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Tessa Watt recommends the best books on Mindfulness

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Tessa Watt is a mindfulness teacher and consultant and author of a number of books on mindfulness. Five Books interviews her on the best books on mindfulness:

Could you tell me, briefly, what you understand by ‘mindfulness’?

Mindfulness, most simply put, is present moment awareness. That sounds very simple, but as we start to look at our minds we discover that a huge amount of our time is caught up in automatic thinking, and in thinking about the past and the future. Mindfulness is a training in how we can come back to what’s here and what’s present. So it’s a natural capacity that we all have, but we also have practices that we can use to train this capacity and to strengthen it.

Before we get into the practices, why would anybody want to be wholly in the present? It seems to be quite useful to be able to relate the present to the past and the future. I’m always thinking about what I’m going to do next. I might step under a car if I didn’t think about the future a little bit.

Absolutely. Of course we have to think about the future and the past. But if we examine our minds and what they’re actually doing moment to moment, a huge amount of that thinking about the past and future is unhelpful: it’s mental clutter, it’s rumination on things that happened, it’s perhaps worrying about things that may not happen in the future.

What mindfulness does is allow us to let go of some of those very unhelpful automatic patterns of thinking, and come back to the present. That frees up space and capacity to think about the past and the future more creatively and more effectively.

And this isn’t just a hunch, is it? There is scientific evidence to support the idea that practising mindfulness has beneficial effects on mental health.

Yes. There are now something like 1,200 research papers a year, at last count, on mindfulness. Not all of them have the same level of experimental design, control groups and so on, but there’s a lot of very good evidence around mindfulness, particularly around the capacity for resilience to depression and anxiety, and around reduction of stress. So, we have really good evidence that mindfulness reduces stress levels, and also increases our capacity for paying attention, especially with the current sense of information overload that we have. Mindfulness really trains our ability to be able to focus on one thing at a time. It also helps us a lot with our reactivity: it enables us to not be triggered by our emotions into automatic patterns of reaction, but actually to be able to react more calmly and wisely in daily situations.

How did you first get involved in mindfulness, because I know you were a historian originally?

I started my career in academia. I was a historian in Cambridge and I was riding around on an old bicycle and spending many hours in the library. It was a very quiet life. Then I decided to make a career change and I accepted a job as a trainee BBC radio producer in London, and suddenly I found myself working at Oxford Circus, working in live radio. It was very exciting but also very stressful. At that point I really noticed that my whole system revved up. I found it hard to sleep, I was quite anxious even though I was enjoying my job, and so I was looking for something to help me find a bit of balance in that situation. Someone pointed me towards meditation, as we called it then. This was before we had mindfulness bringing these practices into more mainstream settings. I went to a Buddhist centre to learn meditation, found that extremely helpful and it became a bigger and bigger part of my life. I did many courses and retreats and found that it was transformative.

When I had the opportunity to take redundancy, when the BBC was doing one of its big culls, I was looking around for the next step. This was just when secular mindfulness was taking off in the UK. So I trained as a mindfulness teacher and in 2009 I co-founded Being Mindful, which offers mindfulness training for the public and in workplaces. As well as teaching, I’ve also been commissioned to write a couple of books about mindfulness, and to co-present an online course called Be Mindful Online, which has trained over 12,000 participants so far.

You’ve mentioned Buddhism: is there a connection between Buddhism and mindfulness, because some of the practices seem very similar?

Mindfulness is a natural human capacity, but certain traditions have been interested in training the mind and Buddhism, in particular, has taken an interest in this for the last 2,500 years. The techniques that we use in secular mindfulness are mainly drawn from the Buddhist tradition, but they’ve been taken out of that setting. There’s no need to have any particular belief-system or any kind of dogma, you can practise them just as a natural capacity that we can train. But, yes, there is this link with the Buddhist tradition.

Let’s move on to the five books you’ve chosen. Could you tell me about your first choice, a book by Mark Williams and Danny Penman called Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (2011)?

This is the book that I would recommend as the most practical one on the list. It takes you through an eight-week course and it has audio to go with it, either as a CD or in digital form, depending on whether you buy the book or the Kindle version. It’s really something that you can follow as a course on your own. I would always recommend doing a face-to-face course if you can because it’s very good to relate directly to a teacher and a group, but if you’re not at the stage where you want to engage that deeply, then this is a great option. The author, Professor Mark Williams, is the leading mindfulness expert in the UK, and he’s the founder of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) which is one of the leading formats in mindfulness. It’s been very well studied, and there’s a large evidence base behind it. He has condensed that MBCT course into a shorter version that someone can do at home.

Could you explain what the cognitive behavioural element is? I know CBT is a big deal and that it often explicitly acknowledges its debt to Stoicism, a different tradition from Buddhism. How does CBT relate to mindfulness?

The basic techniques in the course are all focused on mindfulness. But Mark Williams and his colleagues have brought in some elements from CBT that they find to be complementary and helpful. In particular, this course grew up in relation to supporting people who have a history of depression. The biggest factor maintaining depression is the tendency towards rumination, towards cycles of negative thinking that people find very difficult to escape from. Mindfulness is extremely helpful in training this skill, and in learning that a thought is just a thought and that you can make some choices about whether to follow that thought or not. The CBT elements are there especially to reinforce that relationship with thought.

If the core of mindfulness is a kind of meditation that keeps you focused on the moment, why does it take a course to learn that? It seems to me that you could just start focusing on the moment. Why do you need a course or a book that goes through a number of steps?

It does sounds simple, but if you sit down to try and do it, most people discover it’s actually very difficult. In mindfulness, we use very simple focus like the breath or the body when we sit down to do that. And when people attempt this, they typically find they can’t do it. Nobody can really do it at first. We begin to discover all the many ways in which we can’t do it, which includes our mind being very busy; which includes difficult emotions which come up; which includes working with challenging body sensations.

A course really helps us to understand how we work with all those different challenges. We begin to appreciate that, although it seems simple just to sit and pay attention to the breath, it’s a very profound practice because we’re actually becoming familiar with our own mental patterns, our own emotions, and the way we work as human beings. A course really helps us to understand the context and to discover the transformative potential in that, rather than it being just about concentrating on our breath which is, in itself, not the whole story.

Transcendental Meditation (TM) was a big deal when I was an adolescent. Is it different from the kind of meditation involved in mindfulness?

I’m not an expert on Transcendental Meditation, so I couldn’t really say for sure about the differences. My understanding is that TM works with a mantra and it would share some of the same elements as mindfulness meditation. I think it has more emphasis on going into some kind of blissful or transcendental state; whereas mindfulness is not so much about going into any different kind of state: it’s really about being here with things just as they are in this moment.

What about your second book choice?

I’ve chosen Into the Heart of Mindfulness (2016) by Ed Halliwell. This is a lovely book. Ed Halliwell was a journalist who, in his twenties, was working for men’s magazines and living quite a wild life of a young lad in the 90s, and he completely burned out and became incredibly depressed. He’s written this very moving, authentic account of how he got out of that through mindfulness. I think it’s very valuable in the way that it shows the difficulties, how challenging it is—he doesn’t make it sound like a quick fix in any way. He describes very vividly the dark places that he was in during that period, but also how mindfulness worked to help him out of that. He also has a good understanding of science and of Buddhism, so he brings to the book a lot of insight from both the scientific and the Buddhist traditions.

Is this book pure autobiography or is there a didactic element?

Very much a didactic element. He uses his own story as the basis, but then he draws on science, he draws on Buddhist traditions looking, for example, at the Buddhist idea of the self and how mindfulness at its most transformative is about letting go of a more narrow habitual understanding of the self, and how it potentially opens us to a much wider understanding of the self that comes from Buddhist tradition.

So the Buddhist tradition is of ‘no self’, isn’t it, of anatma? Ultimately there is no self, it’s an illusion: the self that we ordinarily discuss. At a metaphysical level there is just flux, and it’s a very arbitrary connection of experiences that we call the self. In the Buddhist tradition there is no core or essence of it. Do you have to believe that to be engaging in this kind of mindfulness? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 July 2017 at 3:31 pm

Good argument that Mrs. Bennet is the most subversive of Jane Austen’s characters

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Very interesting essay by Rachel Dunphy in LitHub.com:

Of all the delightful idiots filling the pages of our well-worn copies of Pride and Prejudice(hint: this is everyone except maybe Charlotte), one of the best is also one of the most overlooked—even by Jane Austen, who never grants her a first name. Mrs. Bennet, mother to the five Bennet sisters and incorrigible social gadfly, is largely dismissed by both the book’s readers and its facetious narrator, but she is perhaps the most radical character in the novel.

She tends to be read at face value—flighty, talkative, too often drunk, and too obsessed with marrying off each of her daughters. The clever jokes her husband makes at her expense go right over her head, much to his amusement and her elder daughters’ disappointment. But the willful disregard Mrs. Bennet shows to the sensibility and decorum most of her compatriots value so highly is not her weakness but in fact her greatest strength.

The woman has one abiding goal through the novel: to see all her daughters married and thus financially secure. An entail demands that none of her five children, all girls, may inherit their father’s estate, and thus they will have no permanent home or source of income unless they find it in wealthy men. Through the homogenizing fog of history, her obsession sometimes feels ridiculous—but when the options are marriage or destitution, and when you live in the countryside where well-bred men are scarce, and when at least two of your daughters are already past prime marriageable age, panic is understandable. Love is lovely, but Mrs. Bennet’s mission is about survival.

Unlike the rest of the family, prattling about feelings and manners and values and wit (yes, I mean you, Lizzie), she takes the plight of her children seriously, and she works tirelessly to ensure their futures. She schemes endless scenarios to endear her daughters to men of means, at one point orchestrating Jane’s prolonged illness (and thus residence) at Mr. Bingley’s Netherfield estate, at another attempting to force Elizabeth into an unhappy marriage with her cousin Mr. Collins, and at every chance throwing Lydia and Kitty toward an endless parade of military officers. Not all of her efforts are successful, to be sure, but marriage is a numbers game, and the Bennet matriarch is the sole, the necessary pragmatist in a house filled with idle dreamers.

Remarkably, even as she shoulders the burden of her family’s future alone, Mrs. Bennet rails against the confines of the misogynistic society she inhabits. When she exclaims angrily, repeatedly, unceasingly about her daughters’ inability to inherit property—“the hardest thing in the world,” she calls it—our heroines, Jane and Lizzie, exhaustedly explain the logic of the sexist concept yet again. “They had often attempted to do it before, but it was a subject on which Mrs. Bennet was beyond the reach of reason, and she continued to rail bitterly against the cruelty of settling an estate away from a family of five daughters, in favor of a man whom nobody cared anything about.” How silly was this mother of theirs, who couldn’t understand the simple, obvious absurdity of a woman inheriting a house.

Jane and Lizzie are far from oblivious to their perilous situation. They know they must marry before they are forcibly removed from their ancestral home by the combined powers of tradition and the aforementioned aggressively dull male cousin. They know that, in their early twenties, their eligible years are coming to a close. But they neither rebel against the injustice nor actively seek to nullify it. Neither is bitter about the entail; it is an unavoidable consequence of fate. And neither takes an active role in husband hunting, instead preferring to stumble lazily—and in Lizzie’s case quite resistantly—into blissful marriages with wealthy best friends (Congrats! Glad it all worked out). When Elizabeth’s longtime friend Charlotte marries the rejected Mr. Collins, Lizzie is embittered to see the slightly older woman compromise her standards for security—but the matter of Charlotte’s inheriting her home and all its worth is a non-issue. Her mother sees it differently and bitterly condemns Collins and Charlotte at every opportunity, even years after their marriage. There is nothing she can do to change the legal status of herself or her daughters, but still she refuses to accept it, and she will not be quiet about the injustice of it even while those who it affects most consider the matter settled and have found superior situations. Mrs. Bennet is revolutionary in her simple and abiding refusal to shut up, even as those for whom she chiefly advocates desperately wish for her do so.

While working within a system she openly acknowledges to be against her, Mrs. Bennet acts freely and without restraint. . .

Continue reading.

That’s an interesting site. Try Rebecca Solnit’s essay on the loneliness of Donald Trump.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 July 2017 at 6:42 pm

Posted in Books

Public choice theory is crucial to understanding the criminal justice system

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In the Washington Post Radley Balko has an interesting column (as usual):

Nancy MacLean’s new book, “Democracy in Chains,” is causing a lot of controversy. In the book, MacLean, a well-regarded and award-winning historian at Duke University, takes on the late libertarian economist and Nobel laureate James Buchanan, one of the originators of public choice theory. The book has been enthusiastically praised by outlets such as NPRNew RepublicSlate and the Atlantic.

It has also been roundly criticized by libertarians (though not just libertarians) for a number of reasons, including MacLean’s misleading(often deceptive) use of quotations, her conspiratorial tone and tendency to draw links that don’t exist, her fundamental misunderstanding of her subject matter, her sourcing that at times directly contradicts her assertions, and her tendency to assign sinister motivations to her source material.

I’ll leave the in-depth criticism of the book itself to others. Instead, I want to delve into public choice theory itself, explain the influence it has had on my own work and explain why it’s so important to the issues we cover here at The Watch. Before I do, I’ll go ahead and note that I identify as a libertarian. I’ll also disclose that prior to my work here at The Washington Post and previously at the Huffington Post, I worked for Reason magazine and the Cato Institute, two organizations commonly affiliated with the Koch family, one of the targets of MacLean’s book. I also know and have worked with some of the people MacLean targets in her book.

It was during my time at Cato that I was first exposed to the public choice work of Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Generally speaking, public choice theory is the use of economic tools to analyze political behavior. One of the most important findings from the field is that when people work for the government, they don’t always act in the public interest. In fact, they are more likely to act in their own interest.

This is a pretty intuitive observation. And yet somehow it remains controversial. Government employees are human beings, after all. We have no problem believing that people in the private sector tend to act in their own interests. Public choice merely posits that people don’t shed that tendency when they get a government paycheck. It doesn’t suggest that government employees are evil or lazy or inherently corrupt. It’s more that there’s nothing transformative about working for the government that makes someone more or less selfless than someone in the private sector. On some level, this clashes with the high regard we attach to public service. But it doesn’t need to. We can still admire, say, someone who gives up a large salary in the private sector to take a job in public service, while recognizing that not every decision that person makes thereafter will always be in the best interests of the public. It doesn’t need to be a nefarious thing. It may take the form of cognitive bias instead of some conscious decision. If you think your public service job is critical, for example, you might read data in a way that a way that emphasizes the importance of what you’re doing. Or you might be tempted to exaggerate the social problem your agency exists to fight if doing so means not having to lay someone off or take a cut in pay.

The substantive lesson from all of this is that we should design government institutions and align incentives for public official and government employees in ways that acknowledge and compensate for how people actually are (sometimes self-interested) instead of how we wish them to be (always selfless and public-minded).

In the area of criminal justice and civil liberties, the ramifications of this are pretty profound. For example, in a number of areas of constitutional law, the Supreme Court has fashioned a “good faith” exception when police or prosecutors violate someone’s constitutional rights. Under certain conditions, a good faith exemption can excuse an otherwise illegal search. When police or prosecutors lose evidence in a criminal case that may have been exculpatory, the Supreme Court has ruled that defendants are out of luck unless they can show that law enforcement officials acted in bad faith — which in most cases is next to impossible. In other words, the courts assume the cops or prosecutors were acting in good faith unless proven otherwise.

These decisions then essentially become road maps for unscrupulous police or prosecutors. Body cameras are a good example. Because the courts have generally assumed good faith when body-camera footage goes missing, or when cameras themselves malfunction, we’ve seen an small epidemic of lost footage, accidentally deleted footage and damaged cameras.

One of my favorite examples came in a drug dog case the Supreme Court considered a few years ago. Drug dogs have notoriously high rates of false alerts. The fear is that many of these dogs are not alerting when they detect the presence of drugs, but that they’re picking up on their handlers’ body language and alerting when the handler suspects someone may be hiding drugs. There’s good evidence for this. There’s also at least anecdotal evidence that some handlers can prod a dog to alert on command. Because a drug dog alert is probable cause for a search, under either scenario, these dogs can provide legal justification for a search based on little more than a police officer’s hunch. That’s exactly the sort of thing the Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect against. During oral arguments in the case, Justice Antonin Scalia seemed perplexed as to why a police officer could possibly want a drug dog that would falsely alert. He speculated that a dog that frequently alerted falsely would be a waste of time and resources. But of course there are lots of reasons why a police officer would want such a dog. By the time a K-9 unit is inspecting a car, the police already strongly suspect illegal activity. The drug dog is a shortcut to a search — a search that might find drugs but also weapons or evidence of some other crime. Between arrest and seizure quotas (which, if not explicit, are often implied) and asset forfeiture, there are plenty of incentives for a cop to want a tool that gives them carte blanche to search anyone they find suspicious. And a properly trained (or improperly trained, depending on your point of view) drug dog does exactly that.

You can see public choice theory in action all over the criminal justice system. It’s helpful for understanding why police unions don’t always represent the best interests of police, much less the interests of the community. It explains why it’s advantageous for police officials toexaggerate the threat of crime in some circumstances and underreport it in others. It explains why a policy such as civil asset forfeiture provides an incentive for police to wait until drugs are already on the streets to make busts, instead of busting drug dealers while they’re holding a large supply. (A car or stash house full of drugs provides no financial reward for the investigating police agency. A car or stash house full of cash is a potential windfall.) It explains how federal grants can incentivize police departments to expend resources rounding up hundreds of low-level drug offenders instead investigating crimes such as murder or robbery or rape, which typically don’t come with a federal bounty.

As you might imagine, Buchanan’s ideas have traditionally received a warm reception on the political right. Except when it comes to criminal justice. Oddly, the same Republican politicians who tout the trappings of public choice when railing against the Environmental Protection Agency or the Securities and Exchange Commission demand deference to law enforcement officials, even though they’re subject to the same analysis. They can’t see how a police officer or prosecutor might be tempted to bend the rules, take shortcuts or take actions that serve their own interests rather than the public’s. Perversely, this is the one area of public policy where Buchanan’s ideas are most important, because the stakes are so high.

Public choice also explains a lot of the odd choices of public interest groups outside of government. . .

Continue reading.

Later (and there’s quite a bit more):

. . . Look at the elections of judges. Electing judges is obviously a more democratic policy than appointing them. But it’s far from clear that judicial elections make the courts fairer or more just. In fact, the evidence suggests otherwise. A 2015 study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that judges facing reelection or retention hand out harsher sentences as Election Day approaches. Similar studies in Washington and Pennsylvania have found similar results. The studies further found that judges who were retiring — i.e. no longer influenced by the democratic process — were less likely to impose punishment harsher than the sentencing guidelines. The Brennan study also found that in states where judges are elected, the more supportive the public is of capital punishment, the more likely judges are to hand down death sentences when they’re up for reelection. A 2016 studyfound that sentences of black (but not white) defendants increased by 2.4 percentage points in the final six months of a prosecutor’s election cycle. A 2015 Reuters study found that appellate court judges who were elected rejected the appeals of death row prisoners at twice the rate of judges who are appointed. In Alabama, judges can impose the death sentence even if a jury recommends otherwise. And not surprisingly, judges are more likely to do so during election years.

If you value democracy above all else, you ought to be celebrating these findings. This is the democratic process doing exactly what it’s supposed to do: These elected officials are responding to the will of the people. But I’ll go out on a limb and assume that someone of Nancy MacLean’s politics would not celebrate these findings. And if I’m right, that’s because there are some principles that she values more than democracy — justice, fairness, mercy, equality before the law.

The United States leads the developed world in incarceration. We also have one of the world’s most politicized criminal justice systems. It seems unlikely that these two things are coincidental. We’re the only country in the world where prosecutors are elected, and we’re one of only a few where judges are. Incidentally, 95 percent of America’s prosecutors are white, and nearly 80 percent are white men. These are the people who disproportionately send black people to prison. This, too, is democracy in action.

A 2007 study of prosecutors in MacLean’s own state of North Carolina found that in election years, criminal defendants were significantly more likely to be convicted and less likely to have their charges dismissed. Interestingly, this effect was more pronounced for drug and property crime than for violent crime. Which means that in cases where prosecutors had room for discretion, they were more punitive in election years. Moreover, the effect was even more pronounced among district attorneys facing competition for reelection. In other words, more democracy meant more punitiveness. In fact, a 2012 study of district attorney campaigns found that when incumbent prosecutors do have election opponents, the campaign rhetoric is rarely about policy or priorities, and it tends instead to be more about personality, and aberrant, high-profile cases. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

21 July 2017 at 3:51 pm

The Rise of the Thought Leader

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David Sessions writes in the New Republic:

Writing in one of Mussolini’s prisons in the 1930s, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci jotted down the fragments that would become his theory of intellectuals. New classes, like the European bourgeoisie after the Industrial Revolution, he proposed, brought with them their own set of thinkers, which he called “organic intellectuals”—theorists, technicians, and administrators, who became their “functionaries” in a new society. Unlike “traditional intellectuals” who held positions in the old class structure, organic intellectuals helped the bourgeoisie establish its ideas as the invisible, unquestioned conventional wisdom circulating in social institutions.

Today, Gramsci’s theory has been largely overlooked in the ongoing debate over the supposed decline of the “public intellectual” in America. Great minds, we are told, no longer captivate the public as they once did, because the university is too insular and academic thinking is too narrow. Such laments frequently cite Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals (1987), which complained about the post-1960s professionalization of academia and waxed nostalgic for the bohemian, “independent” intellectuals of the earlier twentieth century. Writers like the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof attribute this sorry state of affairs to the culture of Ph.D. programs, which, Kristof claims, have glorified “arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” If academics cannot bring their ideas to a wider readership, these familiar critiques imply, it is because of the academic mindset itself.

In his book The Ideas Industry, the political scientist and foreign policy blogger Daniel W. Drezner broadens the focus to include the conditions in which ideas are formed, funded, and expressed. Describing the public sphere in the language of markets, he argues that three major factors have altered the fortunes of today’s intellectuals: the evaporation of public trust in institutions, the polarization of American society, and growing economic inequality. He correctly identifies the last of these as the most important: the extraordinary rise of the American superrich, a class interested in supporting a particular genre of “ideas.”

The rich have, Drezner writes, empowered a new kind of thinker—the “thought leader”—at the expense of the much-fretted-over “public intellectual.” Whereas public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Martha Nussbaum are skeptical and analytical, thought leaders like Thomas Friedman and Sheryl Sandberg “develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot.” While public intellectuals traffic in complexity and criticism, thought leaders burst with the evangelist’s desire to “change the world.” Many readers, Drezner observes, prefer the “big ideas” of the latter to the complexity of the former. In a marketplace of ideas awash in plutocrat cash, it has become “increasingly profitable for thought leaders to hawk their wares to both billionaires and a broader public,” to become “superstars with their own brands, sharing a space previously reserved for moguls, celebrities, and athletes.”

Drezner does his best to take an objective view of the thought leader as a new kind of intellectual who fulfills a function different from that of the public intellectual, though an equally legitimate one. “It is surely noteworthy,” he writes, optimistically, “that a strong demand has emerged for new ideas and vibrant ways of thinking about the world.” But he seems to portray this thirst for new ideas as a positive development even while conceding that the ideas currently thirsted for are at best shallow and banal, at worst deeply anti-democratic, and at times outright fraudulent.


The case against thought leaders, The Ideas Industry shows, is damning. As Drezner notes, some of the marquee names in thought leadership are distinguished by their facile thinking and transparent servility to the wealthy. The biggest idea in Thomas Friedman’s best-known book, The World Is Flat, is, Drezner summarizes, that “to thrive in the global economy, one needs to be ‘special,’ a unique brand like Michael Jordan.” It is more of a marketing principle than a philosophical insight. But “businessmen adore Friedman’s writings on how technology and globalization transform the global economy,” Drezner explains, because his message reinforces their worldview.

Like Friedman, thought leaders Parag and Ayesha Khanna proclaim the world-historical power of technological innovation, preaching that technology with a capital “T” is replacing economics and geopolitics as the engine of global change. As Evgeny Morozov has observed, Parag Khanna believes that “democracy might be incompatible with globalization and capitalism,” arguing that we should thus embrace authoritarian, Chinese-style capitalism. In his own review of Khanna’s Connectography, Drezner characterized his thinking as “globaloney” and likened his prose style to “a TED talk on a recursive loop.”

Drezner traces how the pursuit of money in the new corporate ideas industry—through television shows, high-dollar speeches, and lavish book advances—pushes thought leaders to bloat their expertise and hustle in so many markets that they end up selling fakes. The most notorious example is Fareed Zakaria, the CNN host and columnist who has been caught lifting passages from other writers to feed his multiplatform output. Similarly, the historian Niall Ferguson leapt headlong into brand-building: crafting books intended as scripts for TV series, giving lucrative speeches, and writing for a dizzying array of publications. Like other overstretched thought leaders, Ferguson landed in trouble when his Newsweek cover story on President Obama in 2012 turned out to be riddled with errors and misleading claims. Interviewed for The Ideas Industry, Ferguson is frank about his transformation from Oxford don to thought leader: “I did it all for the money.”

Despite Drezner’s impatience with the delusions of thought leaders, he shrinks from the darker implications of his evidence. When it comes time to render a verdict on whether the Ideas Industry is “working,” he conjures an economic metaphor: “For good and ill, the modern marketplace of ideas strongly resembles modern financial markets. Usually, the system works. On occasion, however, there can be asset bubbles.”

Nowhere is the inadequacy of this metaphor more evident than in his case study of the rise and fall of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.” Christensen proposed that “disrupters”—companies that upend their industries with new technologies and business models—gain a competitive advantage over companies that grow by gradually improving their product. Airbnb might be considered a disrupter in the hotel industry, for instance, since it has grown rapidly by attracting a large base of users who rent their homes to guests, instead of acquiring and operating hotels. The idea of “disruptive innovation” caught fire in Silicon Valley, Drezner argues, because it “conformed to a plutocratic worldview in which success favors the bold, risk-taking entrepreneur.” Atop this enthusiasm, Christensen built a lucrative brand, producing eight books and founding the Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard, his own consulting company, and a boutique investment firm.

In 2014, however, nearly two decades after Christensen debuted disruptive innovation in the Harvard Business Review, historian Jill Lepore eviscerated the theory in a widely read essay in The New Yorker. Lepore found that Christensen’s case studies were ambiguous and overblown: Seagate Technology, a company that was supposed to have been “felled by disruption,” had in fact thrived, doubling its sales the year after Christensen ended his study. Disruptive companies whose successes he heralded had meanwhile gone out of business. Lepore’s essay prompted an even more damning critique of Christensen in MIT Sloan Management Review, and sparked a backlash in Silicon Valley. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 July 2017 at 11:15 am

Most of what you think you know about human reasoning is wrong. Here’s why.

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Henry Farrell has an interesting interview in the Washington Post:

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber are the authors of “The Enigma of Reason,” a new book from Harvard University Press. Their arguments about human reasoning have potentially profound implications for how we understand the ways human beings think and argue, and for the social sciences. I interviewed Mercier about the book.

HF: So, many people think of reasoning as a faculty for achieving better knowledge and making better decisions. You disagree. Why is the standard account of reasoning implausible?

HM: By and large, reasoning doesn’t fulfill this function very well. In many experiments — and countless real-life examples — reasoning does not drive people towards better knowledge or decisions. If people start out with the wrong intuitive idea, and then start reasoning, it rarely does them any good. They’re stuck on their initial wrong idea.

What makes reasoning fail is even more damning. Reasoning fails because it has a so-called ‘myside bias.’ This is what psychologists often call confirmation bias — that people mostly reason to find arguments that whatever they were already thinking is a good idea. Given this bias, it’s not surprising that people typically get stuck on their initial idea.

More or less everybody takes the existence of the myside bias for granted. Few readers will be surprised that it exists. And yet it should be deeply puzzling. Objectively, a reasoning mechanism that aims at sounder knowledge and better decisions should focus on reasons why we might be wrong and reasons why other options than our initial hunch might be correct. Such a mechanism should also critically evaluate whether the reasons supporting our initial hunch are strong. But reasoning does the opposite. It mostly looks for reasons that support our initial hunches and deems even weak, superficial reasons to be sufficient.

So we have a complete mismatch between, on the one hand, what reasoning does and how it works and, on the other hand, what it is supposed to do and how it is supposed to work.

HF: So why did the capacity to reason evolve among human beings?

HM: We suggest that the capacity to reason evolved because it serves two main functions:

The first is to help people solve disagreements. Compared to other primates, humans cooperate a lot, and they evolved abilities to communicate in order to make cooperation more efficient. However, communication is a risky business: There’s always a risk that one might be lied to, manipulated or cheated. Hence, we carefully evaluate what people tell us. Indeed, we even tend to be overly cautious, rejecting messages that don’t fit well with our preconceptions.

Reasoning would have evolved in part to help us overcome these limitations and to make communication more powerful. Thanks to reasoning, we can try to convince others of things they would never have accepted purely on trust. And those who receive the arguments benefit by being given a much better way of deciding whether they should change their mind or not.

The second function is related but still distinct: It is to exchange justifications. Another consequence of human cooperativeness is that we care a lot about whether other people are competent and moral: We constantly evaluate others to see who would make the best cooperators. Unfortunately, evaluating others is tricky, since it can be very difficult to understand why people do the things they do. If you see your colleague George being rude with a waiter, do you infer that he’s generally rude, or that the waiter somehow deserved his treatment? In this situation, you have an interest in assessing George accurately and George has an interest in being seen positively. If George can’t explain his behavior, it will be very difficult for you to know how to interpret it, and you might be inclined to be uncharitable. But if George can give you a good reason to explain his rudeness, then you’re both better off: You judge him more accurately, and he maintains his reputation.

If we couldn’t attempt to justify our behavior to others and convince them when they disagree with us, our social lives would be immensely poorer and more complicated.

HF: So, if reasoning is mostly about finding arguments for whatever we were thinking in the first place, how can it be useful?

HM: Because this is only one aspect of reasoning: the production of reasons and arguments. Reasoning has another aspect, which comes into play when we evaluate other people’s arguments. When we do this, we are, on the whole, both objective and demanding. We are demanding in that we require the arguments to be strong before changing our minds — this makes obvious sense. But we are also objective: If we encounter a good argument that challenges our beliefs, we will take it into account. In most cases, we will change our mind — even if only by a little.

This might come as a surprise to those who have heard of phenomena like the “backfire effect,” under which people react to contrary arguments by becoming even more entrenched in their views. In fact, backfire effects seem to be extremely rare. In most cases, people change their minds — sometimes a little bit, sometimes completely — when exposed to challenging but strong arguments.

When we consider these two aspects of reasoning together, it is obvious why it is useful. Reasoning allows people who disagree to exchange arguments with each other, so they are in a better position to figure out who’s right. Thanks to reasoning, both those who offer arguments (and, hence, are more likely to get their message across) — and those who receive arguments (and, hence, are more likely to change their mind for the better) — stand to win. Without reasoning, disagreements would be immensely harder to resolve.

HF: Despite reason’s flaws, your book argues that it “in the right interactive context, works.” How can group interaction harness reason for beneficial ends? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 July 2017 at 12:29 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

Mindful Parenting

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Five Books interviews Genevieve Von Lob:

Dr Genevieve von Lob is a clinical psychologist. She has worked with families from every type of background during a ten-year career spanning private practice, NHS child and adolescent mental health services and work for local authorities. She has been widely quoted in the media, including in the Telegraph, Daily Mirror, Financial Times, Top Santé and Grazia, and featured as a consultant therapist in an episode of Channel Four’s Dispatches. Her new book Five Deep Breaths: The Power of Mindful Parenting was recently published by Transworld.

The interview begins:

 I’m really intrigued about the idea of mindful parenting. What is it?

The last thing I want to do is tell mums and dads what kind of parents they should be.  It’s hard enough being a parent, and all the advice on offer can make it seem even more overwhelming. The idea of ‘mindful parenting’ is to help parents find their own answers. So many mums and dads I’ve worked with have ended up questioning their judgement when they know their child better than anyone. I wrote Five Deep Breaths to empower parents to listen to their own inner guidance and learn to trust themselves again. In a sense, ‘mindful parenting’ is a break with the kinds of behavioural strategies and techniques for disciplining your child parenting experts have emphasised in the past, almost as if raising a child was like training one of Pavlov’s dogs. The danger with these kinds of strategies is that they can reinforce the myth that there’s some ideal, one-size-fits-all way to raise children, and parents can feel very discouraged and disempowered when the approaches they read about in books don’t work.

I often find that parents who come to me have tried everything – they’ve been to all the parenting groups, they know all the techniques – but nothing is actually working. And I think it’s often because they’ve spent so much time listening to other people’s opinions that they’ve lost touch with their own intuitive guidance – what I call ‘the inner parent.’ For me, mindfulness is all about learning to step back from our busy minds so we can hear what our ‘inner parent’ is saying. We can get so stuck in our heads that we forget that the feeling of connection we share with our child is by far the most important thing.

And it’s also hard, I suppose, because (unless it’s a single parent family) you are parents. There are two different views, although you’re trying to do it together.

Having children can put all kinds of pressures on a relationship, and parents can often have very different perspectives on what’s best for their children, often based on the way they were brought up. The great thing about mindfulness is that it can help you to notice when you’re slipping into the same old patterns in your relationships and choose a new response. The other great thing about mindfulness is that it’s something you can easily incorporate into your daily life. You don’t have to carve out time to try to meditate because I think for most parents that’s just really hard. It’s just too big of an ask. Mindfulness shouldn’t be another thing on the to-do list, or something else to strive for. Striving is the opposite of being kind to yourself, which is what mindfulness is all about.

Even something as simple as remembering to take little pauses throughout the day to check-in without yourself and just ask “How am I feeling? What kind of thoughts am I having?” can make such a big difference. I called my book Five Deep Breaths because taking a few deep breaths is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to calm a busy mind and bring yourself back into the present moment. Taking a breath acts like a brake on our nervous system and calms our whole physiology down, and we can start to see things more clearly. We learn to respond, rather than react.

It’s about prioritising what’s important. So much can shift when you start to slow down a little bit. It’s an inner thing. You really start to appreciate those little moments of connection with your child when you get them. There’s something wonderful about being really present with your child when you’re reading them that bedtime story, rather than thinking I’ve got to do x, y and z later.

I’m so guilty of that – reading them bedtime stories and weighing up how much I can get away with paraphrasing or skipping.

It’s not a matter of ‘guilt’, it’s just the way we’re programmed. Part of being mindful is choosing not to beat ourselves up when we don’t manage to be mindful. We can learn to say to ourselves: ‘Okay, that’s fine, every moment is a new moment. I haven’t been particularly mindful today but I can be kind to myself about that and realise I’m doing my best here and that has got to be good enough.’ I think we can be very hard on ourselves and there are some great suggestions for being kinder to ourselves in some of the books I’ve chosen.

Your first choice is The Whole-Brain Child (2011). I’ve returned to this book several times since reading it, because it is so informative. Especially when the author gives examples of parenting mistakes that can happen. I recognise so many of them! . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 July 2017 at 5:43 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

Where Physics Meets Philosophy

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Five Books interviews popular-science writer Jim Baggott on some of his favorite books on physics:

As a non-physicist, I find physics really hard to understand compared to most other subjects. I tried some of Brian Greene’s books, for example, which are for a general audience. Even those, I struggled with. I find this really frustrating because physics is so important—it’s telling us what’s around us and what’s going on in the universe. And yet, somehow, my brain can’t grasp it. Why?

There is a challenge that anyone faces trying to present some of the ideas of contemporary physics—to explain what are really quite deep and somewhat convoluted ideas in ways that are accessible. In all of the work that I’ve done, I feel I get a little better at it each time. But I still tend to produce books that are a struggle for anyone coming at this without any background.

The other thing that you learn from this is that there is a sense in which, in a curious way, there never was any real guarantee that nature would, ultimately, be understandable in a simple way. That was maybe a little bit of a mistaken view—brought about by the fact that some aspects of the classical ways of looking at things, like the mechanics of Newton, were easier to get our heads around.

That’s actually quite an important message. If you struggle with the concepts, it’s because nature is pretty complicated—at least as far as we currently understand it.

And it’s always contingent. We never quite know when the next theoretical breakthrough or new piece of experimental data will turn our current ideas on their heads.

I think the concepts are graspable in a very general sense, that even people without the right kind of background can make some sense out of what’s going on. But it requires some effort, I have to say.

From reading your book about the discovery of the Higgs boson, it seems like you do find physics easy to understand?

No—I struggle with it. I’ve always had an ambition to write books where I’m stretching my own understanding and using it as a vehicle to learn. So I’m learning as I go along. And, then, you face the struggle of communicating that—to write about it in a way that’s hopefully accessible to as many people as possible.

But don’t be fooled. Some of the guys who seem very authoritative—who write best-selling popular science books—by and large they’re also on the edge of their own understanding. Nobody, frankly, has got a decent grasp of the full picture. It really is that challenging.

Yes, there is a level of deep mathematical complexity. But that’s a little bit of a red herring. That’s not the reason everyone struggles to come to terms with what the theories are saying. Irrespective of the mathematics, it’s the concepts that you end up wrestling with. They are actually quite baffling.

Richard Feynman—a very, very charismatic, American, Nobel prize-winning physicist—once said, ‘I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.’ Given that he won his Nobel Prize for developing a structure called quantum electrodynamics, you’d think that at least he would have the authority to say, ‘I fully understand that.’ But no.

I think anyone is kidding themselves if they say they understand these things. There’s an ability to work with these concepts, where you learn how to calculate things. If you can set aside any concerns for what the hell it might mean, then you get on and you can make some progress.

But the minute you start to ponder what it might actually all mean is the minute you start to tie yourself in conceptual knots. And that’s the way it is.

How many physics books have you written now?

I’ve written ten books. My first was published back in 1992, in the dark ages, and was called The Meaning of Quantum Theory. My most recent book, Origins, was a much more ambitious attempt to try and explain the scientific story of the whole of creation from the Big Bang to human consciousness. But mostly I’ve tended to write about things like particle physics and quantum mechanics. My latest book, called Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields, is firmly back in this territory.

In the title of your book about the discovery of Higgs boson you refer to it as the ‘God particle.’ Has your philosophical view of the world been affected by studying physics?

It helps to understand where that term came from. An American particle physicist called Leon Lederman published a book in 1993 called The God Particle. He explains, in the foreword to the book, that he actually wanted to call it The Goddamn Particle, but his publisher wouldn’t let him.

The search for the Higgs in the early 90s was causing unbelievable anguish. At the time, American theorists were pitching for building something called the Superconducting Supercollider which was going to cost I don’t know how many billions of dollars. Eventually, in 1993, Congress cancelled it.

Although the name ‘the God particle’ brings a lot of baggage with it, there is a sense in which it is quite important. It’s a particle that physicists had been wanting to find for a very long time.

The way that modern quantum field theory works is that you have a field, which has values everywhere throughout space and time. Particles are therefore considered to be fundamental disturbances or fluctuations of the quantum field. They kind of pop out, they undergo collisions, and we make measurements on them.

The Higgs boson is the fundamental quantum particle of the Higgs field. And it’s the Higgs field that actually gives you the ‘woo’ effect and starts to lead you to become somewhat metaphysical or even theological because the existence of this field means that particles in the universe have mass. There’s absolutely no doubt that, according to current theories of physics, if the Higgs field did not exist then nothing would exist—at least, nothing with mass. Everything in the universe would be a bit like light—it would just zip around at the speed of light and nothing would ever happen.

That was one of the reasons that Lederman felt compelled to say there’s a sense in which we’re at the book of Genesis here. Whether you accept his arguments or not is neither here nor there, but it was a name that struck a chord in the popular imagination and it’s a name that tended to stick. I have no bones about using it in the subtitle of my book, which was published just a few short weeks after the discovery of the Higgs was announced.

When I talked to Peter Higgs about it, and asked, ‘Do you have a problem with that?’ he actually didn’t. He’s been on the record as saying he hates the name, but he didn’t seem to mind. It’s one of those things. As a writer and as a communicator, you have to find a way to hold people’s interest.

Ok, you are straying along the edges of science and theology maybe a little bit. There was never any sense in which ‘the God particle’ was suggesting, in any way, the existence of a creator but, at the same time, it stimulates discussion and gets people interested. If they pick up an article or a book or watch a documentary because of a trigger like that then, hopefully, what they’re going to learn is going to be useful. It is an important particle.

I notice from your book that a lot of these particles are either named after people or something like ‘quark’ which was, again, a bit like ‘Goddamn’ wasn’t it?

The origin of ‘quark’ is Finnegans Wake. There’s another American theorist called Murray Gell-Mann who was a bit mischievous. He thought the whole naming business was quite ridiculous. So he happily named these things and perhaps even surprised himself when it turned out that this was actually a correct way of describing elementary particles.

We have things like up and down quarks, strange quarks, charm quarks, top quarks, bottom quarks—all of these different names represent what are known as quark ‘flavours’. Quarks also have ‘colour’. Not, literally, a colour in the sense that we would understand it; they have properties that come in triplets and, in an attempt to keep things in order, physicists chose to call them colours: red, green, and blue. So, you can have a red up quark, and a green down quark, and a blue strange quark, and so on. These are all aspects of things that we’ve learnt about some of these elementary particles. But in a moment of non-seriousness, yes, they can get named sometimes rather strangely.

And ‘boson’ was named after an Indian physicist.

Satyendra Nath Bose. His work came to the attention of Einstein. There’s a branch of development in physics called Bose-Einstein statistics. All of the particles that make up atoms and molecules, that make us up and the universe that we know, the elementary particles that sit at the root of all of those—very much in the nature of Greek ‘atoms’—are all particles with a characteristic spin that means that they’re classed as something called fermions. It doesn’t matter what spin is and it doesn’t matter what properties fermions have, but they are very different from the kinds of particles like photons which carry forces between the matter particles. They have a different spin, of a type that classifies them as bosons. And if you want to know what the fundamental difference is then, in a sense, if it’s a matter particle, such as a quark or an electron, then it’s also a fermion. If it’s a particle that transmits forces between matter particles, then it’s a boson. That’s a simple rule of thumb but that’s how nature is.

I like the picture you have in your book, of Margaret Thatcher entering a room, as a way of illustrating the Higgs boson. Do you think more illustrations, more being able to visualise things, would help people?

Continue reading.

There’s a bit more general discussion, and then he discusses the eponymous Five Books, which in this case are:

  1. Asimov’s Guide to Science.
  2. Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein
  3. Quantum Physics: Illusion or Reality
  4. The Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics
  5. Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb

It’s a relatively long post, but I found it quite interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 June 2017 at 11:18 am

Posted in Books, Science, Writing

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