Last Words; Sabbath Thoughts (Oliver Sacks)

Dr. Oliver Sacks

Dr. Oliver Sacks

“And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

— Oliver Sacks

Read his perhaps final words/Sabbath thoughts in The New York Times here.

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What Do You Expect?/Nous Ne Sommes Pas Un Bureau De Renseignement (July 2014)

This gallery contains 24 photos.

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Snow Flake photograph by Alexey Kljatov

Photo Credit: Snow Flake photograph by Alexey Kljatov

After last night’s blizzard, the cement Chinese scholar—who meditates on a makeshift pedestal in our garden’s southwest corner—has suffered a storm-change into something rich and strange. Atop his modest Buddhist curls, he now wears a proud bishop’s miter of snow; a priestly white stole adorns his sloping shoulders. Glimpsed through a Magnolia grandiflora’s evergreen foliage, almost black, which partly blocks his path, he smiles slightly—despite his recent spiritual confusion—and floats above the sparkling virgin drifts.

Two cardinals glisten like drops of fresh blood on the low, snow-capped wall.

When I take a shovel and cut a path to the garden shed to fetch a bag each of millet and sunflower seeds, a hundred hungry eyes watch me from the trees. The feeders have been empty for twenty-four hours, the temperature hovering near zero. Then, a cranky “Tsk, Tsk, Tsk!” cracks the snow-choked silence. A black-capped chickadee? All at once, I feel cold and hot, chastened and needed, moved to laughter and tears.

About the Magnolia grandiflora, earlier, I’d also meant to say that each leaf is furred underneath with a bronze indumentum…

You in your shirtsleeves in the living room, chatting on the phone. Me, outside, bundled up like Nanook of the North, with my breath crystallizing in the inhospitable air. Nothing separates us, really, except steel casements and double-paned glass. Yet, for an instant, I fear we stand in utterly opposing worlds, indoors and out, as distant as lovers menaced by the legendary obstacles the gods concoct: family conflict, jealousy, war, time… You glance up at me and smile as you talk, and we’re twenty yards apart again, with all my mythical losses overcome and imaginary handicaps restored.

Next morning, we find a cat’s footprints on the kitchen walk. Each paw- hollow, already filling with wind-drift, suggests an ideograph on ancient rice paper, fading in the sun.

Who counts sheep when they can’t sleep? For me, insomnia is an affliction, like shingles, or an angry finger jabbing at my face. My inner devil’s advocate—with his jet-black goatee, ivory skin, and piercing, ice-blue eyes—will start to itemize a lifetime’s worth of fuck ups and missed chances. The night of the storm, exhausted by self-indictment, I heard the wind sigh bitterly in the white oak by our house, making the complaints I’d filed against myself sound moot. A judge’s gavel banged on bone; the D.A. in my head agreed to drop his case. Outside, the weather moaned and hissed as I drifted off near 3 AM.

Barbara’s black cat is the one that roams our yard, hunting for sparrows with a bell on her collar. Hope springs eternal in the feline breast.

Some say Eskimos have fifty words for snow; others say they don’t. The student of the winter garden—a savage redaction of summer’s chatter to roots and first causes—might take a different tack. For instance: “Who are the Eskimo?” “Do they all speak the same language?” “Define ‘word’.” “What is this miraculous frozen transience that we call ‘snow’”?

There can be a poetry of fact. In 1988, while researching snow for the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Nancy Knight was excited to discover two snowflakes of the hollow column variety that were “twins”—contrary to conventional wisdom, which holds that no two snowflakes look alike. Later, however, she clarified that her twins were, with near certainty, distinct at the atomic level.

Out front, the witch hazel raises her knobby pewter arms, and tiny orange flowerets unfurl in the thaw.

Winter makes us brood on death. Or worse. Especially when the stars twinkle heartlessly in the sub-zero sky. Before bed, I read about the possible loss of our “collective afterlife”—the human posterity—in two cosmic doomsday scenarios. Imagine, the writer asks, that you live a normal span and face the easiest of deaths from natural causes while knowing that a giant asteroid will obliterate the earth just one day later. Or pretend a virus makes the human race infertile and, after all adults have died, no children will replace them. Are these possibilities more terrifying than your own personal extinction? Do they increase despair? I turn off the bedside lamp and shiver underneath my comforter.

“O sweet and dauntless harbinger of spring,” I sing to a tune I’ve heard somewhere before, “when will you ever sprout, bloom, or alight?” It’s March, the deadest month of the year. I watch a squirrel hobble up our yew. A raw, red gash bisects his left haunch. A bite from the stub-tailed squirrel next door? A fall? Still, he leaps onto our Norway maple ‘Crimson King’ and spirals deftly up the trunk.

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Social Change Diary: Novel Communications Strategies for a Better World

Sendhil Mullainathan

Sendhil Mullainathan

Social Change Diary: Novel Communications Strategies for a Better World

On Tuesday, February 20, 2013 at 3:30 PM at the Ford Foundation, I attended a thought-provoking seminar led by MacArthur Foundation “genius” grantee, TED-Talk participant, and Harvard University Professor of Economics Sendhil Mullainathan. The topic was communications and social change.

The talk, part of the “Science of Communications Series,” was moderated by NPR Science Friday’s Ira Flatow, and was co-sponsored by The Communications Network and Spitfire Strategies.

Mullainathan’s main thrust involved re-tooling social change marketing and communications to target audiences or specific populations more effectively. He emphasized the importance of carefully planned quantitative research and rigorously neutral focus groups to better understand a target population’s beliefs about, and conceptions of, their own circumstances and challenges. In other words, he was advocating informed empathy.

While he didn’t insist on the moral implications of his approach, an attentive listener might have heard the pin dropping quietly in the background. Isn’t it a basic rule of thumb in communicating well in any relationship—whether as a spouse or an advocate for increased education for girls in the developing world—that you listen to your audience first, before you articulate your goals?

He also emphasized the vast gap between intentions and actions on the part of target audiences. (I feel that gap, in my own life, every day.)  Sometimes, what folk need isn’t more information about why they should behave differently, but behavioral modification techniques to help bridge the gap between what they already know they should do and how they normally act.

Breaking down big social problems into much smaller and more manageable behavioral components was therefore key, he suggested.

For example, worried about climate change? Figure out how to get more Americans to buy programmable thermostats and, when they buy them, figure out a way to get them to use them. While those behavioral changes, by themselves, won’t “fix” global warming, they would create a significant energy savings over the long term.  Solving global warming might thus consist of thousands of such smaller behavior changes around the world that would, he suggested, eventually add up.

Audience ability to receive messages is also very limited, he noted, even under the best of circumstances. But research suggests that stress, hunger, and worry about money can all severely use up our scarcest resource: audience attention. (Learn more about the most precious “merchandise” in an information economy.)

I might have added that there’s a lot of for-profit marketing and communications—and partisan communication—that’s sometimes focusing audiences on trivia or the superfluous, encouraging potentially deleterious behavior, and using up precious bandwidth that audiences might otherwise give to messaging about self-improvement or community empowerment.

Finally, he suggested that creating novel channels of communication to effect specific behavioral or social change is what we should aim for. He cited two examples.

First, he referenced a mobile robot alarm clock that runs away from a sleeper who hits the snooze button, forcing the sleeper to wake up, find it, and turn it off.

Second, he discussed a pill bottle with a “smart” cap that starts glowing when a patient is non-adherent to medication regimes, then sends the patient a text, then texts the patient’s mother, then escalates messaging further if patient is still non-adherent.

Mullainathan has co-founded a think tank to help craft more effective strategies for social change.  It’s called Ideas42.

What other novel behavioral interventions might we think of to improve social conditions, increase justice, or enhance everyday lives? Comments welcome.

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Baby Birds, Eggs, Nest (Orient Point)

Baby Birds, Eggs, Nest (Orient Point)—photo credit: Malcolm Farley

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