The Dawn Watch

Reasonably well-read people will know that Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness after spending time in Congo. Maybe you didn’t know Conrad only made one trip up the river and on returning to Leopoldville, before even leaving the colony, wrote

“Decidedly I regret having come here. I even regret it bitterly….”

Most people will also have the vague knowledge that Congo produced rubber. Maybe you didn’t realize how perfectly nasty that business was.

You had to go into the rainforest, your feet squelching deep into mud and standing water, hoping not to step on a snake, ears pricked for the rustle of leopards a pounce away. You had to pick out a rubber vine in the vegetable tangle, then shimmy up its stalk to a point soft enough that you could slice it to release the sap. It was faster just to cut a vine in half, but because that killed the vine, the state forbade it. You had to wait for the creamy liquid to drop into your pot, then wait for it to thicken and gum into latex. The easiest way was to smear the sap over your body. Once it dried, you could tear it off your skin (taking your hair or skin with it, if needed) and roll it up into balls. It could take days to fill your basket with enough tough, gray pellets to satisfy the state or company agent.”

Get yourself a copy of The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff and you’ll learn much more. Ms. Jasanoff opens and closes the book with some of her travels to research the book, and while those sections are brief I’d have been eager to read a whole book about her own travel.

The Dawn Watch is a fine travelogue/biography and I recommend it heartily.

Populism, the Future of Jobs and the UBI

An automated bartender pours your beer at Narita airport, Japan

Here is how populism works, in Ian Buruma’s crisp description: “Resentment feeds off a sense of humiliation, a loss of pride. In a society where human worth is measured by individual success, symbolized by celebrity and money, it is easy to feel humiliated by a relative lack of it, of being just another face in the crowd. In extreme cases, desperate individuals will assassinate a president or a rock star just to get into the news. Populists find support among those resentful faces in the crowd, people who feel that elites have betrayed them, by taking away their sense of pride in their class, their culture, or their race.”

“This has not happened in Japan yet,” he says, where “self-worth is defined less by individual fame or wealth than by having a place in a collective enterprise, and doing the job one is assigned as well as one can.”

For example, “People in department stores seem to take genuine pride in wrapping merchandise beautifully. Some jobs – think of those uniformed middle-aged men who smile and bow at customers entering a bank – appear to be entirely superfluous. It would be naive to assume that these tasks give huge satisfaction, but they offer people a sense of place, a role in society, however humble.”

This is one reason Japan has skirted some of the problems of neo-liberalism, he thinks, along with some other less savory reasons like “corporate interests, bureaucratic privileges, and pork-barrel politics….”

Removing any sense of community in the name of efficiency, Buruma believes, has been the road to neo-lib perdition. (His example: “Thatcherism has probably made the British economy more efficient … by crushing trade unions and other established institutions of working-class culture.”)

•••••

Buruma ties populism (in Japan, at least) to job satisfaction, and while debate over populism rages everywhere on the internet these days, talk about jobs seems to come (as it ever was) mostly from the left. What once was a debate centered narrowly on the loss of jobs due to automation has now opened up to include the very future of work. It’s a subject that has caught my imagination. I’ve compiled a list of relevant articles and websites below the fold, in case you’re interested.

Continue reading

January Weekend Reading

A review of my Instapaper saves this week turns up these worthwhile articles from the web, best enjoyed inside and cozy, as in this photo of Grindelwald and Mt. Eiger at night. Enjoy these, and have a lovely weekend.

How to Remember a King by Antonia Colibasanu at Real Clear World
The Rhyme of History by Margaret Macmillan at Brookings.edu
Why humans need to rethink their place in the animal kingdom by Simon Barnes at the New Statesman
What really happened to Joshua Boyle and his family by Adnan R. Khan in Macleans
Why did New York’s JFK Struggle to Cope With its Flight Backlog? by Jason Rabinowitz at thepointsguy.com

Cold Winter Weekend Reading

Next week I think I’ll post a vignette from a trip to West Africa, some form of which should work its way into my eventual book about African travel. As for now, along with everyone else on the U.S. east coast, I’ll be spending this weekend mostly indoors. Here’s some engaging reading to enjoy by the fire, or wherever you are:

Spies, Dossiers, and the Insane Lengths Restaurants Go to Track and Influence Food Critics in the Washingtonian by Jessica Sidman
One of Us at laphamsquarterly.org by John Jeremiah Sullivan
The Bridge to Nowhere and the Bays Road at East of Elveden by my friend Laurence Mitchell
Will globalisation go into reverse? in Prospect Magazine by Barry Eichengreen
The monster beneath at 1843magazine.com by Helen Gordon
They Began a New Era in The New York Review of Books by James Salter (recommended as a Salter fan. I can also recommend the 2013 compilation of Salter’s travel writing, There and Then: The Travel Writing of James Salter)

Cheers for now.

Quotes: At the New Year

Swedish author Henning Mankell’s settling of accounts, a book called Quicksand, was his written reckoning with a cancer diagnosis. He ranged widely, and lamented that not many of us are remembered for long. His example:

Construction of the Great Wall lasted 1800 years.

“If you think of the work being handed down from father to son that means there were over sixty generations who never saw the end of the work they and their forefathers had been engaged on.”

This makes me less apt to stand in an overnight queue for iPhone version x.xxx.

Cheers, and may 2018 treat us all well.