Archive for July, 2008

Jul 30 2008

Biodiesel Hottie

This morning I saw a circus training hottie wearing a tight black T-shirt with BIODIESEL written on it in silver bling sequins. This, I thought, is how you combat global warming.

Several friends have written to me about my piece on Gore’s Sustainable Electricity Challenge, trying to answer the question of how you make climate change mitigation sexy. One person argued that it’s all about associations. When people think of oil they need to think of black goo, the agony of war, evildoers and open sores. When they think of sustainability they should imagine pretty young people, green trees, crystal waterfalls and shining futures. This idea of associations is at the core of classic marketing and public relations techniques. Hence, the Biodiesel Hottie.

I mentioned this to a friend and he instantly translated the central meaning: “preventing the collapse of civilization gives me a boner!”

Well, yes. That is sort of what a hot body in biodiesel bling says. From this ridiculousness he argued that real social change had to include deep education at the primary and secondary school level. I agree completely — but we still need marketing, because, near as I can tell, people don’t actually base the vast majority of their opinions on critical thinking. This should not be shocking.

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Jul 26 2008

Shamanic Cheerleader Camp

I don’t have another article on the mind ready right now — the shit doesn’t write itself, you know — and besides, it’s the weekend. On that note, I found the following flyer at the San Francisco Circus Center last week, which I now offer without comment.

Be sure to click on the image and read the text.

Shamanic Cheerleader Camp flyer

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Jul 24 2008

Minds Are Tricky Things — Part II

In a fit of recursion, I am going to begin my discussion of the scientific understanding of the mind by bringing up a piece of psychology research into how people perceive neuro-imaging. This not only gives a taste of what different types of research can be like, but reveals something rather disturbing: merely adding a brain scan image or two makes people more likely to rate an article as scientifically sound. This gets us into questions of what is and isn’t a good reason to believe any particular research conclusion, which is ultimately what I want to talk about in this series of articles.

At the present time there are basically two technologies that can give us some idea of the activity of a working brain: positron-emission topography (PET) and functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI). They both have important limitations in terms of resolution, what they actually measure, and many other things besides, but they’re also pretty amazing technologies. They produce detailed 3D maps of the “activity” of a whole brain, which are often represented like this:

A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) image

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Jul 22 2008

Minds Are Tricky Things — Part I

I’ve been reading the literature on neuroscience, cognitive linguistics, psychology and such for a long time now, and the temptation to write about what’s new is overwhelming. There are so many exciting things being learned, and equally there are so many subtle problems of how we can know anything at all about the subjective world. But before I can bombard you with chewy words like “affect” and “epistemology,” I need to explain why any of this matters. It matters because people matter.

It is a difficult and ancient fact that we as conscious beings don’t live in the real world. There are boundaries to what we know and what we can know. I am right now sitting on a couch in my house in Oakland, California. Across the ocean, there is a woman sitting on the floor of her Tokyo apartment. I have never met her, but she is just as much a part of the world as I am. Not my world though. There seem to be boundaries to the things I perceive. Figuring out those boundaries and how things get into and out of them is the process of figuring out me, and everyone else too.

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Jul 18 2008

Gore Sets Grand Goal of Growing Up

Gore wants to put a man on the moon in ten years, or something even harder, and he wants to do it without the help of the military, the oil companies, or the long shadow of the USSR. This is a grand goal with no grand moments, no televised spectacles. In a speech yesterday he said,

Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.

This is going to be hard. Not because of the massive amounts of new technology and infrastructure required — though that will be hard too — but because preventing catastrophic climate change is not sexy. There will be no crowning achievement. There will not be any small steps for a man, only a completely invisible giant leap for mankind. We are not in a race against an evil superpower with bigger rockets. Sustainable electricity makes terrible television.

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Jul 17 2008

Freedom and Projection

According to a recent op-ed on worldpres.org, last February Arab League information ministers outlined new guidelines for Arab satellite channels, specifically prohibiting the broadcasting of negative reporting on heads of state, religious or national figures. It’s very easy for the Western mind to see this as a classic violation of freedom of speech, and even in my most relativist moments I find it difficult to argue that such restrictions are good for the health of a society. However, Palestinian columnist Ramzy Baroud argues that this interpretation misses what is actually occurring in the Arab world, because freedom of the press never existed in the first place:

What is painted to look like a classic conflict between corrupt governments and their fed-up constituencies, the former laboring to gag the latter’s freedom of expression, is a lot more convoluted. It is not that the corrupt elites are not indeed laboring to suppress dissent, or that the suppressed multitudes are not fiercely fighting back. In fact, it’s this relationship that constitutes the push and pull that came to define Arab media in the first place. But who has decided that Arab satellite stations—or other pan Arab media—represent the interests of Arab masses, or have improved in any measurable way the welfare of Arab people, especially the poorer, discounted classes?

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Jul 15 2008

Americans Have Only Their Own Culture

The whole world watches Hollywood movies. I once found X-Men 2 on cable in Oman, the sex and violence airing between the preaching Imams. The whole world reads Western books, either in English or translation. The Da Vinci Code graces the dirty blankets of sidewalk booksellers in Mumbai, and Harry Potter is truly global.

Those who don’t live in America are lucky. They have at least two cultures: their own, and the American imports. Those who live within America are impoverished by comparison. Americans have to go well out of their way to consume media made by people who aren’t like them. We have to go to the “Foreign” section of the video store. We have to suffer through languages we don’t understand, because we are taught only English in schools.

This same effect is repeated on a smaller scale with regional cultural capitals. In Southeast Asia, all the good movies come from Thailand. In Nepal, everything is from India. South Africa produces most of the African media, while Qatar and Egypt supply the Arab world. In every case, media in the minority countries is often much more diverse, drawing from many sources.

Maybe this is imperialism. Maybe this is a bad thing. Maybe every peoples should be producing their own entertainments just as furiously as Hollywood. Maybe. My point is only this: if you live outside of the Empire, the Empire comes to you. But if you live inside, you have to look to find the rest of the world.

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Jul 11 2008

Is Safer Always Better?

A dozen warning signs on a construction site in KL

On January 2, 2008, an American soldier stationed in Iraq was electrocuted in his shower due to an improperly grounded water pump.

I’ve been shocked by showers in Bolivia, India, Thailand, and Ethiopia. Fortunately not seriously, but it did make bathing more exciting. You learn not to touch the taps. Actually, I once read of an entire apartment building in Mumbai which was improperly grounded. The tenants had taken to coating their faucets with silicone caulk to prevent electrocution.

Why does this happen, how could this happen? Do such places have poor codes or poor enforcement or is it just the mere sloppiness of heathens? Any way you slice it, the developing world is a more dangerous place. This isn’t always by choice: clean water and emergency services are mostly unavailable to the very poor. But those are risks that make sense, risks as old as humans that require infrastructure and advanced civilization to mitigate. What I wonder about are the billions who ride motorbikes without helmets.

And yet. And yet. There are freedoms lost in safety. All of the trains in my Toronto childhood had stickers on the window saying “keep head and arms inside.” A pity, because I loved to feel the wind in my face. Likewise, subway platforms in developed countries around the world tell us to stay back from the edge. Do we really need to be told not to fall off the edge?

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Jul 10 2008

Hitting Rice with Sticks

In the developed world, everything works. The power is always on, and most things are on time. The economists tell us we’re actually more efficient at just about everything; a quick look at a table of GDP per capita shows that the developed countries make dozens of times more money per person than the poor countries. Now I know that GDP isn’t everything; I know that money doesn’t always measure what actually matters. Still, I have to wonder at the implication that some countries do so much more per person than others. Now that I’ve traveled a bit, I know that it’s completely true. It really does take more work to get anything done in a less developed place.

In the West-African country of Mali, the staple food is rice, which has a husk that must be removed before eating. The women do this work, manually, by using large mortars and wooden pestles. It takes hours to prepare a single meal this way.

Hitting Rice with Sticks in Mali

There are other examples.

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Jul 10 2008

Calories, Money, and Lifespan

“Big” is a value in America, and this includes food. I’ve long suspected that portions were generally larger in the United States than the rest of the world, and a quick check shows this to be actually true. This map from theglobaleducationproject.org shows that Americans (and Western Europeans) really do consume substantially more calories than everyone else in the world.

Worldwide Caloric Intake

No big surprise here — the the citizens of richer countries do eat more food. The interesting thing is to ask what the actual numbers mean, in terms of health. Simply put, people living in the developed world eat way too much. Oddly, this might mean that the current poor will one day be healthier than the formerly rich.

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