Monday, September 1, 2014

Adjusting Phenological Expectations

The leaves on the trees along the Mississippi River where it runs through my neighborhood are just starting to turn. This has prompted a dissonance of expectation that is unprecedented in my experience: I will be spending the northern hemisphere winter in the southern hemisphere this year, so I have the chance to experience the seasonal transition into autumn without the bracing involved in facing cold weather. This has started me down a fascinating path of adjusting all of the expectations that collect around the phenological transitions we notice with the changing of seasons in a particular place, like when the leaves bud and leaf and color and fall.

I have discovered that I appreciate existential preparation for things like seasonal change. Unlike my mother, for example, who (as a schoolteacher by profession) covered her eyes whenever she saw a schoolbus before Labor Day and tried to hold off on acknowledging the coming change of season, I find seasonal changes less jarring if I play with them at least a little bit before they happen. Even welcome changes, like the emergence of leaves, suddenly taking up so much of the experiential space of the sky in the spring, can come with challenging feelings, for example of those leaves pressing in on me in an unaccustomed manner. This transition can be much more interesting and less dissonant if I have anticipated them adequately. This year, for example, with spring so late, I willed the leaves to come out, staring them into sprouting in the side yard with so much effort that when they appeared, it was more as if they were filling a void than taking up space I had been enjoying. I also travelled to places a bit further ahead of us where leaves were concerned, refamiliarizing myself with the feeling of leaves and the changed spatial relationship with trees.

The inverse moment, when the leaves come off again, has a more glorious compensation, but for a much more woeful change: a reduction in aerial spaciousness is a trivial price to pay for the transition out of the six months of freeze; the colorful riot has to be awfully amazing to store up equanimity for return to the cold half of the year. But this year, I am gleeful about the ability to experience some distance between the dying of the summer and the anticipation of cold. But what will this be like? I anticipate that I will learn not only about the many ways I may unconsciously brace for the worst* (and hopefully unlearn some), but also about the way that foreshadowing works in the experience of narrative. This hemispheric transition will also give me a chance to re-explore the relationship between the warm and cold seasons, something that has been creeping up in my priority list, as my recent hip reconstruction has suddenly relocated me, socially, into the set of people who feel seasons in their bones, and as my scholarly work brings me more often into the problem spaces created by less predictable climate regimes.

I have often wanted to stockpile some of the warm experiences of the green land of summer—the space one can move through in bare skin and relaxed limbs—to sustain me in the snowed-in dark months, and I have a picnic project opening tomorrow that is designed, in part, to do just that: to collect and catalogue moments of un-seasonally-encumbered exploration for unpacking in the inside months. Perhaps narrating my way through these picnics will also help me approach this season of preparation in ways that let the seasons talk to each other more in my experience, and that let the reading of phenology always have compensating comforts.
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Monday, August 25, 2014

Narrative and understanding

Although it was published some time ago, a paper by Terre Satterfield, Scott Slovic and Robin Gregory (2000) is still very much up-to-date in thinking about the value of narrative. It’s about the possible benefits of narrative for understanding not just interpersonal matters, but matters about which one needs to think carefully about complex policy issues, and to make political decisions.

Satterfield and her colleagues were concerned about how to offer people information about the environment so that they could think about it productively to evaluate planned changes, and to take part in meaningful dialogue about policy decisions. How, for instance, do ordinary people understand what kinds of information are important and of good quality, and how can they come to know enough to make informed political choices? The researchers hypothesized that offering people information in a narrative form would increase comprehension of the main ideas of a problem, enable them to become emotionally engaged, and enable them to develop active imagery about an issue.

There were 239 participants in the study. They were from the University of Oregon community, and 52% were female. Each participant read either a utilitarian text or a narrative text and was asked to evaluate a policy that would reduce power produced by a Pacific Northwest hydroelectric system by letting more water through the system’s spillways to improve salmons’ ability to return from the ocean to their spawning grounds, to reproduce, and to let more young salmon make their way back to the ocean. A change to double the number of salmon returning to the river would increase the cost of household power by $60 annually, and a change to increase the number of returning salmon by ten times to would increase the cost by $360 annually. 

The utilitarian text included this:
Key policy decisions involve concerns such as the timing of power production (e.g. letting more water through dams on a regular basis would decrease the amount of power produced but also increase spawning habitat and food availability for young salmon) …  The expectation is that increased water flow will raise the number of returning salmon on the river by at least 2-fold (8000 salmon instead of the current 4000) …
The narrative text included this:
My neighbor, an engineer, has taught me a thing or two about how dams and their hydroelectric technology can be managed in ways that kill fewer young salmon. She says that increasing water flow around the dams would help. Right now only about 4000 salmon are making it back per year but if more water is released through the dam, salmon habitat and food availability will improve ...

In both formats, the information was exactly the same. Among the outcome measures was the importance of a set of values related to the decision: cost, salmon population, spirituality, and significance of salmon to the community.

The results were that receiving the information in a narrative format did not determine the relative importance of each of the values to the participants. People who received the information in a narrative format were, however, more aware of the issues of value in relation to the decision and made better use of the value dimensions provided.

One interpretation of this result is that narratives may be useful in enabling people to make better mental models of the world, with which they can think about complex issues, perhaps also to think for themselves, and to think more effectively than they might otherwise about political decisions.

Satterfield, T., Slovik, S., & Gregory, R. (2000). Narrative valuation in a policy judgment context. Ecological Economics, 34, 315-331.
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Monday, August 18, 2014

The Art of the Book

Those of us who love to read books almost inevitably have a visceral reaction to the physical presence of books. We not only love to read books, we love to hold books, to smell books, and to admire the visual appeal of books. In celebration of the physical form of books, the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild is currently exhibiting the results of a juried competition across Canada. These 'Art of the Book' exhibits began in 1988 and have occurred every 5 years, presenting some highly creative and thought-provoking demonstrations of bookbinding alongside re-imaginings of what makes a book. Presented at the top of this post is a piece by Karen Hanmer (US), for In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. Below are some other fine examples along with the rest of the touring schedule for the exhibition. It is currently at the Craft Ontario Gallery 
(990 Queen St. W., Toronto) until September 13th. The online exhibition catalogue is here. I highly recommend catching this if you can.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Scripting Embodied Experience: Table Manners as Written in Linens (and playing cards)

Annie Smart's set design for To the Lighthouse, Berkeley Rep
Given my thoughts last week about how understanding experience as embodied can matter to the way we model interactions, I am returning this week to my ongoing project of mapping out food interactions. I attempt this through some food infrastructure that is at once inordinately mundate and evocatively mysterious: the supports for meals that usually take the supporting role in the food dramas we enact throughout the day, such as table linens and utensils. (These jive well with my usual underdog-cheering affection for place and setting in preference to character and plot in the analysis and construction of stories.)

I am here considering a series of lines directly quoted from Chapter 17, the dinner scene in Virginia Woolf's To the LighthouseEach of these "playing cards" blocks out some movement, some table manner, some deliberate scripting of meal relationships--and I can imagine each being part of a deck of role-playing cards, for example, that might begin a compelling dinner party:

Monday, August 4, 2014

Every body's Embodied Experience

You cannot make or have experience for somebody else. You can, however, pay good attention to somebody else's experience, or interpret or discover the meaning of experience together, and in the process you might learn more about your own experience and what it means to be in a body. As narrators sharing words about the psychology of fiction and narrative in virtual space, it is easy to interact without paying adequate attention to embodied experience--and as such disembodied habit becomes reinforced, sharing the experience of ourselves in bodies can be challenging. As we interact with each others' narrative personae in this disembodied space, it also becomes easier to generalize from our own experiences--and to unintentionally discount others' experiences by assuming they should follow the patterns of our own. Because food is what I am often writing about, I get to cheat in some ways: writing about eating invokes bodily experience. But especially because food is the focus of my work, I sometimes want non-food methods for getting people to pay attention to their inward experience and to think and feel from inside their bodies. Toward this end, I have spent a significant part of the past year studying the teaching of yoga, and particularly teaching yoga in a way that makes it accessible to everyone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the intensive workshop I have just completed has confirmed my suspicions about the radical potential of increasing access to embodied experience.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Something Missing

Narrative is important in giving meaning to life. In some narratives the meanings seem complete, but in others something seems to be missing. It may have been this sense of something missing that, in medieval times, sent people off on pilgrimages to Jerusalem or Canterbury, and still today sends people off on literary pilgrimages of a kind I have made recently, to the birthplace of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Geneva and to the grave of Marcel Proust in Paris. My visit to Proust's grave gave me some of this missing sense, something like: “So he's not just an idea. He's really here."

I experienced something of the same sense when I recently visited Bletchley Park, Britain's code-breaking centre during World-War II, with a main purpose of finding out more about Alan Turing, who worked there throughout the War. As a vacation job (in 1960, I think, when I was an undergraduate) I worked at the National Physical Laboratory, where Alan Turing had worked after the War. I assisted in programming one of the world's first computers, the Turing-designed Automatic Computing Engine (ACE). The person whom I was assisting was writing a program to do cross correlation in a tracking task: now just a few lines of code but then, in ACE machine code, it needed an elaborate arrangement of ones and zeros and weeks of debugging. My first job after I got my PhD was again at the National Physical Laboratory, and it was then that I came across Turing's work on the foundations of artificial intelligence. The work that he did at Bletchley Park during the War, to decipher messages sent by the German Enigma machines, was among the most important contributions any individual made to the Allied cause. It fascinated me. In the hut that had been converted to an entrance to Bletchley Park, I found tears coming to my eyes, an indication of being in the presence of something larger than my own day-to-day concerns, and again an indication of the something that can seem missing from purely narrative accounts.

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