Selasa, 31 Juli 2007

0 5 Simple Steps to Stop Procrastination Today

Procrastination: it's one of the problems that plague most of us, every day, and one of the problems that we most want to be rid of.

It's not an easy task for most people, conquering procrastination, often because we procrastinate on taking steps to solve the problem.

But it's not impossible. In fact, five simple habits will eliminate the plague of procrastination. Take them today, and you should see a huge difference in your productivity.
  1. Eliminate all but the essential. One of the problems is that we're so overwhelmed with tasks that we don't know where to start. Take a few minutes and list out your projects and tasks. Now look over that list and decide which task and projects are the most essential. Which ones would mean the most, over the long term, if they were accomplished? Which will lead to the most benefit to you, and have the most impact on your life? These are the essential projects and tasks -- focus on them as much as possible.

    Put a star next to the essential projects and tasks. Only choose a few. Now look at all the rest, and see if you can eliminate them, delegate them, or put them off for awhile. Clear the deck for the essential stuff, so you'll actually have time to do them.

    What does this have to do with procrastination? If you eliminate all but the essential, you'll be able to focus on what matters. You'll be able to think about the amazing benefits of each task, instead of the dull drudgery of it all. And therein lies the key to this step: if you focus on the benefits, instead of the difficulties of a task, you will be motivated to get it done. Motivation is the key.

  2. Create accountability. If left to our own devices, we will put things off forever, because there's no cost to procrastination. While we might feel guilty procrastinating on something important to us, if we're the only ones who know that we're procrastinating, it doesn't hurt us very much.

    However, most of us hate to look bad to others. We want others to think highly of us. That's human nature. So take advantage of that fact, and leverage it.

    Here's how: for every essential project and task on your list (see Step 1), have someone who you must report to. This should be so even if you are the boss or an independent freelancer or self-employed, or if the project is a personal one that you just want to do for yourself. In these cases, create the accountability if it doesn't already exist. Email someone and promise them that you'll turn something in to them by a certain date, or that you'd like them to review it and that you're going to send it to them, or that you'd like for them to make sure you finish a project by a certain time.

    The more people you have who are expecting you to complete a project, the more likely you are to ensure that you do it. Create that public accountability, and you'll get it done.

  3. Focus on small steps. Taking on an overwhelming task or project can stop us in our tracks. Imagine looking up at a mountain and deciding whether you're going to climb it today or if you're going to go to the store to buy some groceries instead. You'll go to the store every single time. So instead of looking at the mountain, look only at the next signpost up the road. Focus on that, and it's not so undoable.

    For each project or task, focus on a small task to get you moving. If you've got a report, just find one source for the research, or just write the opening paragraph, or just do 5 minutes of outlining. Whatever your task, you can break it down into something even smaller and more accomplishable. Make this a daily habit.

  4. Set deadlines. This is implied in Step 2 above (accountability), but it's so important that I had to list it as a separate step. Without deadlines, we'll never get anything done, even if we're accountable to someone else. For example, if our boss says to have X project done by Aug. 5, and also to do Y project but doesn't specify a deadline, guess which project we'll work on first? Deadlines give a sense of urgency that gets us off our buts and gets us working on something.

    But the important thing is not just to give deadlines to projects, but the individual small steps as outlined in Step 3. So if you are just going to do an outline for a report, tell the person you're accountable to that you are going to turn in the outline by a certain date and time. When you've done that, set a deadline for the next small step, and so on, until the project is completed.

  5. Clear distractions. Once you've managed to focus on an essential task, broken it into a small step, and are accountable to someone with a deadline, you need to clear all distractions so you can focus and get the task done. This will not be a popular step with many people, but it's so easy to procrastinate if you have a lot of distractions to pull you away from the task at hand. Clear the deck, and focus.

    How do you clear distractions? Disconnect from the Internet if possible, or at least turn off IM and email notifications. Turn off the TV, and close unnecessary programs. Clear your desk and everything from the walls around you, so that you are in a distraction-free zone. Once you're in that zone, don't allow yourself to do anything else but the task at hand. When you feel yourself being pulled away from the task, stop yourself, and bring yourself back.

Written for Dumb Little Man by Leo Babuata of Zen Habits

Senin, 30 Juli 2007

0 Don't be Fooled by Food Labeling

food labelI will freely admit that I have become a detail fiend when it comes to reading food labels. Perhaps the most important lesson that I have learned is that the front or 'display side" of labels mean nothing. By ignoring the majority of the marketing attempts on the front of food containers, I am positive that my food intake has become healthier. My wife has helped and in general, I tend to shy away from foods that contain High Fructose Corn Syrup and unnecessary preservatives and chemicals.

It's a pain, a real pain. I love bad food and resisting it is a daily struggle. Here are a few of the marketing ploys to be aware of:
  • Organic: This is a crazy buzz word that will eventually die. When you look into organic foods, read the label. Many times, organic foods contain a ton of sugar and/or sodium. I love real organic food, but be sure you are purchasing all-around healthy food as opposed to foods that replace artificial flavoring with unhealthy portions of sodium or sugar.

  • The mini: Nabisco, the owner of Chips Ahoy cookies has a product named "100 Calorie Packs". The premise is that you can have a sweet, quick snack and only consume 100 calories. In theory, this sounds good but the reality is that there is no way this is going to satisfy your hunger. Many people end up eating 2 bags at a sitting when the smarter option is to eat some fruit or even drink some water. The label of "100 Calories" convinces you that 2 or 3 bags is OK because it's only 10%-15% of your daily caloric consumption.

  • Imaging: I want you to take notice to this one. Next time you go grocery shopping, pay attention to the way foods are packaged. Just because there is a picture of a bushel of corn or a handful of wheat, it doesn't mean it's healthy. You have to totally ignore EVERYTHING that is on the front of the container.

  • Serving Size: So you grab a box of something and you look at the nutrition data. Everything looks pretty solid until you realize that there are 4 servings in that one little box! At that point you can essentially multiply everything (i.e. sodium, saturated fat, etc.) by 4. If you notice this before buying, perhaps you will put the box back on the shelf before you consume 3 days of fat in one meal. Frozen Pizzas are infamous for this tactic.
After consulting with the FDA site, here are the real rules that must should be followed in food marketing. Oddly enough, many sections of the FDA site have not been updated since 2001. Nevertheless, we wonder why there is an obesity problem.

I digress - here are some labeling rules to be aware of:
  • Fat Free - The product has less than .5 grams of fat per serving

  • Low Fat - The product has 3 grams or less of fat per serving

  • Reduced or Less Fat - The product has at least 25% less fat per serving than the full-fat version

  • Light - This one is ambiguous and can have a number of meanings:
    -the product has fewer calories or half the fat of the non-light version,
    -the sodium content of a low-calorie, low-fat food is 50 percent less than the non-light version,
    -a food is clearer in color (like light instead of dark corn syrup).

  • Calorie Free - The product has less than 5 calories per serving
Real simple right?

Other Good Resources:
Food Label Decoding
7 Ways The Food Companies Fool You
Food Labeling and Nutrition (FDA)

0 Be Productive During your Down Time

readingIt's not very often that I find myself with any free time. In fact, if I have any, a power nap is usually in order. However, I have recently been trying to better utilize free time. The time I gain from cutting workplace distractions alone has provided me with at least 45 extra minutes each day. For those that aren't math wizards, that's like 5 hours per week! However, perhaps that time is best utilized relaxing the brain as opposed to clearing out the inbox.

Once you master distraction extermination, how can you best utilize the time? Take a peak at the ideas I wrote down on my train ride today and decide if and how you can implement these.
  • Do Nothing: You didn't expect this one but instead of napping, just sit and think. Grab a newspaper and plain old relax. While some may call you a slacker, there is a lot to say for increasing your productivity by relaxing your brain. Try it - go somewhere quiet and just chill out.

  • Build the network: No I am not talking about anything technical. I am talking about building your personal network. Send an email or give someone a call that you normally wouldn't. There are always people that can help advance your career, the key is to remind them that you exist.

  • Get Out: While I hate to use the fitness cliche, getting out for a walk can help clear your brain. The fresh air and the increased blood flow will help you think. Bring your notebook with you because clear thinking provides a unique chance to brainstorm and you'll need a spot to write your ideas. To plan your route and build some diversity, try TrailLink or look for an appropriate resource here.

  • Clean: I don't care if it's your office, your inbox, or your mail. Spend some time organizing the things that constantly demand attention. Whatever it is, your busy time will flow if you get rid of anything that slows things down.

  • Hit the gym: Ok, I am an internet junkie so many times my free time is allocated to the internet. However, by committing to simply walking or lifting weights twice per week, your energy and health will surely increase. Put together a simple workout schedule and commit to it on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you already workout, try mixing it up!

  • Challenge yourself to learn: I enjoy trivia so occasionally I will take a few minutes and try to learn 5 things in 5 minutes. The facts and vocabulary I pick up impress the boss, my wife, etc. We wrote a post recently on learning resources so if you have time to kill, read it!

I am all for wisdom sharing so if you have something unique that you do during your down time, let us all know.

0 The Cost of Waiting to Invest

Mark Riepe, Senior Vice President, Schwab Center for Financial Research shares the following with Dumb Little Man readers:

Imagine for a moment that you’ve just received a year-end bonus or income tax refund. You’re not sure whether to invest now or wait. After all, the market recently hit an all-time high. Now imagine that you face this kind of decision every year — sometimes in up markets, other times in downdrafts. What’s a good rule of thumb to follow?

Our research definitively shows that the cost of waiting for the perfect moment to invest far exceeds the benefit of even perfect timing. And because timing the market perfectly is, well, about as likely as winning the lottery, the best strategy for most of us mere mortal investors is not to try to market-time at all. Instead, make a plan and invest as soon as possible.

But don’t take my word for it. Consider our research on the performance of five long-term investors following very different investment strategies. Each received $2,000 at the beginning of every year for the 20 years ending in 2006 and left the money in the market once invested.(1) Check out how they fared:
  1. PETER PERFECT was a perfect market timer. He had incredible skill (or luck) and was able to place his $2,000 into the market every year at the lowest monthly close.

    For example, Peter had $2,000 to invest at the start of 1987. Rather than putting it immediately into the market, he waited and invested after month-end November 1987 — that year’s monthly low point for the S&P 500® Index (a proxy for the stock market).

    At the beginning of 1988, Peter received another $2,000. He waited and invested the money after January 1988, the monthly low point for the market for that year. He continued to time his investments perfectly every year through 2006.

  2. ASHLEY ACTION took a simple, consistent approach: Each year, once she received her cash, she invested her $2,000 in the market at the earliest possible moment.

  3. MATTHEW MONTHLY divided his annual $2,000 allotment into 12 equal portions,which he invested at the beginning of each month. This strategy is known as dollar cost averaging. You may already be doing this through regular investments in your 401(k) plan or an Automatic Investment Plan (AIP), which allows you to deposit money into mutual funds on a set timetable.

  4. ROSIE ROTTEN had incredibly poor timing — or perhaps terribly bad luck: She invested her $2,000 each year at the market’s peak, in stark defiance of the investing maxim to “buy low.” For example, Rosie invested her first $2,000 at the end of August 1987 — that year’s monthly high point for the S&P 500. She received her second $2,000 at the beginning of 1988 and invested it at the end of December 1988, the peak for that year.

  5. LARRY LINGER left his money in cash (using Treasury bills as a proxy) every year and never got around to investing in stocks at all. He was always convinced that lower stock prices — and, therefore, better opportunities to invest his money — were just around the corner.

We looked at how much wealth each of the five investors had accumulated at the end of the 20 years (1987–2006). Actually, we looked at 62 separate 20-year periods in all, finding similar results across almost all time periods.

Naturally, the best results belonged to Peter, who waited and timed his annual investment perfectly: He accumulated $146,761. But the study’s most stunning findings concern Ashley, who came in second with $141,856 — only $4,905 less than Peter Perfect. This relatively small difference is especially surprising considering that Ashley had simply put her money to work as soon as she received it each year — without any pretense of market timing.

Matthew’s dollar-cost-averaging approach delivered solid returns, earning him third place with $134,625 at the end of 20 years. That didn’t surprise us. After all, in a typical 12-month period, the market has risen 75 percent of the time.(2) So Ashley’s pattern of investing first thing did, over time, yield lower buying prices than Matthew’s monthly discipline and, thus, higher ending wealth.

Rosie Rotten’s results also proved surprisingly encouraging. While her poor timing left her about $18,262 short of Ashley (who didn’t try timing investments), Rosie still earned significantly more than double what she would have if she hadn’t invested in the market at all.

And what of Larry Linger, the procrastinator who kept waiting for a better opportunity to buy stocks — and then didn’t buy at all? He fared worst of all, with only $61,622. His biggest worry had been investing at a market high. Ironically, had he done that each year, he would have still earned more than twice as much over the 20-year period.


Regardless of the time period considered, the rankings turn out to be remarkably similar. We analyzed all 62 rolling 20-year periods dating back to 1926 (e.g., 1926–1945, 1927–1946, etc.). In 52 of the 62 periods, the rankings were exactly the same; that is, Peter Perfect was first, Ashley Action second, Matthew Monthly third, Rosie Rotten fourth and Larry Linger last.

But what about the 10 periods when the results were not as expected, as illustrated in the table? Even in these periods, investing immediately never came in last. It was in its normal second place four times, third place five times and fourth place only once, from 1962 to 1981, one of the few periods of persistently weak equity markets.What’s more, during that period, fourth, third and second places were virtually tied.

We also looked at all possible 30-, 40- and 50-year time periods, starting in 1926. If you don’t count the few instances when investing immediately swapped places with dollar cost averaging, all of these time periods followed the same pattern. In every 30-, 40- and 50-year period, perfect timing was first, followed by investing immediately or dollar cost averaging, bad timing and, finally, never buying stocks.


If you make an annual investment (such as a contribution to an IRA or to a child’s 529 plan), and you’re not sure whether to invest in January of each year, wait for a “better” time, or dribble your investment out evenly over the year, be decisive. The best course of action for most of us is to create an appropriate plan and take action on that plan as soon as possible. It’s nearly impossible to accurately identify market bottoms on a regular basis. So, realistically, the best action that a long-term investor can take, based on our study, is to invest at the first possible moment, regardless of the current level of the stock market.

If you’re tempted to try to wait for the best time to invest in the stock market, our study suggests that the benefits of doing this aren’t all that impressive — even for perfect timers. Remember, over 20 years, Peter Perfect amassed less than $5,000 more than the investor who put her cash to work right away.

Even badly timed stock market investments were much better than no stock market investments at all. Our study suggests that investors who procrastinate are likely to miss out on the stock market’s potential growth. By perpetually waiting for the “right time,” Larry sacrificed $61,972 compared to even the worst market timer, who invested in the market at each year’s high.


If you don’t have the opportunity, or stomach, to invest your lump sum all at once, consider investing smaller amounts more frequently. Dollar cost averaging has several benefits:
  • PREVENTS PROCRASTINATION. Some of us just have a hard time getting started. We know we should be investing, but we never quite get around to it. Much like a regular 401(k) payroll deduction, dollar cost averaging helps force yourself to invest consistently.

  • MINIMIZES REGRET. Even the most even-tempered stock trader feels at least a tinge of regret when an investment proves to be poorly timed. Worse, such regret may cause you to disrupt your investment strategy in an attempt to make up for your setback. Dollar cost averaging can minimize this regret because you make multiple investments, none of them particularly large.

  • AVOIDS MARKET TIMING. Dollar cost averaging ensures that you will participate in the stock market regardless of current conditions. While this will not guarantee a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market, it will eliminate the temptation to try market-timing strategies that rarely succeed.
As you strive to reach your financial goals, keep these research findings in mind. It may be tempting to try to wait for the “best time” to invest — especially in a volatile market environment. But before you do, remember the high cost of waiting. Even the worst possible market timers beat not investing in the stock market at all.

0 Learn How to Dance, or how Not to (video)

I can't dance. If you didn't hear that let me reiterate....I CAN'T dance. I've always known this but I officially confirmed this fact at homecoming, prom, my wedding and the embarrassing events where liquor and a video camera subsequently provided a source for a lifetime of ridicule.

Unfortunately for us in the rhythm challenged support group, there are times we have to get out there and cut a rug so why not have an understanding of the basics and especially the don't s? If you have an occasion that requires dancing, watch this video. Please be patient, the decent tips begin at the 2:45 mark but the entire video is pretty good.

VideoJug: Dance Moves: An Emergency Guide For Men

0 Want an Easier Life? Read LifeRemix

LiferemixWell, introvert Jay White has some new friends. Today a site named LifeRemix launched and along with a handful other other blogs, Dumb Little Man is a charter member.

LifeRemix will feature original content (sample "100 Great Tips to Improve Your Life") and syndicated headlines from its members which are (blush) regarded as some of the blogosphere's best productivity sites. I am pretty honored that I was invited to join.

Aside from the new image on Dumb Little Man, you will not see any difference in our content. When invited, I just thought it would be nice to be part of a fun network of blogs that have the same interests.

Here is a list of the blogs that are currently involved. I have to assume that you are already subscribed to some of these but if not, have fun reading up on some tips that we haven't discussed.
If you are interested in making life easier, do yourself a favor and check out LifeRemix. If you are bold enough to take my word for it, subscribe to the feed here.

0 The possibility of secret passageways: An Interview with Patrick McGrath

The novels of Patrick McGrath are often described as Gothic. They unfold across foggy landscapes and rolling moors, on marshes dotted with isolated houses and dead trees. There is a lot of rain.
McGrath's characters are frequently deformed, crippled, mad, or somehow undefined, both psychologically and sexually; they are sinister, if naive, and quietly aggressive, weaving conspiratorial plots around one another with a tightness and an intricacy, and a psychological intensity, till something dreadful occurs – and the book then lurches on to its brutal and unhappy ending.
Amidst tropical swamps and London graveyards, crumbling barns and basements, operating theaters and unused bedrooms, we find incest, murder, and suicide – as well as the creeping, subterranean shadows of mold and rot.
But it is the settings, and not the plots, of Patrick McGrath's novels that led me to speak with him for BLDGBLOG.
For those brackish marshes and dust-filled hospital wards are extraordinarily well-described; indeed, McGrath's eye is intimidating in its detail, supplying information across the senses, giving us the taste, smell, and sound of his fictional worlds, in beautifully crafted sentences.
His landscapes are precise, vivid, and worth re-reading.

A question often asked on this website is: what do novelists, artists, and filmmakers want from landscape and the built environment? More specifically, how can architecture assist a writer as he or she constructs a novel's storyline? Are certain types of buildings more conducive to one kind of plot than to another?
And what about landscape? How does landscape lend itself to literary effect – and could landscape architects actually learn something about the drama of designed space by turning to a novel instead of to a work of theory?
To the work of Patrick McGrath, for instance?
In the following interview, Patrick McGrath talks to BLDGBLOG about Romanticism, the Sublime, and the origins of Gothic literature, from Mary Shelley's Alpine wastes to the forests of Bram Stoker, by way of Edgar Allan Poe and the frozen seas of the Antarctic.
We discuss David Lynch, The Sheltering Sky, the architecture of psychiatric institutions – where cell doors always open outward – and the spectacle of unfinished castles soaked with rain on the British moors. We pass through mountains, abbeys, and malarial swamplands, referring to Joseph Conrad, amateur paleontology, and the featureless voids of the Sahara.
We spoke by telephone.

[Image: Novelist Patrick McGrath].

• • •

BLDGBLOG: First, on the most basic level, could you talk about what makes a landscape "Gothic"? Is it the weather, the landforms, the isolation, the plantlife…? Further, in your own work, what is it, on a psychological level, that unites, say, the crooked and leafless trees of the British moors with the coastal swamps of Honduras?

Patrick McGrath: Not an easy question to answer! As you point out, a landscape could be tropical – or it could be Arctic, and it could still have those qualities that we might consider Gothic. It’s hard to know just what these landscapes have in common.

I suppose we have to go back to the origins of Romanticism, and to Edmund Burke's book on the Sublime, and look at his notions of the horrid and the terrible. There were landscapes that emotionally aroused the people of that time – but because of their what? Their magnificence in some way. The sheer scope and grandeur of the high mountains – the Alps which Mary Shelley described very powerfully in Frankenstein – or the eastern European landscape in Bram Stoker's Dracula: the loneliness and the remoteness of those mountains, the density of the forests, the fact that there are very few human beings there. Nature dwarfs humanity in such landscapes. And that will arouse the sense of awe that is made particularly dramatic use of in Romantic and Gothic literature.

Then, at the other end of the scale, we have a tropical landscape such as Conrad’s Congo in Heart of Darkness where it’s almost the reverse: it’s the constrictiveness and the fecundity of nature, the way it presses in on all sides. Everything is decaying. And decay, of course, is a central concept in the Gothic. So when you have tropical vegetation you do have a sense of ooze and rot – of swampiness.

BLDGBLOG: You mentioned that certain landscapes might have been "emotionally arousing" for the people of that era – but this implies that what makes a landscape emotionally arousing will change from generation to generation. If that’s the case, might something altogether different be considered Gothic or Romantic today? Have you noticed a kind of historical shift in the types of landscape that fit into the Gothic canon?

McGrath: My first thought is: not so much of landscape – but let’s say in the view of the city.

My second novel, Spider, was inspired by a book of photos by Bill Brandt. He captured the seedy, ill-lit character of the East End of London of the 1930s in such powerfully human character – illicit liaisons on wet cobbled streets, toothy barmaids in grotty pubs, pulling pints for sardonic men in cloth caps – that I was at once inspired to find a story there. But I do think the Victorian slum – the dark, rather shadowy streets that have a sort of sinister and rather threatening feel to them – could be replaced by the blandness of a suburb.

I’m thinking of what David Lynch did in Blue Velvet, with a scene of apparent utter normality. Think of the opening scene where a man is watering his garden and everything seems, well, perfect in that neat and orderly suburban way and yet his camera then goes beneath the grass and we see all sorts of forms of life that are slimy and grotesque and that aren’t apparent in that hygienic world above.

So there may be something in that: the suburb as the most Gothic of sites. Think of the work, say, of Gregory Crewdson.

BLDGBLOG: That raises the question of what sorts of architecture pop up most frequently in Gothic literature: usually English manor houses, church ruins, forgotten attics and so on. Why are certain types of buildings more conducive to one type of storyline and not others?

McGrath: I think you’d have to say that there are two questions here. There’s the conventional, stereotypical Gothic site which tends to be a lonely house high on a hill, probably Victorian, with turrets and the possibility of secret passageways and cellars and attics – places of obscurity, places where the past somehow resides. You know, houses of secrets.

These sites, in turn, would have grown out of the more traditional Gothic architectures – basically the ruins of monasteries and abbeys and convents and such, which dotted the British landscape in the 18th century, after the Reformation. Those first aroused the taste for ruins, and that was the origin of the Gothic. That would be basically a medieval architecture – in ruins, as I say, because of what Henry VIII did to the English church in the 16th century. So those were the places where people like Horace Walpole set their fiction, because the buildings were in such a state of decrepitude.

I think anything that sort of relates to these large, broken down, dilapidated structures would arouse the Gothic effect.

[Images: The Abbey in the Oakwood, 1809-10, and Cloister Cemetery in the Snow, 1817-19, by Caspar David Friedrich].

BLDGBLOG: Interestingly, though, in the work of J.G. Ballard, you get the same sort of psychological atmosphere – of perversion, violence, and dread – from a totally different kind of built environment: instead of crumbling manor houses, you have corporate office parks in the south of France, or even British shopping malls.

McGrath: Absolutely – and that was going to be the second part of my answer. There is the old Gothic, which does have a very definite architectural style that comes out of the structures of the Middle Ages, as these became ruins and gave off a sense of ghostliness and evil and menace. But then there is what you might call, I don’t know, a new Gothic, where the particular trappings of the old Gothic, the particular stylistic characteristics, are not necessary to produce the same sorts of effects – the feelings of dread, constriction, obscurity, transgression. You can get those from inner city projects, for example, or even a little neat rowhouse.

There was an early Ian McEwan novel, The Cement Garden, where all sorts of perverse wickedness was going on but in a very sort of unmemorable little house, in a street of very similar houses, none of which would particularly smack of evil. Although I did notice, when I was re-reading it, that he uses a little crenellation detail in the architecture of one of these absolutely anonymous little houses. He’s just touching-in this faint hint of the Gothic – as though to say: this is a child of something out of Ann Radcliffe, some decaying monastery in which an aristocrat pursues a maiden in the depths of the night.

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if there are any real buildings that you have in mind when you’re describing places like Drogo Hall or Crook Manor. Put another way, could someone ever do a kind of Patrick McGrathian architectural tour, or heritage walk, visiting sites that have inspired your fiction? Where would that tour take them?

McGrath: [laughs] Good question. I don’t quite know where I get them from. In part from the imagination, in part from books, books I’ve got around the place with photographs or paintings of buildings, some of which I’ve observed and remembered.

There’s a house called Crook in my first novel, The Grotesque. I found a lovely little book in a second-hand bookstore in New York, called The Manor Houses of England, and I simply leafed through it, picking up details here and there – not only architectural details, but verbal details. The way that aspects of architecture are described – the sorts of terms that are used – can be as much a part of the creation of a building in fiction as a clear, purely visual picture in your mind. You catch a nice phrase that’s used to describe, I don’t know, a Jacobean staircase or a particular piece of detailing or masonry – and you fling it in because it sounds good, rather than just because it evokes a particular image.

But I don’t think there’s a pattern. They’re usually curious amalgams that I put together in my imagination.

BLDGBLOG: I noticed one day that there is a real Castle Drogo. Architecturally, how much of that was an influence on your descriptions of Drogo Hall? Or did you just use the name?

McGrath: It was basically just the name. Castle Drogo’s somewhere down in the West Country, I can’t remember where – I think it looks over Dartmoor. It was built in, I think, the early twentieth century by some rich industrialist, as I remember, who wanted to have a main building with two wings. But then his son was killed in WWI, and he’d only built one wing of the castle. He grew so despondent that he never built the second wing. All the life had gone out of him. So it’s an incomplete structure. It was also essentially an ersatz thing – it wasn’t a proper castle. It was an Edwardian idea of a castle – of which there are many in Britain, of course. But it was the name; the name was very powerful: Drogo.

So I pinched the name and gave it to a building that I largely invented out on the Lambeth Marshes. And, again, the Lambeth Marshes as I describe them don’t really have any resemblance to the Lambeth Marshes as they existed in the 18th century. I mean, I sort of put a Dartmoor on the south of the Thames – and I don’t think it was like that! [laughter]

BLDGBLOG: Well, it works, so...

McGrath: It works – and that’s all you want.

[Images: Castle Drogo].

BLDGBLOG: Have you read The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald? One of the stories is partially set in an old, sprawling psychiatric hospital in the forests of New York state. Near Syracuse, I think, or maybe Ithaca. The narrator explains that his uncle once committed himself there voluntarily to undergo electroshock therapy, basically as a way to erase painful memories from some time spent in the Sahara south of Cairo.

McGrath: Now, this is very, very interesting – I’ve read Sebald, but not that particular book. In fact, I’ve just finished a novel which is set in Manhattan and the last couple of chapters are set in a mental hospital in northern New York state. And I had no idea about Sebald using that location – and I didn’t really know about the Victorian institutions you described.

What I did was I took an institution from northern Ontario where I worked when I first came over to North America, and it was very unlike a Victorian institution. It was sort of like a blockhouse – like a penitentiary. And so what I’ve done is I’ve sort of plonked that down in upstate New York – but I might have to rethink how I’ve done that based on what you’ve just said. But this is great to know – I’ve still got time to tear that chapter apart.

BLDGBLOG: Well, some of those hospitals – these big, Gothic complexes – have actually been demolished. But in other cases, they’ve been transformed into apartments and condominiums –

McGrath: Yes, that’s happening in England, too. I visited old Victorian asylums there that have outlived their usefulness and are now being converted into apartments.

[Image: The Hudson River State Hospital, beautifully photographed by The rest of that site – especially the other hospitals – is well worth checking out].

BLDGBLOG: Returning to the question of landscape, the natural environments in your work are extraordinarily well-described; in fact, there are parts of Asylum that strike me as literal exemplars of superb landscape description. I’d love to know more about how you work: if you actually visit specific locations, driving up to the moors or through the hills of New England, to capture your descriptions on the spot; or if you work from memory, or from imagination, or even from other books of photographs.

McGrath: There have been times when I’ve gone to a place. When I went down to Belize, for instance, and saw what Belize City looks like – the shacks lurching unsteadily over the river, the mangrove swamps and so forth – that just told me, instantly, that here I had the setting of a novel. I took a lot of photos and then basically used what I’d seen. Other times, I just sort of invent it.

I remember when I was writing The Grotesque, I had the Berkshire marshes in there, and I’d been out of England for many years at that point and somebody pointed out to me that, in fact, there are no marshes in Berkshire –

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

McGrath: – but by then it was too late. I needed there to be marshes and I wanted it to be Berkshire, for some reason, and so there it was: a completely nonexistent landscape had sprung to life.

I don't know, I look at things and a lot of it comes from reading. I discover details that, for example, in prisons and asylums you will always have the doors opening outwards so that whoever is incarcerated behind that door won’t be able to blockade themselves inside the room. Little details like that give the character of an institution and can be very evocative on the page.

BLDGBLOG: I'm also curious about weather and climate. For instance, a wet climate – with thunderstorms, humidity, and damp – seems to play a major, arguably indispensable, role in the Gothic imagination. Your own novels illustrate this point quite well: from rain-soaked country homes to the Lambeth marshes, from coastal fishing towns to Central American swamps. But can aridity ever be Gothic? In other words, if the constant presence of moisture contributes to a malarial atmosphere of decay, mold, infestation, and disease, might there be a whole other world of psychological implications in a climate where things don't decay – where there is no mold, where bodies turn to leather and everything can be preserved? Is indefinite preservation perhaps a Gothic horror of its own?

McGrath: Aridity does interest me. It’s an unusual application of the Gothic mood. You usually think of northern European or north American climates and landscapes, but that’s merely because, traditionally, that’s where these sorts of stories have been set. But I can very well imagine aridity being a place, or a site, for such a story.

I think you could safely say that one of the themes of the Gothic is the sins of the father being visited upon the sons – in other words, there is no escaping the past. The past will always haunt the present. And this is certainly true of Gothic stories that are set in crumbling old houses: there's always some piece of evil that has occurred in a previous generation that will work itself out on the current generation. So that continuation – or persistence – of the past is what you’re expressing: it’s the skeleton that can’t be disposed of.

But I’m trying to think if I know of a Gothic tale set in a desert, and the only thing I can come up with is... I think it's an old Erich von Stroheim movie. It might be called Greed? There's a man who has, somehow or another, wound up handcuffed to his companion – and the companion has died. This is in the quest for gold. Somehow or another their greed has got them into an impossible situation: they're handcuffed, the companion has died, and so we have a man crawling across the desert handcuffed to a corpse. It being a desert, of course, he's doomed. But that's a very powerful image of an utterly arid landscape.

In the spirit of a new Gothic, one that isn't dependent on very particular types of landscape or architecture, you could certainly exploit an arid landscape in order to create a condition of extreme thirst, extreme solitude, extreme desperation – all of which would be appropriate states of mind for a Gothic story. I just can't think of many examples.

BLDGBLOG: It never really occurred to me to refer to this book as "Gothic" before, but there's The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles – where you see people completely destroyed by the desert. The Sahara is presented as this strangely dark landscape, something that they can't comprehend culturally and they can't survive physically.

McGrath: Whether you could get away with calling that Gothic, I don’t know! But, certainly, there is horror in that environment. It does have that in common with the Gothic. You can't have the Gothic without horror, and the desert is a place where, you’d think, horror is always close at hand.

BLDGBLOG: Meanwhile, some of the earliest Gothic fiction was actually polar – Mary Shelley's Arctic chase in Frankenstein is an obvious example. I'm curious if glacial landscapes and frozen seas attract you? Might there someday be a kind of Arctic Port Mungo?

McGrath: Well, again, in the novel that I've just finished, I wanted to take my character, when he's pretty much spiraled down as far as he can get in New York City, to a place of snow. And there are all sorts of precedents for this. Frankenstein, as you say, begins up in the Arctic Sea – and ends there. I think the final image is Frankenstein pursuing his creature across the frozen waste – a vast white landscape. There's also Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which comes to a place of great whiteness; and, almost contemporary with that, is Melville’s white whale.

There is something about whiteness that is almost identical to blackness in terms of what it can evoke. I think it must be about featurelessness: the horror that comes of there being nothing there. It's a white nothing instead of a black nothing.

But the absence of color would suggest a kind of emptiness, a draining of life and meaning. A void. And the Gothic is very fond of a void. And Melville was certainly onto that. I mean, you can’t help but see that the white whale is really just a blank screen onto which Ahab has projected all sorts of powerful and twisted emotions – but, in itself, it is merely a screen. Melville's possibly suggesting that all of nature is just such a blank screen, and that it is the business of humans to project meaning onto nature, that meaning is not inherent, is an idea that I think we can comfortably live with now; but, I think, in the 19th century, it was probably a great deal more threatening to God-fearing people.

[Image: The Sea of Ice, 1824, by Caspar David Friedrich].

BLDGBLOG: One of the most striking images I've read in years is actually your character Hugo Coal, from The Grotesque, assembling his dinosaur skeleton in the family barn. I’d love to hear your thoughts about what went into that image – but also what you think about the human encounter with prehistoric monstrosity: with dinosaur bones, and marine fossils, and the utter strangeness of the earth's inhuman past.

McGrath: What interested me – before I'd even thought through aspects of deep time, and what that means – was that a man could go to Africa and collect a bunch of bones and crate them up and bring them back, and then spend the rest of his life trying to see what fitted where. This may be completely implausible, in terms of paleontology, but I just liked the notion of Sir Hugo sitting there in his barn, year in, year out, trying to make a pattern, to make a structure – and continuing to get it wrong. It seemed, somehow, very much in the spirit of human endeavors to discover the truth, or to figure out how nature works – or even, within that book, to get an answer to the mystery of who killed Sidney. It was to do with the fallibility of knowledge that was contained within this enterprise of getting the bones to fit – and they won't! [laughs] There's always a bit left over, or something that won't go where it’s supposed to go. So that was the aspect, the epistemological aspect, of reconstructing a skeleton that first fascinated me.

Then there was the notion of this thing coming from deep in the past and being now extinct – from so deep in the past that it no longer had any place on this earth – and the suggestion that Sir Hugo, in a sense, was the same. He, too, was a dinosaur; his day, as a representative of a certain social class, was past.

But the first impulse that I had was that this was a carnivorous creature. This wasn't a gentle herbivore Hugo's got there. This was a creature of enormous violence and absolute rapacity, capable of tearing its prey to pieces, and I wanted to suggest that those sorts of implicit violent energies were now swirling about this old country house.

BLDGBLOG: In some ways, though, it seems like the contemplation of the earth's biological past lends itself well to the Gothic mood – but contemplating, say, the earth's geological past just doesn't have the same psychological impact. For some reason, rocks just aren't very Gothic.

McGrath: Well, I remember the way that Conrad handles the river in Heart of Darkness: he speaks of the journey that Marlow takes to get to Kurtz as being a journey through, or deeper into, the geological history of Africa. I forget how he does it, but he gives you the sense that, as the boat moves up the river, it is also descending through eons of time. So there is almost a sense of a geological regression occurring as Marlow moves toward a man who has committed an act of enormous moral regression. Everything is about a movement downwards in that book. I’d say that he employs geological descent to mirror a moral descent.

BLDGBLOG: Of course, there's also Hugo Coal’s surname: coal, a geological product.

McGrath: There you are. Absolutely. That was no accident. Again, I'm referring to deep layers of what once had been wood, and that now, through the operation of time and pressure, is something quite different.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, I'd like to ask you about islands. You're from England, with a home in Manhattan, and you’ve lived on "a remote island in the north Pacific." Interestingly, though, your work doesn't include a lot of islands – indeed, there are very few scenes at sea. Do the Gothic possibilities of islands, or archipelagos, have any literary interest for you?

McGrath: Well, that's true. I don't know why that should be. I've put people by the water often enough – a lot of my people seem to stand in high places gazing out to sea – but the notion of an island as a... I suppose the island gives you the possibility of a closed community – and that's always a good site to play out a story in. You can just say that the world doesn't extend beyond the borders I've imposed upon it. I suppose the use of a village is a sort of island. The last book I’ve done is set in Manhattan almost exclusively, but... I've never sort of literally done an island.

I think every novelist – unless you're Dickens, maybe, where you just want to give a great sweep of an entire society – finds a way of creating islands, or social islands, anyway. The family is a sort of island. A prison, an asylum, is a sort of island. A town can be a sort of island. I mean, every novel has to limit its scope geographically and socially, so I suppose we create islands – but I've never particularly been drawn to an island itself. Though I do have a novel somewhere in the back of my head set on an island in the Mediterranean.

I suppose the answer is: I don't see the need for an island in itself, when the only point to an island would seem to be to draw a circle around a community. Unless it was the notion of being cut-off... That would be a good reason to make an island. You know, where the weather closes in and your people have no way of escape. I can see that being a way you might want to use an island. But I just haven't felt the need yet.

[Image: Monk by the Sea, 1809, by Caspar David Friedrich].

BLDGBLOG: As I mentioned, your bio refers to a "remote island in the north Pacific." I'm just wondering where exactly that was?

McGrath: There's a group of islands called the Queen Charlottes. They're off the northwest coast of British Columbia. If you were to find Prince Rupert on the map, you would then just go due west about 80 miles, and they're just south of the Alaskan panhandle. There are two main islands: Moresby and Graham. Moresby is uninhabited and Graham has, oh, two or three little towns. That's where I lived a few years.

I was a schoolteacher back in those days, and I'd been living in Vancouver, and I wanted to get out of the city, basically. So I got a job teaching there, and, while I was there, I basically gave up teaching and built a cabin and declared myself a writer.

That was the beginning.

• • •

BLDGBLOG would like to thank Patrick McGrath for taking the time to have this conversation – which he and I both hope to continue in a few months' time: so watch out for another interview with Patrick McGrath here on BLDGBLOG, to be posted, I hope, this winter.
Meanwhile, Asylum, The Grotesque, and Spider are all great places to start, if you're looking for an introduction to Patrick McGrath's work. Spider, of course, was recently filmed by David Cronenberg. A new novel, meanwhile, called Trauma, is due out in April 2008.
Finally, this PDF contains a much longer, and older, interview with McGrath (in which he describes the grotesque as "things beginning to merge, things becoming undifferentiated" – the grotesque is a "breakdown, in every dimension that I could imagine, in the organic, in the social, in the sexual, in the natural"). Briefly, then, it's interesting to point out that one of the manifestos mentioned in the previous post discusses the grotesque in terms of monstrosity, beauty, and architecture.

Minggu, 29 Juli 2007

0 The Urgency of Considering Urgency

urgencyIn 1973, a study was published by John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson. It is often referred to as the Good Samaritan study, and it is a remarkable glimpse into how powerful a force our situation is on our behavior.

Subjects in the study were put into a situation where some had to hurry from one building to the next, and some did not. Directly in their path was placed a person who pretended to be hurt. The experimenters wanted to know what impact urgency, among other things, would have on helping behavior. Only 6 in 10 unhurried people stopped to help the crumpled, moaning figure in their path. Even worse, only 1 in 10 stopped when they were instructed that they were urgently needed at the other location.

Now this result could be interpreted as a conscious decision about priorities, but post experiment interviews revealed that the urgency of the situation so dramatically influenced their perceptions that most didn't even remember the confederate being there.

The Effects of Urgency

But it isn't just urgency's impact on our perceptions that can cause us problems. Other research, for example, shows that urgency causes us to:
  • make decisions quicker and with less information than we usually think we need.

  • fall asleep slower than when there is no urgency to do so.

  • become anxious before we are even consciously aware of the urgency of the situation.
From an evolutionary perspective, our reactions to urgency make a lot of sense. It's important to take notice and act on the roar of a nearby lion, to put yourself out when you accidentally catch fire, or to put up your hands when someone tries to punch you. On the other hand, evolution did not build in a way to decide if the ringing phone is something important or not (at least not yet anyway), so the fact that it could be, and that it has to be answered now or you'll run out of time to answer it, activates the urgency response of focused attention and agitation. So, while you are stuck with the response, there are things you can do that productivity experts say can help keep it from exerting too much control.

Experts' Suggestions

One method of urgency control focuses at the immediate level on prioritizing your to-do items in your daily task list based on both importance and urgency and then sticking with the list until it is completed. This is the method advocated by Stephen Covey. But the main focus for Covey is to accomplish the important (but not urgent goals) that will eventually lead to a decrease in the number of urgent (but unimportant) activities or crises that arise. For example, training your receptionist to deal with certain correspondence will free up the time normally spent answering it.

The more bottom up approach of David Allen's GTD deals with urgency in a different, perhaps more efficient, manner. Allen's method is to schedule date specific/urgent items primarily on the calendar as appointments as opposed to the to-do list, creating a time for the item to be accomplished. Beyond that, the use of contexts allows for a further efficiency in that tasks are left off the radar until something can be done about them. You can leave the urgency of work at work.

When you put the bottom up and top down approaches together, you see that it is the combination of planning and execution that deter the negative effects of urgent but unimportant tasks. Planning allows you to create a schedule to prevent tasks from becoming urgent, and proper discretion in the execution phase allows you to decide which urgencies are actually important. Other urgencies should not disrupt the plan.

Using Urgency to Your Benefit

  • Turn large projects with deadlines into a series of small tasks with your own deadlines based on conservative estimates of how long they'll take.

  • Always shave at least a day off every deadline you're given.

  • Schedule pre-deadline meetings with a colleague to have them briefly inspect your work. The artificial deadline will motivate you.

  • Use urgent, unexpected situations to learn where you aren't planning well. If the same emergency keeps showing up, figure out how to stop it from happening again.
As an analogy, urgency is like the rapids in a river. If you've planned ahead, and you are diligent in the moment, you'll be able to use the useful ones to move you along quicker, and you'll be able to avoid the ones that will just turn you around in circles.

This post was written exclusively for Dumb Little Man by John R. McCarthy, Ph.D. of

0 Moving in 3 days

Busy busy!

With shopping and scriptwriting that is!

I just spent $325 yesterday in Ikea (the annual sale like lousy one leh...) buying 1 pink computer desk, 1 pink chest of 3 drawers, and a pink computer swivel chair --- ALL NEW IKEA PRODUCTS WITH AN AWESOME SHADE OF BABY PINK!!!

Can't find a photo of the computer table


So exciting, we are moving into the new condo on the 1st, which is only 2 days more!!!

I can't wait!! I have been shopping around on ebay, and I found this pink microwave, pots and pans, toasters and whatever not... and they are all so cute!

Unfortunately Mike has forbidden me to turn his supposedly manly bachelor's pad into a pink fluffly place, so well... All pink products must be "quarantined" in my princess room.

Sian... Maybe one day he will get colourblind and see all pink things as blue? My only hope. Does stabbing the eyeballs work? He's sleeping now, I could just...


Yesterday after Ikea we also went to Courts, and Courts is so absurd!

First we saw a mattress that we really liked (its $1390) and we asked the young sales guy if for that price it is selling just that mattress (it was sitting on a white leather bedframe selling for, like $800 or something).

He said yes.

Soon after, an old Indian couple came and they enquired about the mattress, and in a rather haughty way asked (as if taken for granted) if the bedframe would be given free to them.

The young salesman said "No" and the Indian couple walked away.

While Mike and I were still sitting on the mattress and discussing about it, the salesman's friend came along, and our salesman begin to talk to his colleague about the Indian couple, insulting them (in chinese) and saying how ridiculous they are to expect the bed frame to be given free.

Mike and I walked around for a bit after this, deciding if we should get the mattress that day or not, and when we decided to do just that, we met another sales lady whom we finally sealed the deal with.

We asked the same question as before, because we needed a divan and if a divan is going to be sold at a discounted price together with the mattress we would buy it.

The saleslady walked away to check, and when she came back, she was all bouncy and told us with glee that they are going to throw in the bedframe for us for free!! A NEW SET! With divan, stumpy metal legs, leather backing (although it's quite ugly, but it's removable) and everything!


I'm not complaining, but they are so disorganised la, the salespeople like all don't know their stuff, and what, if we didn't check, they are not going to give us the bedframe lah!

And the poor Indian couple got scolded and everything!

And if they are giving away something that's $800 for free, shouldn't they put it on the sign so that people would be tempted to buy the mattress? Can boh dai boh chi like that give away bedframe one meh??

Courts is so weird.

Sorry, I'm very auntie. Sigh.

In other news...

Gillian was asking me to try writing some scripts for her, and so I did!! It's so weird to be suddenly behind the scenes and hearing people act out what you wrote. Kinda fun, but I don't know if I can say more, so yeah.

I'm kinda sick of the whole Disgusting Bloggers saga.

Apparently, Wanbao and Straits Times both reported it somewhat, but I didn't see anything!

It's a little overdue, but few days ago I saw these two parody videos and almost died laughing.

Done by the very talented Jayden, who even bothered to cut and include small snippets of me. But no thanks for my signature "Bah!" - that was like 3 years ago when I was superbly fat!

Second one by none other than Kenny Sia.


What's Steven Lim saying at the 21 second mark?

That's all!

Pictures soon. I've kinda lost the interest for photography and just stopped taking photos. Very very bad!

p/s: Please don't write more comments on the LZB blog post. I am sick of all the stupid comments so I'm just deleting everything.

0 Manifesto, or: "the nihilistic ravings of insomniac bohemians"

For its landmark 50th issue, British architecture and design magazine Icon put out a call for manifestos "from 50 of the most influential people in architecture and design" today.

[Image: The cover of Icon #50].

The manifestants – manifestators? manifestees? manifestors? – "include Rem Koolhaas, John Maeda, Zaha Hadid, Hussein Chalayan, Jasper Morrison, Peter Eisenman, Peter Saville, Foreign Office Architects, Joep van Lieshout, the Bouroullecs and Ken Livingstone," the "rebel mayor" of London.
In Livingstone's case, he, Richard Rogers, and Peter Bishop have basically submitted a new press release for Design for London ("Design for London wants London to be a city that works for all its people, for its economy and for the environment"); in Zaha Hadid's case, she sent in what appears to be a three-part digital rendering of... London? From the air? Gone topographically sinuous and structurally cubic?
Or perhaps she's redesigned Peter Eisenman's recent Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by moving it to the banks of a river and constructing it from glass.
In any case, the issue also contains manifestos by design titans like Bruce Mau, John Thackara, and Stefan Sagmeister; architects such as Joshua Prince-Ramus, Thom Mayne, Bernard Khoury, Sam Jacob, Stephen Holl, Vito Acconci, Greg Lynn, Teddy Cruz, and UN Studio; curators Hans Ulrich Obrist and Paola Antonelli; and -ahem- an L.A.-based architecture blogger called BLDGBLOG.
As the only blogger included in the fifty manifestos, I'm a little stunned – even half-seriously convinced that some sort of mistake has been made – but hey: it's always fun to be asked for your own architecture manifesto.

[Image: Some page-spreads from Icon #50].

On the other hand, is BLDGBLOG really written by one of "the most influential people in architecture and design"...? Next to Rem Koolhaas, Bruce Mau, Ken Livingstone, and Zaha Hadid? I would suspect not, frankly. I would imagine that there's a little bubble of influence somewhere; but globally? Historically? I wouldn't exactly complain if that were the case – if people really wanted a bit more J.G. Ballard, John McPhee, Jeff VanderMeer, terrestrial prostheses, heliocentric Pantheons, and undiscovered bedrooms in their architectural discourse – but I'm not actually convinced that's true.
I think people would rather learn where to buy designer couches.
Anyway, long-term readers of BLDGBLOG won't find any surprises in what I have to say:
    There is architecture lining the streets of New York and Paris, sure – but there is architecture in the novels of Franz Kafka and W.G. Sebald and in The Odyssey. There is architecture on stage at the Old Vic each night, and in the paintings of de Chirico, and in the secret prisons of military superpowers. There is architecture in our dreams, poems, TV shows, ads and videogames – as well as in the toy sets of children. The suburbs are architecture; bonded warehouses are architecture; slums are architecture; NASA’s lunar base plans are architecture – as are the space stations in orbit [above] us."
But, still, if you run into a copy of Icon #50, be sure to check it out.
And I should also mention that the issue includes a positive review of Postopolis!, written by Bill Millard, who sat through all five sweaty days of the event with us, taking notes and asking questions. More on Postopolis! can be found here and here.

(Note: The phrase "nihilistic ravings of insomniac bohemians," used in the title of this post, is an excerpt from Icon editor Justin McGuirk's introduction to the 50 manifestos).

Sabtu, 28 Juli 2007

0 Some thoughts on desert gardens

[Images: Cacti at the Huntington Library in Pasadena].

My wife and I went out to the Huntington's Desert Garden yesterday. I have to admit to a certain wild amount of enthusiasm for high-end botanical environments like that.
Being a fan of Kew Gardens, for instance, or Longwood Gardens, or even small local greenhouses and the like, I have a huge soft-spot for regions of the Earth's surface that have been deliberately cultivated to support rare – or at least highly condition-dependent – plantlife.
In the case of Kew and Longwood, you walk through elaborate, mist-filled greenhouses, passing orchids and ferns – but the word greenhouse is actually a form of structural shorthand, saying, in fact, that architecture has been put to use in the evolutionary hybridization of plantlife: flowers, fruits, and other animate forms that would, naturally, have grown elsewhere.
By establishing micro-climates, with often extreme variation from building to building, in both temperature and humidity, architecture participates directly in botanical speciation.

[Image: Cacti at the Huntington Library in Pasadena].

In any case, these thoughts don't actually apply to the Huntington Desert Garden, which is entirely outdoors – or, at least, the part of it that we visited was entirely outdoors, in the dry heat of a spectacular, arm-sunburning day – but no matter: either way, it's hard to have a bad time walking around in the Huntington's linked network of curved paths past biomorphically avant-garde cacti and spiked trees so surreal they appear literally extraterrestrial.
Briefly, all of this reminds me of an incredible fact I read last week in the London Review of Books: Stefan Buczacki, the author of Garden Natural History, has "calculate[d] that private gardens [in England] occupy an area about the size of Somerset, and they play an important part in maintaining the populations of many species."

[Image: Somerset County, England].

That is to say: an area in England the size of Somerset is actually a kind of biological transplant: a deliberately cultivated micro-climate, or genetic testing site, with its own yet to be calculated effects both on native plants and animals and on the British climate.
At what point, then, do privately held and cultivated landscapes become naturalized as a region's terrain, or as part of that region's native biosphere?
It's a surrogate, or prosthetic, ecosystem – a kind of skin graft – masquerading as the thing that's been replaced.
Think of it as the English family garden as replicant.
In other words, if English private gardens proliferate to the point where an area not just the size of Somerset County, but of, say, Somerset, Wiltshire, and Gloucestershire combined, then do artificial landscapes become indicative of England itself?
Or, to use an absurd analogy, if the band Napalm Death now has no connection to the original band – because all of the original members have left – indeed, as Wikipedia points out, "by the second side of their debut album... they did not contain any original members" – is it possible that, in a thousand years' time, or in five thousand years' time – or even in fifty – that "England" will soon be England in name only, having been slowly replaced, piece by piece – a garden here, a garden there – until the Britannic landscape is entirely manmade and it's become impossible to locate even a trace of native vegetation? A kind of ecological bait-and-switch?
You book a trip to England – but you're visiting an island made entirely from private gardens, a vast, unnatural landscape ruled over by a King.
In any case, the Huntington Desert Garden is a spectacular place to visit, and as good a place as any in which to think about the local cultivation of non-native landscapes. So if you're ever in Los Angeles, consider stopping by.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Kew Brew, or: turning endangered landscapes into beer).

0 First Date Blunders to Avoid

first date
7 years ago (to the day) I got married and thankfully left the dating scene. As a complete introvert dating was always awkward for me. I couldn't decide where to take a date let alone muster the courage to go in for the first kiss. Gosh, I cringe thinking about it.

I know I am not the only one in this boat so if you want your date to go well, check out what Brad Isaac says. He lists 10 First Date Blunders that won't guarantee success, but will put you on the path.

Here’s the moment of truth. You’ve met someone you really like. You’re excited. You’re nervous. You begin to formulate a plan. You mull over how you will dress, talk and act. You begin to think through what you’ll say, what they’ll say and then what you’ll say to what they said…

Good Stuff. 10 First Date Blunders That Blow It Every Time by Achieve IT.

Kamis, 26 Juli 2007

0 Liberation Hydrology: Miami, 2107 A.D.

[Image: Florida in 2007; via New Scientist].

In a subscriber-only article over at New Scientist, NASA climate scientist James Hansen describes what the planet might look like after a "runaway collapse" of the West Antarctic ice sheet.
The collapse, or melting, of the sheet, of course, would be caused by increased global temperatures – temperatures altered by the atmospherically unique quantity of carbon dioxide that's now floating around up there. That carbon dioxide has been released by human industrial processes.
"There is not a sufficiently widespread appreciation of the implications of putting back into the air a large fraction of the carbon stored in the ground over epochs of geologic time," Hansen writes.

[Image: Florida in 2107; via New Scientist].

In any case, the article points out that this future sea-level rise will actually increase over time, as the melting of the ice sheet itself accelerates.
    As an example, let us say that ice sheet melting adds 1 centimetre to sea level for the decade 2005 to 2015, and that this doubles each decade until the West Antarctic ice sheet is largely depleted. This would yield a rise in sea level of more than 5 metres by 2095.
That would be more than enough to flood London, as discussed in the previous post – not to mention Shanghai, New York, Mumbai, and so on.
From the article:
    Without mega-engineering projects to protect them, a 5-metre rise would inundate large parts of many cities – including New York, London, Sydney, Vancouver, Mumbai and Tokyo – and leave surrounding areas vulnerable to storm surges. In Florida, Louisiana, the Netherlands, Bangladesh and elsewhere, whole regions and cities may vanish. China's economic powerhouse, Shanghai, has an average elevation of just 4 metres.
This is obviously meant as a warning.
However, the main problem I have with using maps and scenarios like this to get people worked up about climate change is that these warnings often seem to have the opposite effect.
In other words, these things are actually so evocative, and so imaginatively stimulating, that it's hard not to get at least a tiny thrill at the idea that you might get to see these things happen.
Nothing against Miami, but all of south Florida under several meters of water? With Cape Canaveral lost under a subtropical lagoon and St. Petersburg an archipelago?
The problem, it seems, is that climate change scientists, in describing these unearthly terrestrial reorganizations, are science fictionalizing, so to speak, our everyday existence. The implicit, if inadvertant, message here seems to be: hey, south Floridians, and all you who are bored of the world today, sick of all the parking lots and the 7-11s, tired of watching Cops, tired of applying to colleges you don't really want to go to, tired of credit card debt and bad marriages, don't worry.
This will all be underwater soon.
It could be called liberation hydrology.
Climate change becomes an adventure – the becoming-science-fiction of everyday life.

[Image: Northwestern Europe in 2107; via New Scientist].

It seems no wonder, then, that the more apocalyptic these scenarios get, the more we find the same blasé reaction: oh, you mean Manhattan will be underwater? In 100 years?
I think the way to get people truly concerned about climate change – if fear-mongering is, in fact, the correct strategy to use here (after all, if you don't like fear-mongering in the War on Terror, then why should you apply the same tactics to climate change?) – is not by talking about unprecedented and spectacular transformations of the Earth's surface. New archipelagos! Forests in Antarctica!
Drowned cities!
Instead, it would seem, you have to point out quality of life issues: you might starve to death, for instance, as organized agriculture and food distribution chains are interrupted. Malnourished, your teeth will fall out and your hair will grow thin. You may be living in a refugee camp, with neither privacy nor close friends nor personal safety. The governments of the world may have collapsed, overwhelmed by the logistical burden of displaced populations and by the loss of the world's economic centers, like NY, London, and Shanghai; there will thus be no police; you might be physically assaulted on a regular basis. There will be rats, roaches, and rivers of human sewage – followed closely by disease, infection, infant mortality, and premature death. And you won't just be able to drive away, leaving the catastrophe behind – because the roads will be potholed, without a government to fix them, and your car will probably have been stolen, anyway. Clean water will be a luxury; you'll be drinking radiator water out of abandoned pick-up trucks, rusting on the sides of highways outside St. Louis.
In any case, my point is just that the more outlandish and imaginatively evocative your predictions get, describing some new, fantasy geography of rising sea-levels and tropical lagoons – a whole new Earth, coming your way soon – the more people will actually want to see that happen. Of course, the same thing is no doubt true for what I just wrote, above, in describing the apocalypse: after all, there are many people who will actually want to experience that – unpoliced refugee camps included.
Still, showing maps of an unrecognizable future world doesn't scare people; it taps into their explorer instinct – new lands, terra incognita.
And it gives people some truly awesome scenarios to think about – like scuba-diving through the submerged remains of Cape Canaveral, or rediscovering Amsterdam, a city lost to the silt and seaweed.
If this is what people think climate change will bring them, then a whole lot of people are probably looking forward to it.

0 Pissing me off


A friend of mine told me that he speculates (with a certain amount of certainty), that LZB's blog is set up by Jack Neo's company as a publicity stunt.

(which would explain why someone bothered to take so many photos of her)

Of course, this is just speculation - believe it or not, up to you, but until I see a video of LZB actually blogging I won't believe it.

So anyway, I've taken away my previous post, because I personally feel that the undeserving scheming commercialised bastards don't need any more publicity.

Plus, it is not being fair to the old lady if she didn't actually write all that.

Poor old lady, used as a pawn. (If this is true, which I believe it to be.)
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