Monday, 3 August 2015

Cuttings: July 2015

This New Noise by Charlotte Higgins - review by Melvyn Bragg in The Guardian. "Charlotte Higgins’s This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC is an account of an organisation that embraces so many aspects of this country’s life, traditions and personality that it seems to represent the British character itself. The book could scarcely be better or better timed. It is elegantly written, closely argued, balanced, pulls no punches and yet wears its respect for the BBC on its sleeve."

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics by Richard H Thaler - review by Richard Reeves in The Guardian. "Along with Cass Sunstein, Thaler became an international public intellectual in 2008, with the publication of their bestselling book Nudge. Both have influenced public policy in the US, and even more so in the UK.... In his new book, Thaler tells the gripping story of his own career in economics and the development of the new behaviourally influenced branch.... As his story unfolds, a ragtag band of economists, social scientists and psychologists find each other’s work and begin, bit by bit, to dismantle some of the basic tenets of economic theory. Drawing on studies of how people behave in real life – buying and selling wine, competing in gameshows, drafting NFL players, saving for old age – the rebels showed that people consistently and predictably failed to act as the economics textbooks said they should."

‘Anarchism could help to save the world’- article by David Priestland in The Guardian. "Kropotkin’s synthesis can be found in two of the most important – and readable – texts of anarchism: The Conquest of Bread (1892) and Fields, Factories and Workshops (1899). Society, he argued, could be run along the lines of the peasant communities he saw in Siberia, with their 'semi-communistic brotherly organisation', free of domination by either the state or the market. And this, he insisted, was not mere nostalgia or utopianism, for new technology and modern agriculture would make such decentralised development highly productive.... Now states have yet again fallen in popular esteem, damaged by the crisis of Keynesian and communist economics since the 1970s, and by the rise of '60s' values, which prize individual self-expression and personal fulfilment over loyalty to nation states and other centralised institutions. This individualism is particularly strong among the educated and the young, just as it was among the Bohemians of Victorian England. And it is no surprise that anarchism should have become important again on the left in recent years – from the 'anti-globalisers' of the late 1990s, to the 2011 Occupy movement."

Why I fasted for 11 days - article by Jeanette Winterson in The Guardian. "It’s important to say that fasting is not starvation. The anxiety and fear that attend lack of food in critical circumstances of famine or enforced deprivation are not present if you are fasting voluntarily. Nor are you beating up your body to get it in line. You are in control, but this is a partnership – your body and you. When I began reading about fasting, before it was my turn to try it, I found that religious visionaries such as St John of the Cross, St Augustine, Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich all recommended fasting as a way to clear the head and concentrate. Gandhi fasted in order to focus his mind. Pythagoras refused to accept anyone into his school who did not know how to fast....
So what happens when we stop eating? The body first uses up the glycogen stores in the liver. That might take 12 hours, or 24 hours. Afterwards, the body will have to use proteins (muscles) or lipids (fats) to produce the energy (glucose) it needs.... This is where the process gets exciting. Imagine your house is freezing and you have to burn the furniture to keep warm. First you burn the rubbish, stuff you have been hoarding for years and don’t really need. The body does the same. Sick cells, old cells, decomposed tissues, are burned away. This is the ultimate spring clean. It allows the body to eliminate toxins and metabolic waste at the same time as turning them into heat and energy. And you can live off this rubbish for days. Next, the body will go for its fat reserves. Most of us have plenty of fat for the body to get busy on – and belly fat is an easy target. As one doctor at the clinic told me: 'You haven’t stopped eating – only you are eating from the inside for now.' But the process of ketosis is more than the body eating itself. While fasting, the body goes into repair mode."

The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment - article by Maria Konnokova in The New Yorker, referenced in MindHacks blog, 'Context is the New Black'. "The appeal of the experiment has a lot to do with its apparently simple setup: prisoners, guards, a fake jail, and some ground rules. But, in reality, the Stanford County Prison was a heavily manipulated environment, and the guards and prisoners acted in ways that were largely predetermined by how their roles were presented. To understand the meaning of the experiment, you have to understand that it wasn’t a blank slate; from the start, its goal was to evoke the experience of working and living in a brutal jail.... Often, the guards operated without explicit, moment-to-moment instructions. But that didn’t mean that they were fully autonomous: Zimbardo himself took part in the experiment, playing the role of the prison superintendent. (The prison’s 'warden' was also a researcher.) Occasionally, disputes between prisoner and guards got out of hand, violating an explicit injunction against physical force that both prisoners and guards had read prior to enrolling in the study. When the 'superintendent' and 'warden' overlooked these incidents, the message to the guards was clear: all is well; keep going as you are.... Other, more subtle factors also shaped the experiment.... In a 2007 study, the psychologists Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland asked whether [the wording of the recruitment advertisement] may have stacked the odds. They recreated the original ad, and then ran a separate ad omitting the phrase 'prison life.' They found that the people who responded to the two ads scored differently on a set of psychological tests. Those who thought that they would be participating in a prison study had significantly higher levels of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance, and they scored lower on measures of empathy and altruism."... [So] while it’s true that some guards and prisoners behaved in alarming ways, it’s also the case that their environment was designed to encourage—and, in some cases, to require—those behaviors."

How business schools lost the moral plot - post by John Naughton in his Memex 1.1 blog. "One of the drivers of inequality ... is the colossal increase in the remuneration of senior executives in major public companies. Since much of this increase is accounted for by the switch from mere salary to salary-plus-stock-options, it has incentivised executives to prioritise share price at the expense of almost everything else. But who taught these executives the techniques needed to boost share prices? Answer: the business schools which gave them their MBAs. But in looking at modern business schools, it’s clear that they are very different from their first predecessors like the Sloan School in MIT.... So what happened to turn an MBA from a sensible preparation for a professional career as an executive into a sausage machine for shareholder-value-maximisation? It might be worth looking to From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession by Rakesh Khurana for some answers...." Extract from the book's blurb: "Today, Khurana argues, business schools have largely capitulated in the battle for professionalism and have become merely purveyors of a product, the MBA, with students treated as consumers. Professional and moral ideals that once animated and inspired business schools have been conquered by a perspective that managers are merely agents of shareholders, beholden only to the cause of share profits."

The end of capitalism has begun - article by Paul Mason in The Guardian, based on his book Postcapitalism. "With the terrain changed, the old path beyond capitalism imagined by the left of the 20th century is lost. But a different path has opened up. Collaborative production, using network technology to produce goods and services that only work when they are free, or shared, defines the route beyond the market system. It will need the state to create the framework – just as it created the framework for factory labour, sound currencies and free trade in the early 19th century. The postcapitalist sector is likely to coexist with the market sector for decades, but major change is happening.... The transition will involve the state, the market and collaborative production beyond the market. But to make it happen, the entire project of the left, from protest groups to the mainstream social democratic and liberal parties, will have to be reconfigured. In fact, once people understand the logic of the postcapitalist transition, such ideas will no longer be the property of the left – but of a much wider movement, for which we will need new labels.... If I am right, the logical focus for supporters of postcapitalism is to build alternatives within the system; to use governmental power in a radical and disruptive way; and to direct all actions towards the transition – not the defence of random elements of the old system. We have to learn what’s urgent, and what’s important, and that sometimes they do not coincide."

How can we fix unconscious racism? - article by Nathalia Gjersoe in The Guardian, Headquarters blog. "Xaio and colleagues at Zheijiang Normal University in China repeated a common measure of implicit racial bias: the ‘angry=outgroup’ test. Here photos of faces were morphed so that it was ambiguous whether they were Chinese or African. Each face was presented twice, once looking angry and once looking happy, and respondents asked to decide what race the face was. As in previous tests, Chinese adults and children tended to say that the happy faces were Chinese and the angry faces were African. This is the same pattern as for white American children and adults who tend to say that happy faces are white and angry faces are black. The researchers then introduced a very quick intervention. Four, 5- and 6-year-olds were asked to discriminate between 5 African faces and had to remember what number went with each face before they could proceed to the next step. This task forced children to focus on the individual differences between the faces. When the angry=outgroup test was repeated, the bias had disappeared. Children were just as likely to say that the angry faces were Chinese as African. This simple intervention seems to have disrupted what was previously considered a very deep rooted and difficult to change bias."

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