Saturday, January 31, 2009

Jardim Botanico at UCLA

This weekend I have been out at UCLA doing some interviews toward an oral history of TV Globo, which is located near the Botanical Garden, or Jardim Botanico, of Rio. I have been staying just off campus at Hilgard House, right down the street from UCLA's own botanical garden. It is a great place to walk in the morning, plus it gives me a chance to muse on the odd symmetry or possibly the bad pun of thinking about both botanical gardens, but in very different ways.

UCLA's garden is quite a marvel of compact diversity. It can't take up more than a couple of acres at most. But it has jungle environments, as you can see here.

It also has desert environments, like enormous prickly pear you can see here. The garden tries hard to get you to suspend your disbelief about being between a city street and hyper-modern UCLA. In fact, it made me think of a favorite scene in a novel by Gene Wolf in which his characters wander around in two magical botanical gardens. But it is hard to get away from the screen fence you see here,

or the street behind the desert plants you can see here where the garden dead ends at the top of little hill and merges back into plain old Hilgard Avenue.

It has also has some California foothills environments, like this one.

Quite a wonderful place to wander about and get a bit or exercise.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Lie down with dogs, get up with a leg cramp?

We have a decently sized house, with at least three sofas in different rooms. But it seems that Sandy and our two aging dogs like the old, beat-up leather sofa best.

Sandy likes to work, sleep and read on this sofa. She has even taken to doing her email in this unlikely position, sort of like the archetypal way that U.S. teenagers talk on the phone.

Both dogs also seem to insist on being on the sofa. So you get scenes like this one. With no one ceding their position and a veritable puppy pile resulting. I guess dogs genuinely like that sort of thing, but this particular creature will use another chair, thank you.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Re-imagining the imagined community, or political participation these days

I really wish I were in Washington, D.C. to watch the Inaugural events. It seems like we put a lot of time, money and media attention into the Obama campaign this last year. I am still behind on some academic projects because of all that time reading blogs, watching speeches on YouTube, going to meetings here, making phone calls for the campaign, etc.

A lot of things, including the start of classes at UT on January 20, kept us here in Austin instead. I woke up this morning wishing I could have seen Bruce Springsteen and all the others performing at the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial Sunday night. Opening up the New York Times, I saw a first page photo of Springsteen singing in front of a gospel choir. So I thought, what the heck, let's see if it is on YouTube already. Sure enough. Just in case you missed, it is plugged in below.

Now Springsteen's performance is on CNN again. Better video quality but they cut it off after 10 seconds so I am glad I can go back to it again on YouTube anytime. We decided to watch pre-inaugural events on TV tonight, just for variety, to see what they decide to focus on. But a sea change has happened. It certainly is not like the experience I grew up with of TV news as virtually the only window on the world.

There has been a sea-change for what individuals can do and how they are informed. My email had links to several Obama talks about several issues. I got an email invitation to take a survey about what I thought of my experiences as a volunteer. The survey made it clear that the Obama organization really did want to get some feedback but was also really eager to figure out what we want to do now as volunteers, what issues we wanted to work on and what kinds of volunteer work we wanted to do. So the impressive Obama campaign recruitment, training and moblization of volunteers seems likely to pull us in again to lobby, mobilize and promote issues for Obama programs. A new kind of massive but also individual politics.

So it feels like a new kind of political community that we now imagine for ourselves. We still watch things en masse, like all the events of this inauguration. But we have a lot more choice and control about it. Which probably lets quite a few people who are not big Obama fans ignore the whole thing more than they might have been able to do in the 1960s. I remember hearing people in my Idaho town in 1963 complain about having no option but to watch days of Kennedy funeral coverage on the only three channels they had. I wonder if their kids are choosing to watch the inauguration or ESPN?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Fascination with "The Mind"

It is always interesting for me to think about how we get interested in the things that drive us, particularly the big decisions like where to go to school, what career to take, who to marry, what religion or philosophy to be guided by.

For example, my son Rolf wanted to be something very specific, and to my mind remarkably cool, an ethnomusicologist, from age 12 when he saw some mind blowingly different music in Brazil, to age 22, when he decided that, while that was cool, it wasn't pro-social enough. So he switched his interests to applying anthropology to making non-formal education in developing countries work better. Part of that had to do with confronting poverty as well as cool music in several experiences in Brazil, part of it had to do with what he learned in a very critical development curriculumn in college.

For me, I wanted to be a psychologist for quite a long time, from about age 14, when I read a book called "The Mind," part of a Time-Life series that I found in the high school library, to about 20, when I got terminally disgusted with social pyschology at Stanford University, after being associated with a couple of different experiments conducted by a rock star psychologist there, Phil Zimbardo. I was an undergrad research assistant to him in a couple of very deceptive experiments, then hit the ultimate wall as a volunteer subject in the pre-test to his (in)famous prison experiment. You can see more about the final version at The pre-test was enough to sour me and send me off to check out more my other interests in international relations and media, which is where I ended up working and studying. Still, that interest in psychology, nourished by a book in the high school library, continues to intrigue. I am very happy that Rolf's wife, Kristy, my new daughter-in-law, is doing a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, so that there is someone around to talk to about it.

So I was very intrigued to read the cover story on today's New York Times' magazine, by Steven Pinker. He dives into the contribution of human genome study to the old question of how much of our nature and interests comes from nature/inherited characteristics and how much from nurture/environment, family, etc.

He notes, "Affordable genotyping may offer new kinds of answers to the question “Who am I?” — to ruminations about our ancestry, our vulnerabilities, our character and our choices in life.

Over the years I have come to appreciate how elusive the answers to those questions can be. During my first book tour 15 years ago, an interviewer noted that the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould had dedicated his first book to his father, who took him to see the dinosaurs when he was 5. What was the event that made me become a cognitive psychologist who studies language? I was dumbstruck. The only thing that came to mind was that the human mind is uniquely interesting and that as soon as I learned you could study it for a living, I knew that that was what I wanted to do. But that response would not just have been charmless; it would also have failed to answer the question. Millions of people are exposed to cognitive psychology in college but have no interest in making a career of it. What made it so attractive to me?

As I stared blankly, the interviewer suggested that perhaps it was because I grew up in Quebec in the 1970s when language, our pre-eminent cognitive capacity, figured so prominently in debates about the future of the province. I quickly agreed — and silently vowed to come up with something better for the next time. Now I say that my formative years were a time of raging debates about the political implications of human nature, or that my parents subscribed to a Time-Life series of science books, and my eye was caught by the one called “The Mind,” or that one day a friend took me to hear a lecture by the great Canadian psychologist D. O. Hebb, and I was hooked. But it is all humbug. The very fact that I had to think so hard brought home what scholars of autobiography and memoir have long recognized. None of us know what made us what we are, and when we have to say something, we make up a good story."

Interesting that he was guided to his interest in psychology by the same book, only with him it stuck for a career. I think our ruminations about media effects tend to miss the books we read when we are young. I can think of how a number of books affected all sorts of attitudes and interests of mine, from my fascination with other cultures to what I think of the state of Israel. But more about that later.