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Keep Calm - Taking world events in stride.

Good Reads: a few tips about how to stay off Obama's 'kill list'

This week's best reads include an investigation into how the Obama administration chooses targets for drone attack, a stirring defense of dictator intelligence, and a scientific explanation of optimism.

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…even on areas with significant partisan difference, ideological orientation need not result in acrimony and policy paralysis. Vigorous partisan debate can improve the quality of policy by restraining overreach by each side, injecting new ideas into the debate, and helping the United States drive a better bargain on the international stage.

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Dictator’s learning curve

It’s been noted, in this column and elsewhere, that the past two years have not been kind to dictators. Street protests, cellphones, Facebook, Sacha Baron Cohen, and well-armed rebel groups have made the world a much less caring place for the likes of Muammar Qaddafi et al.

But Christian Caryl, in this week’s Foreign Policy magazine, says it’s too early to write off dictators, just because of the missteps of a few. In a review of Will Dobson’s new book, “The Dictator’s Learning Curve,” Mr. Caryl says dictators are not as loopy as they look.

The key message that emerges from Dobson's investigations is that today's autocrats are not idiots. They have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. Putin is not Stalin, and Hu Jintao is not Mao Zedong. In many cases, Dobson writes, modern dictators understand that it's in their interest to observe the appearance of democratic norms even while they're subverting them.

Optimism explained

The late columnist and self-described cynic H. L. Mencken once wrote that an optimist is “simply a pessimist with no job experience.” Scientists have long thought that predisposition to look positively or negatively on the world depended on experience, and could be tied up with the human instinct for survival.

But if your world view is starting to sour – either because of electoral politics, or strained loyalties for an absolutely hopeless baseball team – take a quick look at an interview with Elaine Fox, author of “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain,” by the New Scientist’s contributor Catherine de Lange. Clearly, optimists and pessimists see the world through different eyes, Ms. Fox says, with the former overlooking negative signals around them and pessimists obsessing about those same signals.

Here’s one trait that could be either powerful or useless, depending on your perspective: Optimists are more persistent.

Lab based research does show that optimistic people are more persistent, [Ms. Fox says in the interview.] In one study, people were rated on their level of pessimism or optimism and then were given anagrams to do, some of which were impossible. People who were optimistic stayed significantly longer trying to do the impossible anagrams - so they didn’t give up - that’s good experimental evidence.

An optimist who doesn’t give up: there’s something to give one hope.

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