January 2009

How the city hurts your brain

by Limbic on January 30, 2009

Sex and the City in Serbian.

“Sex and the City” in Serbian.

I am a bit late posting this one, but it is a fascinating article about the effect that Urban environments have on the brain:

“Scientists have begun to examine how the city affects the brain, and the results are chastening. Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting — that’s why Picasso left Paris — this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.

“The mind is a limited machine,”says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk. “And we’re beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations.”

One of the main forces at work is a stark lack of nature, which is surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard. Even these fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain performance, it seems, because they provide a mental break from the urban roil.

This research arrives just as humans cross an important milestone: For the first time in history, the majority of people reside in cities. For a species that evolved to live in small, primate tribes on the African savannah, such a migration marks a dramatic shift. Instead of inhabiting wide-open spaces, we’re crowded into concrete jungles, surrounded by taxis, traffic, and millions of strangers. In recent years, it’s become clear that such unnatural surroundings have important implications for our mental and physical health, and can powerfully alter how we think.” –  How the city hurts your brain – Boston.com.

Also see the recent “All in the Mind” episode “Greening the Psyche”  in which the same topic is explored from the discipline of Environmental Psychology:

Intuitively we sense that nature relaxes us — even small pockets of green in the concrete urban jungle seem to make a difference. But finding good scientific evidence for how and why has been more difficult — until now. Crime rates, academic performance, aggression and even ADHD. Could a bit of greening make all the difference? And, ecology on the couch — a self described ‘ecotherapist’ with novel techniques.


Dispair looms.

“Angst”, street art from Belgrade, Serbia, 2008

Gaza and the the Obama inauguration took attention away from the growing chaos across the world as the global economic crisis hits home. Eastern Europe and the Baltics saw riots, Iceland too.

ISN Security Watch picked up on this story as it was happening, noting that:

“Major riots in Latvia, Lithuania and Bulgaria are spurred by the global financial crisis and declining standards of living…

Not one, but three anti-government riots took place in Eastern Europe last week. But with all eyes fixated on the conflict in Gaza and the inauguration of the new US president, the world’s attention was elsewhere – even though these violent demonstrations could very well be a worrying harbinger of things to come later this year.

Most media typically interpreted the events in Bulgaria, Latvia and Lithuania as simply responses to the global financial crisis and the unpopular policies that governments have been forced to adopt to escape economic meltdown. Case closed.

Yet, contrary to what editorial writers in the US and Western Europe might believe, large-scale demonstrations do not take place in the “wild” East very often, and certainly not those that degenerate into violence, attacks on government buildings and looting. This is a big deal, but how big? And if these are really economically motivated disturbances, why exactly now?

Yesterday the Washington Post picked up on the story, claiming that the Economic Crisis is fuelling unrest in E. Europe:

Europeans have compared the unrest to events of the 1960s and even the 1930s, when the Great Depression fueled political upheaval across the continent and gave rise to isolationism and fascism. But no ideology has tapped into public anger and challenged the basic dominance of free-market economics and democratic politics in these countries. Instead, protesters appear united primarily by dashed economic hopes and hostility against the ruling authorities. – Economic Crisis Fuels Unrest in E. Europe – washingtonpost.com

The question I am asking myself is, “Hhow long before this spreads to Britain and even the USA”?

Britain is in dire trouble In an extraordinary and terrifying column last weekend, Iain Martin writing in the Telegraph, showed how Gordon Brown has brought Britain to the edge of bankruptcy:

The country stands on the precipice. We are at risk of utter humiliation, of London becoming a Reykjavik on Thames and Britain going under. Thanks to the arrogance, hubristic strutting and serial incompetence of the Government and a group of bankers, the possibility of national bankruptcy is not unrealistic.

[click to continue…]


Submission in the Netherlands

by Limbic on January 27, 2009

Bruce Bawer has a searing piece on the shameful prosecution of Dutch MP Geert Wilders for “Hate Speech” because of his controversial film “Fitna“.

It is a disgrace for the Netherlands, once a liberal country, now cowed by Islamist censorship. As Bawer writes:

The appalling decision to try Wilders, the Freedom Party’s head and the Dutch Parliament’s only internationally famous member, for “incitement to hatred and discrimination” against Islam is indeed an assault on free speech. But no one who has followed events in the Netherlands over the last decade can have been terribly surprised by it. Far from coming out of the blue, this is the predictable next step in a long, shameful process of accommodating Islam—and of increasingly aggressive attempts to silence Islam’s critics—on the part of the Dutch establishment. – Submission in the Netherlands by Bruce Bawer, City Journal 22 January 2009

It is ironic that we are less than a month away from the 20th anniversary of the Rushdie Affair, where arguably theIslamist attack on Western fredoms of speech and though started:. Christopher Hitchens  has a great article about  it in Vanity Fair, starting:

When Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on novelist Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, it was the opening shot in a war on cultural freedom. Two decades later, the violence continues, and Muslim fundamentalists have gained a new advantage: media self-censorship. –  “Assassins of the Mind”,  Vanity Fair, Feb 2009

The situation in Europe is deteriorating fast, and it is the formerly most enlightened and liberal countries – Denmark and The Netherlands –  that are deteriorating fastest.

UPDATE 1: You can contribute to Geert Wilder’s defence fund at his website – http://www.geertwilders.nl

UPDATE 2: Check out Pat Condell’s scathing but brilliant defense of Wilders:


Quote by Kurt Vonnegut on Creativity

by Limbic on January 27, 2009

“Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music.

I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.”

Via Kurt Vonnegut on Creativity


An Excerpt From ‘The Symposium’ ~ By Plato

by Limbic on January 25, 2009

This was my reading that I gave at my friend Jason’s wedding last year. I recently found it again and thought it would make a lovely post

“Humans have never understood the power of Love, for if they had they would surely have built noble temples and altars and offered solemn sacrifices; but this is not done, and most certainly ought to be done, since Love is our best friend, our helper, and the healer of the ills which prevent us from being happy.

To understand the power of Love, we must understand that our original nature was not like it is now, but different. Human beings each had two sets of arms, two sets of legs, and two faces looking in opposite directions.

Now these creatures were so powerful and lofty in their notions that they even conspired against the gods. Thereat Zeus and the other gods were perplexed; for they felt they could not slay them, nor could they endure such sinful rioting. So Finally Zeus in all of his wisdom said “Methinks I can contrive that men shall give over their iniquity through a lessening of their strength.” and so saying, he sliced each human being in two.

Now when our first form had been cut in two, each half longed for its fellow to come to it again; to fling their arms about each other and in mutual embrace yearn to be grafted together as once they were. Thus anciently is mutual love ingrained in mankind.

Well, when one happens on their own particular half, the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection, intimacy, and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other’s side for a single moment. These are they who continue together throughout life. No one could imagine this to be the mere amorous connection: obviously the soul of each is wishing for something else that it cannot express. Suppose that Hephaestus should ask “Do you desire to be joined in the closest possible union, that so long as you live, the pair of you, being as one, may share a single life?” Each would unreservedly deem that he had been offered just what he was yearning for all the time.

The craving and pursuit of that entirety is called Love. If we make friends with the gods and are reconciled, we shall have the fortune that falls to few in our day of discovering our proper favorites. Love brings this about; it restores us to our ancient life, and heals and helps us into the happiness of the blessed.”


F*ck the Cloud

by Limbic on January 23, 2009

Jason Scott savages Cloud Computing in an entertaining if an little bit angry rant/manifesto



Superb Danish singer: Tina Dico

by Limbic on January 21, 2009

K introduced me to a brilliant Danish singer (based in London) called Tina Dico. I want everyone to rush out and buy her albums



Here it comes

by Limbic on January 16, 2009

RED MEAT . Meat Locker . fulgent firefly frittata


Russian Professor Predicts End of U.S.

by Limbic on January 11, 2009

The map above represents the wish fulfilment fantasy of a Kremlin analysts called Igor Panarin. For years he was considered a crank and ignored. Now he is the toast of the Kremiln and the darling of the Russian state media.

He says that there is a 45-55% chance that:

…mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar. Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the U.S. will break into six pieces — with Alaska reverting to Russian control.

In addition to increasing coverage in state media, which are tightly controlled by the Kremlin, Mr. Panarin’s ideas are now being widely discussed among local experts. He presented his theory at a recent roundtable discussion at the Foreign Ministry. The country’s top international relations school has hosted him as a keynote speaker. During an appearance on the state TV channel Rossiya, the station cut between his comments and TV footage of lines at soup kitchens and crowds of homeless people in the U.S. The professor has also been featured on the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda channel, Russia Today.

Thankfully sane Russians know exactly what is behind these collapse fantasies:

Mr. Panarin’s apocalyptic vision “reflects a very pronounced degree of anti-Americanism in Russia today,” says Vladimir Pozner, a prominent TV journalist in Russia. “It’s much stronger than it was in the Soviet Union.”

I wish there was a database of all these predictions so we could go back to these quacks when their predictions expire and confront them with their own stupidity.

The problem is that even when people are confronted with being utterly wrong, cognitive dissonance will make them account for it, often bizarrely. The best known example of this Leo Festinger’s famous study “When Prophesy Fails” in which he studied an American UFO cult that predicted the mothership was about to arrive and destroy the earth.

When the deadline came and went, the group did not implode with its memebers fleeing in shame, instead they convinced themselves – via a message delivered through automatic writting to the cult leader- that:

the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”

Now who can argue with that?

As if Things Weren’t Bad Enough, Russian Professor Predicts End of U.S. – WSJ.com

See also:

Leon Festinger – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Festinger
Cognitive Dissonance – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance
When Prophesy Fails – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_Prophecy_Fails
The Great Disappointment – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Disappointment


Honesty Signals

by Limbic on January 10, 2009

A new book from MIT Press is a major contribution to “Signalling Theory“. It is called Honest Signals by Alex (Sandy) Pentland.

From the press release for the book:

“How can you know when someone is bluffing? Paying attention? Genuinely interested? The answer, writes Sandy Pentland in Honest Signals, is that subtle patterns in how we interact with other people reveal our attitudes toward them. These unconscious social signals are not just a back channel or a complement to our conscious language; they form a separate communication network. Biologically based “honest signaling,” evolved from ancient primate signaling mechanisms, offers an unmatched window into our intentions, goals, and values. If we understand this ancient channel of communication, Pentland claims, we can accurately predict the outcomes of situations ranging from job interviews to first dates.

Pentland, an MIT professor, has used a specially designed digital sensor worn like an ID badge–a “sociometer”–to monitor and analyze the back-and-forth patterns of signalling among groups of people. He and his researchers found that this second channel of communication, revolving not around words but around social relations, profoundly influences major decisions in our lives–even though we are largely unaware of it. Pentland presents the scientific background necessary for understanding this form of communication, applies it to examples of group behavior in real organizations, and shows how by “reading” our social networks we can become more successful at pitching an idea, getting a job, or closing a deal. Using this “network intelligence” theory of social signaling, Pentland describes how we can harness the intelligence of our social network to become better managers, workers, and communicators.”

Tuning in to unconscious communication” (MIT)

The power of unconscious signalling continues to amaze me. For years hypnotists and Influence experts have claimed (or warned) that very subtle factors influence decision making and judgements.

For a superb overview of the subject of decision making and choice, I strongly recommend an episode of the new series of Radio Lab devoted to the subject called “Choice“.

Look out for part 3 “Is Free Will Really Free?” where professor John Bargh describes a stunning experiment where the temperature of a drink has a powerful effect on judgement:

“Judgment of character can be influenced by something as simple as the temperature of a drink held in our hands, according to a US study published today.

Researchers from Yale University conducted experiments that showed that people perceive others as more generous and more attentive if they have just been holding a hot cup of coffee, and that the inverse is true for cold drinks.

A second study found that people are more likely to give something to others if they held something warm, and more likely take something for themselves if they held something cold.”

Judgement of character affected by hot cup of coffee: study – Sydney Morning Herald

Here author Alex (Sandy) Pentland explains the book:

Also see:

Honest Signals – How They Shape Our World