Archive for the ‘photography’ 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.

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.

‘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.

Ouch! McCain’s history of ‘failing upwards’

Thursday, October 9, 2008

http://cache.daylife.com/imageserve/0c5d1F37OlfED/610x.jpgAP photo by Gerald Herbert

From Tom Dickinson’s iconoclastic portrait of a self-centred misogynist, who crashed two US planes on his way to becoming a very dishonourable man, in Rolling Stone magazine -

In its broad strokes, McCain’s life story is oddly similar to that of the current occupant of the White House. John Sidney McCain III and George Walker Bush both represent the third generation of American dynasties. Both were born into positions of privilege against which they rebelled into mediocrity. Both developed an uncanny social intelligence that allowed them to skate by with a minimum of mental exertion. Both struggled with booze and loutish behavior. At each step, with the aid of their fathers’ powerful friends, both failed upward. And both shed their skins as Episcopalian members of the Washington elite to build political careers as self-styled, ranch-inhabiting Westerners who pray to Jesus in their wives’ evangelical churches.

In one vital respect, however, the comparison is deeply unfair to the current president: George W. Bush was a much better pilot.

McCain’s politics of personality

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

John McCain saluting at an audience member during a campaign rally in Lebanon, Ohio, 9 September 2008Via the BBC

Analysis from the Daily Dish -

So far, he has let us all down. My guess is he will continue to do so. And that decision, for my part, ends whatever respect I once had for him. On core moral issues, where this man knew what the right thing was, and had to pick between good and evil, he chose evil. When he knew that George W. Bush’s war in Iraq was a fiasco and catastrophe, and before Donald Rumsfeld quit, McCain endorsed George W. Bush against his fellow Vietnam vet, John Kerry in 2004. By that decision, McCain lost any credibility that he can ever put country first. He put party first and his own career first ahead of what he knew was best for the country.

And when the Senate and House voted overwhelmingly to condemn and end the torture regime of Bush and Cheney in 2006, McCain again had a clear choice between good and evil, and chose evil.

He capitulated and enshrined torture as the policy of the United States, by allowing the CIA to use techniques as bad as and worse than the torture inflicted on him in Vietnam. He gave the war criminals in the White House retroactive immunity against the prosecution they so richly deserve. The enormity of this moral betrayal, this betrayal of his country’s honor, has yet to sink in. But for my part, it now makes much more sense. He is not the man I thought he was.

And when he had the chance to engage in a real and substantive debate against the most talented politician of the next generation in a fall campaign where vital issues are at stake, what did McCain do? He began his general campaign with a series of grotesque, trivial and absurd MTV-style attacks on Obama’s virtues and implied disgusting things about his opponent’s patriotism.

And then, because he could see he was going to lose, ten days ago, he threw caution to the wind and with no vetting whatsoever, picked a woman who, by her decision to endure her own eight-month pregnancy of a Down Syndrome child in public, that he was going to reignite the culture war as a last stand against Obama. That’s all that is happening right now: a massive bump in the enthusiasm of the Christianist base. This is pure Rove.

Yes, McCain made a decision that revealed many appalling things about him. In the end, his final concern is not national security. No one who cares about national security would pick as vice-president someone who knows nothing about it as his replacement. No one who cares about this country’s safety would gamble the security of the world on a total unknown because she polled well with the Christianist base. No person who truly believed that the surge was integral to this country’s national security would pick as his veep candidate a woman who, so far as we can tell anything, opposed it at the time.

McCain has demonstrated in the last two months that he does not have the character to be president of the United States. And that is why it is more important than ever to ensure that Barack Obama is the next president. The alternative is now unthinkable. And McCain – no one else – has proved it.

The view from my window

Friday, July 11, 2008

Featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish, one of the more influential blogs in US politics; Sullivan is also a regular columnist for The Sunday Times.

The Woodland of Wishes in today’s Guardian

Monday, June 16, 2008

Mark Cocker’s Country Diary -

Our neighbouring parish is laced around a rather confusing network of roads where I invariably seem to get lost. But if the village lacks a centre, the villagers themselves certainly don’t lack heart or organisational ability. Last weekend they put on their fifth and, in my opinion, finest sculpture trail. The idea originated more than a decade ago with a more modest project to showcase some of the beautiful gardens in Bergh Apton. The event worked brilliantly and in subsequent years they added a cultural dimension. Now it is one of the biggest sculpture exhibitions in Norfolk and surely one of the most important arts events in any British village.

This year they weren’t blessed with the weather. When the vehicle behind us became mired en route to the car park and its hopelessly spinning tyres set up a thick spray of Norfolk mud, it seemed a perfect metaphor for the wider sense of frustration. Fortunately, on the last of three weekends the sun shone, 1,000 cars filled the field and the roads were thronged with cyclists and walkers.

People at the entrances to the dozen gardens often asked you which was your favourite piece, suggesting a hint of friendly rivalry between the burghers of Apton. I must confess, despite the glorious range and quality of the work, I almost plumped for a non-sculptural feature. No, not the string quartet, nor the brass band, nor the vast throng besieging the ice-cream trailer. The Wishing Trees were an inspired bit of old English animism: we were invited to express our heart’s desire on lengths of calico attached to the spreading limbs of summer greenery. (One touching piece read: “I wish my grandad would come back to live [sic].”) At Bergh Apton last Sunday it certainly felt as if some dreams had come true.


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