Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

A memorable traditionalist? On Obama’s inaugural

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The file left, on the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, by former President George Bush for the forty-fourth president, Barack H. Obama – courtesy of the Boston Globe

Some have said they’ve been disappointed by Obama’s inaugural speech, saying it lacked a memorable poetic line in the tradition of FDR or JFK.  What?!  After a mere sixteen hours, they think they are in a position to evaluate the memorable-ness of a speech? Come on!  FDR died almost fifty-four years ago, and JFK just over forty-five years ago: it takes time for history to define what might or might not emerge as memorable.  For goodness sake.  (For what it’s worth, my money is on his offer of friendship to leaders around the world who will renounce violence and corruption in favour of mutual respect -

[…] we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.)

Here is an excerpt from Andrew Sullivan’s take -

Mulling over the address yesterday, I felt in retrospect that the restraint and classical tropes of the speech were deliberate and wise. From the moment he gave his election night victory speech, Obama has been signaling great caution in the face of immense challenges. The tone is humble. We know he can rally vast crowds to heights of emotion; which is why his decision to calm those feelings and to engage his opponents and to warn of impending challenges is all the more impressive. He’s a man, it seems to me, who knows the difference between bravado and strength, between an adolescent “decider” and a mature president, between an insecure brittleness masquerading as power, and the genuine authority a real president commands. He presides. He can set a direction and a mood, but he invites the rest of us to move the ball forward: in a constitutional democracy, we are always the ones we’ve been waiting for.

He is not a messiah and does not act or speak like one. He’s a traditionalist in many ways.

Monbiot on the anti-poor, pro-Heathrow crowd

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

From the Guardian -

“Cheap flights,” O’Neill claims, “has become code for lowlife scum, an issue through which you can attack the ‘underclass’, the working class and the nouveau riche with impunity.”

The connection seems obvious, doesn’t it? More cheap flights must be of greatest benefit to the poor. A campaign against airport expansion must therefore be an attack on working-class aspirations. It might be obvious, but it’s wrong.

The Sustainable Development Commission collated the figures on passengers using airports in the United Kingdom between 1987 and 2004. During this period, total passenger numbers more than doubled and the price of flights collapsed. The number of people in the lowest two socio-economic categories (D and E) who flew rose, but their proportion fell, from 10% of passengers in 1987 to 8% in 2004. By 2004, there were over five times as many passengers in classes A and B than in classes D and E.

Today, the Civil Aviation Authority’s surveys show, the average gross household income of leisure passengers using Heathrow is £59,000 (the national average is £34,660); the average individual income of the airport’s business passengers (36% of its traffic) is £83,000. The wealthiest 18% of the population buy 54% of all tickets, the poorest 18% buy 5%.

O’Neill champions Ryanair, Britain’s biggest low-cost carrier, as the hero of the working classes. So where would you expect this airline to place most of its advertising? I have the estimated figures for its spending on newspaper ads in 2007. They show that it placed nothing in the Sun, the News of the World, the Mirror, the Star or the Express, but 52% of its press spending went to the Daily Telegraph. Ryanair knows who its main customers are: second-home owners and people who take foreign holidays several times a year.

Who, in the age of the one-penny ticket, is being prevented from flying? It’s not because they can’t afford the flights that the poor fly less than the rich; it’s because they can’t afford the second homes in Tuscany, the skiing holidays at Klosters or the scuba diving in the Bahamas. British people already fly twice as much as citizens of the United States, and one fifth of the world’s flights use the UK’s airports. If people here don’t travel, it’s not because of a shortage of runways.

At the core of the campaign against a third Heathrow runway are the blue-collar workers and working-class mums of the village of Sipson, whose homes are due to be flattened so that the rich can fly more. If wealthy people don’t like living under a flight path, they can move; the poor just have to lump it. Through climate breakdown, the richest people on earth trash the lives of the poorest.

Cities rot the brain: why we need nature

Friday, January 9, 2009

Catananche caerulea by sftrajan.
Catananche caerulea, by sftrajan

Extract from an article in the Boston Globe that mostly makes sense (except where the author seems to suggest nature is an ‘all calming’ influence; he needs to get out more!) -

While the human brain possesses incredible computational powers, it’s surprisingly easy to short-circuit: all it takes is a hectic city street.

“I think cities reveal how fragile some of our ‘higher’ mental functions actually are,” Kuo says. “We take these talents for granted, but they really need to be protected.”

Related research has demonstrated that increased “cognitive load” — like the mental demands of being in a city — makes people more likely to choose chocolate cake instead of fruit salad, or indulge in a unhealthy snack. This is the one-two punch of city life: It subverts our ability to resist temptation even as it surrounds us with it, from fast-food outlets to fancy clothing stores. The end result is too many calories and too much credit card debt.

City life can also lead to loss of emotional control. Kuo and her colleagues found less domestic violence in the apartments with views of greenery. These data build on earlier work that demonstrated how aspects of the urban environment, such as crowding and unpredictable noise, can also lead to increased levels of aggression. A tired brain, run down by the stimuli of city life, is more likely to lose its temper.

Long before scientists warned about depleted prefrontal cortices, philosophers and landscape architects were warning about the effects of the undiluted city, and looking for ways to integrate nature into modern life. Ralph Waldo Emerson advised people to “adopt the pace of nature,” while the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted sought to create vibrant urban parks, such as Central Park in New York and the Emerald Necklace in Boston, that allowed the masses to escape the maelstrom of urban life.

Although Olmsted took pains to design parks with a variety of habitats and botanical settings, most urban greenspaces are much less diverse. This is due in part to the “savannah hypothesis,” which argues that people prefer wide-open landscapes that resemble the African landscape in which we evolved. Over time, this hypothesis has led to a proliferation of expansive civic lawns, punctuated by a few trees and playing fields.

However, these savannah-like parks are actually the least beneficial for the brain. In a recent paper, Richard Fuller, an ecologist at the University of Queensland, demonstrated that the psychological benefits of green space are closely linked to the diversity of its plant life. When a city park has a larger variety of trees, subjects that spend time in the park score higher on various measures of psychological well-being, at least when compared with less biodiverse parks.

“We worry a lot about the effects of urbanization on other species,” Fuller says. “But we’re also affected by it. That’s why it’s so important to invest in the spaces that provide us with some relief.”

When a park is properly designed, it can improve the function of the brain within minutes. As the Berman study demonstrates, just looking at a natural scene can lead to higher scores on tests of attention and memory. While people have searched high and low for ways to improve cognitive performance, from doping themselves with Red Bull to redesigning the layout of offices, it appears that few of these treatments are as effective as simply taking a walk in a natural place.

Given the myriad mental problems that are exacerbated by city life, from an inability to pay attention to a lack of self-control, the question remains: Why do cities continue to grow? And why, even in the electronic age, do they endure as wellsprings of intellectual life?

Recent research by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute used a set of complex mathematical algorithms to demonstrate that the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory — the crowded streets, the crushing density of people — also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the “concentration of social interactions” that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists. The density of 18th-century London may have triggered outbreaks of disease, but it also led to intellectual breakthroughs, just as the density of Cambridge — one of the densest cities in America — contributes to its success as a creative center. One corollary of this research is that less dense urban areas, like Phoenix, may, over time, generate less innovation.

The key, then, is to find ways to mitigate the psychological damage of the metropolis while still preserving its unique benefits. Kuo, for instance, describes herself as “not a nature person,” but has learned to seek out more natural settings: The woods have become a kind of medicine. As a result, she’s better able to cope with the stresses of city life, while still enjoying its many pleasures and benefits.

Stimulating behavioural change: thumbs up

Friday, November 28, 2008

Bread by Carlito_Brigante_.Bread‘ by Carlito Brigante, uploaded to flickr

Fascinating and sensible article about facilitating behavioural change via effective communication published yesterday. Too often, the ‘boomerang effect’ means that undesirable behaviours are reinforced  -

[…] the problem with appeals based on social norms is that they often contain a hidden message.

So, for example, an environmental campaign that focuses on the fact that too many people drive cars with large engines contains two messages — that driving cars with large engines is bad for the environment, and that lots of people are driving cars with large engines. This second message makes it unlikely that the campaign will work. Worse, it might even make it counterproductive: by conveying how common the undesirable behaviour is, it can give those who do not currently engage in that behaviour a perverse incentive to do so. Everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?

The nub of the matter?  Castigating undesirable behaviour needs to be connected with praise for those who are doing the right thing.

Fortunately, there is a way of harnessing the power of social norms, so that the dreaded “boomerang effect” doesn’t occur.

In a recent experiment, psychologists examined the influence of social norms on the household energy consumption of residents of California. The researchers, led by Wesley Schultz, picked houses at random and then divided them into groups depending on whether their energy consumption was higher or lower than the average for that area. Some low-energy-use households received only information about average energy usage — thereby setting the social norm.

A second group of low-energy households had a positive “emoticon” (happy face) positioned next to their personal energy figure, conveying approval of their energy footprint. A third group of over-consuming households were shown their energy usage coupled with a negative emoticon (sad face), intended to convey disapproval of their higher-than-average footprint.

The researchers then measured energy consumption in the following months. As one might expect, the over-consuming households used the social norm as a motivation to reduce their energy use, but under-consuming households that had received only the social norm information increased their energy use.

Crucially, though, the under-consuming households that had received positive feedback did not show this boomerang effect: the addition of a smiley face next to their energy usage made all the difference. Despite the simplicity of the feedback, households that felt their under-consumption was socially approved (rather than a reason to relax), maintained their small energy footprint. This suggests that using social norms can be effective — but only if they are used in the right way.

Castigating the “majority” of people for driving cars with large engines, without simultaneously praising those who have chosen smaller models could spectacularly backfire. Environmental campaigns using social norms will have to be supplemented with information targeted at specific groups about the desirability of their particular behaviours. If people are doing something positive, they need to know about it.

Five (make that six) reasons to hope

Friday, November 21, 2008

…that global warming is deflected:

1. Hope for the Rain Forests

California, as part of its effort to curtail global warming, could allow companies to pay for projects that preserve Brazilian and Indonesian rain forests, according to Bloomberg. The agreement was described as “pioneering” and goes a long way toward tackling the “other” cause of carbon emissions (other than burning fossil fuels) – destroying forests. Indonesia and Brazil are among the world’s top carbon polluters (No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, behind China and the United States) largely because their forests are disappearing so quickly. This agreement could help stop the 20% of global carbon emissions that come from deforestation.

Indonesia, meanwhile, plans to plant 100 million trees in 2009, according to Reuters. Indonesia has already lost 70% of its original forests, and loses enough forest every year to cover Connecticut and Rhode Island (and then some), but it still retains a forest about the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined.

2. Britain Goes All In

Britain became the first nation in the world to set binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions that match U.N. targets. The law requires the government to slash emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, according to Agence-France Presse. Under the law, Britain will have to meet new carbon-reduction targets every five years.

3. Coal Is on the Defensive
For years, the norm in environmental litigation has been something like this:
– i. Polluting industry proposes polluting
– ii. Government agencies agree
– iii. Environmental groups sue
– iv. Courts side with environmentalists
Well, there’s a new chapter. In Kansas, where the Democratic Gov. (and one-time purported vice presidential possibility for Obama) Kathleen Sebelius stopped the construction of a coal plant because of the greenhouse gas emissions it would pump into the atmosphere, Sunflower Electric is taking her and her environmental agency to court. The company’s complaint? That its civil rights were violated by the governor’s decision.

4. The U.S. Can Cut Energy Use 20%

A new report lays out a framework for U.S. states to dramatically cut energy use — 20% by 2025. The proposed investments in energy efficiency would save $500 billion over 20 years, cut the need for new energy sources by 50% and reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically.

So who produced this report? Some radical left-wing conspiracy of economy-killing tree huggers? Nope. Try Bush Administration. The Department of Energy and The Environmental Protection Agency released the report, National Action Plan Vision for 2025: A Framework for Change.

“Change” … Now where have we heard that word recently …?

5. Obama

In a speech delivered via video to a bipartisan climate summit in California, Obama pledged to take strong action to combat global warming. Here’s what he had to say:


– those reasons from 19th November ’08.  There’s also the news from 20th November that an environmentally-progressive US Congressman has upended the formerly oil- and Detroit-friendly leadership of the influential Energy Committee. Which is good for Obama’s agenda, and better for the wider world.  Even if it does foster the end of the car-manufacturing machine as we know it.  Too bad.  So long and thanks for all the (dead) fish.

‘No artist can compete with a tree’

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mangrove Heart by Arthus-Bertrand by you.

- so said Yves Arthus-Bertrand.  He spotted this mangrove swamp in New Caledonia, Canada, from some flying machine and the naturally-occurring, heart-shaped clearing struck a chord.  He had undertaken his project, ‘Earth from Above’, to express the beauty of the planet and raise awareness about environmental and social issues.  The caption that came with this photo -

Swamps like the one here are crucial to protecting coastlines and cover almost a quarter of tropical coasts.  But that’s just half of what it was, having shrunk due to development and pollution.

He said,

‘We have to love, to share… there is no way we can have sustainable development in the world if we cannot live together’.

His goal is to get people to change their lives, leaving smaller footprints and a more sustainable future.

‘We want everything faster. We cut the trees faster than the trees grow. We take the fish faster than they can reproduce. We send CO2 into the sky faster than the CO2 can be absorbed. If we don’t change nature is going to force us to change … We are part of the ecosystem. We have forgotten, it’s not nature on one side and man on the other side. Man is part of nature.’

Sumptuous.

Awakening to our true place in the universe: on the need to cut light pollution

Monday, November 17, 2008

Flagstaff night sky / starry starry night by MichaelPgh.uploaded to flickr by MichaelPgh

The desire and ability to dispel darkness has been one of the blessings of modernity.  It has enabled us to extend our days and pursue our interests for longer.  However, such is the disquiet that only now are concerns about the unintended consequences of our lust for light being given an airing in the likes of National Geographic magazine. The ‘peripheral glow of our prosperity’ that is light pollution has been significantly screwing up the habits and dispositions of many of our creaturely neighbours. And we are only beginning to query what it might be doing for us -

Unlike astronomers, most of us may not need an undiminished view of the night sky for our work, but like most other creatures we do need darkness. Darkness is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light itself. The regular oscillation of waking and sleep in our lives—one of our circadian rhythms—is nothing less than a biological expression of the regular oscillation of light on Earth. So fundamental are these rhythms to our being that altering them is like altering gravity.

For the past century or so, we’ve been performing an open-ended experiment on ourselves, extending the day, shortening the night, and short-circuiting the human body’s sensitive response to light. The consequences of our bright new world are more readily perceptible in less adaptable creatures living in the peripheral glow of our prosperity. But for humans, too, light pollution may take a biological toll. At least one new study has suggested a direct correlation between higher rates of breast cancer in women and the nighttime brightness of their neighborhoods.

In the end, humans are no less trapped by light pollution than the frogs in a pond near a brightly lit highway. Living in a glare of our own making, we have cut ourselves off from our evolutionary and cultural patrimony—the light of the stars and the rhythms of day and night. In a very real sense, light pollution causes us to lose sight of our true place in the universe, to forget the scale of our being, which is best measured against the dimensions of a deep night with the Milky Way—the edge of our galaxy—arching overhead.

I wrote about the need to cut light pollution, and to develop awareness of the starry sky, before.

Only in America? Europe, not so much

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Keith Richburg, writing in today’s Observer, reflects on why America is leading Europe in terms of race relations based on his experiences as a journalist throughout the world -

[…] it’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a Barack Obama emerging in Europe soon.

One reason is that Europeans for the most part do not talk about race and race relations as openly as we do. In America, we wallow in it. We self-analyse and form committees, workshops and seminars to talk about it. There are countless organisations and associations dedicated to racial issues. Bookshops stack shelves talking about our racial history and problems. We take measurements of pretty much everything, from black student school test scores to minority living standards.

France, to take one example, is on the other extreme. For a story on the state of minorities in France, I once asked for the statistics on how many blacks were on each political party list and it was like dragging a dead cat into the room and tossing it on the table. Race is simply not openly discussed.

What’s more, many Europeans can’t even bring themselves to call their minority residents what they are – citizens. They are still often referred to as ‘immigrants’ or ‘outsiders’, even if they were born in the country, speak no other language, know no other home.

A European Obama seems unlikely to emerge soon because of the parliamentary systems in place, in which a newcomer to politics has first to find his way on to a party list and work his or her way up through the ranks. In Obama’s case, this newcomer leapfrogged far more experienced and better-known candidates – think Hillary Clinton – to take his case directly to voters in primary states.

A year ago, no one here would have predicted that a black candidate would become the nominee of a major party and have a more than realistic chance of winning the White House on 4 November. And it’s a testament to Obama’s considerable skill that he has largely managed to make his race an afterthought. America is on the verge of something historic and it almost seems anticlimactic.

But black Americans are still pinching themselves, still not quite able to believe what has been achieved. And all Americans should pause from the heated political rhetoric and reflect on the sense of accomplishment, win or lose, that his candidacy represents – an affirmation of that American ideal.

I think back to my father, who suffered terrible racism in the south, still believing for his son: ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ That means any little boy can even dream of being President. And that really is only in America.

The parliamentary systems in Europe, with the party vetting of potential candidates that that implies, mean that there is more room for calculations based on entrenched perspectives, and less room for surprises. There are benefits of this – in terms of stability and the conservation of ‘useful’ and ‘good’ traditions – but the downside, in terms of flexibility, and responsiveness and openess to change, should now be more obvious.

Why he’s winning: leadership, judgement, and stonking oratory

Saturday, October 25, 2008

For some, including for Time magazine’s Joe Klein, Obama’s rise and campaign management has been bewildering.  Klein’s recent article captures beautifully the personal qualities and decisions made that have generated such momentum for the Obama campaign.  For example, Obama’s policy of ‘no dramatics’ within his campaign team paid off in the primaries against Clinton.  And his instinctive judgement calls as to when leadership could most effectively be deployed enabled him to reflect on the issue of race in America, and neutralise Jeremiah Wright, in a speech followed by a press conference; and, it enabled him to keep his cool during the banking bail-out fiasco.

Here’s how Klein finishes up -

If an Apollo project to create a new alternative-energy economy is his highest priority, as he told me, why hasn’t he given a major speech about it during the fall campaign? Why hasn’t he begun to mobilize the nation for this next big mission? In part, I suppose, because campaigns are about firefighting — and this campaign in particular has been about “the fierce urgency of now,” to use one of Obama’s favorite phrases by Martin Luther King Jr., because of the fears raised by the financial crisis and because of the desperate, ferocious attacks launched by his opponent.

If he wins, however, there will be a different challenge. He will have to return, full force, to the inspiration business. The public will have to be mobilized to face the fearsome new economic realities. He will also have to deliver bad news, to transform crises into “teachable moments.” He will have to effect a major change in our political life: to get the public and the media to think about long-term solutions rather than short-term balms. Obama has given some strong indications that he will be able to do this, having remained levelheaded through a season of political insanity. His has been a remarkable campaign, as smoothly run as any I’ve seen in nine presidential cycles. Even more remarkable, Obama has made race — that perennial, gaping American wound — an afterthought. He has done this by introducing a quality to American politics that we haven’t seen in quite some time: maturity. He is undoubtedly as ego-driven as everyone else seeking the highest office — perhaps more so, given his race, his name and his lack of experience. But he has not been childishly egomaniacal, in contrast to our recent baby-boomer Presidents — or petulant, in contrast to his opponent. He does not seem needy. He seems a grown-up, in a nation that badly needs some adult supervision.

Bingo.


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