Author: Pedro Porto Alegre

I am an avid philosophy and literature reader, having been influenced most notably by the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jean-Paul Sartre and Seneca; I closely follow the NBA, where I steal moves from to channel my inner Steph Curry every Friday morning during pick-up basketball at the park, while failing miserably; and I enjoy spending time with my beloved partner Sarah, who never ceases to amaze me with her curiosity, creativity and unconditional love. This literary experiment is my attempt to make sense of what the hell is going on around me. Welcome to the jungle. PPA

On Nuclear Relations

Since their inception, nuclear weapons have been rightly considered the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. And this is no understatement – after WWII, Albert Einstein regretted ever having written that letter to Roosevelt in 1939, when he notified the president that German scientists were conducting research into nuclear weapons development and that the U.S. should begin its own research into atomic energy. Due to his pacifist tendencies, Einstein ended up never gaining clearance to partake in the Manhattan Project, and he became an avid activist against the further proliferation of these weapons, which have the potential to destroy the entirety of the planet. Eventually, the science behind the enrichment of uranium became publicly known and other nations began building their own arsenals – this spiraling turn of events led us into the Cold War, when we came face to face with a potential nuclear war, had JFK not followed his gut in not invading Cuba. Since that Tuesday morning of October 16th, 1962, the world entered a period in history where the possibility of nuclear war became gradually slimmer due to a number of international treaties signed by various presidents to curb the build-up of nuclear arsenals. However, the doomsday clock will likely move closer to midnight with the events that took place last week – Vladimir Putin declared having put his nuclear weapons on “high alert” as he wages war in Ukraine.

The understand the severity of his statement, we need to look no further back than August of 1945. In the span of 3 days, the U.S. dropped 2 nuclear bombs in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing an estimated 226,000 people upon strike and consequentially leading to a spike in cancer and birth defects within the surviving population in the decades that followed due to excessive exposure to radiation. This was the first and only times nuclear weapons were ever used to wage war, and due to its catastrophic impacts, it became an “out of bounds” measure in offensive military tactics.

The way nuclear weapons work is through breaking the nucleus of an atom apart (fission), or through combining two nuclei together (fusion, also known has thermonuclear or hydrogen weapons), which leads to massive releases of energy (the explosion). The nuclear fuel used to cause these reactions is often uranium-235 and plutonium-239 (although the latter only occurs naturally in trace amounts, making uranium the more popular choice). To use uranium in a nuclear weapon one must employ a costly process known as enrichment, in which the isotopes are separated and concentrated in centrifuges. This is timely and extremely expensive, being the biggest barrier in the construction of such weapons. The thermal radiation released in these chemical reactions during an explosion cause significant damage within seconds, while the delayed effects inflict extensive damage in humans and on the environment for years to come. That is why numerous nuclear arms control treaties have been signed over the years to prevent the usage of such weapons.

The first nuclear treaty ever signed was in 1959 with the Antarctic Treaty, prohibiting nuclear explosions and the disposal of nuclear waste in the Antarctic continent. From there, nations went on to sign treaties prohibiting the placement of nuclear weapons in outer space, making Latin America a nuclear free zone, prohibiting placing nuclear weapons on the ocean floor, and many others. But the treaties on arms reductions that came after the Cold War were the ones that have kept Russia and the U.S. on an even playing field and engaged in “peaceful tension”.  

The 1986 Reykjavik Summit between U.S. president Ronald Regan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev resulted in two key treaties that effectively capped nuclear arm arsenals: the INF Treaty and START I. These were historical agreements that were the precursors to the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (2003) and the New START treaty (2010), which all sought to disarm and stop the proliferation of such weapons. However, in 2019, under the Trump Administration, the U.S. withdrew from the INF treaty, what was a major step backwards in keeping the world safe.

Today we live in a world where 9 countries own nuclear arsenals, totalling more than 13,100 weapons, enough to obliterate the world many times over. But when we talk about “destroying the world”, we need to understand how these weapons would actually cause such a devastating event. Firstly, if you’re at the target radius of an explosion, you’d get incinerated by the fireball or the blast wave; secondly, if you survive, you’d be lethally killed by the excessive amounts of radiation absorbed into your cells; thirdly, if somehow you’ve survived all of this, you might die of starvation because the economy would have collapsed and no food would be able to grow due to radiation or supply chains simply being devastated; fourthly, if you managed to get through the first few weeks, the entire ecosphere of the Earth would be collapsing leading to a Nuclear Winter and you’d then die of cold or outer space radiation due to the destruction of the ozone layer; fifthly, chaos would ensue and people desperate for food might come kill you to steal everything you have; and lastly, diseases and epidemics would rage unrestrained, what could also eventually come to infect you and kill you. 

So, when someone steps out of synch with the world agreements on nuclear proliferation, or making the slightest threats that their arsenals are on high alert, all the alarms should be going off in people’s heads. This is nothing to bluff with or to politicize – this is how life on Earth as we know it could end. But, knowing all of this, even the most sadistic dictator would think twice before pressing the red button. In a world where 8 other nations own nuclear arsenals, that would be suicide. However, what makes these situations so fragile are the risks of a false alarm.

In the U.S., the only person who can order a nuclear attack or retaliation is the President. Today, only two countries abide by the “No-First-Use” pledge (India and China), meaning they would never initiate a nuclear attack. But the NFU policy isn’t enough to prevent a nuclear war – all nations reserve the right to retaliate. And since modern nuclear weapons can reach most places on Earth within 7-10 minutes, this leaves leaders of countries with less than 5 minutes upon intelligence of an attack having reached them to make a decision on whether to retaliate (and essentially initiate nuclear war) or not (at which point all of their nuclear arsenals could be compromised or the executive branch of a government destroyed). That is why in the U.S. you will always see the “nuclear football” (from where they can place nuclear orders, which cannot be overturned once sent out) next to the president at all times.

But given our capacity to make mistakes and the rising threat of cyberwarfare, false intelligence of an attack isn’t just possible, it has happened before. In 1983, the nuclear warning system of the Soviet Union malfunctioned and reported an intercontinental ballistic missile with four more missiles behind it having been launched by the United States. Stanislav Petrov, the Soviet Air Defence officer on duty, chose to wait for corroborating evidence before relaying the information up the chain of command, however none arrived. This sole man made the decision to trust his gut in believing that this was a false alarm, what effectively prevented the Soviet Union from launching an attack on the U.S. and its NATO allies, stopping a nuclear war from happening.

That is how close we can come from annihilating ourselves.

William J. Perry, former Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton, wrote an eye-opening book called The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump, where he goes into depth on how the most serious of policies around nuclear proliferation have largely gone unnoticed by voters and what we should be doing about it to prevent a future catastrophe. The strangeness of our comfort with the status quo and our capacity to divert our attention in the political discourse has proven our inability to prioritize what’s important and a violation of both our self-interest and fellow feeling. 

Although Putin’s threats from last week don’t really change Russia’s previous nuclear stance nor push NATO to change theirs (since the U.S., U.K. and France have submarines equipped with nuclear missiles circulating world waters at all times in undisclosed locations ready to launch), it should put all of us on high alert given the catastrophic consequences of the slightest of errors. 

In The Fate Of The Earth, Jonathan Schell perfectly describes our complacency in regards to nuclear weapons:

“These bombs were built as weapons for war, but their significance greatly transcends war and all its causes and outcomes. They grew out of history, yet they threaten to end history. They were made by men, yet they threaten to annihilate men. They’re a pit in which the whole world can fall, a nemesis of all human intentions, actions and hopes. Only life itself, which they threaten to swallow up can give the measure of their significance. Yet, in spite of the immeasurable importance of nuclear weapons, the world has declined on the whole to think about them very much. We have thus far failed to fashion or even to discover within ourselves an emotional, or intellection or political response to them. This peculiar failure of response in which hundreds of millions of people acknowledge the presence of an immediate unremitting threat to their existence and to the existence of the world they live in but do nothing about it.

This was true in 1982, when this book was written, and it is true today, when we have just heard the world’s biggest autocrat threatening to end life on earth as we know it.


On A Future With Robots

There is no question that many, if not most, jobs done by humans today could eventually be accomplished by robots if we continue on the current path of technological progress. If we think back to just 15 years ago, iPhones didn’t exist. Today, the vast majority of people in the developed world, and much of the developing world, own a smartphone. It took less than two decades for the way we work and interact to be completely turned on its head, so what do we make of what life will be like in 2050?

The field of artificially-intelligent robotics is one of the fastest advancing fields in the world of innovation. Much of the developments are happening right in our pockets with each software update that gets pushed into our devices each month, but what truly hits home for most people is when they watch videos like this – innovations taking place in the labs of the best universities in the world. 

Although the latter is what people imagine when they think of AI-robots, most of the developments are software-based and don’t necessarily manifest themselves in the physical world. Take Google search or Siri, for example – these learn about your behaviour and patterns the more you use them. From there, a sea of data is generated that can predict your future wants and needs, and eventually know more about you than you know yourself. These are self-taught robots and don’t require a programmer to be manually inputting data in the background. Some theorists believe that this process is exponential in nature and, when measured against human intelligence, will surpass all of humanity’s collective IQ and reach a singularity of knowledge. 

But we don’t need to go that far before asking ourselves ethical and political questions regarding the role of human existence in the presence of such intelligence. Outside of the world of arts (although scary experiments have shown robots’ abilities to use deep learning to compose music indistinguishable from history’s greatest musicians), we are not far from a world where, through a gradual dislocation of labour, humans’ role in the economy will enter uncharted territory.

It is well documented that as nations grow richer, they move from agricultural to manufacturing and, eventually to service-based economies. As this inevitable process takes place, technical knowledge acquired through higher education and training becomes more important – the skills necessary to operate a tractor at a farm are very different from the ones necessary to program an app that will replace that operator. At scale, this process excludes those people without specialized knowledge from the economy, leading to serious societal discontents (which is one of the major reasons why we see populism on the rise again, but that’s an entire separate post on its own).

We don’t need to go much farther in this thought experiment to see the impact of robotics (and in this particular case, not even AI robotics) in the consolidation of capital. Take warehouse management, for example – before robots you’d need hundreds of people working day and night to perform the work required in a warehouse to move, pack and ship product. Now, with a few dozen robots you accomplish more in less time, and more efficiently, while needing only a handful of supervisors to oversee the functioning of the machinery. All of the sudden, the cost to run such an operation reduces dramatically as labour costs get cut, and companies make far bigger profits while simultaneously driving market prices down to become more competitive, inadvertently creating an economy heavily consolidated in the hands of a few business owners. Without enhanced governmental intervention and taxation, these CEOs can dictate the direction of the economy without ever having been democratically elected into public office.

This cycle of innovation creates pockets of unemployment throughout the nation where such warehouses are located, and the few extra jobs that it creates are for higher technical knowledge workers, often with the requirement of a university degree. Without completely upending the existing education system, governments need to start thinking about how it might redistribute this newly unlocked wealth concentrated in the hands of an ultra-rich minority in order to avoid the expansion of poverty and control growing economic inequality. Such fast and drastic reductions in social mobility require monumental efforts by the state to put in place new incentives that will lead to further economic growth and improvements in quality of life. And, oftentimes, these are initiated with historic welfare programs that ignite a tide of change in the economic fabric of a country, preventing it from spiralling into a dystopian poverty-stricken future where oligarchs have a disproportionate amount of power.

The poster child of all welfare programs was FDR’s New Deal that took place in the 1930s in the US. When the Great Depression hit in the end of the 1920s, manufacturing output decreased by a third, deflation took place causing prices to fall by 20%, and since bank deposits weren’t insured back then, many banks closed and people lost their savings. All of this led to unemployment rising from 4% to 25%, devastating a nation in one fell swoop. Now, the reasons for this massive dislocation of labour were completely different from what we saw take place in the Rust Belt in the 80s, and what we will likely see take place in the coming years due to AI-robotics. But regardless of cause, the results of such major economic events follow a similar pattern. If it wasn’t for the New Deal, today we wouldn’t have federal programs and agencies that buffer the economy from total sudden collapse and support workers during unemployment periods. All of this, most of the time, enables a country to improve stability and keeps the gears of capitalism turning. 

So, as robotics and deep learning continue to improve and become better at doing humans’ work than humans themselves, what will be our role in the future? Netflix’s series Black Mirror painted a rather somber picture of what that could look like, but I’m not totally sold on it. Recently, Sam Harris published an interesting Ask Me Anything episode on his podcast where he briefly touched on this ethical dilemma:

Imagine AI that really works. Imagine robots so advanced that they can do everything that people can do. So, you could have a plumber or an electrician come to your house who is a robot. We’re certainly very far away from that, but in principle there’s no reason to think that it isn’t possible. And if it’s possible, it will be achieved if we just continue to make progress. So, in the limit, we are imagining technology cancelling the need for much, or even most, of human labour. Then what does society look like? Clearly, we need a new ethical and political conception of how a person finds their place in the world. It can’t be a matter of finding something to do that others will pay you for so that you can survive. Then we have to begin thinking in terms of something like Universal Basic Income. You shouldn’t have to secure your place in the world through labour anymore. And in the presence of that kind of advanced technology, we really are talking about a pile of wealth that is growing bigger and bigger. So, even a comparatively tiny slice of that pie will leave a person much better off in absolute terms than even the richest people are today. Obviously, there are many ways in which we could fail to achieve such a civilization, but in success a person born 50 years from now will enjoy the fruits of innovations and insights and luxuries and life-saving technologies that no billionaire has access to today.”

Maybe this thought experiment will just remain a thought experiment. But, as Mark Twain once said, “history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes”. And what we’re seeing today already certainly feels like the end of the first stanza.


On The Mechanics Of Capitalism

For a few years now it’s become a political platform position on the left to tax the rich – in particular, the billionaires. For the overwhelming majority of the population who aren’t rich, this has quite an appeal, whereas there are still middle-class folks who oppose it by believing that through hard-work, and hard-work only, they can achieve the American Dream. The growing inequality we’ve seen take place across the world has given capitalism a bad reputation, but as always, the issue isn’t as simple as it looks and burning it all to the ground to build it back up will not solve society’s discontents.

The term capital dates back as far as the 12th century, and originates from the Latin word caput, meaning “head” (as in, head of cattle). However, the term capitalism didn’t begin appearing until the 17th century, and was used to describe a system in which capitalists owned said capital. The entire system revolves around the idea of private ownership and control over the means of production to generate a profit. It inherently assumes that the future holds more prosperity than the present, which is why in modern times we go into debt to get an education so that we can make more money in the future. 

Therefore, ownership is the key idea to understand capitalism. It essentially means that if you own a factory, you get to do what you wish with it – if you want to leave it idle, produce goods, or sell for something else you deem more valuable, you decide. This also encapsulates the concept of economic freedom into it, which is deemed invaluable in Western democratic societies. This system rewards risk-taking, so for entrepreneurs who put their money and livelihoods on the line to generate value for society, when they succeed, benefit tremendously from it in the form of monetary compensation (which is a proxy for ownership – you can trade those dollar bills for something else you deem more valuable). 

Innovating is a risky endeavour. It often involves large sums of money upfront to conduct research and development, which 9 times out of 10 leads to unsuccessful results. Therefore, if someone invents a new technology that improves society’s wellbeing (such as a vaccine or a software), trademarks are available to protect those inventions so they can reap the fruits of their venture. These very same entrepreneurs offer society a key trade: capital for labour. To them, having someone else operate a forklift for $20/hr is deemed a better usage of their time than doing it themselves, whereas for the labourer they deem it more valuable to accept this payment instead of going on an entrepreneurial endeavour themselves. This ongoing trade of capital enables for a natural circulation of money through the economy, which in theory flows towards where it will generate the most value per unit of measure. However, a number of economists agree that capital markets don’t regulate themselves therefore a certain level of government intervention is required to maximize the benefits to society.

This is where we enter the debate over welfarist policies and where in the spectrum does a society feel comfortable to be on. We hear stories every year of companies taking advantage of their employees by denying them bathroom breaks or paying unliveable wages, which serve as examples of how unhinged capitalism has a tendency to bend towards tyranny. Core labour rights passed in the 20th century that gave workers the freedom to join a union, abolished forced labour, and condemned discrimination at work are indisputable rights for a healthy & functioning labour force. But with the increased monopolization of industries, slowdown in productivity, and increased technical knowledge requirements to earn a basic living, we are seeing again a widening wealth gap form in society that is having geo-political repercussions around the world. And so, with the further devastating effects of the COVID pandemic, governments got to test the waters of what more robust welfare programs could look like and the impacts they would have in their economies.

There is an unavoidable trade-off that is made when we move towards higher distribution of wealth through regulatory factors. If the capitalist theory is correct (which most economist would agree it is), by not letting capital flow towards higher productivity areas of society and instead force it to go to lower growth endeavours, we are inevitably sacrificing future societal prosperity for present individual comfort. With the explosion in population growth the world has seen in the 20th century due to developments in health care, sanitary infrastructure and contraceptive innovation, if we sacrifice too much of the future to solve the present’s discontents, we are inevitably creating further present discontent for our future selves. Therefore, this ongoing balance between preserving economic freedom vs furthering government regulatory overreach becomes more of a dilemma than a right or wrong situation. 

Counter-intuitively, ownership is also a form of preserving society’s political freedoms. In a way, it redistributes tyranny into the hands of the wealthy, instead of concentrating it in the hands of the state. Consequently, instead of having one tyrant in government, you have thousands of tyrants (the rich) competing with each other – which enables people the freedom of choice. Additionally, ownership also serves as a way to determine the value of things – take the open ocean for example, which isn’t owned by anyone. This means that it’s every man for himself, and since it contains fish, which carries value in our society, people will try to get as many fish as they can before it runs out, since it’s free. So, without ownership you can’t protect things, and if you can’t protect things society is doomed to have bad actors who will take advantage of what we deem valuable.

And so, while preserving economic freedom to build a better future to our children is important, society also needs to take into consideration to what extent it is willing to deregulate its markets without making its present citizenry so deeply unequal that resentment begins to grow through the cracks and radicalization of ideas become mainstream. The same way that this utopian world we dream of where there’s very little suffering has been proven over and over to be just a dream, savage capitalism is also proving to be an inhuman system that sucks the life out of 90% of the population while disproportionally benefiting the current holders of capital. Historically, we’ve seen this tape being played repeatedly throughout time – when things got too unequal, successful societies found ways to reign in discontent through redistribution of prosperity in effective and productive ways. While those that swung too far in either direction were pushed to the annals of history among the company of fallen empires.


On Hot Topics

The old saying goes, “don’t talk about politics or religion at the dinner table”. Friendships can be ruined, reputations desecrated, and, most popular nowadays, cancellations of entire livelihoods can happen on a whim. But why is it that we have grown so intolerant of uncomfortable conversations? For a couple of centuries now, the U.S. has modelled the democratic experiment after republicanism and a federalist system which paved the way for other nations to follow suit. While some countries, like Canada, brought democracy to life through different systems (i.e.: parliamentary democracy within a constitutional monarchy), the democratic process in liberal societies has and will always require civil disagreement to be its core tenet.

As the world became more integrated through globalization, the flow of the labour force between nations intensified. Nations adopted different immigration systems based on social, economic and political principles that have created a new map of mobility previously unheard of. Take Canada, for example, where a more liberal economic immigration policy is favorable of skilled workers, whereas the U.S. takes a different approach more strongly grounded on family reunification. Many global companies then choose to “incubate” skilled workers in Canada before sponsoring them to move to the U.S. on a green card or work permit, creating a clear path to citizenship.

This example leaves out other forms of immigration (such as asylum seekers), but illustrates a critical characteristic of liberal democracies today: diversity of ethnicities, political principles, and religious values is intensifying. By design, this creates tension in a pluralistic society, which seeks to platform the best ideas to be debated and decided on to move forward with. Think back to when Abraham Lincoln was building his cabinet to lead a nation that was on the verge of fracturing over the issue of slavery. He chose to appoint men with radically differing views, from different parts of the country, and who did not enjoy each other’s company. This was received with fervent scrutiny at the time, but sent a message to a nation at war with itself: diversity of thought, regardless of how repugnant one might be, was going to be the way forward.

Although the core principle of freedom of speech is protected in various foundational documents found across democratic nations, such as the American Constitution and the English Bill of Rights, society has found ways to weaken it through social pressure at various times in history. Whether that was by burning books that went against a political ideology that was brought into office through democratic means, or by cancelling publishing and speaking contracts of authors who had controversial views and histories, public debate has been repeatedly restricted over the course of time.

Culture wars have always nurtured polarization in societies. People haven’t changed all that much since the times when Socrates was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth”. The only difference today is that the internet has opened the lines of communication further, inviting everyone to have a platform to debate on. At face value this isn’t an issue, as a matter of fact it is highly democratic. The point of contention is on two details that have a disproportionate effect on public debate, which we have not yet learned how to moderate: mob mentality and private companies’ arbitrating powers.

Today it is far easier to mobilize thousands, if not millions, of people to lobby corporations into taking action against an individual than ever before. The “meme-ization” of shallow ideas, surrogate thinking and humans’ inherent need to belong, has made it far easier for people to have an opinion about hot topics. In a society that reads on average less than four books a year and cannot hold their attention for any longer than eight seconds at a time, having millions of people make statements on intense philosophical topics that have been debated for millennia – such as, can racism cease to exist, is there a God, how free are we –, is an ideal recipe for public confusion. And, when paired with the disproportionate power that a select few tech companies have on controlling what ideas are promoted in any one’s feeds, people are quite literally living in different worlds at a time.

But there are no incentives to change any of it – humans are addicted to outrage just as much as to sugar. Tech companies make money by keeping folks engaged in their platforms, so the most absurd and false ideas attract a far larger audience than moderate ones. Yet, when an individual is kicked off their platforms for promoting bad ideas, we open a whole can of worms on the topic of freedom of speech. This ecosystem gives shape to a new form of governance that democratic societies are struggling to grapple with today: powerful CEOs acting as unelected officials moderating the direction of public debate.

And so, while the adage of not touching hot topics is a convenient one to preserve relationships, our democracies are longing for intellectual conversations about these very ideas that will shape our future. Suddenly, putting down our phones to talk politics and religion at the dinner table doesn’t sound so bad after all.


On The Fetishization Of Freedom

The West has long fetishized the concept of freedom in the name of its, often questionable, crusades. The most recent chapter of it taking place in the Middle East, leaving behind a path of destruction and disillusionment. That is not to say that free societies are not something worth striving for, but the very concept that these societies are fighting for is not well understood by its citizenry.

For millennia the ideal of freedom has been debated by philosophers and politicians – from Plato in Ancient Greece, John Stuart Mill in 19th century England, to Isaiah Berlin in the second half of the 20th century –, yet every year there appears to be a segment of society that believes they have uncovered something new about it. A free society starts with some level of understanding of what is Free Will, and eventually moves into how the state should govern its citizens to maximize their personal freedoms without leading society to total apocalyptic anarchism. There is a large terrain that must be navigated between these two extremes, and in politics this balancing act takes place by the pulling of two levers: negative liberty and positive liberty.

Negative liberty is the lever Canadian truckers appear to be fighting for – to what extent are we comfortable with the government reaching into our personal freedoms. These freedoms can be further segmented into moral, economic and political freedoms; so, when one is boiling down such a complex issue into freedom in the singular sense, we need to stop and clarify that the concept of freedom needs to be debated plurally – which segment of personal freedoms do we feel the government may have overreached. This is a tricky lever to pull because, contrary to what libertarians believe, having no government imposition into its citizenry’s freedoms will lead to complete chaos. 

John Stuart Mill, in one of his most famous works called On Liberty, said that it is not a crime to harm oneself as long as the person doing so is not harming others. This is what philosophers describe as the harm principle, which seeks to justify the rightful purpose of power over any member of society to prevent harm to others – and for this purpose, even libertarians agree with. The earlier forms of this concept being baked into a society’s organization took place in France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, where, verbatim, it states: “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law”.

The other form of liberty known as positive liberty, can be best described as the freedoms the state creates by the passing of laws. The most famous contemporary example of this took place during the Civil Rights Movement, when the American government eventually banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. However, positive liberty isn’t always connected with good developments in history as the example forementioned – excessive positive liberty can encroach on negative liberties.

The Russian-British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, in the Four Essays on Liberty published in 1969, examined in further depth the two concepts of liberty where he warned of the potential abuses of positive freedoms. Historically, this lever had been used to defend nationalism, social engineering and collective rational control over human destiny, which paradoxically fulfilled a society’s rational desire of self-mastery and self-determination while inadvertently justifying political totalitarianism. The clearest example of this took place in Nazi Germany when the state coerced its citizens to believe in their version of “true freedom” by enacting anti-Semitic legislation limiting the participation of Jews in German public life (and eventually far worse atrocities). 

As we can see with the examples above, there is a balancing act that a society must engage in to move their vision of a free country forward. Excessive amounts in either direction – negative or positive – lead to unwanted outcomes. As Berlin once said, “unlimited liberty for capitalists destroys the liberty of the workers, unlimited liberty for factory-owners or parents will allow children to be employed in the coal-mines”, whereas unlimited liberty for workers destroys the benefits of capitalism and the fruits it generates. So, as one continues to fulfill their democratic duties in a free society, they must always ask themselves to what extent they’re comfortable with pulling either lever and if imposing such ideals on societies without the appropriate institutions in place to manage this balancing act will in fact emancipate them. In the end of the day, one cannot be completely free if they are to co-exist with other human beings – they can only be autonomous insofar as their autonomy doesn’t break with their civil responsibilities.

As the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner once said in advocacy for ethical individualism, “People who merely preach ethical codes without being able to put them into a plan of action, are morally unproductive”.


On Attachment To Success

The concept of attachment is commonly found in Buddhism teachings and in the study of Stoicism (Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, most notably), both of whom have become fairly popular in the West in recent years, particularly in the coaching circles. What appears to be happening today is that modern society’s demands have reached such a point that people are looking for ways to reduce their suffering from stress and judgement by referring back to ancient texts. Most of the time, given the complexity of these works, the virtues contained in them are being digested into self-help books that seem to be overflowing our bookstores today.

Let’s start with the stress pain point. Since the creation of Web 2.0 in the early 21st century, we’ve seen advertising take a new form that expanded beyond our TV screens and newspapers, and into every moment of our daily lives. Companies like Meta, Twitter, and Google have become the largest platforms of publicity for consumerism and people simply cannot escape it anymore. It’s as if we took our TV sets and placed them in our pockets – everywhere we go, we are being bombarded with new products, services and values that shape our cultural environment in ways difficult to contain.

This new playing field has created some complicated sources of suffering for us poor primates. Consumer goods are no longer being marketed as products, but rather as a lifestyle – a lifestyle that we see desirable people living as they display their entire lives on social media. This never-ending cycle of consumerism creates a mentality of scarcity that turns the wheels of capitalism. You will always need the latest iPhone, the newest fashion articles that are trending, the finest dining experiences. People attach themselves to these status-signaling products, which effectively makes their wellbeing ever more fragile. But the very pressure to fit into all the different communities today is what spins the wheels of growth and innovation in a capitalist society. It is what has enabled our standard of living to dramatically improve over the course of the 20th century, and it is also what has shaped the way we work and the pace at which companies need to move to remain competitive. As a member of this society, chances are that you work for one of these companies, whose productivity growth has been moving at a snail’s pace as of late, forcing them – and you – to do more with less.

This brings us to our second source of suffering: judgement. Humans are inherently hierarchical creatures. We are always comparing ourselves to others and social media is the mother of all places to see how amazing everyone’s lives are. Whether that is status-signaling their travels around the world or their professional accomplishments, people are quick to attach themselves to their successes – when in fact this is the quickest path to disillusion.

Anthony de Mello in his book Awareness, described this effect in the context of personification. We wrongly identify ourselves with success or failure – “I am a lawyer”, “I am a businessman”, “I am a failure” –, when in fact we aren’t any of this. By clinging on to these shallow definitions of ourselves we end up spending our time worrying that they may fall apart. The clash between these illusions with reality inflicts a form of suffering that has become routine in modern society today.

And so, although detaching ourselves from these things will inevitably improve our wellbeing, it is extremely difficult to do so in a society that is moved by productivity, self-improvement and competitiveness. But, if there is one thing we can find solace on is that failure is, and has always been, a far better teacher than success.


On Experiencing The Passage Of Time

During this time of year, the concept of time is ever more present. New Year’s is still fresh in our minds, as well as all of our resolutions for the year ahead. Office workers are about to receive their performance reviews on the year that has gone by, and their bonuses will be determined on whether or not they’ve hit their targets in the specified time frame they were being measured on. As human beings engaged in the productive economic chain, time feels like it’s either flying by or dragging on.

But the concept of time isn’t an objective one. As Luiz Felipe Pondé so eloquently explained on the year-end episode of Linhas Cruzadas titled “Is the New Year an illusion?”, there are many different types of time studied in the field of philosophy: cosmic time, physiological time, sociological time, and even technological time.

Cosmic time is indifferent to us. As people living in the pale blue dot, we are simply related to it in an ephemeral way. This is the Universe’s time – where time is relative to the distance of space itself.

Physiological time can be best understood as cellular or biological. Our bodies are all aging, yet the way we experience it is completely outside of our control. People can try to alter it with medical procedures to change its appearance but you can’t effectively change its pace. And once it expires, our physiology simply dissolves and we turn into dust.

Sociological time is the one humans in the 21st century are most familiar with. It’s composed of calendars, the pace of the productive economic chain, juristic sentences, deadlines, etc. However, what most people don’t realize is that this experience of time is a fairly recent phenomena in human history. 50,000 years ago – and for that matter, even just 1,000 years ago -, there was no sociological time. There were no calendars, New Year’s parties, deadlines. The majority of human existence has happened in times of repetition – whether or not it was Monday or Saturday, you did the exact same things. For contrast, modern social time in a place like New York City goes by a lot faster than in Woodville, Mississippi. The reason being that social relations in NYC are expensive and you need to generate economic activity, so whether you complete a task now or in one hour can cost a business a lot of money.

Finally, technological time is one that takes place within the Web 2.0 (ie.: social media). It runs in parallel to sociological time, but follows different rules – the distance from point A to B is irrelevant, unlike in the real world; or when having a debate online, your argument will repeat itself to everyone who reads it, enabling hundreds of people to partake in the discussion without your presence. This type of time is the newest and is getting faster with each year that goes by.

Much of the discontents of modern society today derives from their relationship with time. Whether someone passes away, or you’re in a deadline crunch, or a pandemic pushed you to work fully online and remote – it feels like there’s never enough time. This subjective experience cannot be taken lightly as time is the only finite resource we have, physiologically speaking.

And so, making the most of our time doesn’t fall on doing more things in less time, since time itself is experienced subjectively. Rather it comes down to pausing and truly appreciating our movement through it – the smells, sights, sounds and thoughts that are constantly morphing into our human experience. Maybe then, and only then, the time we have will feel like enough.


Song Of The Birds

Early in the morning, I hear them
Sing a full spectrum of harmonies
As if saying to all living beings to
Rise up and go on
Spin the wheels of life on Earth
And go do what you were meant to do before
Sleep and calm befell upon every corner of the land
That you found yourself in
Early in the morning, I hear them

Halfway across the world
In a jungle of bricks, leaves and everything in between
The sound is different but
The message still clearly the same
Reminding that today is another day and one must
Rise up and go on
Lay another brick on this project we call
Life, day after day
I still hear them

No matter where I go, except
In the farthest corners of the land where
Life struggles to exist and silence befalls like a spell
As if still asleep, forgotten to
Rise up and go on
To take a step toward further existence in the fight
Against an overwhelming nothingness that
Takes hold in the forgotten corners of the world where
The guardians above the clouds cannot reach

Early in the morning, I hear them
Touch every cell in my body with a soft
Melodic vibration which
I cannot make up the words, only the intent and
Consistency of each day that from 
High above the heavens
The Divine itself lifts me by my underarms
Like a child in need of a push to
Rise up and go on



On Seeking Adventure

For millennia humans have sought and gone on amazing adventures – the most notable one being Odysseus’ return home after having pissed off Poseidon. However, as society became more peaceful, specialized and integrated, people only leave their desks for 3 weeks out of the year in search of some excitement. To make matters even more depressing, they spend more time documenting their adventures on social media than actually living them.

In one of his most famous novels called Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre describes this effect in a philosophical context. People often romanticize about going on an epic journey, yet the very act of thinking about going on one holds you back from immersing yourself in the moment. An adventure is a narration, and stories can only be told in retrospect. You can’t live and narrate at the same time, the very act of journeying in an adventure requires immersing yourself in the act of living.

A few basic elements of an adventure are: the hero, the quest itself, taking some sort of risk and eventually transforming oneself. It’s tough to be a hero nowadays, at least in the Marvel sense. Yet, we see them around us everywhere – the single mom with two jobs in order to put food on the table, the nurse working day and night to save their patients, or even the unknown government worker intersecting hack attacks on a daily basis. But does it always have to be such grand acts of sacrifice like this?

Some people simply don’t have the option not to be courageous – for that single mother, giving up isn’t an option. However, we are all heroes in our own stories. Yes, some are raised in more difficult conditions than others, but experience is subjective – what is scary for one man may be routine for another.

The quest will always involve some form of risk. Whether that is taking a plane to South America, or driving to work – we are not devoid of danger. Life is a dangerous endeavour and it involves just as much suffering as happiness. Oftentimes we find ourselves seeking to relieve pain and remain in a constant state of happiness – that is simply not possible. Humans are highly adaptable, as a recent study on snowbirds show: whenever someone moves from a cold climate to a hot one, happiness spikes in the short term but largely subsides to previous levels shortly after. Being at peace with the feeling of sadness, fear and danger is paramount to living a full existence.

The thought that an elevated experience lays around the corner, somewhere in the future once you move to X place or make Y amount of money is a convenient one. It allows us to put our locus of attention on some exterior event or object, ridding us of our own internal demons.

But whether we put ourselves through tough quests or life pushes us towards it, adventures are unavoidable. The illusion that an adventure only happens during those 3 weeks of the year when you hike the Inca Trail or go bungee jumping in New Zealand is a superficial one. We are all journeying an adventurous path, yet very few realize it.


My Top Reads From 2021

As we exited 2020 with the amazing news of vaccines having been developed, I was hopeful that the new year was going to bring new and exciting horizons. I kicked off 2021 deeply interested in politics and biographies – I started January by reading A Short History of Canada (Desmond Morton), then Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land, and eventually Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. Learning about different countries’ complexities and how the great figures in history navigated difficult times is fascinating to me. It has helped me fill in the wholes of my knowledge web as I seek to make sense of what the hell is going on around me (as there was no shortage of madness already happening six days into the year…).

For the first time in years I didn’t read any business books. I’ve started to notice that the vast majority of them could be put into 1000-word articles (although there are exceptions, such as Good Economics for Hard Times). And so, the Harvard Business Review, The Economist, opinion columns on newspapers, and a handful of newsletters have become a great resource for business knowledge during my daily wanderings. Similarly, self-help books have also dropped off my lists – most of them are recycled works from philosophical thinkers, so I’ve just started going straight to the source (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, or even religious works are my go-to’s).

At around summertime, my interests took a bit of a turn, and I dove into the world of fiction. I’ve never been one to read the genre, but time has a way of changing us – a good fictional story today will teach me more than most textbooks (while being far more enjoyable to read). I have a running list of Classics that my father has recommended me to read over the years, supplemented by reading lists curated by some of my favourite contemporary thinkers. All in, I believe this giant list to be essential for a modern liberal education, and so I’ve started picking away at it.

In my Goodreads page you can find all of the books I’ve read this past year and if you’re looking for recommendations, below are the Top 5 books that had the biggest impact in my thinking this past year.

The books I read in 2021. It was a year of biographies and literature.

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I picked up this book after taking Doris Goodwin’s U.S. Presidential History and Leadership course on Masterclass. It was a fantastic refresher on what makes an effective leader and how some of the most iconic presidents in U.S. history used to live.

Team of Rivals tells the story of none other than Abraham Lincoln. This 700-page behemoth tells an in-depth and engaging narrative of the life of one of history’s most amazing leaders. From his humble beginnings in a log cabin in the woods of Kentucky all the way to his tragic death at the Ford Theater, this is a page turner.

It is simply fascinating learning about Lincoln’s genius in preparing the population for change and leading the Union through one of the bloodiest wars that the U.S. has ever gone through. His ability to unite and inspire people is unmatched, and Doris makes it easy for anyone, American or not, to understand what the hell happened in mid-1800s America.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to understand the Civil War and what makes a great president. In the times we live today it seems that exemplary leaders are hard to come by, but this book gives you direct access into the life of undeniably America’s greatest president.

PS: if you’re feeling inspired, I highly recommend you buying Doris Goodwin’s The Presidential Biographies pack – it contains Team of Rivals, Teddy Roosevelt’s Bully Pulpit and Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt’s No Ordinary Time.

Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

Freud is a polarizing figure – from his early days trying to convince the scientific establishment of the effects of hypnotism, to his addiction to cocaine and troubling work with his daughter Anna, there isn’t a shortage of criticism to go around regarding his ways. But what is undeniable is his impact on the field of psychotherapy, which many attribute its birth to him.

I stumbled upon this book after listening to a Brazilian philosopher named Luiz Felipe Ponde, who has attributed much of his intellectual formation to Freud. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud takes you through a philosophical argument that tries to explain why modern society is unhappy.

He explains his theory of the Id, Ego and Superego, and how humans have an innate violence within themselves that is often expressed through work in a capitalist society and sexual desires. He makes the case as to why communism can lead to further violence and the role that laws have in a society where some of its members have a weak Superego (which is the part of the psyche responsible for the emotions of guilt – hence a critical concept in understanding psychopaths).

This is a great introduction to Freud and a thought-provoking book that will make you reflect deeply on how the debate over societies’ organization models (capitalism vs socialism, totalitarianism vs democracy, etc.) all begin with the human psyche. This book has led me to another work on his biography (Freud: A Life of Our Time by Peter Gay), which I gave as a gift to my dad for Christmas, but haven’t yet read. If you’re looking for an entertaining series on Freud, Netflix’s Freud tells a fantastical story during his early years working with hypnosis.

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (R. Pavear & L. Volokhonsky translation)

Even though a fiction novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, alongside philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, gave birth to Existentialism in the mid-19th century, a philosophical theory that emphasizes that the human experience is subjective and that the universe is irrational. 

Dostoevsky was ahead of his time and was one of the first authors to tell stories through the character’s thoughts and feelings, instead of a removed narrator telling a series of events. Through his deeply flawed protagonists, he gave readers access to a new dimension in literature, which is one of the reasons why Dostoevsky is considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time.

In Notes from Underground, he divides the book into two parts: the first is the character’s deepest thoughts and conflicts he has with himself (the “underground”), whereas the second part is chronologically before the first, and depicts a series of events that led to those thoughts.

This classic is filled with philosophical dilemmas, as a retired St. Petersburg civil servant battles with humanity’s desire to create a utopia against one’s own self interests. There’s a lot to unpack in this short book, and it deserves to be read many times over. This is such an important book, that you can find entire lectures online that discuss the ideas enclosed in its pages.

“What does reason know? Reason knows only what it has managed to learn (some things, perhaps, it will never learn; this is no consolation, but why not say it anyway?), while human nature acts as an entire whole, with everything that is in it, consciously and unconsciously, and though it lies, still it lives.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground

The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre was another existentialist who wrote numerous classics at a time where society was battling with new moral dilemmas. Born in Paris in the early 20th century, he saw two world wars, was a Marxist who believed the Soviet Union was a revolutionary state working for the betterment of humanity, and once refused a Literature Nobel Prize in protest against “the institutions”. In sum, this guy had a pretty wild life – which is often seen as a requirement for fascinating writers (nod to Ernest Hemingway).

In The Age of Reason, Sartre tells the story of a philosophy teacher, who is deeply driven by his socialist ideals, trying to preserve his notion of freedom by looking for money to pay for his mistress’s abortion. The story takes a series of unexpected turns, and it constantly engages the readers in thought provoking dilemmas that makes one realize that right or wrong is subjective.

In the coming year we will be hearing the U.S. Supreme Court decide on whether to overturn Roe v Wade. This is a charged topic that requires deep inquiry into one’s most closely held beliefs and how they should be projected into society. By reading The Age of Reason, one can think through the very questions that hundreds of thousands of people battle with each year in the face of an unexpected pregnancy. It all starts with empathy, and Sartre will pose you difficult questions that most hope they will never have to answer.

Torto Arado (“Crooked Plow”) by Itamar Vieira Junior

This book won numerous awards over the past year in Brazil and abroad for the lyric and narrative style that Itamar Vieria Junior so beautifully composed as he tells a fictional story grounded on a troubled reality.

The narrative takes place in the early to mid-20th century, when slavery in Brazil had just recently been effectively outlawed. The work is divided into 3 parts, and follows two sisters who, in the face of a tragic event, become deeply connected for the rest of their lives. The story is narrated by different characters in each section and brings the reader into a reality that millions of rural workers have had to face over the course of Brazilian history.

It’s magical, tragic and beautiful all at the same time. Itamar, who has a Ph.D. in Ethnic and African Studies from the Universidade Federal da Bahia, wrote a book that many believe should be studied at universities now. Torto Arado, which translates to “Crooked Plow” in English, is a must read for anyone seeking to understand the long-term effects of slavery in Brazil.

Unfortunately, this book is only available in Portuguese, Italian and Bulgarian – for now. The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts has awarded a grant to Montclair State University Professor Johnny Lorenz to translate the work into English, so the novel should be available in more languages shortly (as well as in series or film form eventually).


I hope I was able to be of help in picking a couple books for your 2022 reading list. Please drop me a line with what you’re planning to read in the new year in the comment section!

To see what I’m reading year-round, follow me on Goodreads here.


You can find my 2020 Book Picks here.