Daily Office:
Monday, 30 August 2010


¶ What’s this? Golf courses promote biodiversity? In England, it appears, a study that looked at over two hundred links found that a large majority were as ecologically beneficial as parks and preserves. The bottom line is, as usual, that we didn’t know as much as we thought we did. (via The Awl)

Not only is our knowledge of the totality of species poor, but so is our understanding of how species will adapt to environments altered by human intervention. While it may be true that the salamander would have been pushed to the brink of extinction had development proceeded unchecked around the Springs, this doesn’t mean that other species wouldn’t have thrived in unanticipated ways. One school of ecological thought rests on the premise that “biodiversity often peaks” in ecosystems that have been moderately disturbed by human development. Given this point, it’s worth noting that an influential land developer in Austin wanted to build a series of golf courses in the vicinity of the sacred pool. Could such an aggressive form of human intervention into the comparatively natural landscape have actually fostered species diversity?

The question seems heretical until you start looking into the research being done on golf courses and biodiversity. Writing in the journal Ecosystems, two Swedish scientists found that a large majority (63 percent) of the 200+ golf courses they studied in the UK “were found to have ecological values similar to or higher than nature-protected sites” such as forest areas, state parks, and biological preserves. They concluded that “golf courses play an essential role in biodiversity conservation and ecosystems management.” This is no anomaly. Other studies have found that golf courses can provide ideal ecological niches for a variety of species, that they are often a reservoir for bumblebee populations, and that “green keepers can contribute greatly to conservation by providing . . . habitats for endangered local species.” Habitats like that for the Barton Springs salamander.


¶ Although we’re still enthusiastic about going to the movies, we agree with Bob Lefsetz, writing at The Rumpus, that “If you truly want to succeed in the entertainment industry today, if you want to have a long career, you’ve got to think small.”

You’ve got to do exactly what you want, appealing at first to only those inside, who get it. Ratings/sales might start slow, but you’ve got longevity. Jay Leno reaches more people, but Jon Stewart means more. You believe in Jon Stewart, you tell your friends about “The Daily Show”. “The Tonight Show” is something you watch between your toes before you fall asleep and forget about as soon as you shut off the TV. Like the radio hits. Who wants to hear them once their time in the spotlight is done?

I can’t say that I watch a lot of TV. But I find it more satisfying than going to the movies.

The small records, released independently, are the ones that touch my heart, that I testify about.


Ever wonder why so many of the Top Forty wonders can barely play clubs? And acts most people have never heard of can work year after year on the road in theatres and arenas?

We don’t live in the mainstream world the mainstream news outlets tell us we do. We live in an alternative universe.


¶ At Weakonomics, Philip offers one of those contrarian, too-good-to-be-true solutions to an everyday problem — pet animal overpopulation, in this case — that really ought to be put to the test right away.

Instead of paying a fee to register your animal with the county, how about the county pay you a fee? A hypothetical budget of $200k a year goes to running an animal shelter. It can cost about $100 or so to fix a dog. Cats can be done for a fraction of that. The government will eat this cost and also give you a check for $100 for getting your animal fixed. They’ll also chip your animal in case it goes missing. At that price the county could fix 1000 animals a year with the same budget. But then that leaves no money for operating a shelter. The humane society is interested in taking over shelters in some areas. Some humane societies are no kill but others do put animals to sleep. But they have advantages that animal control does not. First, they operate with volunteers, which is much cheaper to run. Second, many have networks of foster parents, which can house animals with the facilities are over capacity. Third, they can raise money much faster than a county government can while still charging adoption fees.


¶ Jonah Lehrer writes about that most Proustian of science topics, time and memory. Why does time seem to slow down in a crisis? (The Frontal Cortex)

It turns out that our sense of time is deeply entangled with memory, and that when we remember more – when we are sensitive to every madeleine and sip of limeflower tea – we can stretch time out, like a blanket. This suggests that the simplest way to extend our life, squeezing more experience out of this mortal coil, is to be more attentive, more sensitive to the everyday details of the world. The same logic should also apply to our vacations. If we want our time off to last longer, then we should skip the beach naps and instead cram our days full of new things, which we will notice and memorize.

Furthermore, the link between the perception of time and the density of memory can also work in the other direction, so that it’s possible to increase our memory by speeding up our internal clock. In 1999, a team of psychologists at the University of Manchester demonstrated that it was possible to tweak our “pacemaker” by exposing people to a sequence of click-trains, or acoustic tones that arrive in rapid progression. It turns out that such click trains accelerate our internal clock – it beats a little bit faster – which means that everything else seems to take just a little longer. (Perhaps this is why, when companies put us on hold, they always play sluggish muzak – the adagio sounds might slow down our clock, thus making the frustrating experience of waiting on the phone pass more quickly.)

A new study, by the same Manchester lab, uses click trains to explore the implications  of this accelerated tick-tock. It turns out that when our internal clock is ticking faster, we don’t just perceive the external world as moving slower – we can actually remember more about it. In other words, our sense of time isn’t just a perceptual illusion, but instead seems to regulate the pace of information processing in the brain. When it ticks faster, we can process more. It’s like getting a faster set of microchips embedded in the cortex.


¶ From a site that we’ve begun following: I Like Boring Things. What to do when a conference called “Interesting” is canceled? There’s something almost daring about hosting a deliberately Boring Conference — considering all the inadvertent ones. 

So now I am having to think about numbers and venues and things. Interesting is held in the lovely Conway Hall. The first year they limited the tickets to 200 (which sold out immediately – I was lucky to get one) and I think they increased that to 350 for the later ones (which also sold out immediately – I was lucky again). The tickets were £20 each. Boring will be smaller, much smaller. I doubt we’ll sell more than fifty tickets, and I don’t think we could charge more than a fiver. That doesn’t give us (I keep saying “we” and “us”, at the moment it’s just me, I’m sure other people will help though, right? Guys? You’ll help, won’t you? Guys?) much money to play with. We’ll need a small-ish venue, preferably with some sort of projector to connect to a laptop. I can’t really think of anywhere suitable off the top of my head. I had considered The Mission Room in Exmouth Market as I once went to a thing called Crispival 08 (“the world’s first ever crisp festival”) held there and it was quite a nice place. Unfortunately, their website seems to have died and the place might not exist any more. Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club is probably too expensive. There must be other places. I don’t think it should be a pub though. This is a conference, after all. If you know any good venues, let me know.

I also need to think about who is going to talk, and what they are going to talk about. I have a few ideas, and might start emailing people soon, but if you want to talk about something boring, email me here.

It might be nice if we could get someone to film it, or record it in some way. Maybe even stream it live on the internet. I am not sure how complicated that would be.

If any grown ups want to get in touch with sponsorship ideas, or financial backing or whatever, I would be very grateful. Of course, it does mean your brand will be associated with the word “Boring”, which might not be ideal. Also, if any journalists or media type people want to get involved, please do.


¶ William James week at The Second Pass — last week marked the centenary of the philosopher’s death — has been extended a bit, to accommodate a guest post by James biographer Robert Richardson, who writes about James’s interest in finding a “moral equivalent of war.”

By the time he wrote “The Moral Equivalent of War,” James had dropped the idea of voluntary poverty or simplicity—the sort of thing advocated in Walden, and by Wendell Berry, and by the modern “freegans”—in favor of something very close to the modern idea of the Peace Corps. “To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dish-washing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road building and tunnel making, to foundries and stoke holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youth be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”

It was not an accident that when the Civilian Conservation Corps built a leadership camp in Sharon Vermont in 1940, it was called Camp William James. But many Americans still have an unshakable belief that violence is the only real way to settle disputes and is fundamental to manhood. James himself noted that the only tax we pay willingly is the war tax.


¶ Sonya Chung is re-reading The Great Gatsby — she’s going to be teaching it. Among the thoughts that a third reading has occasioned, the most intriguing, if somewhat irrelevant is that in Heath Ledger we lost an actor who might truly have realized the strange Mr Gatz. Her more classroom-appropriate observations are, even so, fresh and astute. (The Millions)

Gatsby is both skillfully, and conventionally, plotted.  The yellow car/mistaken identify device, upon which the story’s climax and resolution hinge, feels almost Hitchcockian in its nod to the murder-mystery mixup.  Who’s driving which car and why convincingly fuels (literally) Gatsby’s inevitable demise, Tom and Daisy’s flight, and Nick’s final revulsion towards the excesses of Eastern privilege. Fitzgerald also makes deft use of setting descriptions to evoke complex emotions, imminent conflict, and juxtapositions throughout; and his physical descriptions of characters are concrete and evocative, frequently making excellent use of similes and metaphors.  In other words, it’s no wonder the book is on class reading lists; it conforms to/exemplifies so many of our writing-craft tricks of the trade.


In Gatsby, Fitzgerald also gets the essential doubleness of human nature so terribly, perfectly right.   Every character is pulled in (at least) two directions; love and hate, admiration and disdain, are of a piece in almost every relationship.  And the reader ultimately feels an unresolved, and yet somehow perfectly coherent dividedness about each character.


¶ In an interview with Salon‘s Alex Jung, labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan makes some interesting points about the difficulty of comparing productivity in the US and in Germany. (via 3 Quarks Daily)

But the Germans have a lower GDP than we do. Doesn’t that mean that our quality of life is better?

One day we’ll get beyond that and see that the European standard of living is rising. You can pull out these GDP per capita statistics and say that people in Mississippi are vastly wealthier than people in Frankfurt and Hamburg. That can’t be true. Just spend two months in Hamburg and spend two months in Tupelo, Mississippi. There’s something wrong if the statistics are telling you that the people in Tupelo are three times wealthier than the people in Germany. Despite the numbers, social democracy really does work and delivers the goods and it’s the only model that an advanced country can do to be competitive in this world. I mean that not just in terms of exports, but in terms of being green at the same time. That we can raise the standard of living without boiling the planet shows how our measure of GDP is so crude.

What are we missing when we measure the GDP?

We don’t have any material value of leisure time, which is extremely valuable to people. We don’t have any way of valuing what these European public goods are really worth. You know, it’s 50,000 dollars for tuition at NYU and it’s zero at Humboldt University in Berlin. So NYU adds catastrophic amounts of GDP per capita and Humboldt adds nothing. Between you and me, I’d rather go to school at Humboldt.

So much of the American economy is based on GDP that comes from waste, environmental pillage, urban sprawl, bad planning, people going farther and farther with no land use planning whatsoever and leading more miserable lives. That GDP is thrown on top of all the GDP that comes from gambling and fraud of one kind or another. It’s a more straightforward description of what Kenneth Rogoff and the Economist would call the financialization of the American economy. That transformation is a big part of the American economic model as it has morphed in some very perverse directions in the last 30 or 40 years. It’s why the collapse here is going to take a much more serious long-term toll in this country than in the decades ahead.

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