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Archive for the 'Author Interview' Category

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Joel Simon Discusses The New Censorship on The Leonard Lopate Show

Yesterday, Joel Simon, author of The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom appeared on The Leonard Lopate Show to talk about the book and the increasing threats to journalists. Simon warns that these threats are leading to a shortage of the news reports we need to make sense of our globalized world and to fight against human rights abuses, manage conflict, and promote accountability.

Friday, November 14th, 2014

Francisco Varela and Waking, Dreaming, Being

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. In today’s post on the final day of our feature, we are happy to post an excerpt from a fascinating interview of Thompson conducted by Joy Stocke at the Wild River Review. In the interview, Stocke and Thompson discuss the importance of his upbringing to his work, the influence of Francisco Varela, and the Dalai Lama, among many other topics, though we’ve chosen to focus on the discussion of Francisco Varela for this excerpt.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

WRR: Your book, ultimately, is a meditation on consciousness. Is consciousness wholly dependent on the brain or does it transcend the brain

Thompson: That’s the fundamental question of the book. I felt compelled to write about it because it kept coming up for me in different ways, some of which were personal and some intellectual. On a personal level I thought about the question a lot when I was working intensely with my friend and mentor, Chilean neuroscientist, Francisco Varela, just before he died. He was terminally ill and we knew that at some point soon he was going to die.

I write about the last real conversation I had with him, how it centered on consciousness and the question of its transcendence. It was fall of 2000 and Cisco and I were in my dad’s apartment in New York on the Upper West Side, writing a scientific article about consciousness and the brain. We weren’t raising that question at all in the article but we were talking about it a lot when we weren’t working. Cisco was a Buddhist, and knew that he was going to die soon, so transcendence was something he was contemplating. From a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, consciousness is the most fundamental luminous nature of awareness, underlying more ordinary cognitive forms of the mind, and it’s not considered to be brain dependent. Cisco took this perspective very seriously, but he was a neuroscientist, so he was also skeptical and doubtful.

The experience of talking to Cisco about this and watching him die and feel the loss intensified the question for me. It was a question that I had always thought about, having studied Asian and Western philosophy, but also having grown up in the New Age and yoga world where it was just taken for granted that people had multiple lives and that consciousness carried on after physical death. (more…)

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Evan Thompson talks to Tricycle Magazine

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. Recently, Thompson spoke to Tricycle Magazine about his book, his view of the mind, and mindfulness as an object of scientific scrutiny. We’ve excerpted parts of this interview below.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

Almost two and a half decades ago, in The Embodied Mind, you critiqued a notion of mind that was already prevalent then and that continues to frame much of the current neuroscience research on meditation. What is that view, and what is wrong with it?
We criticized the view that the mind is made up of representations inside the head. The cognitive science version says that the mind is a computer—the representations are the software, and the brain is the hardware. Although cognitive scientists today don’t think the brain works the way a digital computer does, many of them, especially if they’re neuroscientists, still think the mind is something in the head or the brain. And this idea shows up in the neuroscience of meditation. But this idea is confused. It’s like saying that flight is inside the wings of a bird. The mind is relational. It’s a way of being in relation to the world. You need a brain, just as the bird needs wings, but the mind exists at a different level—the level of embodied being in the world.

What’s your alternative view of the mind?
The alternative view we put forward is that cognition is a form of embodied action. “Embodied” means that the rest of the body, not just the brain, is crucial; “action” means that agency—the capacity to act in the world—is central. Cognition is an expression of our bodily agency. We inhabit a meaningful world because we bring forth or enact meaning. We called this view “enaction” or the “enactive approach.”

In the enactive approach, being human is a matter of inhabiting the human world of culture and shared bodily practices. Of course we need our brain to do this, but we also need that world to be in place in order for the human brain to develop properly. The brain is what philosophers call a necessary “enabling condition” for mind and meaning, while enculturation is a necessary enabling condition for the brain. What’s important is not just what is inside the brain but what the brain is inside of—the larger space of the body and culture. That is where we find mind and meaning. (more…)

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

An Interview with Paul Gionfriddo, author of “Losing Tim”

Losing Tim, Paul GionfriddoThe following is an interview with Paul Gionfriddo, author of Losing Tim: How Our Health and Education Systems Failed My Son with Schizophrenia:

Question: Losing Tim is a policy memoir, a reflection on your life as much as Tim’s. Can you talk about that?

Paul Gionfriddo: I was a state legislator in the 1980s, and helped build the failed community-based mental health system that we have today. Then I adopted an infant son who developed a serious mental illness when he was very young and had to live within the system I helped to build. And so over more than two decades, I experienced the effect of our policy decisions from the other side. And through writing the book, I’ve had the opportunity to make some sense of what we went through, and to say how we could do things differently to fix the problems we policymakers unintentionally created—and perhaps save some lives.

Q: But aren’t our options pretty limited when it comes to treating people with serious mental illnesses?

PG: Some people think so, but that’s usually because they only see serious mental illnesses in their later stages and think they are synonymous with violent tendencies. This is a myth that has led us to making jails our 21st century mental health institutions. The truth is that ten years typically pass from the time there are early symptoms of mental illnesses to the time we begin to treat them effectively. Those are ten years of lost opportunities to intervene early with the right diagnosis, the right drugs, the right therapies, and the right individual, family, and social supports—all of which can lead to recovery.

(more…)

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Interview with Andrew Nathan on the Hong Kong Protests

“The protests reveal that Hong Kong young people are much more pro-democracy than we had any way of knowing. It’s fascinating to see the youth, who have grown up under this system, demonstrate how little they believe in the Chinese government.”—Andrew Nathan

China's Search for Security, Andrew NathanIn the following interview, originally published in Columbia News on October 8, Andrew Nathan looks at recent events in Hong Kong and the possible future of the protest movement there. Andrew Nathan’s China’s Search for Security, co-authored with Andrew Scobell, is now out in paperback:

Q: What is at the root of the Occupy Central demonstrations?

Andrew Nathan: When China took over Hong Kong in 1997, it agreed that Hong Kong could preserve its way of life for 50 years. The Chinese government also agreed to provide universal suffrage for the election of the Hong Kong chief executive at some point. China recently announced that in the next election, which will take place in 2017, all eligible voters will be able to vote. But it turns out that the nominees for the post will be chosen by an election committee appointed by the Chinese government. The people in Hong Kong had expected real democracy. The Occupy Central protests are the result.

Q: Is there any chance the demonstrators will prevail?

AN: Most of us have long believed that most of the Hong Kong population is pragmatic and passive, because they know what they’re up against with China and they can’t afford to be terribly political. As soon as the Chinese government decision was announced the students—many in high school—jumped in and they were ahead of the adult leadership who had been planning a protest. But it’s very unlikely Beijing will yield on the core question. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has an image of being tough and inflexible. And China has a lot at stake in keeping control of the situation in Hong Kong. The more they sense opposition there, the less they are likely to allow democracy.

(more…)

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Interview with Lawrence Cunningham, author of Berkshire Beyond Buffett

“Berkshire practices a philosophy of capitalism that does well by doing good, is sensitive but unsentimental, lofty yet pragmatic, and public-spirited but profitable.”—Lawrence Cunningham

Lawrence Cunningham, Berkshire Beyond Buffett

Question: What inspired you to write this book and what are some of its key implications?

Lawrence Cunningham: People have been asking for 20 years what happens to Berkshire Hathaway if Warren Buffett gets hit by the proverbial bus; the question now has added urgency since the billionaire businessman is 84. The popular answer became paradoxical: Buffett tried to build an enduring institution at Berkshire and yet even great admirers doubt that the company can survive without him. My book demonstrates how Berkshire’s corporate culture is designed to make the company outlast any one person, making the culture part of its succession plan.

Q: How did you research this book and what did your research reveal?

LC: Background research dates to the 1990s when I published The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, based on a symposium with Buffett and Berkshire vice chairman, Charlie Munger. In that era, Berkshire looked like a mutual fund, primarily owning stocks. Today, the company is instead defined by its 50+ wholly owned businesses and so my immediate research focused on them. In addition to traditional archival material, I interviewed, with Buffett’s permission, many Berkshire insiders, including numerous subsidiary CEOs. I also surveyed 500 Berkshire shareholders. The result is, I hope, a comprehensive portrait of Berkshire Hathaway.

Q: Who is Tom Murphy and why did he write the foreword to your book?

LC: Tom Murphy is a legendary manager who built Capital Cities/ABC into a broadcasting powerhouse in which Berkshire invested. When I saw Warren during the weekend of Berkshire’s 2014 annual meeting, I asked him who he thought should write the foreword. He immediately named Murphy, explaining that he learned most everything he knows about management from Tom. Readers will discover that Murphy, now a Berkshire director, fostered the same culture at Capital Cities/ABC that characterizes Berkshire today. Tom writes, “From afar, it may look like Berkshire’s wide-ranging businesses are very different from one another. In fact … they span industries, they are united by certain key values, like managerial autonomy, entrepreneurship, frugality and integrity.”

(more…)

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Interview with Herve This, author of “Note-by-Note Cooking”

Herve This, Note-By-Note CookingThe following is an interview with Hervé This, author of Note-by-Note Cooking: The Future of Food:

“All food is ‘artificial’! Do you think that barbecue meat hangs ‘naturally’ on the trees of the wild forest?”—Hervé This

Question: How does note-by-note cooking differ from molecular gastronomy?

Herve This: Molecular gastronomy is a scientific activity, not to be confused with molecular cooking. Indeed, molecular gastronomy, being science, has nothing to do with cooking. In other words, science is not about making dishes. Science looks for the mechanism of phenomena. That’s all. And technology uses the results of science to improve technique. So, note-by-note cooking is a technique.

Another question could be, how is note-by-note cooking different from molecular cooking? And here the answer would be that the definition of molecular cooking is “to cook using modern tools” (such as siphons, liquid nitrogen, etc.). But you still use meat, vegetables, etc. However, with note-by-note cooking, the instruments are not important, and the big revolution is to cook with pure compounds, instead of meat, vegetables, fruits, eggs, etc.

Q: Where does the name Note-by-Note Cooking come from?

HT: In 1999, when I introduced the name “molecular cooking,” I was upset, because it was a bad choice, which had to be made for many complex reasons. Unfortunately, people now confuse molecular gastronomy and molecular cooking. So, For note-by-note cooking, I wanted a name that could appeal to artists and it’s fair to say that note-by-note cooking is comparable to a term such as electro-acoustic music.

Q: Won’t not-by-note cooking produce artificial forms of food?

HT: Yes, but all food is “artificial”! Do you think that barbecue meat hangs “naturally” on the trees of the wild forest? Or that French fries appear suddenly from potatoes? No, you need a cook, to make them. In ordinary language, “natural” means “what was not transformed by human beings”, and “artificial” means that it was transformed, it was the result of human “art”.

Instead of “artificial,” it is better to think of “synthetic”, and again in this sense, note by note is synthetic in a similar way as electro-acoustic music. But just listen to the radio and synthesizers are everywhere, often with sometimes beautiful sounds. Moreover, in art, the scope of what is possibile increases with more choices. And more choice is better!

(more…)

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Interview with Amrita Pande, author of Wombs in Labor

Wombs in LaborThe following is an interview with Amrita Pande, author of Wombs in Labor: Transnational Commercial Surrogacy in India:

What made a sociologist choose a topic like surrogacy?
Well, it started with a short newspaper article I read in 2006. Surrogacy was still at its infancy in India and the article – just about 400 words – described it as India’s new form of outsourcing. This newsarticle really unsettled me. Flashes of Canadian feminist Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale passed through my mind, where a class of women is valued merely as breeders of children of the privileged race and class. I was then a doctoral student at UMASS Amherst and I have to confess the idea that my country would now be stereotyped as a land of not just child laborers, and “slumdogs” but also baby farms made me very queasy! After some quick digging around, I realized that there was no research (academic or otherwise) on this rather critical issue. So began my ethnographic journey into the first country in the global south to have a flourishing industry in both national and transnational surrogacy. (more…)

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

Interview with John Roberts, author of Photography and Its Violations

“Photography violates, precisely, because social appearances hide, in turn, division, hierarchy and exclusion.”—John Roberts

John Roberts, Photography and Its ViolationsThe following is an interview with John Roberts, author of Photography and Its Violations:

Q: What do you mean by photography and its violations? How is photography violated?

John Roberts: Well, the title is deliberately ambiguous. By violation I do not mean the capacity of photography to objectify its subjects, nor am I referring directly—although it is implied—to those cultural and political forces lined up against its interests. Rather violation refers here to what photography is able to do in an expressly productive way, given what I call in the book, its social ontology or “unquenchable social intrusiveness and invasiveness.” By this I mean, what makes photography worth returning to as a philosophical and political problem is, in fact, the thing that has always threatened its desire to be thought highly of as an art or would be “objective” medium: namely its unstable and destabilizing character. That is, photography is not just a medium of report or an aesthetic transformation of the world, but a specific act of disclosure, in which its rebarbative powers—of disruption, denaturalization and the ruination of self-identity—secure photography’s infinite capacity for truth telling.

Hence when I talk of violation I’m addressing how photography’s intrusive “pointing to” opens up a space of conceptual reflection on the relations between the photograph’s subjects and objects and the social world in which they are embedded. As such, my understanding of violation takes an interrelated form: violation is what the act of photography does in the world as a consequence of the fact that photography’s relationship to its depicted subjects and objects is an effect of power relations and material interests external to the act of photography itself. The truth-claims of photography, therefore, are a condition of this conceptual articulation. As I say: “Photography violates, precisely, because social appearances hide, in turn, division, hierarchy and exclusion.”

(more…)

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Interview with Natalie Berkowitz, author of “The Winemaker’s Hand”

Natalie Berkowitz, The Winemaker's HandThe following is an interview with Natalie Berkowitz, author of The Winemaker’s Hand: Conversations on Talent, Technique, and Terroir:

Question: You obviously talked to many different winemakers for your book, were there particular approaches to the craft that united them all?

Natalie Berkowitz: I’ve always marveled at the diversity of human creativity. Generations of artists used the same colors but their paintings represent their personal visions. The concept compelled me to write The Winemaker’s Hand. Unlike consistent products like Coca Cola, Tropicana Orange Juice and Heinz Ketchup, wine lovers are treated to a plethora of wines from different regions crafted from an amazing number of varietals.

The Winemaker’s Hand is a compilation of conversations with more than 40 vintners from many viticultural regions around the world. They reveal how all winemakers wrest with their soils and the forces of nature, (or terroir) to create a wine that represents their individual talents, passions, expertise, vision, philosophy, and historical traditions. All these factors are integral to what goes into a bottle of wine. After all, the grapes don’t jump into the bottles themselves, it’s what makes winemaking both and art and a science.

Q: Are there new technologies that are currently changing the way in which wine is made?

NB: Because of new technologies, wine has improved around the world since the last part of the 20th century: steel fermentation tanks, better barrels, more comprehensive information from chemical analysis, and a better understanding of which varietals fare better in different terrors. Winemakers are generous souls, willing to share ideas about new technologies with their peers.

(more…)

Monday, October 6th, 2014

The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov

In the following video, Jeremi Szaniawski talks with Dominique Nasta (ULB) about his book The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox:

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Interview with Dennis Rosen, author of “Vital Conversations”

Vital Conversations, Dennis RosenThe following is an interview with Dennis Rosen, author of Vital Conversations: Improving Communication Between Doctors and Patients:

Question: So what is Vital Conversations about?

Dennis Rosen: Vital Conversations is about why good communication between doctors and patients is so important to achieving better—and less expensive—health outcomes. It explores many of the reasons that this communication becomes compromised, such as cultural and socioeconomic differences; stigma and bias; and external meddling in the actual content of the medical visit that takes away from the direct face time between doctors and patients. Vital Conversations concludes with clear suggestions—for both patients and doctors—about ways each can improve the quality of their interactions in order to get more out of them. It also provides suggestions for how the health-care system can prioritize this issue in ways that will serve us all.

Q: I notice you spend a lot of time in Vital Conversations discussing how cultural differences between patient and physician influence the quality of their communication. What made you decide to focus on this?

DR: I’ve spent most of my own life moving among different cultures. I was born in the US, lived in Canada until I was 15, then in Israel for the next 19 years, and have been living in Boston since 2001. I completed my medical education and pediatric residency in Israel, and did additional training as a resident and fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital before becoming an attending physician eight years ago. I have also worked in Haiti and Guatemala several times over the last five years. All of these experiences have given me deep insight into how the ways we perceive and understand what happens to and around us influence our ability to explain it to others, and to understand their explanations in turn. When the underlying concepts are different, this can become very difficult.

Although magnified when working with people from different cultures—and let’s not forget that one quarter of American physicians were trained abroad—it is also true even when both doctor and patient are of the same culture. One issue that I explore in Vital Conversations is the differences between the objective disease, subjective illness as experienced by the patient, and sickness as defined by society. A person with a broken finger has obvious disease, and the illness process she is suffering as a result is likely to be straightforward to the physician. By virtue of this shared understanding, the doctor’s treatment recommendations are likely to be easily understood and carried out by the patient. However, a person who comes to the doctor’s office and is found to have high blood pressure may feel absolutely fine, i.e. have disease without illness. Unless the doctor is able to convince him of the need to take medications to keep the hypertension from leading to heart disease or stroke, he may be inclined to stop taking the medicine at the first sign of side effects, leading to progression of disease.

All throughout the book I’ve included numerous personal stories and vignettes from my career as a physician that illustrate these and other points I make. Even though I wish I could claim otherwise I still don’t always get it right, despite my best attempts to, as the stories make clear. As fascinating and entertaining as the stories themselves are, I think that they really drive home the central message of the book, which is that good communication between doctors and patients is vital for medical care to be effective.

(more…)

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Interview with Rey Chow, author of “Not Like a Native Speaker”

“My book asks: can there be other ways of coming to terms with loss? Can loss be perceived, however painfully, as an alternative beginning to something different?”—Rey Chow

Rey Chow, Not Like a Native SpeakerThe following is an interview with Rey Chow, author of Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience:

Q: How does the issue of language or “languaging” provide new ways of thinking about the colonial and postcolonial experience?

Rey Chow: The issue of language is, of course, a longstanding one in colonial and postcolonial experience, and anyone working in the field of postcolonial studies of the past several hundred years needs to come to terms with it in one way of another. The confrontation between languages and cultures in the classic colonial situation, in which some languages and cultures are considered superior while others, typically the native ones, are deemed inferior, has created psychic, cross-cultural, institutional, and geopolitical effects that are still very much with us today. These effects inform not only worldwide communications in public settings but also some of our most intimate contacts on a daily basis (e.g. How to talk to friends or loved ones who have no awareness of such effects?) Paying attention to language—in the larger sense of cumulated habits, conventions, gestures, and tendencies that I designate by the term “languaging”—is thus a logical, perhaps indispensable, way of understanding the colonial and postcolonial experience. Indeed, as my subtitle indicates, to languaging itself is a form of postcolonial experience.

In French and Francophone postcolonial studies, extensive philosophical reflections on language as experience are quite common, but it is not the case in Anglophone postcolonial studies. One of the aims of this book is to address this disparity by highlighting questions of languaging in Anglophone postcolonial debates. In addition, the book introduces a third language and cultural area—Chinese, as used in Hong Kong under the fraught conditions of British colonialism and Chinese nationalism—whose contributions to postcolonial studies can be uniquely fascinating.

Q: You suggest that the colonized’s encounter with the colonizer’s language is usually depicted in negative terms. How does your book challenge this characterization?

RC: The negative terms I am referring to have to do with the predominant feeling of loss that pervades many postcolonial scholarly undertakings. This overpowering sense of loss is a logical outcome of what I call the confrontation between languages and cultures on unequal terms, which is registered by the colonized and their descendants as violation and injury, followed by profound melancholy. My book asks: can there be other ways of coming to terms with loss? Can loss be perceived, however painfully, as an alternative beginning to something different? Thus, in the various chapters, I read a number of authors—e.g. Chinua Achebe, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Paul Ricoeur, Derek Walcott, Leung Ping-kwan, Ma Kwok-ming, among many others—as striving for an alternative kind of response to loss as inscribed in various types of encounters with language, tradition, community, and creativity. It’s a collective undertaking, clearly unfinished, but I think it is important to engage with it because of its dissonance from the more pervasive trends of melancholic longing often found in postcolonial studies.

(more…)

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

An Interview with John Pickrell, author of “Flying Dinosaurs”

Flying Dinosaurs, John Pickrell

“Dinosaurs are very much still alive, and are more successful and numerous in terms of species numbers now than they have been at any other point in their roughly-230-million-year history.”—John Pickrell

The following is our interview with John Pickrell, author of Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles Became Birds:

Question: Are dinosaurs still among us?

John Pickrell: Dinosaurs are very much still alive, and are more successful and numerous in terms of species numbers now than they have been at any other point in their roughly-230-million-year history. This is because birds are dinosaurs; they evolved from within the speedy, bipedal group of predators called theropods, which includes such creatures as Velociraptor and T. rex. Birds are not only the descendants of the dinosaurs—they actually are living dinosaurs. They are simply a small, specialized flying form of theropod. Right now there are nearly ten thousand known living species, and perhaps as many as four hundred billion individuals flitting about on the planet.

Q: What did dinosaurs use feathers for?

JP: Since the first dinosaur fossil with feathers was discovered in China in 1996, around 40 species have been found with feather impressions or direct evidence of feathers of some kind. This has shown us that feathers existed in dinosaurs long before they had any purpose in flight. Feathers are so entwined in our minds with flight, this seems counter-intuitive, but flight feathers are highly specialized structures and can’t have appeared fully formed. We now know feathers had an entirely different purpose initially. The earliest feathers we see on dinosaur fossils are simple, fluffy filaments, like the down of a chick, and they were used for insulation. Only later were feathers co-opted for display purposes and eventually for flight.

(more…)

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: An Interview with Dorothy Tse, author of Snow and Shadow

Snow and Shadow, Dorothy Tse

“I don’t regard my stories as departing from conventionally understood reality. I think humans are adapting and transforming themselves in radical ways. If we can eat meat made in a science lab, then it’s possible for a woman to change into a fish.”—Dorothy Tse

The following is an interview with Dorothy Tse, author of the short story collection Snow and Shadow. In a review of the book, Joyelle McSweeney wrote, “”I’m stunned by the resolve, accomplishment, and strangeness of this vision. Tse joins the ranks of artists currently remaking the world.”

The interview originally appeared on the book’s website, where you can also read excerpts from the collection.

Question: Can you envision the ideal reader of your fiction—in terms of background, education level, tolerance for gruesome imagery, or any other traits you think matter? Stated otherwise, what attributes does a reader need to have to fully appreciate and understand what you are communicating in Snow and Shadow?

Dorothy Tse: One of the privileges of being a writer is that you don’t have an audience in front of you as you write. I don’t want to sacrifice this freedom by imagining an actual reader. Plus, any reader that I can imagine will never be as creative and complex as the actual readers I may have.

Q: Which eastern and western authors do you consider to be your primary influences?

DT: I do not distinguish between Eastern and Western authors. When I was young, I liked reading fairy tales from anywhere—sometimes stories in the Bible gave me a similar kind of enjoyment. But my formal consciousness came from reading mainland fiction writers who exploded on the scene in the 1980s. After mainland China had had a closed-door policy for decades, these Chinese writers were influenced suddenly by writers from around the world, such as Kawabata, Márquez, and Kafka. The subsequent formal experiments by these Chinese writers felt like looking into a kaleidoscope.

(more…)

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Interview with Edward Hess, Author of “Learn or Die”

Learn or Die, Edward Hess

The following is an interview with Edward Hess, author of Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization:

Question: What is the purpose of Learn or Die?

Edward Hess: The book uses the science of learning to answer two important questions:

First, how can we individually become a better and faster learner?

Second, how can we as a manager/leader build a team or an organization that continuously learns better and faster than the competition?

Another purpose of the book was to review and synthesize across academic disciplines the developments in the science of learning that have occurred since Peter Senge’s 1990 landmark book on learning organizations and put forth a new blueprint of how to build a learning organization based on the current science of learning.

Q: How should readers approach this book?

EH: Readers should read this book with an open mind. A natural reaction will be “that is not me” – “I don’t think that way”. Well, the science says it is highly likely that you do. To get the most from the book, one has to accept the science of learning and that paints an unflattering picture of how most of us think. Many people who have read the book and have communicated with me found it personally a “wake up” call.

Q: Aren’t most of us good learners?

EH: Yes, many of us are good learners but it is highly probable that we are suboptimal learners. We know from research that cognitively we are fast reflexive thinkers who seek to confirm what we already know. We are confirmation machines. Emotionally, we tend to be defensive thinkers protecting our views and ego. Emotionally, we defend, deny and deflect. The saboteurs of learning are ego and fear. That is our ‘humanness”. To be a great learner requires one to overcome those natural proclivities. Learn or Die puts forth a blueprint of how to do that.

Q: How did that research impact you personally?

EH: I have been working on this project for years and it had a big impact on me. I realized I had to take my learning game to a much higher level. Even though all the feedback from my schooling and my work life in the business world and academia had been very positive, I had areas that I needed to improve in order to really be a great learner.

So, I started working on those areas: managing better my thinking and emotions, quieting my ego, redefining what “being smart” means, actively listening with a non-judgmental open mind to others and treating everything I believe as being conditional subject to stress testing by new data.

I had to define myself (my ego) not by how much I knew or by having the right answer but rather by how well I use best thinking, listening and collaborating best practices. I created checklists that I use daily to grade myself and reflect on my learning performance. Overall, I am a better thinker, listener, and collaborator today than I was before writing this book—but my work is not done.

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Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Interview with James Liebman, Author of “The Wrong Carlos”

The Wrong Carlos

“If you want money, you rob banks. If you want to study executions, you go to Texas.”—James Liebman

A few weeks ago we featured The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution by James Liebman and the Columbia DeLuna Project and interest in the book and the case continues to grow. Most recently James Liebman was interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor about the book and the case. The following is an excerpt from the interview:

Q: What convinced you to investigate a specific death penalty case?

In 2000 and 2002, we published a big study which showed there was a huge amount of adjudicated errors found in capital cases in the United States by state and federal courts. Essentially, two-thirds of all death verdicts reviewed over a quarter century had been overturned based on serious error.

Proponents say the system is working, and we don’t have to worry about the ultimate error of someone being innocent. There’s another interpretation. If an airline company or a car company had this level of error, nobody would want to go near them. If there’s this much smoke, there’s got to be fire.

So we wanted to examine a particular case to see if we could determine the risk of executing the innocent. We went from a statistical study where we were just counting outcomes to making a judgement call about which cases would be interesting to look at.

Q: How did you find this case in particular?

We started by looking at Texas cases. If you want money, you rob banks. If you want to study executions, you go to Texas.

We started looking at eyewitness identification cases because of the long-standing evidence that these cases can be faulty. The witness in this case was one person who happened to be pumping gas outside a store where a clerk was attacked and killed.

He saw the assailant come out of the store and run away. After a 45-minute manhunt, he identified Carlos de Luna.

This case fit what we were looking for.

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Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Interview with H. H. Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth

“Science is not likely to produce an ethical basis for proper conduct in cases in which strangers in distant locations are damaged by an individual’s actions involving spending resources, extirpating species, or polluting air and ocean. Help in these matters hopefully can and will come from wise religious thinkers.”—H. H. Shugart

Foundations of the Earth, H. H. ShugartThe following is an interview with H. H. Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job:

Question: Science and religion are often seen as antagonistic and while you are not interested in “reconciling” the two, you have brought them together in Foundations of the Earth. How can science learn from the Book of Job, and religion more generally, in its approach to understanding some of the issues you consider in your book?

H. H.Shugart: Perhaps it’s best to answer from the specific case to the more general. The Whirlwind Questions in Job 38 to 41 begin with God’s challenge, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.’” Many of following questions, asked by God to a man, are remarkably current—How did the cosmos form? Where did the oceans come from? What happens to the light that falls upon the Earth? What controls the boundary between ocean and land? What are the consequences of the changes we made to the land through domesticated animals (and eventually machines)? … Today, these whirlwind questions are compelled by scientific observations that we are changing our planet through our actions. It is rewarding to think that some of the questions that I see as immediately important as a scientist have such deep antiquity. They reach back two and one-half millennia to the Babylonian captivity of the people of Judea and likely even deeper in time.

Religion, particularly ethics, occupies a domain that extends from knowledge of how the planet functions to the essential human issue, “If our actions are altering Earth with potential risk to the survival of our species, how can we stop ourselves?” Science is not likely to produce an ethical basis for proper conduct in cases in which strangers in distant locations are damaged by an individual’s actions involving spending resources, extirpating species, or polluting air and ocean. Help in these matters hopefully can and will come from wise religious thinkers.

Q: How can a religious understanding of the “foundations of the earth,” and the environment be deepened by the scientific approach?

HHS: The Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki or “Rashi” (France 1040-1105) distinguished what a biblical text “says” from what it “means” in his Talmudic commentaries. Rashi was a remarkable scholar and his medieval biblical insights transcend history to be read, considered and studied today. His exemplary search for meaning and the consequently deeper appreciation of religious texts is central in many religious studies. I hope that Foundations of the Earth can provide a more profound appreciation of just how powerful the questions from the whirlwind really are from a scientific viewpoint. These questions are not merely clever riddles or tricky puzzles. They challenge us to appreciate Earth from multiple scales ranging from the greatness of the Oceans to the details of migrations of tiny birds. The whirlwind questions identify complete knowledge of Earth systems as the provenance of the Divine. One can pursue these questions but never completely understand them at their fullest depth. Such pursuit of always deepening questions also is the procedural manifesto of the scientific approach.

Q: How do both the “Whirlwind Speech” and recent environmental thinking move us away from seeing humans as masters of nature and more toward understanding humans as in nature?

HHS: The Whirlwind questions and recent thinking about the environment share the view that we lack and need better knowledge of the Earth and its systems. The wisdom to use this knowledge to understand our role in nature is a common thread in both.

From the environmental point-of-view, our modern stewardship of the Earth would seem a substantial disaster. Species are being lost at alarming rates. Local-scale environmental problems involving pollution, erosion and ecosystem misuse are legion. Global systems, such as the oceans and the atmosphere, due to our profligate use of the planet’s resources, are displaying measurable change with potentially dark consequences. If we are the masters who manage the Earth, we aren’t doing a bang-up job of it.

In the Whirlwind Speech, God’s questions are edgy with comments to Job of, “ … —surely you know!”; “Declare, if you know all this,”; “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, …” etc. It is pointed out that it rains in the desert were there are no people to benefit from the water. Through the text, animals laugh at people, ignore them, or conduct their lives independent of people’s actions. The Behemoth, a gigantic semiaquatic creature, is the “first of the great acts of God” and created before man. The Leviathan is a great fire-spitting sea-dragon that thoroughly intimidates humankind. In toto, the interrogation from the whirlwind substantially deflates the notion that the world was created for the mastery of humans.

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Monday, August 25th, 2014

An Interview with B. Alan Wallace

“Buddhism … proposes experiments in consciousness through the rigorous practices of meditation that enable the first-person investigation of the mind and its role in nature to fully complement the third-person methods of modern science.”—B. Alan Wallace
B. Alan WallaceThe following is an interview with B. Alan Wallace, most recently the author of Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice and Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity. Both books are now available in paperback:

Question: You write that the mind has been artificially excluded from the natural world and that you, following the radically empirical lead of William James, are seeking to return it to the world of nature, where it belongs. How did this exclusion of the mind and first-persona experience come about?

B. Alan Wallace: Since the origins of experimental psychology 135 years ago, many scientists and philosophers have sought to explain the relation between subjective experience and the correlated objective processes in the brain. This has been called the “hard problem of consciousness,” and despite all the advances made in the cognitive sciences, this issue remains a mystery. The underlying issue is the “closure principle,” which has dominated the natural sciences since the mid-19th century, and which asserts that there are no nonphysical influences in nature. This immediately implies that the mind—including our perceptions, intentions, thoughts, and emotions—must either be physical (contrary to all empirical evidence) or it must exert no consequences in human life or the universe at large, which is contrary to common sense. Many materialists argue that mental processes are identical to or are nothing more than functions of their neural correlates, while others dogmatically propose that consciousness and all kinds of subjective experiences don’t really exist at all! Although many materialistic theories of the mind-body relationship have been proposed, none of them lend themselves to scientific verification or repudiation, so they are merely hypotheses or speculations, not scientific theories. And they are certainly not scientifically established facts, despite the fact that the scientific and popular media commonly equate the mind and brain, without any compelling reasoning or empirical evidence.

Q: Does this reductionist approach to the mind and consciousness have ramifications for other branches of the natural science?

BAW: A core problem that has remained unresolved over the past 90 years is the so-called “measurement problem” in quantum mechanics, which has to do with the relationship between the weird qualities the quantum realm, in which physical entities exist only in relation to their being measured, and the world of classical physics, in which the objective world appears to exist independently of all measurements. Before a quantum measurement takes place, that which is about to be measured exists only as a probability wave function. But once the measurement occurs, the wave function appears to collapse, and a physical system exists in a definite state. But what constitutes a “measurement”? Does this require a conscious observer, or can it take place objectively? In short, the problem remains unsolved, and there is little evidence that any real progress is being made.

While many scientists and philosophers regard these two problems as being unrelated, in my last three academic books I argue that they are profoundly related and that a solution for one implies a solution for the other. I have addressed these entangled problems in Hidden Dimensions: The Unification of Physics and Consciousness, Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity, and Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice. In these works I have argued that the root of both problems lies in a dogmatic allegiance to the metaphysical beliefs of mechanistic materialism, rooted in the antiquated physics of the 19th century, and in the failure on the part of the scientific community to devise and implement sophisticated methods for observing and exploring the mind and multiple dimensions of consciousness from a first-person perspective.

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Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Interview with Chris Andrews, author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction

Roberto Bolano's Fiction: An Expanding UniverseThe following is an interview with Chris Andrews, author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe

Question: How did you discover Bolaño’s work?

Chris Andrews: Chatting with booksellers in Santiago and Valparaíso in 2001. Bolaño was already very well known in Chile: he had won the Premio Rómulo Gallegos, and revisited the country twice in 1998 and 1999. His relations with the contemporary Chilean literary world were stormy (see the end of “I Can’t Read” in The Secret of Evil) but his loyalty to Enrique Lihn and Nicanor Parra (who turns 100 in September) was total. I like to think that he has recruited new readers for those two great Chilean poets.

Q: Did you expect Bolaño’s work to find a large public in English when you began translating it?

CA: No, but not because I didn’t think it deserved to be widely read. With the first two books, I was thinking: This could be it, because that’s the way it usually goes. An author who is well known and respected in his or her language usually gets one or two shots in translation, and unless something special happens straight up, he or she falls into the category of authors who have been tried and found not to work. Luckily, Barbara Epler at New Directions didn’t approach Bolaño in that way: she was committed to waiting for something special to happen, which it did, with the story collection Last Evenings on Earth, and then with The Savage Detectives, which was published by FSG.

Q: What kind of book did you set out to write with Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction?

CA: Well, it’s a scholarly book, but I wanted it to be clear as possible. I wanted it to be as true as possible to the complexity of Bolaño’s work, even if that meant qualifying my arguments quite often. I wanted to do justice to textures and fine details, but also to connect the fiction with large ethical and political questions, such as: Does Bolaño glorify brawling? Is his work romantic? Is it anarchistic? The book as a whole has an arc: it moves, very roughly speaking, from form to content to value, and there’s a shift in the conceptual background from narratology to philosophy.

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