Archive for the ‘organising’ Category

Larger than life with a small ‘l’ – ant colonies and the big mind

Friday, March 19, 2010

I don’t know how this can be explained purely by the neo-Darwinian idea that the purpose of life is to propagate one’s genes. (Could such architecture be programmed within the genes of a single ant???)  And I don’t know how this can be explained without some notion of supra-organism intelligence or mind. Watch and wonder at our world -

- and consider the supra-human mind of which we must be a part. Might there be a dimension to Life with a capital ‘L’ that we forget in our ‘own’, individual lives?

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.

Farce of the week: prison break out… by courier!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

From the BBC -

A manhunt is under way in western Germany for a convicted drug dealer who escaped by mailing himself out of jail.

The 42-year-old Turkish citizen – who was serving a seven-year sentence – had been making stationery with other prisoners destined for the shops.

At the end of his shift, the inmate climbed into a cardboard box and was taken out of prison by express courier. His whereabouts are still unknown.

The chief warden of the jail told the BBC this was an embarrassing incident.

To say the least.  Priceless.

‘When the leader sets the example, the others follow’

Monday, November 10, 2008

The most noticeable thing about this debrief, below, of the Obama Campaign Inner Circle is how calm they all are – despite one or two hours earlier having just pulled off a spectacular and world-changing win. Their conversation communicates to me a shared sense of wonder at how their campaign glided over the rocky terrain of the last twenty-one months – and how Obama knew where he was going, and how he would pitch and conduct his campaign, from the beginning.


On top of the world: Obama and global warming

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bill McKibben, published in the Guardian, on the biggest challenge facing Obama: global warming -

[…] by every testimony, he’s one of the smartest men ever to assume high political office in this country. Not just smarter than Bush. Really smart. Smart enough, if he sits down to really understand the scale of the problem he faces, that he might decide to take the gambles that the situation requires. He said, not long ago, “under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket” — which is a sign of someone who is aware there may be a reality to come to grips with.

Choosing a better history: a big, big day

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

This quote has been attributed, correctly or no, to Nelson Mandela -

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Go vote, America, and choose wisely.


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