact that cows’ sole purpose for producing milk is feeding their babies. Of course, it makes sense when you think about it. Why would cows otherwise be producing milk?
    If you think about it a bit more you’d quickly realise that in order to have babies, female cows need to first be pregnant. So you can probably guess that, to maximize milk production, these cows are kept in an endless cycle of pregnancy and birth.In the industry, the impregnation is called “artificial insemination”. Had it been done to humans, we’d call it rape. In fact, the female cows are put into devices known as “rape racks”. Once the cows are restrained in the device, an arm is inserted in their rectum to reposition the uterus and then, a metal instrument is forced in their vagina.

    When the baby cows are born, they are immediately taken away from their mother. The males are killed and sold for veal. The females become milk machines, just like their mums.

Problems

  • A dairy cow can, as a result of selective breeding, produce about 10 times more milk than what her calf would need. This might be good for production but it puts a strain on the animal. For example: “the great weight of the udders often causes painful stretching or tearing of ligaments and frequently causes foot problems, such as laminitis. These foot problems can be associated with significant pain.”

    Additionally, the endless cycle of pregnancy and birth causes exhaustion and
    mastitis (a condition in which woman’s breast tissue becomes painful and inflamed). When the female cows reach their limit and are too exhausted to keep producing milk, they too are killed and sold for beef.Technically, the dairy industry is the meat industry. Buying milk basically amounts to buying beef. Cows should normally be able to live for about 20 years. In the dairy industry, they usually don’t live past  


    – Dairy industry explained in 5 minutes
    – Dairy industry in Sweden (in Swedish)
    – About dairy cows


     

EGGS

What does “free range” on a pack of eggs really mean?

  • I used to buy “free range” eggs thinking that they came from hens who had lots of space to move around, who were spending their time outside and had good, happy lives. I mean, that’s what the picture on the pack shows, so why not?In Sweden, “free range” means that the hens can move freely (they are thus not placed in cages) but the label doesn’t imply that these hens have access to the outside. In fact, most free range hens live inside. Additionally, yes the hens are not in cages but, I wouldn’t say that they can move freely. In most cases, there’s about 9 hens per squared meter. That’s not a lot of space to move around.
    Only 3% of the hens in Sweden are ‘real’ “free range” hens – hens that are allowed to go outside at least once per day. For those hens, the maximum is set at 4 hens per squared meter.

    What about the ecological egg production? In Sweden, the maximum is set at 6 hens per squared meter. The hens are fed with organic feed (95% organic ingredients) and, the hens have access to the outdoors in summertime and during at least a third of their life.

Problems and common practices

  • Within flocks, chicken have a social hierarchy known as a pecking order. It is thus normal for hens to peck each other in the establishment of this order. However, when hens live in crowded conditions, feather pecking and cannibalism occurs. “Free range” hens are no exception. Diseases are also more likely to spread in confined spaces.In the US (and other countries), the hens’ beaks are trimmed to reduce the risk of feather pecking and cannibalism. The practice is known as debeaking. The beak is an organ with a considerable amount of nerve supply – the debeaking process is thus very painful and harmful for the hens. Some of them die because they can’t eat or drink as a result of the procedure. Debeaking is illegal in Sweden. Still a thing in the UK though.

    Another practice (prohibited in Europe, thank god – but widespread in the US) is called forced molting. It consists of depriving hens of food for long periods of time, from 5 to 14 days. Under stress, the hens start producing more eggs than usual. The equation is fairly simple: no food = more eggs = more money.  Most hens die after this procedure.

What happens to the male chicks?

  • Male chicks born in the egg industry are killed as soon as they come to life. They are usually ground up alive or suffocated in plastic bags.
    Do we eat these male chicks? No, they share the egg-laying hens’ genes and are thus not fit to be eaten (they don’t get big enough).
    I used to think that no animal was killed for eggs, but, that’s not the reality. Millions of male chicks are killed every year. The hens are then also killed, once they’re done laying eggs.


    – What’s wrong with eggs?
    – Egg industry in Sweden (in Swedish)


     

Here, I mentioned a few of the things that made me think twice about eating animal products. But, there is a lot more that I don’t know and there is a lot more to learn. I am probably going to read quite a bit about this in the future and will add links to books and documentaries here, in case you want to learn too.

Literature:

– Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
A book written by a soon-to-be father who tries to learn about what we eat and writes about his findings. Although it was written a while ago and talks mainly about the US, I still thought it was compelling and I learned a lot.

The HOW – (how can I be vegan but still remain healthy?)


I know most people eat and aren’t particularly interested in what they eat or in how the food that they eat affects their wellbeing. I am not that way. At an early age, I realised that food could dramatically impact the quality of my life. From then onwards, I’ve tried to understand what makes me the healthiest, happiest me. In fact, one of the reasons why I considered studying neuroscience was because the relationship between our brain and food is fascinating to me.

Consequently, when I was told that vegetarianism wouldn’t be healthy, I listened to that advice. Being vegetarian or vegan for a few years and then eventually finding myself sick isn’t what I want. I’d like to lead a happy life while being vegan.

I’ve heard people claim that it is impossible to be vegan and deficiency free. I’ve heard others who believe that it is possible. In the end, the only way that I can know is by trying for myself. If, in a while, I realise that I need to eat a small piece of meat every two months (or something else), I’ll probably listen to my body and do it. Ultimately, this is my decision and I’m not stressed about it fitting what other people believe veganism should look like. I want to do what I think is right both for the world and for myself. What that will look like? I don’t know. But, if it eventually doesn’t fit the label – it’s okay.

I also want to say that I don’t want to become obsessed with what I eat. I don’t want to count the amount of nutrients present in my food. However, I still think it’s important to be aware of what I should eat and pay attention to.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:

How to prevent deficiencies as a vegan

Of course, this pdf isn’t perfect and will be updated.


“Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley

A few weeks ago, I decided to learn how to play the typical acoustic guitar players’ song: Hallelujah. I chose Jeff Buckley’s version as it is the one that I prefer.
Because it is a song that a lot of guitar players know, I thought it would be an easy one to learn. Actually, it was harder than I expected and it’s probably the most difficult song that I’ve learned so far. I think it might be because Jeff Buckley’s version is a bit more demanding guitar-wise. I could thus probably have learned an easier version.

I started by playing the intro for a few days, then, progressively added the verse and the chorus. I only started singing a week later. It’s funny how something can seem hard at first but, when you break it down and take it step by step, it becomes easy.


Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley

 

Here are other songs that I’ve learned:
– Don’t Know Why – Norah Jones
– Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd


 

Man's search for meaning

“Man’s search for meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl

The past week, I’ve found time to read two books: “Man’s search for meaning” and “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”. Both of them had themes centered around life, its meaning and happiness. Of course, they were completely different from one another, but, I found that they complemented each other fairly well. In fact, I learned about one of the books through the other.

Although I liked both, I found “Man’s search for meaning” more compelling. It was written in 1946 by Viktor Frankl, a jewish neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust. The rest of the post will be devoted to this particular book. I might write a review of the second one later this week.

“Man’s search for meaning” – 1st part

The book is divided in two. The first section details Frankl’s own experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. He describes the events that happened, his thoughts and also tries to come up with an explanation as to why certain prisoners managed to cope with life at the camp while others couldn’t. Contrarily to Freud who believed that pleasure is man’s main drive in life, Frankl claimed that instead, it is to find meaning. According to the latter, the prisoners who had a purpose also tended to survive longer. For Frankl, the hope of one day re-writing his unpublished book on Logotherapy, that had been taken away from him when entering the camp, was enough to bring a sense of meaning to his life. Additionally, the hope of seeing his wife again kept him sane through the horrors of the camp. 


“…when in a camp in Bavaria I fell ill with typhus fever, I jotted down on little scraps of paper many notes intended to enable me to rewrite the manuscript, should I live to the day of liberation. I am sure that this reconstruction of my lost manuscript in the dark barracks of a Bavarian concentration camp assisted me in overcoming the danger of cardiovascular collapse.”


Logotherapy – 2nd part

The second section revolves around Frankl’s personal theory called Logotherapy. The theory is a summary of what Frankl tried to demonstrate in the first part of the book: finding meaning in life is our primary driving force.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” is a relevant quote by Nietzsche that Frankl refers to on several instances in the book. The three “whys” that come up are:

  • Work
  • Love
  • Dignity in suffering

The aspect that I found particularly interesting was how one can find meaning and purpose in suffering. Of course, Frankl doesn’t advocate for suffering. It is in no way necessary to suffer to find meaning in life. However, in situations where suffering is unavoidable, Frankl believes that choosing to suffer bravely can become one’s purpose. Here are two quotes from the book that I find relevant:


“Most men in the concentration camps believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.”

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”


 

"Astrophysics for People in a Hurry" by Neil deGrasse Tyson

“Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Last week, I read “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry”. I enjoyed the read but, overall, thought that there was too much information and too little explanation. The book is short but, advertised “for People in a Hurry”, I didn’t think it was accessible for a person with no scientific background. I would have enjoyed the chapters to be slightly longer and a bit more in depth. Nevertheless, I did learn quite a few things:

The 3 most important things I learned in “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry”:

  • Does antimatter exist? If so, what is it?

    Yes, it does exist and, as the name suggests, antimatter is the opposite of matter. You’re probably telling yourself: “yes, I could have guessed that, but, what does ‘the opposite of matter’ mean?”. Well, antimatter particles are identical to their matter counterparts except that they carry the opposite charge and spin. For example, anti-electrons (or positrons) are just like electrons but instead, have a positive charge. The magical thing though is that encounters between particles and antiparticles lead to their mutual annihilation. So, a universe with equal amounts of matter and antimatter is equal to no universe at all. But, why is the observable universe composed of almost only matter, instead of an equal mixture of matter and antimatter?

    Scientists presume that there was one extra matter particle for every billion matter-antimatter pairs during the Big Bang. Since there was slightly more matter than antimatter, the matter that hadn’t been annihilated into energy became the universe that we see today. If matter wouldn’t have outnumbered antimatter, we wouldn’t be here. This, however, is just a theory. The asymmetry of matter and antimatter is one of the great unsolved problems in physics.


  • What is the cosmic background radiation

    You might think that a large part of the universe is just dark – that there is nothing there. But, a sensitive radio telescope can detect a faint background noise coming from every direction in the universe. The strange thing is that this radiation isn’t associated with any stars, galaxies or other objects. It’s been called the cosmic background radiation (or CBR) and scientists believe that it is “the afterglow of the Big Bang”.

    Initially, when the universe was born, the heat from its creation made it too hot for electrons and protons to coalesce into atoms. The matter in the universe was in a state known as plasma. This plasma was emitting light, but, the light couldn’t travel very far because it kept bouncing off electrons. So, if you would have been around at the time, you wouldn’t have been able to see anything. You would be in a white-hot fog of plasma.
    After about 400 000 years, the universe had expanded enough – and therefore cooled down enough – for electrons to combine with nuclei to form atoms. Because there were no more free electrons to redirect the light, the universe was, for the first time, transparent. In fact, the universe wasn’t black as we know it today. It was orange.

    From that moment onwards, the light was able to propagate through the universe forever. The CBR is basically the leftover of this light emitted during the Big Bang.

    But, why can’t we see the CBR? Why isn’t everything orange as it once was? As the universe expanded, the wavelength of the light emitted by the Big Bang stretched out too. Consequently, its frequency has gone from the visible to the microwave part of the spectrum. So, you can’t see the CBR with your eyes.


  • What is dark matter ?

    A few months ago, I read about how Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding. In the process, I learned about dark energy (you can read about it here). In short, dark energy is a mysterious force that drives the accelerating expansion of the universe. I’ve now also been introduced to dark matter.

    Dark matter is known as ‘the missing mass of the universe’. It is thought to account for approximately 80% of the matter in it. We’ve never actually been able to observe dark matter but, without it, a variety of astrophysical observations can’t be explained. For example, many galaxies would not have formed or would not move as they do if they did not contain a large amount of unseen matter. Just like the asymmetry of matter and antimatter, dark matter is one of the great mysteries of physics.


Painting by Peter Doig

How democracies die

“How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

I used to believe that the process in which a democracy turns into an autocracy was sudden, requiring the help of a military coup. Conversely, as learned in the book, democracies often die gradually. Demagogues come to power democratically and then slowly undermine the rules of democracy.
But, is there a recognisable process or pattern in which seemingly stable democracies die? Can a “would-be” authoritarian be identified before it is too late? Is it possible to prevent a democracy from dying?
And, is American democracy in danger?

These are questions that are brought up in the book “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. For me, it wasn’t the easiest read as I haven’t read a lot about American politics up until now. However, it was definitely worth it. Here are the main things that I have learned:

Can a “would-be” authoritarian be identified before it is too late?

Levitsky and Ziblatt analysed how healthy democracies gradually died in multiple countries. Based on their findings and on a book called “The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes” (1978), they came up with a set of 4 behavioral warning signs that can help identify a “would-be” authoritarian.

  • The first warning sign is rejecting (in words or action) the democratic rules of the game. An example of this could be: not accepting credible electoral results or attacking laws and constitutions.
  • The second warning sign is denying the legitimacy of political opponents. For example, the “would-be” authoritarian accuses his opponents of treason or criminal activity.
  • The third warning sign is tolerating or encouraging violence (this one is pretty self-explanatory).
  • Finally, the fourth warning sign is showing a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media. For example, introducing laws that restrict criticism of the government.

Interestingly, the politicians that usually meet these four dangerous criteria are populist outsiders. Political figures who claim that they support the common people in their struggle against the privileged elite. In Latin America, of all 15 presidents elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012, five were populist outsiders (Fujimori, Chávez, Morales, Gutiérrez and Correa). All of the five populists weakened democratic institutions.

By the way, Trump meets all of the critera above.

How can authoritarians be filtered out democratically?

According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, the responsibility for filtering out authoritarians lies with political parties and party leaders – “democracy’s gatekeepers”.  Pro-democratic parties can, for example, keep “would-be” authoritarians off party ballots at election time. They can also choose to systemically distance themselves from, rather than legitimize, extremists. A few other ways to prevent “would-be” authoritarians to seize power were mentioned in the book along with historical examples of successful democracy gatekeeping practiced by political parties in Europe between the wars.

Why has American democracy worked reasonably well since the end of the Civil War?

America has had its fair share of extremists. Examples such as Henry Ford, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace come to mind. Why haven’t they succeeded in seizing power and turning America into an autocracy?

Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that America’s well functioning (though not entirely perfect) democracy is largely due to the gatekeepers – the political parties, rather than American’s commitment to democracy.

I found it interesting to learn that the old process in which presidential candidates were chosen was one of the reasons why extremists haven’t been able to, historically, seize power in America. Candidates used to be nominated in national party conventions made up of delegates from each state. These delegates were chosen by state committees rather than being popularly elected. This made the nomination process a lot less democratic than today’s system. It also explains why women and minorities were historically excluded from the presidential nomination. However, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, the old system was effective in filtering out dangerous candidates. The delegates had to have worked for years with the mayors, senators and congressional representatives that were ultimately going to nominate them. They couldn’t be outsiders. This allowed parties to successfully filter out extremists and dangerous candidates.

Can a well-designed constitution be enough to secure democracy?

Levitsky and Ziblatt believe that the answer is no. Constitutions are always incomplete and are also always subject to competing interpretations. They should therefore be reinforced by vital unwritten norms or rules. The two most important norms for democracy are:

  • Mutual toleration:
    Referring to the idea that even-though we disagree or even strongly dislike our opponents, we nevertheless accept them as legitimate – the belief that political opponents are not enemies.
    Put this way: “When norms of mutual toleration are weak, democracy is hard to sustain. If we view our rivals as a dangerous threat, we have much to fear if they are elected. We may decide to employ any means necessary to defeat them – and therein lies a justification for authoritarian measures”. In fact, in every democratic breakdown studied by the authors, the argument for consolidation of power has been the label of opponents as an existential threat.
  • Institutional forbearance (= “patient self-control”):
    Meaning that even-though an action might not violate the law, it should be avoided as it violates its spirit. For example, for most of American history, the two-term limit wasn’t a law but a norm of forbearance. “If every branch of government used every possible Constitutional power at its disposal, it would be impossible to govern. And when it is impossible to govern, executives often become authoritarian.”

Is American democracy in danger?

America’s democratic norms were born in a context of racial exclusion. Democrats and Republicans had a lot in common as long as the political community was restricted largely to whites. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act democratized the United States, but also, polarised it. Creating an environment where the unwritten norms of democracy have been increasingly neglected.

“By the time Barack Obama became president, many Republicans, in particular, questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals and had abandoned forbearance for a strategy of winning by any means necessary.” (…) “For the first time in American history, the U.S. Senate refused to even consider an elected president’s nominee for the Supreme Court” – a norm that had stabilized American democracy for more than 150 years.

On top of this, in 2017, Donald Trump became president. He meets all four of the behavioral warning signs that can help identify a “would-be” authoritarian. During his first year of office, he has also (unsuccessfully) followed the usual strategies employed by elected authoritarians to consolidate their control: “capture the referees, sideline the key players and rewrite the rules to tilt the playing field”.

So yes, American democracy is in danger. However, it isn’t dead. In the last chapter, Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss different possible outcomes and try to come up with solutions. Hopefully, it isn’t too late to prevent American democracy from dying.


 

How science got women wrong

“Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong” by Angela Saini

“Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong” was second on my reading list. It sheds light on gender bias in anthropology, biology and psychology. I was drawn to the book as it combines science and gender – two topics that I love. The author, Angela Saini, delivers an abundance of interesting findings and defies scientific gender myths of the past. In other words, you learn tremendously and will most likely find yourself thinking about the book throughout the day. Though scientific, it is nonetheless an easy read and I definitely recommend it.

Why reading “How Science Got Women Wrong” is important

Reflecting on questions regarding gender is important to me because, like most women, I have been subjected to sexism. Often, the prejudice ideas are said to be supported by scientific evidence. An example could be: “Men drive better than women because a larger portion of their brains are devoted to white matter – which means that they are better at spatial visualisation”. Or, as written in a 1978 Playboy magazine: “Do men need to cheat on their wives? A new Science says yes”.

Most of the time, it’s hard for me to argue because, for all I know, it might be true; even if I intuitively might feel that there is a bewildering gap between the conclusions of gender science and what it really is to be woman (perhaps men feel an equivalent bewilderment when misrepresented by science). Therefore, I want to learn more about this. Then at least, I can have a discussion on the topic instead of blindly accepting what people tell me to be true.

Yes, reading one book isn’t enough. Who knows, maybe the author isn’t telling the whole story. Maybe her findings are biased. But, the more I read, the more I learn. Eventually, my opinions will be my own and I won’t always have to accept whatever people tell me about my gender.

What I learned

It probably sounds silly but, “why the book is important to read” is best answered by reading it. I learned about male and female brains, their immune systems and their sexuality. How science has historically suppressed or forgotten about women. And, how a lot of studies are influenced by confirmation bias.


* I am not sure wether the term “gender” or “sex” is most inclusive of transgender people. I know that “gender” refers to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones. Sorry if I used the wrong term.


James Baldwin

“The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin

“The Fire Next Time” is a short book written by James Baldwin in the early 60s. It depicts the United States’ race relations of the time. I found the book interesting because Baldwin writes about his experiences and opinions with a deep insight in human psychology. Instead of seeking vengeance, he advocates for a more compassionate solution in which black people and white people accept each other. “The Fire Next Time” is political but also beautiful because Baldwin’s writing is extremely poetic. The book was written a while ago but his analysis of race relations in America is still relevant today.

The Fire Next Time

“The Fire Next Time” is made up of two essays. The first is entitled “My Dungeon Shook” and the second, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”.

The parts and quotes that I find especially compelling are: 

  • Baldwin’s analysis of Christianity at the time. He details his own experiences with the Church. How he became Christian and then eventually saw the Church’s deep rooted hypocrisy and racism.

“The fear that I heard in my father’s voice, for example, when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it, was not at all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill or had fallen down the stairs or strayed too far from the house. It was another fear, a fear that the child, in challenging the white world’s assumptions, was putting himself in the path of destruction. A child cannot, thank Heaven, know how vast and how merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable cruelty people treat each other. He reacts to the fear in his parents’ voices because his parents hold up the world for him and he has no protection without them…That summer, in any case, all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and controlled my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me, and drove me into the church.”

  •  Baldwin’s encounter with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the militant Black Muslim movement. He notices Muhammad’s magnetism but can also see the movement’s blind hatred of white people. Baldwin therefore decides not to join The Nation of Islam (NOI). He was convinced that black separatism wasn’t a solution.

“It was very strange to stand with Elijah for those few moments, facing those vivid, violent, so problematical streets. I felt very close to him, and really wished to be able to love and honor him as a witness, an ally, and a father. I felt that I knew something of his pain and his fury, and, yes, even his beauty. Yet precisely because of the reality and the nature of those streets—because of what he conceived as his responsibility and what I took to be mine—we would always be strangers, and possibly, one day, enemies.”

  • Baldwin’s description of white people’s narrowness of thinking. How accepting black people would lead to a loss of identity for white people.

“They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.  They have had to believe for so many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.  Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.  To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.  In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of identity.  Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame…Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”

  • His solution, love.

“I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace— not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

“White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

  • And, this is a James Baldwin quote that I like:

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”


Photograph by Steve Schapiro, the Selma-to-Montgomery protest marches 1965