Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

“Multitasking Isn’t Progress—It’s What Wild Animals Do for Survival”

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Ted Gioia writes:

I plan to write a series of posts outlining some unconventional or dissident conceptual frameworks I’ve found useful in understanding contemporary society.

These aren’t the usual tired ideas or dead metaphors already familiar to us. I won’t even mention those stale truisms, because you already know every one of them—in fact, we would all probably be better off forgetting them.

Fewer things are more destructive than a dead-end concept. They are much like dead-end roads—they take you on a trip to nowhere. They provide an illusion of motion, but actually bring you further away from any useful destination.

The concepts I’m sharing are less familiar, and all the more valuable for that reason. They have forced me to look at everyday situations in new ways, requiring me to challenge some of my own preconceptions and attitudes. Even when they fail to encompass all of a particular reality, they still add value by disrupting the labels and assumptions that I use—and all of us use—to navigate through day-to-day life.

In this installment, I want to focus on Byung-Chul Han’s concept of the Burnout Society.

Han is one of the most significant German philosophers of our time, but his background is unusual. He was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1959, and studied metallurgy before moving to Germany to immerse himself in philosophy, theology, and literature. He received his doctorate in 1994, writing his dissertation on Martin Heidegger. His philosophy career didn’t start in earnest until his forties, yet he has now published at least twenty books.

Until recently, Han gave no interviews. In a celebrity-driven culture, he refuses to play the game, remaining stubbornly reluctant to discuss his own life and personal background. But that hasn’t prevented him from gaining a large audience, much broader than you might imagine a German philosopher attracting in the current day.  His lectures draw a capacity audience, and his ideas are now crossing over into other disciplines. In particular, a number of people in the art and culture world have started to pay close attention to his concepts and opinions.

Those who have read my book Music; A Subversive History may recall my use of Han’s aesthetic concepts—notably his view that the cult of smoothness is the defining quality of contemporary art. He applies this concept to everything from the design of the iPhone, with its comforting smooth contours, to the Brazilian bikini wax, which aims at a similar endpoint on our bodies.

In this instance, I want to focus on a different concept, namely Han’s notion that we are living in a “Burnout Society” that causes a wide range of characteristic dysfunctions and ailments. These are difficult for society to address because the assumptions built into our inquiries are actually causing these problems.

What follows below is mostly from Han, but reframed and focused by some of my own ideas.


.
THE BURNOUT SOCIETY

Everywhere around us we see the signs: depression, burnout, hyperactivity, anxiety, self-harm. Sometimes the disorders get classified as medical syndromes with impressive acronyms, such as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) or BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder).

In other cases—a suicide or fatal breakdown, for example—things have gone too far for even medical intervention. All the acronyms in the world won’t help you then. But in every instance, something similar can be seen: the victims are at war with themselves.

That’s misleading, Han would say. They only seem to be the instigators of their problems, which are coming from . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

This reminds of something I’ve come to realize in recent years. FOMO (fear of missing out) is pointless because you (and I and any individual) will miss out — inevitably. There is too much in the world — and even too much in human culture or even just in our own particular culture — to absorb. You (and I) will miss out on many more things than we don’t miss out on.

I blogged recently about two brief videos about areas of knowledge and activity on which I’ve totally miss out in the sense of having concrete and specific knowledge, experience, and skill: making movies and making small airplanes. I watched those two videos with fascination because they showed me how much i’ve missed out on in just those two specific areas.

I’ve made my peace with that, and I focus on enjoying (and doing as well as I can, which is generally far short of expertise) things I do encounter and like. Rather than being frustrated by all that I’m missing, I luxuriate in all that I have. That seems the sensible choice, given the ineluctable realities of life. I leap joyously into those things I am not missing out on, and I continue to pay attention to what I encounter, and occasionally seize onto something new (fermenting vegetables, for example).

I believe it’s a big mistake to miss what you actually encounter because your attention is focused on worry about things you’re missing. We taste but a tiny sliver of what life has to offer, so it’s important to enjoy the slice we get.

Written by Leisureguy

24 January 2022 at 12:13 pm

Rejoice! Bookworms live longer!

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Rhea Hirshman writes in the Yale Alumni Magazine:

The next time you talk to a clinician about how you’re taking care of your health, you might want to include a discussion of your
reading habits.

Although sedentary activities are not usually regarded as promoting health, a recent study by Yale researchers showed a significant link between book reading and longevity. (The work was published in the journal Social Science and Medicine.) Researchers examined data from 3,635 individuals who have been involved over several years in a nationwide health study of people over age 50. Based on their answers to the question “How many hours did you spend last week reading books?” respondents were divided into three groups: those who read no books, those who read books for up to three and a half hours, and those who read books for more than three and a half hours.

The study showed a marked advantage for book readers. Over 12 years of follow-up, those who read books for up to three and a half hours per week were  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

24 January 2022 at 10:24 am

A discovery regarding appetite

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I have read about “intuitive eating,” but don’t really know much about it. I think the idea is to eat only when hungry and to do that by paying attention to your body’s cues. That sounded to me a lot like it meant to eat when I felt like eating and, unfortunately, I find I frequently feel like eating, which makes maintaining a healthy weight difficult.

The other evening I was thinking about this, and I recalled something from one of the books that  I find myself repeatedly recommending, namely A Life of One’s Own, by Joanna Field (the pseudonym of Marion Miller — the book has been republished with Miller shown as the author). Here’s the passage:

The first hint that I really had the power to control the way I looked at things happened in connexion with music. Always before, my listening had been too much bothered by the haunting idea that there was far more in it than I was hearing; but occasionally I would find that I had slipped through this barrier to a delight that was enough in itself, in which I forgot my own inadequacy. But this was rare, and most often I would listen intently for a while and then find I had become distracted and was absorbed in the chatter of my own thoughts, personal preoccupations. Impatiently I would shake myself, resolving to attend in earnest for the rest of the concert, only to find that I could not lose myself by mere resolution. Gradually I found, however, that though I could not listen by direct trying I could make some sort of internal gesture after which listening just happened. I described this effort to myself in various ways. Sometimes I seemed to put my awareness into the soles of my feet, sometimes to send something which was myself out into the hall, or to feel as if I were standing just beside the orchestra. I even tried to draw a little picture to remind myself of how it felt. [drawing is shown in the text – LG]

In my notes I find:

Last Wednesday I went to the opera at Covent Garden, Rigoletto. I was dead tired and could not listen at first (sitting on the miserably cramped gallery benches), but then I remembered to put myself out of myself, close to the music – and sometimes it closed over my head, and I came away rested in feeling light-limbed.

At this time also I began to surmise that there might be different ways of looking as well as of listening.

One day I was idly watching some gulls as they soared high overhead. I was not interested, for I recognized them as ‘just gulls’, and vaguely watched first one and then another. Then all at once something seemed to have opened. My idle boredom with the familiar became a deep-breathing peace and delight, and my whole attention was gripped by the pattern and rhythm of their flight, their slow sailing which had become a quiet dance.

In trying to observe what had happened I had the idea that my awareness had somehow widened, that I was feeling what I saw as well as thinking what I saw. But I did not know how to make myself feel as well as think, and it was not till three months later that it occurred to me to apply to looking the trick I had discovered in listening. This happened when I had been thinking of how much I longed to learn the way to get outside my own skin in the daily affairs of life, and feel how other people felt; but I did not know how to begin. I then remembered my trick with music and began to try ‘putting myself out’ into one of the chairs in the room (I was alone so thought a chair would do to begin with). At once the chair seemed to take on a new reality, I ‘felt’ its proportions and could say at once whether I liked its shape. This then, I thought, might be the secret of looking, and could be applied to knowing what one liked. My ordinary way of looking at things seemed to be from my head, as if it were a tower in which I kept myself shut up, only looking out of the windows to watch what was going on. Now I seemed to be discovering that I could if I liked go down outside, go down and make myself part of what was happening, and only so could I experience certain things which could not be seen from the detached height of the tower…. One might have thought that after the discovery of such a new possibility I would have been continually coming down to look at things. Actually, however, with the press of a daily work which demanded thought, not feeling, I seem to have forgotten the fact of this new freedom, also I think I was afraid of it and loth to leave the security of my tower too often.

So as I was sitting my chair and thinking about getting something to eat, I remembered that passage and decided to put my consciousness into my body — specifically into my gut. When I did, I felt no urge at all to eat. in fact, I felt quite satisfied.

That was odd, because I had definitely been thinking about getting something to eat, so I tried putting my consciousness into my mouth — and there it was. I suddenly had a clear and distinct desire for food in my mouth: a salad, cold and crisp and crunchy; or a hot meal with softer textures, like mushrooms sautéed with butter and onions and some cooked grain; or perhaps some cold spicy veggies, like a bowl of the Other Vegetables or Spinach that was in the fridge. I definitely felt like ating.

Then I switched my consciousness back to my gut, and again the urge to eat vanished. I felt satisfied and didn’t really want anything. I found that interesting (and I did not eat anything more that evening.)

It seems clear that my mouth likes stimulation, and eating food is just such an activity. So my mouth enjoys food a lot, and is always ready for more. In contrast, my gut seems to desire food only when it needs food, and otherwise it wants to be left alone to go about its business and not be bothered by taking on more work.

It’s like my mouth is flighty — easily aroused, readily distracted, never satisfied — so it’s important that i pay attention to my gut, a more reliable guide to my need for food. My mouth is always up for food and is easily distracted into wanting food, so I must it keep it on a short leash. It can have its fun only when my gut wants food — not nearly so often as when my mouth wants entertainment.

Written by Leisureguy

23 January 2022 at 10:08 pm

An exchange on Quora

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This morning I responded to a comment on my answer to the question “What is the best way to disagree with someone?” My answer, shown at the link, was

[Originally Answered: What is the classiest way to disagree with someone?]

I like H.L. Mencken’s approach. Mencken was a reporter and writer in Baltimore who did not suffer fools gladly (and who considered much of the public fools). Outraged readers who wrote to H. L. Mencken would receive in reply a preprinted card:

Dear Sir or Madam:

You may be right.

Yours sincerely,

H. L. Mencken

More here: “You may be right”

I’ve received a variety of comments on my answer, including one thanking for the link (which does take one to an interesting article). The comment this morning was:

More seriously, be respectful of their opinion. Just because they don’t agree with you doesn’t mean they’re idiots. Try to understand their viewpoint.

My response to his comment:

I absolutely agree. One of the 7 habits of highly effective people that Stephen Covey discusses in his book of that name is Habit 5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” the idea being that unless you show a willingness to listen, to display what some call “cognitive empathy,” in which you are able to view the issue from their perspective, most people will not listen to you or make an effort to understand your perspective. If you don’t seek to understand, most will feel that you just don’t get what they’re saying, and instead of listening to you, they will try again to explain their view.

So it’s helpful to listen to them and ask clarifying questions until you can state their position even better than they can.

I do confess, though, that if their opinion, clearly stated, is that they refuse to be vaccinated because the CIA has worked with Bill Gates to create tiny 5G nanochips that are mixed with the vaccine, then I fall back on “You may be right” and get away as quickly as I can. Experience has taught me that people so far gone into a fantasy require more help than a conversation can deliver.

Nowadays I am often reminded of Don Quixote, who read so many novels of knight-errantry and was so steeped in those fantasies that he no longer viewed the world as others perceive it: instead of windmills, he saw giants, instead of flocks of sheep, he say armies, instead of a discarded barber’s basin, he saw Mambrino’s Helmet, disguised by an enchantment.

His delusions, which certainly made his life more interesting and were comical, had also a tragic aspect. I was told of a high-placed Spanish official who said, back in Franco’s day, that so long as people read Don Quixote and laughed, all was well, but if they read it and cried, then trouble was coming.

Looking about the world today, I believe that reading Don Quixote would be an interesting exercise. (FWIW, in my blog I have written both about Covey’s book — Covey’s 7 habits — and a fair number of posts about Don Quixote — for example, Reading Don Quixote and crying. Searching the blog on “don quixote” will find more.)

Written by Leisureguy

23 January 2022 at 11:32 am

How a New Hampshire libertarian utopia was foiled by bears

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This Vox report by Sean Illing is from just over a year ago — published in December, 2020 — but it deserves some recognition and reading:

Every ideology produces its own brand of fanatics, but there’s something special about libertarianism.

I don’t mean that as an insult, either. I love libertarians! For the most part, they’re fun and interesting people. But they also tend to be cocksure about core principles in a way most people aren’t. If you’ve ever encountered a freshly minted Ayn Rand enthusiast, you know what I mean.

And yet one of the things that makes political philosophy so amusing is that it’s mostly abstract. You can’t really prove anything — it’s just a never-ending argument about values. Every now and again, though, reality intervenes in a way that illustrates the absurdity of particular ideas.

Something like this happened in the mid-2000s in a small New Hampshire town called Grafton. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, author of a new book titled A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, says it’s the “boldest social experiment in modern American history.” I don’t know if it’s the “boldest,” but it’s definitely one of the strangest.

The experiment was called the “Free Town Project” (it later became the “Free State Project”), and the goal was simple: take over Grafton’s local government and turn it into a libertarian utopia. The movement was cooked up by a small group of ragtag libertarian activists who saw in Grafton a unique opportunity to realize their dreams of a perfectly logical and perfectly market-based community. Needless to say, utopia never arrived, but the bears did! (I promise I’ll explain below.)

I reached out to Hongoltz-Hetling to talk about his book. I wanted to know what happened in New Hampshire, why the experiment failed, and what the whole saga can teach us not just about libertarianism but about the dangers of loving theory more than reality.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

How would you describe the “Free Town Project” to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

I’d put it like this: There’s a national community of libertarians that has developed over the last 40 or 50 years, and they’ve never really had a place to call their own. They’ve never been in charge of a nation, or a state, or even a city. And they’ve always really wanted to create a community that would showcase what would happen if they implemented their principles on a broad scale.

So in 2004, a group of them decided that they wanted to take some action on this deficiency, and they decided to launch what they called the Free Town Project. They sent out a call to a bunch of loosely affiliated national libertarians and told everyone to move to this one spot and found this utopian community that would then serve as a shining jewel for the world to see that libertarian philosophies worked not only in theory but in practice. And they chose a town in rural New Hampshire called Grafton that already had fewer than 1,000 people in it. And they just showed up and started working to take over the town government and get rid of every rule and regulation and tax expense that they could.

Sean Illing

Of all the towns in all the world, why Grafton?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

They didn’t choose it in a vacuum. They actually conducted a very careful and thorough search. They zeroed in on the state of New Hampshire fairly quickly because that’s the “Live Free or Die” state. They knew that it would align well with their philosophy of individualism and personal responsibility. But once they decided on New Hampshire, they actually visited dozens of small towns, looking for that perfect mix of factors that would enable them to take over.

What they needed was a town that was small enough that they could come up and elbow the existing citizenry, someplace where land was cheap, where they could come in and buy up a bunch of land and kind of host their incoming colonists. And they wanted a place that had no zoning, because they wanted to be able to live in nontraditional housing situations and not have to go through the rigamarole of building or buying expensive homes or preexisting homes.

Sean Illing

Wait, what do you mean by “nontraditional housing”?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

As the people of Grafton soon found out, a nontraditional housing situation meant a camp in the woods or a bunch of shipping containers or whatever. They brought in yurts and mobile homes and formed little clusters of cabins and tents. There was one location called “Tent City,” where a bunch of people just lived in tents from day to day. They all united under this broad umbrella principle of “personal freedom,” but as you’d expect, there was a lot of variation in how they exercised it.

Sean Illing

What did the demographics of the group look like? Are we talking mostly about white guys or Ayn Rand bros who found each other on the internet?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Well, we’re talking about hundreds of people, though the numbers aren’t all that clear. They definitely skewed male. They definitely skewed white. Some of them had a lot of money, which gave them the freedom to be able to pick up roots and move to a small town in New Hampshire. A lot of them had very little money and nothing keeping them in their places. So they were able to pick up and come in. But most of them just didn’t have those family situations or those 9-to-5 jobs, and that was really what characterized them more than anything else.

Sean Illing

And how did they take over the local government? Did they meet much resistance?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

When they first showed up, they hadn’t told anyone that they were doing this, with the exception of a couple of sympathetic libertarians within the community. And so all of a sudden the people in Grafton woke up to the fact that their town was in the process of being invaded by a bunch of idealistic libertarians. And they were pissed. They had a big town meeting. It was a very shouty, very angry town meeting, during which they told the Free Towners who dared to come that they didn’t want them there and they didn’t appreciate being treated as if their community was an experimental playpen for libertarians to come in and try to prove something.

But the libertarians, even though they never outnumbered the existing Grafton residents, what they found was that they could come in, and they could find like-minded people, traditional conservatives or just very liberty-oriented individuals, who agreed with them on enough issues that, despite that angry opposition, they were able to start to work their will on the levers of government.

They couldn’t pass some of the initiatives they wanted. They tried unsuccessfully to withdraw from the school district and to completely discontinue paying for road repairs, or to declare Grafton a United Nations free zone, some of the outlandish things like that. But they did find that a lot of existing Grafton residents would be happy to cut town services to the bone. And so they successfully put a stranglehold on things like police services, things like road services and fire services and even the public library. All of these things were cut to the bone.

Sean Illing

Then what happened over the next few years or so?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

By pretty much any measure you can look at to gauge a town’s success, Grafton got worse. Recycling rates went . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more — and indeed, there’s the book.

It strongly reminds me of Don Quixote, who spend so much time and study in reading his books of knights-errant that those became his reality, so that when he encountered things in the real world, he could see them only through the warped lens of his reading, so he attacked the windmills as though they were giants and the flock of sheep as though they were an army. He could no longer see things as they were, but only as his books and readings told him they should be.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 4:44 pm

Great books are still great

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Full disclosure: I am an alumnus of the Great Books Program at St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD, and in addition I was a faculty member and director of admissions there a decade later. I can talk at length about the benefits of the program (which to my mind focuses on the development of intellectual skills more than intellectual content), but I’ll save that for another time — but I will note that skills are practical knowledge and thus are acquired and developed through practice.

In Aeon Roosevelt Montás, senior lecturer in American studies and English at Columbia University and director of the Freedom and Citizenship program at the Center for American Studies, has an article on the Great Books, which I believe is an edited extract from his book Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation (2021). The article begins:

As a high-school student with still-shaky English proficiency, I found a collection of Plato’s dialogues in a garbage pile near my house in Corona, Queens. I had grown up in a mountain town in the Dominican Republic and emigrated to New York City just before my 12th birthday. My mother had left the Dominican Republic a few years earlier, secured the only job she could get, earning the minimum wage in a garment factory, and petitioned for my brother and I to join her. In 1985, we entered New York City’s overcrowded public school system, where the free lunches supplied a good portion of our sustenance. Like many immigrants, we were poor, exposed, and disoriented by our uprooting.

It was not an auspicious beginning for the career I would have as student, academic administrator and faculty member at an Ivy League university. But the jarring journey became, at some point, less of a handicap and more of a peculiar vantage point from which to reflect on the intellectual and social world I had entered. My development was nourished by an education in what some people call ‘the great books’. That same education has made me sensitive to a culturally influential critique of ‘the canon’ that insists that Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Montaigne, Cervantes, Goethe, Hegel, Dostoyevsky, Woolf, et al, are not for people like me, that they are for white people, or rich people, or people born with class privileges that I lacked.

In the collection of Plato’s dialogues that I rescued from the garbage pile on that winter night in Queens, I encountered an old man named Socrates in his final days. He was defending himself against accusations of corrupting the youth and of introducing new gods to the city. ‘Men of Athens,’ he protested,

I am grateful and I am your friend, but … as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practise philosophy, to exhort you … [asking] are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honours as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?

By the end of the collection, we find him in prison on the day appointed for his execution, ‘calmly and easily’ drinking the poison, laying down, and dying: ‘Such was the end of our comrade,’ says the first-person narrator, ‘a man who, we would say, was of all those we have known the best, and also the wisest and the most upright.’ I did not need to be rich, privileged or cultured to find in those words something that spoke to the deepest sense of my own being. And I did not need to be white or European to be startled by the claim that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.

Every summer since 2009, I have used these same Platonic dialogues to introduce low-income high-school students, who hope to be the first in their families to attend college, to the philosophic, ethical, and political tradition that Socrates inspired. Every year, I see my students roused to serious self-examination and, in many cases, to an earnest and lasting reorientation of their lives. They do not see Thucydides, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and other texts we study, as alien objects belonging to others, but as thinkers who speak with a living voice to issues of urgency and relevance to their own experience. Again and again, I see these young people awaken to a source of self-worth and meaning that is not constrained by the material limitations that have otherwise hemmed in their lives.

The liberatory power of ‘the canon’ is easily lost in the theoretical haze of the academic humanities. At the same time, institutions of higher education have been all too ready to abandon the idea of liberal education – of learning for its own sake – in favour of professional and specialised studies. But the old classics still have the power to move and transform young people in ways that no technical education can. We don’t have to dilute the practical value of a higher education nor ignore the insights of the academic humanities to restore the vitality of liberal education in our colleges and universities.

In my last year of college, I . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

21 January 2022 at 11:30 am

Textual Healing: The Novel World of Bibliotherapy

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I can totally understand this. For one thing, when you are really immersed in a book, your consciousness enters a world far from the chair in which you sit and the room around you. This happens often in reading a work of fiction, but also with some nonfiction (e.g., The Great Influenza, or The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, or No Contest, or Which Side Are You On? or The Kings Depart or. … oops — got lost there for a minute; see this list for links and comments on those titles).

Katrya Bolger writes in The Walrus:

WHEN THE PANDEMIC STRUCK, in March 2020, Anne Boulton was already feeling overwhelmed. She was pursuing a PhD at Laurentian University, which meant teaching in the English department and spending her days at home reviewing readings on literature and psychoanalysis for her thesis. But personal issues were bubbling just below the surface. “When COVID happened,” she says, “suddenly you were faced with your own isolation.” She wanted to better address the strain she was dealing with.

Boulton contacted Hoi Cheu, her supervisor at Laurentian. Besides teaching literary theory, Cheu is a trained marriage and family therapist: he has drawn on his experience in both areas to offer therapeutic support, on and off, for about thirty years. He also trained in bibliotherapy, using his dual background in psychology and literary studies to recommend specific texts for people coping with life challenges from loneliness to mental illness.

Bibliotherapy is premised on the idea that books can be healing tools. It can occur in individual or group settings, though the main distinction is between clinical bibliotherapy, where texts, including fiction and nonfiction, are recommended by a clinical therapist, and nonclinical bibliotherapy, as practised by a facilitator such as a librarian. Though not a stand-alone clinical practice in Canada, clinical bibliotherapy is a method used by professionals who already have certification in counselling, therapy, and clinical therapy and want to help patients seeking an additional outlet. Nonclinical bibliotherapy can’t replace professional help for patients with mental illnesses; instead, it is often used in conjunction with other forms of clinical therapy.

Cheu, based in Sudbury, Ontario, first learned of bibliotherapy during his undergraduate degree, when he came across English professor Joseph Gold’s Read For Your Life, which outlines the benefits of bibliotherapy. In fact, the British-born Gold is widely credited with bringing bibliotherapy to Canada. Cheu began working under Gold during his master’s at the University of Waterloo and later wrote his PhD thesis on James Joyce and the art of Zen, applying principles of Buddhism to his analysis of the Irish writer’s works. He eventually became Gold’s assistant, joining him in sessions with clients in his private practice. Books, Cheu says, provide a safely cocooned space inside which people can unearth painful and sometimes repressed feelings.

When Cheu and Boulton logged on to their first virtual session, Cheu started taking notes on Boulton’s needs. “What literary character do you most identify with?” he asked her. She responded with Anna Karenina. She related to the Leo Tolstoy heroine’s strength of spirit. Like the Russian socialite, Boulton was comfortable asking for what she wanted even when she had repeatedly been discouraged by those around her. From this first session, Cheu started to build out her reading list. There was Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster, a novel about a young heroine’s tumultuous childhood in the American South. And there was Nikolai Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” a short story about a young woman seeking to escape a stifling marriage to an older man. Being a good student of English literature, Boulton dove into the texts with vigour.

THOUGH THE FIRST known use of the term bibliotherapy appeared in a satirical essay published in a 1916 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, the idea of offering reading material to those in mental distress dates back to eighteenth-century asylums. By the early twentieth century, librarians in US hospitals were even considered therapists. American military libraries also prescribed books to soldiers suffering from trauma after the First World War. These programs were eventually expanded to other hospitals and libraries.

The growing interest in the field of psychotherapy in the 1930s led to research on bibliotherapy. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, several books were published on the subject. And, as mental health treatment expanded, bibliotherapy gained broader appeal, according to Bibliotherapy: A Critical History.

Proponents of bibliotherapy firmly believe . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

18 January 2022 at 4:26 pm

A Tribute to Terry Teachout (1956-2022)

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Terry Teachout, whose writing I admire a lot, was a student at St. John’s College (Annapolis MD) for just one semester. He was a musician at the time, and he said that the curriculum just did not allow him enough time to practice. I was director of admissions there, and I recall that he wrote a brilliant application for admission. (The admissions applicatioin form, beyond the usual name and address information, consisted of questions to which essay-type answers were required.) He was also an exceptional student, and I wish he could have stayed because I think he would have contributed a lot in the discussions through which classes and seminars were taught.

He did in fact contribute much to all of us over the course of his life. Ted Gioia writes:

I’d like to tell you how I first met Terry Teachout—who left us yesterday at age 65. He was one of our finest and most erudite critics, and also a successful dramatist, but Terry was much more than that. He touched many people’s lives, and in ways that were often hidden from view.

Let me share my story.

Not long after I left grad school, I began hatching plans for my dream vocation as a jazz writer. But I had no idea how to do this.

I was living in the thick of Silicon Valley, far away from any literary community—I didn’t even know a single jazz writer. My entire output as a music critic consisted of reviews for my college newspaper, supplemented by a few contributions to local periodicals.

At that juncture in my life, most of my time was consumed with a range of demanding projects for the Boston Consulting Group, then located on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. In my few spare hours, I was working on a secret project, my jazz book—but it was a very strange book.

I had started writing it the day after I’d finished my philosophy exams at Oxford, scribbling furiously while seated in the Bodleian Library, my brain still on overdrive from two years of immersion in the Anglo-American analytic tradition. As a result, the manuscript was teeming with the most bizarre ingredients. Everything from Wittgenstein to Fellini showed up in its pages—I was searching for large life-changing meanings in the music, even what you might call wisdom. But as I read through my various drafts, I knew I had violated almost every rule of music writing.

That was soon confirmed for me, when my roommate decided to show a chapter of my manuscript to his old fraternity buddy from Dartmouth, now working at Knopf. My mind reeled at the very name Knopf—they had just published Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for heaven’s sake. And their litany of authors included some of the greatest authors of the century. With some trepidation, I handed my roommate a typewritten chapter of the book that eventually became The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture.

It took a while before the verdict came back from New York. The old fraternity buddy had passed my chapter around the office, and had some people who knew about jazz take a look at it. His response was sharp and unforgiving, but only two sentences long. “We looked at this, but it isn’t real jazz writing. Your roommate should learn from what the other music writers are doing.”

I was crestfallen, but I can’t say I was surprised. I already knew that I was an odd duck. I had no illusions I was following in the path of other jazz journalists. Even so, I had been hoping for some words of encouragement.

That’s when I encountered Terry Teachout.

I had never met him. I didn’t even know his name. But on a lark, I sent a chapter of my crazy book—unsolicited and wrapped in a plain brown envelope—to the general office of Harper’s Magazine, one of the oldest of the old school smart journals, making pronouncements on society and culture since 1850.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t really think that my article would be accepted, or that I’d even get a response—at this point, I was just willing to play the lottery of cold submissions to unknown editors. Many of you know the drill.

But in this instance, I got a lovely letter back, filled with words of encouragement. It came from a man named Terry Teachout, who was doing editorial work at Harper’s at the time. Mr. Teachout told me that the strange essay I submitted was absolutely unsuitable for the magazine, but he was very impressed by the quality of my ideas and writing. He wanted to commission me to write a feature article for Harper’s Magazine—because he knew I had the talent to do something special.

I was blown away. A New York editor had taken notice of me. This had never happened before. And he wanted to commission me to write an article, just based on my potential?

Terry also wanted to speak with me on the phone. I’ll admit, I was nervous talking to a New York editor. But the call was inspiring, almost as much a pep talk as anything else.

I can’t emphasize how much this came from Terry’s generosity of spirit—I was a nobody, who would never have any occasion to return the favor or help him in any manner. He simply wanted to reach out to me, because he believed in me, and wanted to play a role in nurturing my development.

As it turned out, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 January 2022 at 10:09 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Jazz, Music

Tagged with ,

Could Small Still Be Beautiful?

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Bryce T. Bauer writes in Craftsmanship:

1. “Economics as a Form of Brain Damage”
2. The Schumacher Center for a New Economics
3. The New Economics of Land Ownership
4. The New Economics of Business Financing
5. The New Economics of Currency
6. The New Economics of Entrepreneurship
7. Challenges to the New Economy

Four decades ago, just as some of the forces that have caused today’s problems with globalization and inequality began to take hold, a British economist by the name of E.F. Schumacher took America by storm with a set of contrary ideas about how an economy should work.

Schumacher aimed squarely at supporting everyday people and the communities where they lived. For a brief period in the mid-1970s, his name enjoyed headline status — and his book, “Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered,” joined a pantheon of powerful, call-to-action works of the time. Schumacher’s book was taken so seriously that, a few years after its publication, it was listed alongside such enduring critiques as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Paul R. Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb.”

While “Small Is Beautiful” hasn’t endured with quite the same power those works have enjoyed, its ideas have still seeped into the thinking of some of the nation’s latter-day acolytes of social and environmental sustainability, including Wendell Berry, Jane Jacobs, and Bill McKibben. Schumacher’s work also inspired a small think-tank focused on turning the small towns and bucolic countryside of the Massachusetts Berkshires into a laboratory for further exploration of his theories.

Given how rarely Schumacher’s once-popular ideas are discussed today, one can’t help but wonder—were his perceptions all wrong? Or, as the director of the institute focused on sustaining his ideas, and as Schumacher himself also said, was their time yet to come? If the latter, might that time be now? Every day, it seems, more and more experts join the argument that the accelerating dominance of global companies — in a world struggling with income inequality, resource depletion, and the growing ravages of climate change — has put us on an unsustainable path. If that bleak outlook is correct, maybe it’s time to give Schumacher’s ideas a second look.

“ECONOMICS AS A FORM OF BRAIN DAMAGE”

When “Small Is Beautiful” came out, in 1973, Schumacher had already worked for several decades as an economist. In the years after its publication, he toured the United States speaking to crowds across the country and meeting with political leaders, including an address before 50 members of Congress and a meeting with President Jimmy Carter. At the time, America was being wrenched by many of the ills he said modern economics would cause. The 1970s was a decade marked by oil and gas shocks, labor unrest and stagflation, a growing concern over the environment, and the discord of the Vietnam War. Schumacher was attuned to what it all portended. (In fact, the first use of the term “global warming” occurred just two years after Schumacher’s book was published.) Schumacher wrote “we do well to ask why it is that all these terms — pollution, environment, ecology, etc. — have so suddenly come into prominence…is this a sudden fad, a silly fashion, or perhaps a sudden failure of nerve?”

Born in Bonn, Germany, Schumacher had fled Nazi Germany to England in 1937. During the Second World War, when Great Britain began interning Germans, including Jewish refugees, Schumacher and his family moved to the countryside, where he worked on a farm until his writing caught the notice of John Maynard Keynes, the British economist who launched the 20th century’s activist alternative to unfettered, free-market economics.

The core of Schumacher’s argument lay in his book’s subtitle: “Economics as if People Mattered.” For far too long, economists had approached the problem of development in a way that focused too much on goods over people, emphasizing the elimination of labor instead of job creation. He accused these experts of treating consumption as the end itself, always to be maximized.

In Schumacher’s view, the economy would not benefit from the standard methods of stimulation; if anything, it should be de-intensified. If this could be managed, Schumacher believed, it would allow time “for any piece of work — enough to make a really good job of it, to enjoy oneself, to produce real equality, even to make things beautiful.”

The opportunity to work this way — which is central to any artisan or tradesman, and to his or her ability to produce top-notch, innovative work — clearly has only declined further in the years since Schumacher made this observation. And if anything, his critique might be even more timely today. In a new book, “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” veteran New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue that the growing scarcity of jobs that offer such visceral satisfactions is part of what’s plunged America’s working class into unprecedented levels of despair, drug addiction, and suicide.

To be truly helpful, Schumacher argued, development funds in poor areas should be spent on “intermediate technology” — that is, technology that’s cheap, resilient, and simple enough to be used by workers in areas that lack access to education, ready capital, and sophisticated infrastructure. Technology that’s too expensive, and too complex to be readily used in developing economies, he said, destroys “the possibilities of self-reliance.”

Whenever he traveled to speak about these ideas in the U.S., crowds met his stops — 2,000 in Chicago, 500 in Minneapolis, 200 at the Colorado School of the Mines in Golden, 600 in an overflow crowd at the Helena, Montana Civic Center — and his book was, at one point, reportedly selling 30,000 copies a month. His ideas also inspired a government “Office of Appropriate Technology” in California, where then-governor Jerry Brown introduced Schumacher during a 1977 tour of America. (That organization is still in existence, in slightly altered form in Montana, as the National Center for Appropriate Technology.) During Gov. Brown’s more idealistic days, he once said, “if you want to understand my philosophy, read this,” as he brandished a copy of “Small Is Beautiful.”

“The 60s was a generation that wanted to do things different…and there was Schumacher saying I was a conventional economist and I was mistaken,” says Susan Witt, who became the executive director and co-founder of what’s now called the E.F. Schumacher Center for a New Economics. “I didn’t take into account human beings. I didn’t take into account their spiritual lives. I didn’t take into account concern for the earth and I’ve had to re-think my economics. Those essays in ‘Small Is Beautiful’ touched a generation.”

One of those touched by Schumacher’s ideas was . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

13 January 2022 at 12:07 pm

To Hell and Back: Allison Cornish on the Divine Comedy

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I believe that anyone who has reached (say) middle age — and many at other junctures in their lives — will feel a thrill of recognition on reading the opening lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself again in a dark forest,
for I had lost the pathway straight and right.

Ah how hard it is to describe, this forest
savage and rough and overwhelming, for
to think of it renews my fear before it! …

How I got there, I cannot rightly say,
I was so full of sleep at that point still
at which I had abandoned the true way.

The Octavian Report interviews Allison Cornish:

Written some 700 years ago, Dante’s Divine Comedy remains one of the greatest works of world literature. Religion, politics, history, love, war, money: it has it all. The three-book epic plumbs the depths of hell and reaches for the highest clouds of paradise, while always remaining grounded in the here and now. In an interview with The Octavian Report, Allison Cornish—who’s an NYU professor, president of the Dante Society of America, and author of the book Vernacular Translation in Dante’s Italyexplains why The Divine Comedy has stood the test of time, what makes it so influential, and why its politics resonate today. . .

Octavian Report: What first got you interested in medieval Italian literature?

Allison Cornish: I was an English major at Berkeley, and toward the end of my time there, I had to take a class in medieval literature. So I studied Beowulf with Allan Renoir, who was the son of the filmmaker [Jean Renoir] and grandson of the artist [Pierre August Renoir]. He said, “you should go to graduate school,” so I went to Cornell. And I had already started studying Italian and French, so I guess I came to it through language first.

OR: Why did you zero in on Dante?

Cornish: The Divine Comedy is just a book like no other—it’s the book of books, in a certain way. Like the Bible, which of course it models itself on. It’s very conscious about the written word, and how we use it to get in touch with reality. The mega plot of Dante’s work is that we’re reading a book. And education is also stressed. Those two things are what Dante the narrator needs; he needs to be led out of the dark wood by a book. That book turns out to be Virgil’s—which, of course, is a book that’s not really from his culture.

So in many ways, the Divine Comedy is a book about books. When I talk about books these days with students, I try not to say the word “books,” because students today are… I hate to say less bookish, but they respond to and are active in so much other media. Yet Dante still speaks to them. Some of these students have told me they want to do a project about fame, fame and one’s legacy. Those used to seem like antiquated ideas. But they totally understand them because of social media. And Dante offers insights into their life online as a kind of legacy, a kind of afterlife.

OR: Was Dante the first person to make himself the main character in an epic?

Cornish: Of an epic, yes.

OR: What do we know about him and why he wrote the Divine Comedy?

Cornish: We don’t know that much about Dante that he doesn’t tell us himself. Independently known facts about him are very few. We do know that he existed, that he served in government, that he was sent into exile, when he died, and that he became a fairly famous figure later on. We don’t know that much else. We know he was married to a woman named Gemma Donati. Does he ever mention her? No. Do we actually know who the character Beatrice is based on? People think it could be a woman called Beatrice Portinari, who was the daughter of a banker and married another banker. But there’s no clear evidence that it’s her.

Dante crafted The Divine Comedy into autobiography of sorts. He took lyric poems, which everyone was writing—love poetry was the fashion and the sort of pop music of the time—and he compiled them into an autobiographical narrative, always emphasizing that life is like a book. But who was he, really? I don’t know. We would probably say upper middle class. Florentine. His father was probably some kind of banker. Dante himself got into government, and to be in government then you had to join a guild. In his case, it was a guild for pharmacists and painters, who had in common the fact that they both ground their minerals in a mortar and pestle. Was Dante an actual pharmacist? Or a painter? I don’t know. It was just something you had to do to get involved in government.

We also know that in 1301, he was sent to see the pope in Rome, and that later various shenanigans led to his being exiled. We know that he tried to get back into the city in various ways. Writing letters, maybe even plotting conspiracies. He was very hopeful that the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VII, would come down and take over Florence and bring him back in. But Dante finally gave up hope of all that and went from court to court and sought patronage from other lords before he died in Ravenna in 1321.

OR: But the book became really famous, right?

Cornish: Yes, it was an instant best seller and we have evidence that people knew about “The Inferno” before Dante died.

OR: How big was the original audience?

Cornish: I don’t know how to put a number on that. One of the things that’s always said about Dante is that he was the first to write in Italian, and that this fact was marvelous because it brought learning to the people. That has to be historicized a little bit. First of all, at the time, people were demanding access to literary culture in the language that they could read—Italian—without having gone to school, which was the only place you’d learn Latin. But a lot of other stuff was already being written in the vernacular; Dante arrived at a moment when lots of translations [into Italian] were being written.

But the thing is, to write an epic of this scope and ambition, and to do it in a language that’s really tied to a very local place—Florence and Tuscany, not even all of Italy—was remarkable. It really localized something that was universalist in its scope. That’s the paradox Dante embodied. On the one hand, he insisted on the local and the personal and the “I” and used phrases like “my girlfriend” and “my language.” On the other, his work also took us all the way to the stars and beyond.

OR: Why is it a comedy, given its brutality?

Cornish: That is actually the only part of the title that Dante himself gave the work. He called it “My Comedy.” The “divine” part was added later. As for why it’s called a comedy, part of it is that it has a happy ending. Dante seems to be juxtaposing it to The Aeneid, which he calls a tragedy.

The other thing that “comedy” suggested then was a low style, having to do with servants and lower-class people—cooks, stable boys, that kind of thing—as well as a lot of vulgarity. And remember, the vernacular in which Dante wrote was seen as the language of women. It was “the mother tongue,” something you’d learn from your nursemaid.

OR: Why is it that everyone knows “The Inferno” so much better than the other parts of The Divine Comedy?

Cornish: Well, “The Inferno”’s door is open. The gate to hell is wide, and it’s easy to get into it. There’s a lot of action, there’s a lot of horror, and there’s a lot of seductive people to root for, who seem to be rebelling against the order that they’ve been placed in. Meanwhile, “Purgatory” is a mountain and requires work, and “Paradiso” requires even more. Some people say that “Purgatory” is where the lectures begin. Of course, it’s not all lectures, you’re also meeting people. But it’s more difficult.

OR: Do you have a favorite section? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

13 January 2022 at 7:16 am

Why does experiencing ‘flow’ feel so good? A communication scientist explains

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Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who originated the idea of “flow,” is a favorite author (whose books appear in my list of repeatedly recommended books). In The Conversation, Richard Huskey, Assistant Professor of Communication and Cognitive Science, University of California, Davism, discusses the mental state of flow:

New years often come with new resolutions. Get back in shape. Read more. Make more time for friends and family. My list of resolutions might not look quite the same as yours, but each of our resolutions represents a plan for something new, or at least a little bit different. As you craft your 2022 resolutions, I hope that you will add one that is also on my list: feel more flow.

Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s research on flow started in the 1970s. He has called it the “secret to happiness.” Flow is a state of “optimal experience” that each of us can incorporate into our everyday lives. One characterized by immense joy that makes a life worth living.

In the years since, researchers have gained a vast store of knowledge about what it is like to be in flow and how experiencing it is important for our overall mental health and well-being. In short, we are completely absorbed in a highly rewarding activity – and not in our inner monologues – when we feel flow.

I am an assistant professor of communication and cognitive science, and I have been studying flow for the last 10 years. My research lab investigates what is happening in our brains when people experience flow. Our goal is to better understand how the experience happens and to make it easier for people to feel flow and its benefits.

What it is like to be in flow?

People often say flow is like “being in the zone.” Psychologists Jeanne Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi describe it as something more. When people feel flow, they are in a state of intense concentration. Their thoughts are focused on an experience rather than on themselves. They lose a sense of time and feel as if there is a merging of their actions and their awareness. That they have control over the situation. That the experience is not physically or mentally taxing.

Most importantly, flow is what researchers call an autotelic experience. Autotelic derives from two Greek words: autos (self) and telos (end or goal). Autotelic experiences are things that are worth doing in and of themselves. Researchers sometimes call these intrinsically rewarding experiences. Flow experiences are intrinsically rewarding.

What causes flow?

Flow occurs when a task’s challenge is balanced with one’s skill. In fact, both the task challenge and skill level have to be high. I often tell my students that they will not feel flow when they are doing the dishes. Most people are highly skilled dishwashers, and washing dishes is not a very challenging task.

So when do people experience flow? Csíkszentmihályi’s research in the 1970s focused on people doing tasks they enjoyed. He studied swimmers, music composers, chess players, dancers, mountain climbers and other athletes. He went on to study how people can find flow in more everyday experiences. I am an avid snowboarder, and I regularly feel flow on the mountain. Other people feel it by practicing yoga – not me, unfortunately! – by riding their bike, cooking or going for a run. So long as that task’s challenge is high, and so are your skills, you should be able to achieve flow.

Researchers also know that people can experience flow by using interactive media, like playing a video game. In fact, Csíkszentmihályi said that “games are obvious flow activities, and play is the flow experience par excellence.” Video game developers are very familiar with the idea, and they think hard about how to design games so that players feel flow.

Flow occurs when a task’s challenge – and one’s skills at the task – are both high. Adapted from Nakamura/Csíkszentmihályi, CC BY-NC-ND

Why is it good to feel flow?

Earlier I said that Csíkszentmihályi called flow “the secret to happiness.” Why is that? For one thing, the experience can help people pursue their long-term goals. This is because research shows that taking a break to do something fun can help enhance one’s self-control, goal pursuit and well-being.

So next time you are feeling like a guilty couch potato for playing a video game, remind yourself that you are actually doing something that can help set you up for long-term success and well-being. Importantly, quality – and not necessarily quantity – matters. Research shows that spending a lot of time playing video games only has a very small influence on your overall well-being. Focus on finding games that help you feel flow, rather than on spending more time playing games.

A recent study also shows that flow helps . . .

Continue reading. There’s more. And Csíkszentmihályi’s books are also good.

BTW, that graph is somewhat misleading. Csíkszentmihályi notes that the difficulty of the task must not be too high, or you will experience anxiety, not flow. He suggests a task that requires about 85-90% of our capability — too little, and you become bored and eventually distracted; too much, and you become anxious and self-conscious. At the sweet spot you lose yourself in the task, like swimming in a calm pond.

Written by Leisureguy

11 January 2022 at 12:13 pm

Average citizens have no measurable impact on public policy

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Here’s an article by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, who also wrote the book Democracy in America?: What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It. An abstract of the article (which itself is worth reading — and see also the previous post):

Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics – which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of interest group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism – offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented.

A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. This paper reports on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.



American Democracy?

Each of our four theoretical traditions (Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, Majoritarian Interest Group Pluralism, and Biased Pluralism) emphasizes different sets of actors as critical in determining U.S. policy outcomes, and each tradition has engendered a large empirical literature that seems to show a particular set of actors to be highly influential. Yet nearly all the empirical evidence has been essentially bivariate. Until very recently it has not been possible to test these theories against each other in a systematic, quantitative fashion.

By directly pitting the predictions of ideal-type theories against each other within a single statistical model (using a unique data set that includes imperfect but useful measures of the key independent variables for nearly two thousand policy issues), we have been able to produce some striking findings. One is the nearly total failure of “median voter” and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.

Interest groups do have substantial independent impacts on policy, and a few groups (particularly labor unions) represent average citizens’ views reasonably well. But the interest group system as a whole does not. Over-all, net interest group alignments are not significantly related to the preferences of average citizens. The net alignments of the most influential, business oriented groups are negatively related to the average citizen’s wishes. So existing interest groups do not serve effectively as transmission belts for the wishes of the populace as a whole.

Furthermore, the preferences of economic elites (as measured by our proxy, the preferences of “affluent” citizens) have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do. To be sure, this does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically elite citizens who wield the actual influence.

What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

A possible objection to populistic democracy is that average citizens are inattentive to politics and ignorant about public policy; why should we worry if their poorly informed preferences do not influence policy making? Perhaps economic elites and interest group leaders enjoy greater policy expertise than the average citizen does. Perhaps they know better which policies will benefit everyone, and perhaps they seek the common good, rather than selfish ends, when deciding which policies to support.

But we tend to doubt it. We believe instead that – collectively – ordinary citizens generally know their own values and interests pretty well, and that their expressed policy preferences are worthy of respect. Moreover, we are not so sure about the informational advantages of elites. Yes, detailed policy knowledge tends to rise with income and status. Surely wealthy Americans and corporate executives tend to know a lot about tax and regulatory policies that directly affect them. But how much do they know about the human impact of Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps, or unemployment insurance, none of which is likely to be crucial to their own well-being? Most important, we see no reason to think that informational expertise is always accompanied by an inclination to transcend one’s own interests or a determination to work for the common good.

Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

As a comment by Don McCanne, MD points out:

Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page present historical data that show that average Americans, even when represented by majoritarian interest groups, have negligible influence in shaping public policy. In sharp contrast, the economic elites and their business-oriented interest groups wield tremendous influence in public policy.

Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez have shown that the flow of income to the top has resulted in a concentration of wealth that is not only self-sustaining but likely to perpetuate the transfer of more wealth to the wealthiest, at a cost to everyone else.

This combination – a concentration of wealth at the top with the domination of policymaking by the economic elite, does not bode well for new policies that would be established for the common good.

In health care reform, the common good would have been served by improving coverage through the removal of financial barriers to care and by expanding coverage to everyone. Instead, the interests of the economic elite were served by increasing the market for private insurance products that, for the majority, increased financial barriers to care and reduced choice of providers, while leaving tens of millions of the most vulnerable without any coverage. More wealth moves to the passive investors at the top, while the deterioration in coverage requires average Americans to spend more out-of-pocket through higher deductibles.

We desperately need a well-designed single payer system if we want everyone to have the health care that they should have. At this point it appears that the economic elites are not going to allow single payer, and we will have no say.

Even though our Constitution laid the plans for a democracy, by fiat we now have a plutarchy (plutocratic oligarchy). Although Gilens and Page have shown that our Majoritarian Electoral Democracy has “only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” perhaps the people can still change that. Although recent history demonstrates citizen inertia, that does not necessarily lock in the future. Think of Social Security, Medicare, and the Civil Rights Act.

A decade ago, in a book review for the NEJM on . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

11 January 2022 at 12:04 pm

Habits vs. Goals: A Look at the Benefits of a Systematic Approach to Life

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fs blog has an interesting entry, highly relevant to an earlier post on implementing Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The blog post begins:

Nothing will change your future trajectory like your habits.

We all have goals, big or small, things we want to achieve within a certain time frame. Maybe you want to make a million dollars by the time you turn 30. Or to lose 20 pounds before summer. Or to write a book in the next six months. When we begin to chase a vague concept (success, wealth, health, happiness), making a tangible goal is often the first step.

Habits are algorithms operating in the background that power our lives. Good habits help us reach our goals more effectively and efficiently. Bad ones makes things harder or prevent success entirely. Habits powerfully influence our automatic behavior.

First forget inspiration.
Habit is more dependable.
Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.
Habit is persistence in practice.

— Octavia Butler

The difference between habits and goals is not semantic. Each requires different forms of action. For example:

Let’s say you want to read more books. You could set the goal to read 50 books by the end of the year, or you could create a habit and decide to always carry a book with you.

The problems with goals

Let’s go over the problems with only having goals.

First off, goals have an endpoint. This is why many people revert to their previous state after achieving a certain goal. People run marathons, then stop exercising altogether. Or they make a certain amount of money, then fall into debt soon after. Others reach a goal weight, only to spoil their progress by overeating to celebrate.

Habits avoid these pitfalls because they continue indefinitely.

Second, goals rely on factors that we do not always have control over.

It’s an unavoidable fact that reaching a goal is not always possible, regardless of effort. An injury might derail a fitness goal. An unexpected expense might sabotage a financial goal. And family issues might impede a creative-output goal.

When we set a goal, we’re attempting to transform what is usually a heuristic process into an algorithmic one. Habits are better algorithms, and therefore more reliable in terms of getting us to where we want to go.

The third problem with goals is keeping a goal in mind and using it to direct our actions requires a lot of thinking and effort to evaluate different options.

Presented with a new situation, we have to figure out the course of action best suited to achieving a goal. With habits, we already know what to do by default.

During times when other parts of our lives require additional attention, it can be easy to push off attaining our goals to another day. For example, the goal of saving money requires self-discipline each time we make a purchase. Meanwhile, the habit of putting $50 in a savings account every week requires less effort as a practical action.

Habits, not goals, make otherwise difficult things easy.

Finally, goals can make us complacent or reckless.

Sometimes our brains can confuse goal setting with achievement because setting the goal feels like an end in itself. This effect is more pronounced when people inform others of their goals. Furthermore, unrealistic goals can lead to dangerous or unethical behavior because we make compromises to meet our stated objective.

Habit is the intersection of knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do), and desire (want to do).

— Stephen Covey

The benefits of habits

Once formed, habits

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

7 January 2022 at 8:39 pm

Readwise free trial

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I mentioned yesterday, in a post on learning something as a language (that is, learning something so that you can use that something just as you use a language, to express your own ideas without (in the case of language) worrying about things like vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and all the other basics. Your adaptive unconscious has absorbed how to handle those, so your conscious mind simply follows its train of though (as I am doing now as I write this, having also learned touch-typing as a language: I just think of words — or even phrases — and my fingers do their job (generally accurately) without any conscious effort on my part).

In that post I mentioned that, for readers who use a Kindle, the service known as Readwise is both interesting and useful, because it shows you passages you have highlighted on your Kindle — and also offers some passages often highlighted by others.

I just learned that I can offer a free month’s trial of Readwise. If you accept that offer, I get another free month’s use. So if you read ebooks using a Kindle, I urge you to give Readwise a (free) try. Using that link gives me another month of Readwise as well.

And if you use any ebook reader, let me (again) point out Standard Ebooks, which offers free downloadable ebooks, well formatted (and edited and proofread). They offer books whose copyright has expired, which includes some very good books indeed — and some that don’t seem all that old (Hemingway, for example). They just recently released the new books for December, and you can review their list of available titles in descending order of recency (that is, the most recently available books first). One nice thing is that when they publish books that are part of a series, they show the books location in the series — quite useful for an author such as Anthony Trollope (and readers like me, who like to read a series in order).

And as I’ve noted in the past, I use Calibre, a free library management program, to manage those titles: I download the books as a file in the proper format, import them into Calibre, attach my Kindle to my computer, and then export the books from Calibre to the Kindle, all of which are done by clicking the appropriate button in Calibre’s menu. (Calibre can also convert an ebook from one format to another — note at the bottom right corner of the screen the little “job” icon, which shows when a job’s in progress and when it’s done, whether the job is converting a book or importing it or exporting it.)

Calibre’s library is important because, sooner or later, your Kindle battery will fail, and Amazon has been careful to design the device so that the battery cannot be replaced. When the battery dies and can no longer be recharged, you must perforce buy a new device. Amazon keeps track of your book purchases (on the Amazon site: Accounts & Lists > Content & Devices), so when you do get a new Kindle, you can readily download the books you bought from Amazon.

Amazon does not, however, keep track of books you’ve loaded onto your Kindle from other sources, so putting those onto your new Kindle is up to you. That’s why when I import a book into Calibre I keep it there even after I export a copy onto my Kindle. When I replace my Kindle, I still will have all my free books available, and I can easily stock the new Kindle with them.

And I repeat: give Readwise a (free) try. It leverages the technology in an interesting way.

Written by Leisureguy

7 January 2022 at 6:53 am

‘Feeling & Knowing’ explores the origin and evolution of consciousness

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In Science News J.P. O’Malley interviews Antonio Damasio about his lates book:

Feeling & Knowing
Antonio Damasio
Pantheon, $26

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio believes that the link between brain and body is the key to understanding consciousness. In his latest book, Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious, he explains why.

Consciousness is what gives an individual a sense of self; it helps one stay in the present, remember the past and plan for the future. Many scientists have argued that consciousness is created by vast networks of nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain. While it’s clear that the brain plays a major role in conscious experiences, it doesn’t act alone, argues Damasio, director of the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute.

Instead, he argues, consciousness is generated by a variety of structures within an organism, some neural, some not. What’s more, feelings — mental experiences of body states — help connect the brain to the rest of the body. “The  feelings that we have of, say, hunger or thirst, or pain, or well-being, or desire, etc. — these are the foundation of our mind,” Damasio says. In his view, feelings have played a central role in the life-regulating processes of animals throughout the history of life.

In Feeling & Knowing, Damasio suggests that consciousness evolved as a way to keep essential bodily systems steady. This concept is also known as homeostasis, a self-regulating process that maintains stability amid ever-changing conditions. Consciousness emerged as an extension of homeostasis, Damasio argues, allowing for flexibility and planning in complex and unpredictable environments.

Science News spoke with Damasio about why feelings are crucial to understanding consciousness, why consciousness is not exclusive to humans and whether it’s something a computer could ever have. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

SN: Why is understanding homeostasis so crucial to understanding consciousness?

Damasio: Homeostasis is central to the entire operation. It’s why we developed consciousness. Once we access feeling, we can then get a mental picture of how the state of life really is in our organism. So, we can get a warning that things are going wrong, and we get suffering. Or, we get a signal that things are reasonably OK, and we can afford to do other things, which is what happens with positive feelings. So I can afford to have this conversation with you because I’m not having a fever; I’m not terribly thirsty, hungry, or I’m not in pain.

SNHow do feelings help an organism manage life?

Damasio: Feelings are . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

6 January 2022 at 7:28 pm

Learning something as a language

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I have long found that the metaphor of “learning x as a language” to be useful. To me it means that you have learned so well all the essential rudiments of x and how those are used and combined, and what they mean alone and in combination, that you no longer think of them but instead focus on the thoughts you express through them. That is, in Timothy Wilson’s terms, the lessons have been learned by your adaptive unconscious.

Language: To learn a language as a language means that you have mastered vocabulary and grammar and idiom and convention and the common works of that language that those come to mind without effort when you want them, and even without coming to mind provide reliable guidance (as in grammatical rules and word choice — you don’t think of the rules but simply express the thought “naturally,” and you don’t think of the words but the ideas, and the words for those simply appear in your mind.

Fencing: To learn fencing as a language means that you have mastered stance and movement and the various guards (six in sabre fencing) and their use, strengths, and weaknesses, along with various sequences of guards and attacks, so that you simply are thinking the actions directly: you think, and your body moves to express the thought. Two skilled fencers are conversing.

Chess, cooking, playing a musical instrument — all those can be learned as a language, so that you no longer have to consciously think about the basics but instead can focus on your ideas and on expressing your ideas in that medium.

This came to mind on reading this passage which I highlighted in The Hand, by Frank R. Wilson:

While I was in San Diego in 1973 I ran into Ursula Bellugi, a psycholinguist whom I had met before. She took me to her lab, where there were some deaf people signing. While I watched, she translated into English what they were saying. It took me some time to absorb what she had shown me; Ursula explained that sign language is not a code on English—she said, “It seems to be a language. There are rules for making up words and rules for making sentences out of the words, but the rules have to do with space and shape—it’s an entirely different way of doing language.” I was really stunned. It was like being told there’s another ocean that you had never heard of. After a few days of looking into it and digesting it, I began to realize that this meant that language was not about speaking and hearing, which had always been my assumption. It meant that the brain had the capacity for language, and if you can’t put it out through the mouth, you put it out through the hands. (Location 3,555)

That highlighted passage was brought to my attention via an email from Highlights, a useful service for those who use a Kindle as an ebook reader. This is from The Ionian Mission, by Patrick O’Brian:

…his mind drifted back to the days when he too had belonged on the forecastle, when he too had danced to the fiddle and fife, his upper half grave and still, his lower flying – heel and toe, the double Harman, the cut-and-come-again, the Kentish knock, the Bob’s a-dying and its variations in quick succession and (if the weather was reasonably calm) in perfect time. To be sure there was a golden haze over those times and some of the gold was no doubt false, mere pinchbeck at the best; but even so they had an irreplaceable quality of their own – perfect, unthinking health, good company upon the whole, no responsibility apart from the immediate task in hand – and he was thinking of the rare, noisy, strenuous, good-natured fun they had had when hands were piped to mischief as he fell asleep, smiling still. (Location 2,411)

Learning something as a language means that the knowledge has become a part of the person and is used as an expression of the person, a part of the person’s identity.

Written by Leisureguy

6 January 2022 at 6:47 pm

Cultural Relativism: Do Cultural Norms Make Actions Right and Wrong?

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Cross-cultural moral judgments are always tricky, and certainly Kant labored to produce some axioms of culture-free morality, the main fruit of which was his Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” When I searched 1000-Word Philosophy on “categorical imperative,” I found quite a few articles that seem intriguing.

My thought is to condemn, in general, actions that harm oneself or others, though an obvious example is the treatment of those who deliberately, consciously, and with malicious aforethought harm others. They violate the rule about harming others — that is, they do not accept such a rule — so they can scarcely object to punishment that harms them (e.g., financially, loss of liberty, and the like).

The author of the article in 1000-Word Philosophy is Nathan Nobis, and the site notes:

Nathan Nobis is a Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA. He is co-author of Thinking Critically About Abortion, author of Animals & Ethics 101, and the author and co-author of many other writings and materials in philosophy and ethics. NathanNobis.com

He writes:

1. Understanding Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism proposes that what is ethical is relative to, or depends on, cultural attitudes:

  • if a culture disapproves of people doing an action, then it is wrong for people in that culture to do that action;
  • if a culture approves of people doing an action, then it is not wrong for people in that culture to do that action.[4]

Cultural relativism is not the empirical observation, accepted as true by everyone, that different cultures sometimes have different ethical views, or that what people believethink, or feel about the morality of an action is sometimes “relative” to the culture they are in.

Cultural relativism is a theory of what makes actions right and wrong. The “don’t judge!” and “be tolerant!” reactions above might be based on it and reasoning like this:

“People in other cultures aren’t doing anything wrong because ethics is determined by cultural attitudes: so they shouldn’t be judged; they should be tolerated.”

2. Cultural Relativism’s Implications

We can better understand cultural relativism by thinking about what follows from it:[5]

if cultural relativism were true or correct, then:

1. the majority view on any moral issue is always correct;

relativism identifies the majority view with what’s ethically correct in that culture, so the majority view is always correct, no matter what;

2. people who criticize majority views and advocate for change are always wrong:

since according to relativism, majority views are always correct, anyone who critiques them must be mistaken;

3. what’s ethical is identified by opinion polls;

according to relativism, to find out whether an action is ethical or not, we survey the population to find the majority view: research, reflection, and wise guidance aren’t needed;

4. there is only cultural change, never progress or improvement:

according to relativism, if, e.g., a culture approved of slavery then slavery was not wrong in that culture at that time; if that culture came to reject slavery, then slavery would become wrong in that culture; this, however, was not moral improvement or progress since slavery earlier was not wrong according to relativism: there was merely a change of views.

Many people think these implications show that relativism is a false theory since the majority isn’t always right, cultural critics are sometimes correct, opinion polls don’t tell us what is really ethical, and cultural views really can improve and, unfortunately, decline.

3. Arguments For Cultural Relativism

What can be said for cultural relativism? What’s appealing about it?

3.1. Tolerance

Some people argue

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

6 January 2022 at 2:33 pm

The war on library books

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Judd Legum in Popular Information points out another sign of America’s downfall. From the post at the link:

. . . In Oklahoma, State Senator Rob Standridge (R) recently introduced legislation that would prohibit public school libraries from carrying “books that address the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, gender identity, or books that contain content of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know about or approve of before their child is exposed to it.”

Under Standridge’s legislation, parents are the sole arbiter of what books violate this standard. The bill would require schools to remove any book within 30 days of a parent’s request. If the book is not removed, “the employee tasked with removing the book is to be dismissed…  and he or she cannot be employed by a public school district or public charter school for 2 years.” Parents could also sue the school for “monetary damages” which “shall include a minimum of $10,000.00 per day the book requested for removal is not removed.” . . .

There’s much more. Read the whole thing.

Fahrenheit 451, here we come.

Written by Leisureguy

5 January 2022 at 10:33 pm

The Opposite of Toxic Positivity

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Scot Barry Kaufman wrote in the Atlantic back in August 2021:

Countless books have been written on the “power of gratitude” and the importance of counting your blessings, but that sentiment may feel like cold comfort during the coronavirus pandemic, when blessings have often seemed scant. Refusing to look at life’s darkness and avoiding uncomfortable experiences can be detrimental to mental health. This “toxic positivity” is ultimately a denial of reality. Telling someone to “stay positive” in the middle of a global crisis is missing out on an opportunity for growth, not to mention likely to backfire and only make them feel worse. As the gratitude researcher Robert Emmons of UC Davis writes, “To deny that life has its share of disappointments, frustrations, losses, hurts, setbacks, and sadness would be unrealistic and untenable. Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth.”

The antidote to toxic positivity is “tragic optimism,” a phrase coined by the existential-humanistic psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Tragic optimism involves the search for meaning amid the inevitable tragedies of human existence, something far more practical and realistic during these trying times. Researchers who study “post-traumatic growth” have found that people can grow in many ways from difficult times—including having a greater appreciation of one’s life and relationships, as well as increased compassion, altruism, purpose, utilization of personal strengths, spiritual development, and creativity. Importantly, it’s not the traumatic event itself that leads to growth (no one is thankful for COVID-19), but rather how the event is processed, the changes in worldview that result from the event, and the active search for meaning that people undertake during and after it.

In recent years, scientists have begun to recognize that the practice of gratitude can be a key driver of post-traumatic growth after an adverse event, and that gratitude can be a healing force. Indeed, a number of positive mental-health outcomes are linked to a regular gratitude practice, such as reduced lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and substance-abuse disorders.

The human capacity for resiliency is quite remarkable and underrated. A recent study surveyed more than 500 people from March to May 2020. It found that even during those terrifying early months of the pandemic, more than 56 percent of people reported feeling grateful, which was 17 percent higher than any other positive emotion. Those who reported feeling more grateful also reported being happier. What’s more, even more people—69 percent of respondents—reported expecting to feel grateful two to three months in the future.

I believe that an overlooked route to gratitude is exposure to difficult circumstances. There are many basic advantages of life itself that we too often take for granted. After all, humans have a natural tendency to adapt and become used to situations that are relatively stable. When individuals become aware that their advantages are not guaranteed, many then come to appreciate them more. As the writer G. K. Chesterton put it, “Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot realize that things are.”

Indeed, several studies have found that people who have confronted difficult circumstances report that their appreciation for life itself has increased, and some of the most grateful people have gone through some of the hardest experiences. Kristi Nelson, the executive director of A Network for Grateful Living, faced her own mortality at the age of 33, when she received a cancer diagnosis and had to undergo multiple surgeries, chemo, and radiation. Nevertheless, she writes that she was constantly on the lookout for opportunities to cultivate gratefulness:

I was in the hospital, separated from all my friends and family and tethered to all kinds of IVs and dealing with pain. And yet,  . . .

Continue reading.

Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the books I find myself repeatedly recommending.

Written by Leisureguy

1 January 2022 at 11:23 am

What’s Entering the Public Domain in 2022: “The Sun Also Rises,” “Winnie-the-Pooh,” Buster Keaton Comedies & More

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Open Culture has a useful list of what will enter the public domain in 2022. I imagine some of the books will show up on StandardEbooks.org.

Written by Leisureguy

31 December 2021 at 8:34 pm

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