Book review: Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the WorldWinners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first rule of MarketWorld is you do not criticise MarketWorld.

Winners Take All is a critique of the modern market-driven and capitalistic thinking that dominates the social and political landscape. Giridharadas focuses upon philanthropy in particular, as the more moralistic and benign problem of MarketWorld that is often used to whitewash the more obviously bad actions of those solely interested in the accumulation of wealth and power to the detriment of others.

This was a very interesting read and particularly insightful.* Throughout the book, Giridharadas is able to show us how MarketWorld created itself and now perpetuates and grows itself. And it doesn’t back away from being critical of people who think of themselves as doing good (and in a sense are) and of the system that allows this to happen.

Two topics in the book particularly resonated with me. The first was the idea of the immoral or amoral approach that is used to making money, which is then used for philanthropy later. This money is often made by exploiting people and the commons ruthlessly, and then is whitewashed of guilt by “giving back”, rather than, you know, not exploiting people/commons in the first place and thus negating the need for giving. I’ve previously come across this idea from a few philosophers and people like Alain de Botton who have discussed this on moral grounds.

The second topic was that of the Thought Leader. I’ve long been troubled by the happy-clappy approach to ideas and intellectual thinking we see in popular culture. Whether it be TED talks or deceptive pop-science authors like Malcolm Gladwell, there is a tendency in this field to be anti-intellectual or present a facile understanding of an issue/topic. So I especially enjoyed seeing the Thought Leader taken down a peg or two and the winning formula exposed.

Thought Leader 3-Step:
1) Focus on the victim, not the perpetrator.
In this way, you can avoid dealing with larger systemic issues and instead make smaller changes that have more direct and emotional appeal. Think, telling women to not dress too sexily so they won’t get raped** instead of addressing the issue of rape and rapists.

2) Personalise the political.
Or to put it another way, don’t be a critic pointing out systemic and collective issues, but instead make it about personal and individual dramas.

3) Be constructively actionable.
This is about having some nice and easy steps that people can do to make a difference. Remember to keep it at a personal level!***

This book wasn’t without fault. I’m not a particular fan of the narrative/literary journalism style employed. You commonly see this style in the pretentious long-form essays and “import” journalistic pieces. What it tends to do is obscure hard facts in the narrative and steer away from addressing points fully. This might make for a more “human” piece of writing that many would call more engaging and interesting, but it weakens just about any point and argument made.

I highly recommend this book.

Thanking our sponsors:

*The reason for the insightfulness is obvious if you are familiar with Giridharadas or read the Acknowledgements section. This is his playground. He is the son of a director of the McKinsey Institute consulting firm (they come in for a lot of flak in the book), worked there himself, he’s a Harvard alum, has given TED Talks (thought leader), and was a Henry Crown fellow of the Aspen Institute.

**And ironically, this is a great example of why this sort of focus just doesn’t work. It is a myth that clothing has anything to do with rape, but addressing rape and rapists would require a systemic change that makes many uncomfortable.

***This is why we see IPCC and other climate change reports making recommendations like installing solar panels, installing led lighting, and buying an electric car, rather than demanding a move away from fossil fuel usage at a society level.

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Book review: Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

Magic Bites (Kate Daniels, #1)Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So, if magic and science are incompatible, does that mean gravity is magic or physics?

Kate Daniels is scraping by making a living as a mercenary. In her world magic rolls through in waves, knocking out technology and allowing all the beasties to have way to much fun. As a result, people need mercenaries with magical abilities like Kate. Then, as part of a power play, someone kills her guardian sending her after the most powerful magical beast in Atlanta.

The Kate Daniels series was recommended to me by my wife. She has been steadily reading the whole series and kept making appreciative sounds whilst reading them. Written by Ilona and Andrew Gordon, I wouldn’t have immediately picked up a book that hints at fantasy romance. The cover of Magic Bites may be more neutral, but some of the later books in the series I saw in the library had a lot of chiselled male torsos on them.

Fortunately for me, Magic Bites reminded me more of a Harry Dresden book than a steamy romance. Kate is a much more likeable character than Harry,* and the world she lives in makes a bit more sense.** There is also the implication of Kate having continuing adventures that are building toward something, not just another series that will keep churning out instalments.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Kate Daniels’ adventures.

*I originally described this book as Dresden Files except without a jerk for the main character.
**I mean, there are only so many world-ending events that Dresden can take on single-handedly before a) someone non-magic notices, and b) the Wizard Council would also get involved.

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Creativity and Listening to Music (possibly) Don’t Mix

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As a confirmed music fan and a person who likes to think of themselves as creative, a press release from Lancaster University piqued my interest. It detailed a study that looked at students and their ability to perform creative tests with or without music playing in the background.

For myself, I’ve found that I only listen to music (or podcasts, or video essays) if I’m doing something mindless. If I have to concentrate or try and be creative, the music has to stop. It literally feels like I have too much going on in my head.

This research appears to confirm my impressions, but it should be noted that the experiments only had a small number of participants (30, 18, and 36), and the differences, whilst highly significant, were small. Interestingly, in the third experiment, general background noise (library noise, so not loud and distracting) didn’t appear to impact creativity.

Here is the press release:

The popular view that music enhances creativity has been challenged by researchers who say it has the opposite effect.

Psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire, the University of Gävle in Sweden and Lancaster University investigated the impact of background music on performance by presenting people with verbal insight problems that are believed to tap creativity.

They found that background music “significantly impaired” people’s ability to complete tasks testing verbal creativity—but there was no effect for background library noise.

For example, a participant was shown three words (e.g., dress, dial, flower), with the requirement being to find a single associated word (in this case “sun”) that can be combined to make a common word or phrase (i.e., sundress, sundial and sunflower).

The researchers used three experiments involving verbal tasks in either a quiet environment or while exposed to:

  • Background music with foreign (unfamiliar) lyrics
  • Instrumental music without lyrics
  • Music with familiar lyrics

Dr Neil McLatchie of Lancaster University said: “We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions.”

Researchers suggest this may be because music disrupts verbal working memory.

The third experiment—exposure to music with familiar lyrics- impaired creativity regardless of whether the music also boosted mood, induced a positive mood, was liked by the participants, or whether participants typically studied in the presence of music.

However, there was no significant difference in the performance of the verbal tasks between the quiet and library noise conditions.

Researchers say this is because library noise is a “steady state” environment which is not as disruptive.

“To conclude, the findings here challenge the popular view that music enhances creativity, and instead demonstrate that music, regardless of the presence of semantic content (no lyrics, familiar lyrics or unfamiliar lyrics), consistently disrupts creative performance in insight problem-solving.”

Reference:
Emma Threadgold et al, Background music stints creativity: Evidence from compound remote associate tasks, Applied Cognitive Psychology (2019). DOI: 10.1002/acp.3532

Book Review: Reality is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli

Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum GravityReality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reality might not be what it seems, but at least it isn’t a simulation. Possibly.

Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist and has a background in the history and philosophy of science. His field of research is quantum gravity. This makes him an ideal person to write a book about the history of quantum physics and the current state of affairs with scientists trying to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Rovelli is one of the founders of loop quantum gravity theory, a candidate alongside string theory for an explanation of quantum gravity. As there are many books, videos, and proponents of string theory, Rovelli thought loop quantum gravity deserved a book too. So while string theory is mentioned, the focus is on the history of quantum physics leading to loop quantum gravity theory.

This was a particularly well-written book. The history, starting with my favourite thinker Democritus, and the explanations were (relatively) easy to follow. At no point did I feel lost in spin foam or uncertain about what is really complicated material.

But I also came away from the book feeling as though I’d missed a section. Maybe I need to re-read the book (doable, as it isn’t particularly long) as I felt like the discussion of loop quantum gravity was actually a brief overview* compared to the sections on the background to its development.

Reality is Not What It Seems is a very good overview of quantum physics, I just wanted a little bit more.

*Loop quantum gravity doesn’t try to string together gravity with quantum mechanics but extends quantum mechanics as a granular geometric equation into the macro realm of what we understand as special relativity.

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