“Alert and doing fine”

Harry Whittington, 78, was “alert and doing fine” after being shot by Vice President Cheney. The same could be said of US bloggers for whom the story has been a much appreciated gift.

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From my car to scalar

To a car company, replacing the chrome wing mirror on an SUV with a carbon fibre one is a step towards sustainable transportation. To a radical ecologist, all motorised movement is unsustainable. So when is transportation sustainable, and when is it not?

Eric Britton, an expert on the subject, had the good idea of posting a text at Wikipedia which will evolve as a shared description, if not definition, of the concept.

In a new mobility discussion group Chris Bradshaw emphasizes that “light” transport systems are not, per se, sustainable – only less unsustainable than commuting by car. “Light rail supports far-flung suburbs, while street cars support, well, street-car suburbs” says Bradshaw; “likewise, a smaller, more efficient, or alternative-fuel vehicle is only less unsustainable than another private vehicle. It will still take as much space on the road and in parking lots, it will still threaten the life and limb of others, it will still create noise, and it still will require lots of energy and resources to manufacture, transport to a dealer, and dispose of when its life ends”.

It is an important part of sustainable transport and communities, says Bradshaw, to respect what he calls the scalar hierarchy, in which the trips taken most frequently are short enough to be made by walking (even if pulling a small cart), while the next more frequent trips require a bike or street car, and so on. “If one adheres to this then there are so few trips to be made by car that owning one is foolish”.

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Feast of light

A fabulous-sounding event this Sunday is Aurora Feast. Heureka Science Centre, Vantaa, Finland, hosts a celebration of the mysterious, dynamic and whimsical Northern Lights. Recapturing of the mood of traditional feasts, Aurora Feast intertwines the spectacle of sights and sounds with talk and food. Artists and scientists will discuss instruments and interpretations of the medium of light. An audiovisual event features Aurora imagery, VLF recordings, magnetograms, and all-sky camera imaging. And Aurora Live is an interactive, real-time and web-based visualization of personal and cross-cultural interpretations of the Northern Lights phenomenon: On February 5 we are invited to submit, in a single word, what Aurora conjures up in us: a feeling, a sensation, an image, a vision, a memory, a thought.

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Glo-learners

I thought I’d escaped from the quicksands of of learning-speak when I completed the chapter on learning (which nearly did me in) for my book. But no! A new tsunami of learning lingo is upon us. Teachers having been exhausted by years of enforced modernisation, the hapless victims this time round are Britiain’s museums and libraries. Inspiring Learning for All (ILFA) promises to “transform the way in which museums, archives and libraries deliver and engage users in learning”. Government officials were unhappy, it seems, at ”a lack of knowledge about the significance of focussing on learning and the consequential need for organisational change in museums and libraries”. When broaching this failure with museum and library professionals, they were further perplexed by the “lack of a common vocabulary: For example libraries use the word “stock”, museums “collections”, and archives talk about “holdings””. These heinous crimes against language galvanised the government into five years of think-tankery. The result is a ‘Measure Learning Toolkit’ that will force (sorry, enable) museums, archives, and libraries to “gather evidence of their impact on broader learning agendas”. Library staff are further commanded to “understand their role in the creativity agenda (and) have confidence that they are part of the creative world”. For recalcitrant librarians who insist that they’ve been doing this all along, a mind-control – sorry, measuring – system called “Generic Learning Outcomes” – or GLOs – has been invented; this will “transform the way that we to talk to users and visitors about learning”. Among a number of accompanying design proposals is the requirement that “the furnishing and layout of libraries should take account of the creative process, providing stimulus, surprise, random connections and different means of recording ideas”. It strikes me that that Glo-world uses vast numbers of words to state the obvious – and/or to describe, as an objective, something that already exists. My own take on it: a) Give me a dusty old library any day rather than one suffused with a profane Glo; b) go and hug a tree rather than worry about Glos; and c) Where there’s a will there surely follows a way.

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Creative communities and social innovation

For service design, public services are an enormous opportunity – half the economy in most industrial countries. This seminar in Helsinki, on Friday 10 February, is about framing the welfare and care story as a series of design opportunities. Speakers include Ezio Manzini (on creative communities and active welfare); John Thackara (platforms for public service innovation); Anna Meroni and Francois Jegou (on the case studies we encountered during the Emude project); Kari-Hans Kommonen; from UIAH MediaLab (on the co-design of social spaces); and probably Markku Wilenius from Finland’s Futures Research Institute. Wilenius is leading a national project to discover how Finland, which most people consider is already one the world’s most innovative countries, can become much more so in the future. The meeting is organised by Teolliinen Muotoilu (Industrial and Strategic Design) at UIAH. Friday 10 February, 13h-17h, Taideteollinen Korkeakoulu, Hämeentie 135C, Helsinki – 8th floor, room 822. Contact: Cindy Kohtala, cikohtal@uiah.fi. The seminar is free and open to the public, but please register here by Monday 6 February 2006.

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Automatic eco architecture?

SOM, the global architecture firm, believes that we are entering an age of comprehensive, pervasive, simulation of the physical world. It has appointed a Digital Design Director, Paul Seletsky, to develop its expertise in Building Information Modeling (BIM). With BIM, models of all a building’s physical components are stored in a report-generating database that produces what Seletsky calls “smart geometry”. Other simulations are being developed for lighting, energy, wind, pedestrian circulation, construction processes, fabrication, code, material, and security conditions. For Seletsky, these trends amount to a “complete cultural and procedural shift…architects will now have to think in terms of producing and assembling building components, as opposed to sheets of drawings or seductive renderings”. I’m not sure the trend is all that new. Archigram speculated about machine design in the 1960s, and Dutch architects such as UN Studio and Winy Maas have been engaged in real-time design for quite a while. What’s still missing from automatic architecture is what might be called Green BIMs – the compulsory integration of environmental requirements into the information models of all development. According to Seletsky, Singapore is well on the way to such a condition with a country-wide system called CORE that integrates building regulations into construction, development and real estate systems. This level of integration is helped by the fact that Singapore is small and not overly democratic. Green ratings in the US such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) remain voluntary. The principal barrier to the integration of environmental standards into building development is less an IT one than organisational. As James Woudhuysen has written in Why-is-construction-so-backward?, the main barrier to innovation lies in the fragmented nature of the construction sector.

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Brace! Brace! Have a nice day!

My lonely campaign against the concept and practice of “emotional design” is failing. I learned with horror this morning that an International Journal of Emotional Labour and Organisations has been launched, and that it is for people who study emotionology. A journal and an ‘ology in one day: The fight is lost. A history of the field is also on the way. Someone called Christina Kotchemidova at NYU is working on a “social history of cheerfulness” – a domain that includes the practice of “drive-by smiling” by motorists. It seems (or so say emotionologists) that “we can work ourselves comparatively easily into the feeling we’re aiming at simply by altering our facial expression”. Emotionologists revere a professor called Arlie Hochschild who was the first to study “emotional labour” back in the 1980s. Hochschild’s 1983 book “The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling” included studies of bill collectors and airline attendants, and introduced Emotion Systems Theory to an expectant world. Hochschild also provided today’s emotionologists with the concept of “feeling rules” for those wishing to manage the emotions of others. Business, as you might imagine, loves this stuff – and to judge by the new journal, plenty of academics are happy (sic) to give them more of it. But Hochschild’s account of flight attendants is, I must confess, quite gripping. Trainees were constantly reminded that their own job security and the company’s profit rode on a smiling face. They were told “Really work on your smiles” and “Relax and smile.” “No ridicule” was another rule: The flight attendant was not to react normally, perhaps laughing at passengers, but to “present an image that will make the guests feel comfortable”. And of course, no alarm or fright: One attendant said: “Even though I am an honest person, I have learned not to allow my face to mirror my alarm or my fright.”
From now on, the same goes for me. Whenever I meet an emotionologist, I’ll smile – gosh how I’ll smile.

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Between a rock and a hard place

Russian TV just showed footage of what it said was British secret agents retrieving data from a fake rock planted on a Moscow street. Yikes: do you think they’re spying on me, too?

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Risk assessment as a design issue

I’ve been called priggish for insisting that some issues deserve more design attention than others. The trouble is that we are not good at judging risk – especially long-term ones – as a society, and when big issues get overlooked at the expense of insignificant ones, we end up mis-spending our creative energies. An example of skewed risk assessment from last week: British newspapers – and television followed meekly along – have been filled with terrifying stories about the danger to children of pedophile teachers in schools. Now I have a teenage daughter in an English school, and even one molestation of a child is a crime too many. But this lurid coverage is clearly motivated less by concern for child safety than by the urge to sell newspapers. Fact: according to government statistics, the number of cautions or convictions for sexual offences against children has been declining steadily in recent years – and of the sexual crimes against children that do take place, a third are carried out by adolescents, and 80 per cent take place in the child’s home, or in the home of the perpetrator. Now, compare the danger posed to children by “pedo teachers” to the fact that 4,863 children under 16 were killed or seriously injured in road accidents or as pedestrians last year. Do the papers denounce cars as a present threat to children? No, they don’t: They run endless stories and ads promoting cars. And the number of children killed and maimed by cars is itself insignificant compared to the environmental degredation billions of children will inherit as a result of design actions taken by all of us today. I know, I know: I’m being moralistic again – and tedious bad-news eco-stories don’t sell papers. But I don’t have to like it.

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