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06 JUNE, 2012

What a Plant Knows

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How a plant can tell whether you’re wearing a blue or red shirt as you’re approaching it.

As I was planting my seasonal crop of tomatoes last month, a good friend (and my personal gardening guru) informed me that they liked their leaves rubbed, “like petting a pet’s ears,” which I received with equal parts astonishment, amusement, and mild concern for my friend. But, as Tel Aviv University biologist Daniel Chamovitz reveals in What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses (public library), that might not be such a crazy idea after all. Plants, it turns out, possess a sensory vocabulary far wider than our perception of them as static, near-inanimate objects might suggest: They can smell their own fruits’ ripeness, distinguish between different touches, tell up from down, and retain information about past events; they “see” when you’re approaching them and even “know” whether you’re wearing a red or blue shirt; like us, they have unique genes that detect light and darkness to wind up their internal clock.

A key reason why plants have evolved such complex sensory system is that, unlike us and our fellow animals, they can’t escape a bad environment, pursue a good one, run away when danger approaches, or get up for a glass of water. Their “rootedness,” which keeps them immobile, is an enormous evolutionary constraint and, like all such constraints, responsible for a great many adaptations. Chamovitz explains:

While most animals can choose their environments, seek shelter in a storm, search for food and a mate, or migrate with the changing seasons, plants must be able to withstand and adapt to constantly changing weather, encroaching neighbors, and invading pests, without being able to move to a better environment. Because of this, plants have developed complex sensory and regulatory systems that allow them to modulate their growth in response to ever-changing conditions. An elm tree has to know if its neighbor is shading it from the sun so that it can find its own way to grow towards the light that’s available. A head of lettuce has to know if there are ravenous aphids about to eat it up so that it can protect itself by making poisonous chemicals to kill the pests. A Douglas fir tree has to know if whipping winds are shaking its branches so it can grow a stronger trunk. Cherry trees have to know when to flower.

Even though plants don’t have a central nervous system where this “knowledge” resides and is enacted, their sophisticated vessels connect their various parts into one responsive whole. In many ways, Chamovitz points out, plants are significantly less genetically different from us than we tend to think — yet his arguments are reserved and rooted in research, far from arguing that plants are just like us. What does emerge from What a Plant Knows, however, is a fascinating inside look at what a plant’s life is like, and a new lens on our own place in nature.

Scientific American has an interview with Chamovitz.

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05 JUNE, 2012

Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely on the Relationship Between Creativity and Dishonesty

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“Creativity can help us tell better stories — stories that allow us to be even more dishonest but still think of ourselves as wonderfully honest people.”

The first use of the U.S. Postal Service was to sell products that didn’t exist. Spam dominates global email volume today. Hoaxes and pranks have been ritualized in everyday culture. And yet, we tend to believe that dishonesty and fraud are confined to “bad people,” of whom there are far fewer than the rest of us “good people” — that immoral behavior, as social psychologist Philip Zimbardo puts it, is a case of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely belongs to the rare breed of scientists who are both actively engaged in empirical research, running all kinds of fascinating experiments in the lab, and keenly skilled in synthesizing those findings into equally fascinating insights into human nature, then communicating those articulately and engagingly to a non-scientist reader. That’s precisely what he has previously done in Predictably Irrational, in which he demonstrates through clever experiments that even our most “rational” decisions are driven by our hopelessly emotional selves, and The Upside of Irrationality, where he explores the unexpected benefits of defying logic. Now comes The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves (public library), in which Ariely asks himself a seemingly simple question — “is dishonesty largely restricted to a few bad apples, or is it a more widespread problem?” — and goes on to reveal the surprising, illuminating, often unsettling truths that underpin the uncomfortable answer. Like cruelty, dishonesty turns out to be a remarkably prevalent phenomenon better explained by circumstances and cognitive processes than by concepts like character.

Ariely writes in the introduction:

In addition to exploring the forces that shape dishonesty, one of the main practical benefits of the behavioral economics approach is that it shows us the internal and environmental influences on our behavior. Once we more clearly understand the forces that really drive us, we discover that we are not helpless in the face of our human follies (dishonesty included), that we can restructure our environment, and that by doing so we can achieve better behaviors and outcomes.

(Of course, one is tempted to counter that we still need moral philosophy to account for the gap between awareness and action, because simply becoming aware of a tendency hardly guarantees there will be the will or desire to change it for the better.)

Particularly interesting is a chapter on the relationship between creativity and dishonesty. The same habits of mind that allow us to create elaborate ideas turn out to also be responsible for enabling dishonesty and the subsequent rationalizations justifying our immoral behavior.

We may not always know exactly why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or feel what we feel. But the obscurity of our real motivations doesn’t stop us from creating perfectly logical-sounding reasons for our actions, decisions, and feelings.

[…]

We all want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions. Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We’re storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better.

That penchant for justification, in fact — which Ariely places at the “control tower of thinking, reasoning, and morality” — is a powerful driver of how we make decisions towards what we want to do and reverse-engineer them towards what we believe the right thing to do is.

[S]ometimes (perhaps often) we don’t make choices based on our explicit preferences. Instead, we have a gut feeling about what we want, and we go through a process of mental gymnastics, applying all kinds of justifications to manipulate the criteria. That way, we can get what we really want, but at the same time keep up the appearance — to ourselves and to others — that we are acting in accordance with our rational and well-reasoned preferences.

Here’s where it gets interesting:

[T]he difference between creative and less creative individuals comes into play mostly when there is ambiguity in the situation at hand and, with it, more room for justification… Put simply, the link between creativity and dishonesty seems related to the ability to tell ourselves stories about how we are doing the right thing, even when we are not. The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.

But could it be, Ariely wondered, greater intelligence was responsible for better stories? One experiment measured the brain structure of pathological liars, and compared it to normal controls — more specifically, the ratio of gray matter (the neural tissue that makes up the bulk of our brains) to white matter (the wiring that connects those brain cells). Liars, it turned out, had 14% less gray matter than the controls but had 22-26% more white matter in the prefrontal cortex, suggesting that they were more likely to make connections between different memories and ideas as increased connectivity means greater access to the reserve of associations and memories stored in gray matter. “Intelligence,” it turned out, wasn’t correlated with dishonesty — but creativity, which we already know is all about connecting things, was.

In another experiment, Ariely tested how “moral flexibility” was related to the level of creativity required in different jobs by visiting an ad agency and studying the capacity for dishonesty in representatives of its various departments:

[T]he level of moral flexibility was highly related to the level of creativity required in their department and by their job. Designers and copy-writers were at the top of the moral flexibility scale, and the accountants ranked at the bottom. It seems that when ‘creativity’ is in our job description, we are more likely to say ‘Go for it’ when it comes to dishonest behavior.

Ultimately, Ariely explains the osmotic balance between creativity and dishonestly through our capacity for storytelling:

Just as creativity enables us to envision novel solutions to tough problems, it can also enable us to develop original paths around rules, all the while allowing us to reinterpret information in a self-serving way… [C]reativity can help us tell better stories — stories that allow us to be even more dishonest but still think of ourselves as wonderfully honest people.

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty goes on to explore such fascinating subjects as why we cheat on our diets despite our most earnest resolve, how favors affect our choices, what companies and politicians do to pave the way for dishonesty, and a wealth more.

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05 JUNE, 2012

The First Feminist Film (1922)

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A woman, a gun, and a practical joke gone awry.

Feminist film is among the 100 ideas that changed cinema, but when did it really begin and how did it first manifest? In 1922, French writer, critic, and director Germaine Dulac (1882-1942) directed the pre-Surrealist silent film La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet), considered by many the first truly feminist film. It tells the story of an intelligent woman trapped in a loveless marriage, whose husband has made a running practical joke of pointing an empty revolver at himself and pretending to shoot himself. One day, Madame Beudet, beset by her hopeless situation, puts real bullets in the revolver, but is soon plagued by remorse. Before she can retrieve the bullets, however, her husband gets to the revolver — except this time he points it at her. She manages to escape the bullet by a hair, but her husband assumes she was trying to end her own life, so he embraces her and professes his love.

The film is now in the public domain and is available in its entirety:

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04 JUNE, 2012

Presidential Campaign Posters: 200 Years of Election Art

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A brief visual history of political propaganda design.

The intersection of propaganda and creative culture has always been a centerpiece of political communication, from the branding of totalitarian regimes to the design legacy of the Works Progress Administration to Soviet animated propaganda. Now, from The Library of Congress — America’s most centralized collective memory — and Quirk Books comes Presidential Campaign Posters: Two Hundred Years of Election Art — a magnificent large-format volume of 100 tear-out, ready-to-frame political campaign posters from the Library of Congress archives, each contextualized by a short historical essay on the respective election, alongside its final electoral and popular vote statistics.

In the preface, NPR’s always-brilliant media pundit Brooke Gladstone writes:

We media consumers are far too jaded by national politics to be influenced by campaign posters, right? We all know that posters are blatant manipulations, intended not to inform but to enlist. They emphasize faces and catchphrases. They condense complicated issues into jagged little pills. They are blunt instruments.

At the same time, the most effective campaign posters of every era leave as much as possible to the voter’s imagination. They are like Japanese manga: the less detailed the image, the more easily we can identify with the candidate, the more space for projecting our dreams. The more specific the image, the greater the risk of creating a feeling of “otherness,” which translates into death at the polls.

What emerges is a quilt-portrait of politics itself, stitched together by a common thread of propaganda techniques and the underlying ideological necessities they bespeak, unchanging across the ages — all the more striking given many of these posters come from an age predating marketing as we know it and what Gladstone calls the “now never-ending research into the psychology of primary colors, the semiotics of sans serif, and the syntactics of the sound bite.”

1856: James Buchanan (Democrat) v. James Fremont (Republican) v. Millard Fillmore (American)

1860: Abraham Lincoln (Republican) v. Stephen Douglas (Democrat) v. John C. Breckinridge (Southern Democrat) v. John Bell (Constitutional Union)

1864: Abraham Lincoln (Republican) v. George B. McClellan (Democrat)

1872: Ulysses S. Grant (Republican) v. Horace Greeley (Liberal Republican)

Gladstone observes:

The ultimate lesson of this collection is how choppy those waters are. Political art is nothing less than an illustration of the skirmishes and stalemates that created and continue to animate the American experiment. As you look at each poster and read about each campaign, it becomes increasingly clear that the tug of war over taxes and trade, the distribution of wealth and power, and the role of government itself, will never end.

Every generation renews the battle and fights it again. And every time, political candidates borrow from past campaigns the lexicon of perpetual political war. It reverberates in the slogans and the speeches, the urgent need: for tax relief or social protections, for an active government or a dormant one, for war or peace, to stay the course or to change direction.

1908: William H. Taft (Republican) v. William J. Bryan (Democrat) v. Eugene V. Debs (Socialist)

1924: Calvin Coolidge (Republican) v. John Davis (Democrat) v. Robert La Follette (Progressive)

1928: Herbert Hoover (Republican) v. Al Smith (Democrat)

1948: Harry S. Truman (Democrat) v. Thomas E. Dewey (Republican) v. J. Strom Thurmond (States' Rights Democrat) v. Henry A. Wallace (Progressive)

1968: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) v. George Wallace (Independent)

1968: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) v. George Wallace (Independent)

1968: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) v. George Wallace (Independent)

1968: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) v. George Wallace (Independent)

1972: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. George McGovern (Democrat)

1980: Ronald Reagan (Republican) v. Jimmy Carter (Democrat) v. John Anderson (Independent)

1980: Ronald Reagan (Republican) v. Jimmy Carter (Democrat) v. John Anderson (Independent)

1988: George H. W. Bush (Republican) v. Michael Dukakis (Democrat)

2008: Barack Obama (Democrat) v. John McCain (Republican)

2008: Barack Obama (Democrat) v. John McCain (Republican)

At once a time-capsule of history and an invaluable timeline of design evolution, Presidential Campaign Posters offers a rare look at the craftsmanship of political propaganda and the abiding aspects of the human condition that it bespeaks.

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