Saturday, March 31, 2007

Another Voice of Reason: Libby Purves

Libby Purves probably does not read this blog. My guess is that she is unaware of confused of calcutta and may not have heard of Kathy Sierra. Nevertheless, her TimesOnline column for March 27 demonstrated that she is willing to invest many of her cognitive cycles in the state of the world the Internet has made:

Kevin Whitrick is dead. He killed himself. That is real. His last companions were the “insult” chat room frequenters on Paltalk, some of whom goaded him on, apparently shouting abuse over microphones or the screen, saying “F****** do it, get it round your neck, for f***’s sake do it properly”. In a similar case in Arizona, Brandon Vedas took poison to jeers of “Eat more!”.

Most of the online mob were not monsters; most people are not monsters. But they felt safe in their anonymity and distance, and expressed shock when they realised that the suicides were genuine, typing anxiously: “Oh my God, this is serious . . . Is this real?” Personally, I hope that the detectives now searching for the Paltalk members manage to track them down, question them and if appropriate caution or charge them with incitement to suicide. That’ll answer their question: yes, mate, it was real.

In one of my confused of calcutta comments, I observed that a major consequence of the Kathy Sierra incident was the number of knee-jerk responses it invoked, particularly over the question of governance (both for and against the proposition). Ms. Purves is not one to jerk her knees. Rather, she is in the camp that tries to unravel complicated issues and has the luxury of using as much column space as the task demands. Here is the crux of her current thinking:

Even without such horrors, it is high time that we emerged from our internet infancy. The IT revolution has brought information and education, convenience and joy and fellowship, even wisdom. It is worth noting that if you Google “suicide” you first get pages of kindly websites pointing you towards help. The internet is not evil. We who use it daily — for everything from news and banking to cinema listings and tracing quotations from forgotten poets — quickly learn how to navigate around the piles of rubbish, the lurking fraudsters, the lies and malice and vapidity and perversion. It is a vast teeming city, and you can choose whether to frequent cathedrals, theatres and Parliament or just the brothels and public hangings.

But we should accept the same rules of morality and decorum that govern solid, daily life. If shouting “Go on, kill yourself” to a stranger is not acceptable in the street, it is not acceptable in a chat room. Similarly, we do not allow the pushing of unsolicited obscenities through letterboxes, and so should not tolerate the clogging-up of private, often heartfelt e-mail traffic with repeated shrieks of “Ejaculate like a porn star!”. If it is illegal to print malicious lies, equal sanctions should face those who put them online; if it is stupid to leave your credit cards in a café with the PIN on them, it is equally stupid to ignore computer security. Face it: the internet is real. It is not a holiday from normal human behaviour, just a useful extension of it.

We have not quite grasped this yet. Not only has the novelty of apparent anonymity made people behave cruelly in chat rooms, but the homeliness of the PC screen makes many of us almost criminally irresponsible about fraud. Fascinating figures from Get Safe Online and the BBC showed yesterday that fewer than half of us feel responsible for keeping our details safe, while a third consider it the bank’s or service provider’s job. One in five responds to spam messages — which explains why the rest of us still suffer them — one in six doesn’t even have a basic “firewall”. The Serious and Organised Crime Agency is tearing its hair out over our insouciant negligence.

This seems to be leading her to a middle path between my quest for a foundation of governance independent of any "official government structures" and J. P. Rangaswamy's "Getting Identity right" approach:

That sense of unreality has led to a lag in enforcement and — equally importantly, because the law cannot do everything — to a failure of conscience. The only area in which real concern is evident is child abuse. Elsewhere, both self-protection and self-control are lacking. The legal threats against the Mumsnet website by Gina Ford are particularly interesting. It is unfortunate, because Gina Ford is rich and irritating, and Mumsnet is a good site helping new mothers and should not be driven out of business. I hope they settle amicably. However, the chat room that caused her such offence is a classic example of people feeling they can say anything because “it’s only online”. Even though it was a joke (about her strapping babies to rockets and firing them at Lebanon) it was the culmination of tasteless, rude, unjustified statements about a woman whose only crime is to write humourless advice on letting babies cry. Mumsnet should have known better. It does now. I hope the lesson will not be the end of it.

I have not read any of Ms. Purves' other columns, so I do not know how much she has written about this particular issue. I hope she writes more. If enough of us take this conversation seriously, we may eventually find our way to a solution.

Google Discovers Consequences (yet again)

Google seems to be getting a lesson in why a responsible information provider cannot make decisions on the basis of what's cool; and the lesson seems to be coming from a relatively great height: the House Committee on Science and Technology. As Cain Burdeau reported for Associated Press, the lesson concerns the satellite images of New Orleans being used for Google Maps and Google Earth:

Google's replacement of post-Hurricane Katrina satellite imagery on its map portal with images of the region before the storm does a "great injustice" to the storm's victims, a congressional subcommittee said.

The House Committee on Science and Technology's subcommittee on investigations and oversight on Friday asked Google Inc. Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt to explain why his company is using the outdated imagery.

The subcommittee cited an Associated Press report on the images.

"Google's use of old imagery appears to be doing the victims of Hurricane Katrina a great injustice by airbrushing history," subcommittee chairman Brad Miller, D-N.C., wrote in a letter to Schmidt.

Swapping the post-Katrina images and the ruin they revealed for others showing an idyllic city dumbfounded many locals and even sparked suspicions that the company and civic leaders were conspiring to portray the area's recovery progressing better than it is.

The only explanation appears to come from the director responsible for these images:

John Hanke, Google's director for maps and satellite imagery, said "a combination of factors including imagery date, resolution, and clarity" go into deciding what imagery to provide.

"The latest update from one of our information providers substantially improved the imagery detail of the New Orleans area," Hanke said in a news release about the switch.

Kovacs [an "official" Google spokesperson] said efforts are under way to use more current imagery.

I suppose the best way to interpret this is that someone in Hanke's division decided that resolution and clarity trump imagery date, which, in this case, seems to imply that really cool high-quality images win out over more accurate ones.

Kovacs also acknowledged having received Miller's letter with the reply that Schmidt had no immediate response. This is probably a good thing. Schmidt seems to be building up a track record for shooting off his mouth with provocations that almost always seem to be aimed at some aspect of the District of Columbia. Then, of course, there is the current administration's track record on all things related to Katrina, which seems to be the primary reason why Miller wants to know more about what is actually happening:

Miller asked Google to brief his staff by April 6 on who made the decision to replace the imagery with pre-Katrina images, and to disclose if Google was contacted by the city, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey or any other government entity about changing the imagery.

"To use older, pre-Katrina imagery when more recent images are available without some explanation as to why appears to be fundamentally dishonest," Miller said.

On the basis of Hanke's remarks, I am not sure where the fault lies. It looks as if the images come from a third-party "information provider;" and, for all we know, they were the ones "persuaded" by the government to provide less "embarrassing" images of New Orleans. Nevertheless, Miller is right to put Schmidt on the hot seat. At the very least there seems to have been a failure to review that third-party content and assess that content on anything other than image quality. As Elizabeth Hollerman, Miller's staff counsel, put it, people tend to take what they get from Google as "the official word;" and Google should respond to such a "public trust" with greater editorial responsibility. It may have been Hanke's blunder; but, in the tradition of Harry Truman, the buck from such responsibility stops at Schmidt's desk. If Miller decides to turn this into a trip to the woodshed, the outcome may be better for all of us.

Friday, March 30, 2007

A Road Paved with Good Intentions?

Once again irony rules. On the same day that Reuters reported the controversy over "My Sweet Lord," they filed a story from Vienna with the following lead:
The United Nations top human rights body condemned "defamation" of religion on Friday and, in an apparent reference to the storm over the Prophet cartoons, said press freedom had its limits.

With the support of China, Russia and Cuba, Moslem and Arab states comfortably won a vote on the 47-state Human Rights Council to express concern at "negative stereotyping" of religions and "attempts to identify Islam with terrorism".

"The resolution is tabled in the expectation that it will compel the international community to acknowledge and address the disturbing phenomena of the defamation of religions, especially Islam," said Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
The implications of these three paragraphs are far from clear. Much clearer is that the final vote reflected a major divide between "Western civilization" and the rest of the world:
The resolution was opposed by Western states which said it focused too much on Islam. The job of the Council was to deal with the rights of individuals not religions, they said.
The result was a narrow margin. 24 countries voted in favor; 23 did not (divided between 14 against and 9 abstentions).

I am not sure why Reuters put those quote marks around "defamation;" but they should be taken as a warning. If ever there were a word whose semantics varied from culture to culture, this would be it. The American legal system has had enough problems ruling on defamatory speech within its own culture. What international legal system could do justice to the question when so much cross-cultural variation is concerned? There is, of course, the classic ruling on pornography: "I know it when I see it." That, however, was an individual judgment; and I doubt that the United Nations would trust such a judgment to a single jurist.

Recently I wrote about two films made from Lion Feuchtwanger's novel, Jew Suss. I wrote that one of these films was made in 1934 and, for its time, made a very bold statement against anti-Semitism. However, in 1940 a second film was released under Nazi auspices that served their anti-Semitic propaganda very well. Would this reflect back on the novel and put it in a defamatory light? I would hope not, but I can certainly imagine that quite a few people saw the second film with absolutely no awareness of the first. They would probably assume that the novel was just as anti-Semitic.

Let's consider another example, which probably gets closer to the cultural interests of at least some of the countries that voted in favor of the UN resolution. In my last blog I once described The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a book "maliciously designed to shape the reader's opinion." Let me assume, for the sake of argument, that the use of the adverb "maliciously" could used to make a case for the defamatory nature of this book. Now, however, consider the case of Robert Spencer. Wikipedia tries very hard to provide an objective and balanced description of this man and his works. This includes a list of his six books:
It also includes the following paragraph (all hyperlinks included):
Khaleel Mohammed, Louay M. Safi and Carl Ernst assert that Spencer's scholarship and interpretations of Islam are fundamentally flawed - that he supports preconceived notions through selection bias - that he lacks genuine understanding and; that 'he has no academic training in Islamic studies whatsoever; his M.A. degree was in the field of early Christianity'.[9] [10] [5] For example, critics have objected to what they see as Spencer's method of taking some Muslim interpretations and then using them to characterize all Muslims or what he implies is the real Islam; cf. for example Mark LeVine [11]. They object to what they describe as Spencer's method of taking a position they deem to be radical (on apostasy, women, etc) and then attibute that position to all of Islam, rather than situating it within ongoing discussions.[5] Khaleel Mohammed and Spencer have had detailed discussions on Front Page Magazine.[12][10] [13][14] Carl Ernst and William Kenan have called him an Islamophobe.[15]. They also allege that Spencer's publications are not scholarly because they are not blind peer reviewed and not published by any university press.[15]
That paragraph is then followed by a section with the heading "Spencer's responses to critics."
This time, for the sake of argument, let us take this article as an authoritative source (putting aside my many peeves with Wikipedia). Are any of Spencer's books defamatory? The Pakistani government seems to think so; they have banned The Truth About Muhammad. Pakistan is a Muslim state, however; so, should a judgment they make for their own country apply to the rest of the world. When I wrote about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (when it was my ox that was being gored), I still fell back on the concept of "malicious design;" and, at my current level of understanding, I do not know if I would attribute malice to Spencer's work. If one's reasoning is flawed, then one may eventually negotiate with one's critics over those flaws; and, in the best of all possible worlds (or, as Habermas would put it, an "ideal speech situation"), mutual understanding would ensue. However, if the flaws have arisen through malice, negotiation is unlikely to resolve anything.

My conclusion, then, is that Pakistan has every right to ban Spencer's book, even if I, personally, object to any book being banned. They also have the right to offer themselves as an example to other Muslim states, whose respective legal systems could invoke a similar ban. I just do not want to see decisions made at the national level elevated to global policy, even if the United Nations is brought into the process. I objected to the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in response to the publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, and I would object to any attempt to declare any of Spencer's books defamatory on an international scale. Meanwhile, I probably ought to do some more reading to form my own opinion about Spencer, knowing full well that much of my thinking about Islam has already been (positively) influenced by Karen Armstrong!

"I don't care if it rains or freezes ..."

Once again an artist is in the spotlight for offending a religion. I still remember my days on Usenet when I set myself the exercise of writing about "Piss Christ" strictly on its merits as a photograph (waxing lyrically over a free association with Debussy's "Cathédrale engloutie"). I was not in a position to write about Giuliani's attack on the Brooklyn Museum, when he was offended by a Virgin Mary that they exhibited; but now Daniel Trotta has reported for Reuters on a real goodie, in the literal sense of the word. This time the artist is Cosimo Cavallaro; and the controversy is over his piece, "My Sweet Lord," a life-sized sculpture of the crucified Jesus made out of chocolate. (A photograph is currently on Cavallaro's home page, but I have no idea how long it will remain there.) The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has responded with attacks on at least two fronts: the Roger Smith Lab Gallery, for planning to exhibit it in a street-level window for two hours of each day of Holy Week, and the Roger Smith Hotel, for their association with the gallery. As is usually the case with scattershot anger, it is hard to tell what is most offensive to the League: the medium of chocolate or the depiction of genitalia. My guess is that it is the depiction of genitalia in an edible medium, which may be all right for certain X-rated specialty shops but goes over the line when you know whose genitalia they are. As far as any questions of aesthetics are concerned, I find it hard to say very much on the basis of the one photograph available. With my limited knowledge of art history, I find that it has a bit of a Gothic feel to it, perhaps because that is a style of religious depiction I happen to like. Given the pun in the title, I have no idea how sincere Cavallaro was about his own religious convictions; but, whatever the feelings of the sculptor may have been, I see nothing wrong with taking this work seriously.

Post script: Four hours after I posted the above reflection, Trotta filed a follow-up story for Reuters. The exhibition of "My Sweet Lord" has been cancelled. The decision was made by James Knowles, president of the Roger Smith Hotel, where the Roger Smith Lab Gallery was a tenant. The artistic director of the gallery did not agree with his landlord's decision:

Matthew Semler, artistic director of the gallery, said he sent the gallery his letter of resignation to protest the cancellation and that "the ball's in their court" as to whether he might be convinced to stay.

He does not consider the piece irreverent and said he would look for another venue to display it.

"I saw it as meditation on all those issues: the fact that it's chocolate, the fact that it's nude, that the chocolate is black," Semler said.

While Mayor Giuliani went ballistic over the Brooklyn Museum, Mayor Bloomberg has been much more of a pragmatist:

"If you want to give the guy some publicity, talk more about it, make a big fuss," Bloomberg told WABC radio. "If you want to really hurt him, don't pay attention."

I agree entirely. Since, as I stated above, I rather liked the sculpture (on the basis of its photograph), I hope that Cavallaro derives some benefit from this tempest in a pot of "hot chocolate!"

Getting Away with Grievous Bodily Harm

With all due respect to Thabo Mbeki, who seems to have been the one elected by the Dar es Salaam summit to hold the bag full of Mugabe's garbage, it almost seems has if that whole convention of southern African leaders had been designed with the Chutzpah of the Week Award in mind. The lead paragraphs from today's First Post say it all:

The images of a grinning Robert Mugabe at yesterday's Dar es Salaam summit said it all: the other southern African leaders did not deliver the expected rebuke. All they came up with was that Thabo Mbeke of South Africa should try to mediate some sort of peace between Mugabe and his opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). It's a tall order.

In the 48 hours before Mugabe left for Tanzania, the crackdown on the MDC intensified. The police picked up dozens of party members, including leader Morgan Tszangirai, taken at gunpoint from his HQ.

Another senior MDC member, Last Maengahama, was abducted by gunmen - assumed to be contracted by Mugabe's secret police, the COI - and dumped on farmland outside Harare after being severely beaten.

However, real chutzpah tends to involve more than waffling in the face of a need for substantive action. So this week's Award really ought to go to Mugabe himself, not so much for that grin as for the spin he managed to put on the whole episode after he returned to Zimbabwe. Here is the lead from the account Al Jazeera English prepared from their wire sources:

Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president, has said that he acknowledged to his fellow African leaders that Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, had been assaulted, but added he deserved it.

Mugabe also made a rare acknowledgement of divisions within his governing ZANU-PF party on Friday, warning critics to keep their disagreements in-house.

Mugabe told supporters the day after returning from a regional summit in Tanzania: "Yes, I told them he was beaten but he asked for it.

"We got full backing, not even one criticised our actions," the president said.

"There is no country in SADC (the Southern African Development Community) that can stand up and say Zimbabwe has faulted. SADC does not do that, it is not a court but an organisation of 14 countries that co-operates with each other and supports each other."

This is not making lemonade from lemons. This is making Jonestown-style Kool-Aid and then claiming it was made from real fruit! The only greater act of chutzpah would be compelling Mbeki to drink that Kool-Aid!

By way of a post script, I should note that, while I was writing the above text, MacDonald Dzirutwe was filing a report from Harare for Reuters. There were a couple of items in this report that reinforced the decision behind this week's award. Most important is that Mugabe used the occasion of his return from Tanzania to start rallying support for running for another term of office in 2008. The other was another Mugabe quote in the spirit of the one reported by Al Jazeera English:

Of course he was bashed. But he and his MDC must stop their terrorist activists. We are saying to him. "Stop it now or you will regret it."

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Rise of the Vernacular

I just started reading Hayden Pelliccia's review of the two new translations of Virgil's Aeneid in the latest issue of The New York Review. (The timing seemed appropriate, following up on the conclusion of the second season of Rome!) Pelliccia teaches Classics at Cornell. I had not previously heard of him, but he takes an interesting point of departure. He points out that, in the absence of anything even faintly resembling a historical record, Homer's epics can never be anything other than fiction:

What the classical Greeks knew of that world they knew from Homer, which means that Homer's version of people and events enjoyed, as it still does, the definitiveness of fiction or myth: the legitimacy of the Iliad's representation of King Agamemnon as an arrogantly boorish fool is not subject to revision in light of new evidence about any real historical Agamemnon, who might to our surprise turn out to have been, say, a wise and lovable commander, and husband, too.

Indeed, Homer himself may have been a "fiction of convenience," a means to hang a label of authorship on a long-standing artifact of oral tradition.

Virgil, on the other hand, was flesh and blood. He lived through the events that were dramatized in the two seasons of Rome; and, back in the days when Masterpiece Theatre ruled Sunday evenings, one may recall that he was present, "performing" his Aeneid, in the very first scene that Claudius "documented" in I, Claudius. Since this epic celebrates the foundation of Rome, one could imagine that such "performances" were in frequent demand by the then emperor Augustus.

Pelliccia then introduces another interesting contrast: He views the Homeric epics as a reflection of Hesiod's "sour view that things have gone downhill precipitously since the heroic age." Virgil, on the other hand, weaves a narrative that begins with the total annihilation of Troy and ends with the foundation of (to borrow the phrase from the Lombardo translation) "everlasting Rome," which Roman audiences would surely read as an improvement. What interests me the most, however, is how Pelliccia wraps up his argument:

But whether they've gone up or down, the significant point is that the "things since then" are there at all: the Iliad and the Odyssey do not fast-forward into the present in any remotely comparable way; what happens in the Iliad stays in the Iliad.

I have to wonder whether or not that last little jab of wit originated in a classroom lecture, ringing a change on an old and familiar cliché about Las Vegas as a ploy to make sure that students are still awake and paying attention. They may not have remembered the details of the argument leading up to the punch line, but they might remember the punch line and then scramble to recover the rest of the joke.

This kind of anachronism has been a mainstay of humor, whether it involved Anna Russell referring to Wagner's Rhine Maidens as "aquatic Andrews Sisters" or Jack O'Brien rewriting all the geographical references in Comedy of Errors to shift the setting from the Mediterranean to the California coast (knowing full well that any reference to Pismo will get a laugh, particularly in San Diego). Nevertheless, we tend not to expect it in scholarly texts. While I am sure that Pelliccia is not the only one who uses this technique to engage students in the classroom, I rather like his effort to shift the technique onto the printed page. After all, it has the same effect, which is to make sure that we get the point of the argument that we have just traversed; and, if we get that point, it may stick with us long after we have finished the text and put it aside. In other words it reminds us that scholarly reading can be a pleasure, rather than the chore that an unpleasant undergraduate life may have taken it to be!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Reactions to the Kathy Sierra Story

BBC NEWS has fielded an interesting set of comments to follow up on yesterday's report of the death threats against Kathy Sierra. Ironically, Greg Sandoval's Blogma post at CNET on this same topic seems to have fielded only six comments, which may say more about prevailing attitudes across the blogosphere than any "expert" tapped by the BBC. Before reviewing these more elevated comments, however, I would like to reproduce one sentence from my own contribution to the Blogma TalkBack:

I think it is amazing (and depressing) how many people embrace a single clause from a single amendment to the Constitution while remaining woefully ignorant of the whole framework to which that amendment applies.

My reaction in reading the BBC NEWS account this morning was a bit more refined but still on the same theme: Those who would dismiss the value of governance are often those who understand the concept the least.

My primary target in this regard is probably Tim O'Reilly; but, in all fairness, his remarks seem to have come from a live interview on BBC Radio Five. None of us are at our best in a live interview. The format affords little (if any) opportunity for reflection, which is probably the best politicians control such interviews through the fine art of saying nothing at all of any substance. Here is how the BBC translated the interview onto their Web page:

He told BBC Radio Five Live that it could be time to formalise blogging behaviour.

"I do think we need some code of conduct around what is acceptable behaviour, I would hope that it doesn't come through any kind of [legal/government] regulation it would come through self-regulation."

While condemning the bloggers who issued the threats, Mr O'Reilly was keen that the whole blogosphere should not be tarred with the same brush.

"The fact that there's all these really messed-up people on the internet is not a statement about the internet. It is a statement about those people and what they do and we need to basically say that you guys are doing something unacceptable and not generalise it into a comment about this is what's happening to the blogosphere."

That last paragraph carries a faint whiff of the standard mantra hauled out in opposition to gun control: Guns don't kill people; people kill people. Contrary to Mr. O'Reilly's assertion, the presence of "really messed-up people on the internet [sic BBC]" does make a statement about the Internet; it makes the statement that the Internet is not the safe place that its cheerleaders wish it would be. Furthermore, safety is not achieved through the declaration of a code of conduct. In fact, to draw upon yesterday's line of reasoning, that last sentence may be read as an analogy to the proposition that an independent country is not achieve through a "declaration of independence;" one needs only a cursory review of the history of our Constitutional Convention to appreciate how complicated the process turned out to be (hence my harping on woeful ignorance). Like it or not, self-regulation is still regulation; and, if that regulation is not propped up with an adequate architecture of governance, it is a harmfully deceptive fiction.

Kathy Sierra's own reaction, on the other hand, reinforces one of the key points I tried to make yesterday:

She believes it is time the technology blogging community sat up and took notice.

"I think there is a culture of looking the other way. When other prominent people look the other way it is creating an environment that allows this type of behaviour," she said.

This is basically what I had in mind yesterday when, after invoking Voltaire, I wrote:

I would therefore question the wisdom of suspending blogging "in a show of support" when more substantive support can come from confronting the nature of the situation and discussing how it can be addressed.

Any AIDS support advocate knows the motto, "Silence is death;" and we have to recognize that this may be just as true in the blogosphere as it is for AIDS.

One of the reasons why Internet advocates may be circling the wagons in opposition to governance it that they tacitly assume that governance must involve some level of government in this country. Since Denise Howell is a lawyer, I am reluctant to lay my "woeful ignorance" charge on her; but she, too, waved the self-regulation flag in her BBC interview. Nevertheless, I would accuse her of well-intentioned naïveté:

The Kathy Sierra situation is, she said, "forcing bloggers to examine their moral compasses on a number of fronts".

I would put up the low level of response on Blogma as a counter-argument here and would even be so cynical as to wonder just how many bloggers out there have moral compasses, let alone take the time to examine them!

Finally, Sam Sethi revealed himself as the only one ready to rough out a plan that would lead to (self-)regulation supported with a viable level of substance. The BBC quoted him as follows::

It is up to the community to agree the rules and then it would simply be a line at the top of the blog to say only show me sites that adhere to this conduct.

Aside from the fact that, once one has to confront the devil in the details, things are not going to be that simple, I think that Mr. Sethi is on the right track; and, if he is in a position to turn his theory into practice, I wish him all the best.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

From the Bay of Pigs to the Persian Gulf

Continuing on the theme of the hazards of ignoring history, I just came across a fascinating analysis of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. This was a failed exercise in "exporting democracy" that is now over 45 years old. In some ways the exercise may have been more beneficial, because it failed almost immediately, rather than first putting up an illusion of success. This analysis appeared a couple of years after the failure in The American Political Science Review in the context of a study of the role of power in decision-making. The authors were Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz. The actual analysis constitutes half of a footnote, since it illustrates a point they were trying to make about the nature of power. Here is what they wrote:

The abortive invasion of Cuba in April 1961 is perhaps another example of the inherent dangers in projecting our values onto a populace holding a different collection of interests. Looking at the great body of Cuban nationals who were apparently bereft both of individual freedom and personal dignity, we concluded that we need only provide the opportunity, the spark, which would ignite nationwide uprisings against the Castro regime. But hindsight has indicated how badly we misread popular feeling in Cuba.

It seems particularly appropriate to cite this text on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. I would further argue that the beneficial impact of the Bay of Pigs invasion is not only that it failed sooner rather than later but also that President Kennedy learned from his mistake. The failure of the Bay of Pigs probably had a lot to do with the Cuban Missile Crisis taking place, but the ability of Kennedy and his advisors to understand the nature of that prior failure probably had a lot to do with their taking actions to make sure that the Cuban Missile Crisis did not result in an even more disastrous failure.

Needless to say, we have not heard the neoconservatives say very much about the Kennedy administration, either when they had the catbird seat at the White House or in their great mea culpa for Vanity Fair. This should be an indication of the extent to which their ideology detached them from reality. After all, when Hegel wrote about "the end of history," he did not equate it with ignoring the historical record!

Does the Unthinkable Come after Farce?

At the beginning of this year, I titled one of the final posts to my previous blog "Ignoring History: What comes after Farce?" I drew that title from the opening sentences of his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which probably deserve to be reproduced:

Hegel observes somewhere that all great incidents and individuals of world history occur, as it were, twice. He forget to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

These days we seem to have no end of opportunities to consider this lesson, and the Middle East should probably be given pride of place in the priority ordering. This particularly blog post, however, was not about military adventurism but about adventurism in cyberspace, specifically a debate over the legal rights of a Second Life avatar. I tried to argue that the history that could not afford to be ignored concerned "the emergence of governance in different gatherings of individuals, whether they are the Children of Israel wandering around in the desert after being released from their bondage in Egypt, the Founding Fathers of the United States, the enlightenment philosophers behind the French Revolution, the early settlers of Deadwood, or even the 'wizards' of LambdaMOO."

That last example is particularly appropriate to a story reported at the BBC NEWS site this morning. The story is about Kathy Sierra, author of the blog Creating Passionate Users, who began receiving death threats four weeks ago. Ms. Sierra has taken these threats seriously enough to cancel her appearance at ETech in San Diego yesterday, where she was a keynote speaker and suspend her blog. The BBC further reported:

Some supporters have temporarily suspended their blogs in a show of support while others are discussing the need for a bloggers' code of conduct.

Personally, I am not a reader of Creating Passionate Users; and I have little sympathy for the ways in which cults of celebrity status seem to be emerging throughout the blogosphere. As I explained when I created this particular blog, my primary interest in having a place to "rehearse" material that I am considering writing in more "serious" settings. Having readers is nice, as if having constructive feedback; but my primary interest is in expressing and then cleaning up "unkempt thoughts."

However, whether or not I have any feelings about the content of Creating Passionate Users or its author, I do feel strongly about a letter that Voltaire supposedly wrote to the Abbé le Riche on February 6, 1770:

Monsieur l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.

I would therefore question the wisdom of suspending blogging "in a show of support" when more substantive support can come from confronting the nature of the situation and discussing how it can be addressed.

So it is that I wish to return to the question of governance, and the best point of departure is the text of our own Declaration of Independence (hopefully without arguing over the masculine bias of the text):

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their CREATOR, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

If we grant the "right to blog" as "unalienable" (which I am willing to accept as a principle under the condition of arguing specific cases when necessary), then the Declaration stipulates that it is necessary to "secure" that right. It asserts that such security resides in the institution of government, subject to a set of constraints that we tend to take for granted in the "real world."

The question at stake, then, is whether such thinking can and/or should be translated from the "real world" to the "virtual world" of cyberspace and its many instantiations, such as the blogosphere and Second Life. This is where, in my own opinion, we should not ignore history, because, as my earlier blog tried to argue, even the short history of cyberspace has lessons to teach us. The particular lesson I invoked in that earlier post was the case of cyber-rape in LambdaMOO and the extent to which the administrative "wizards" of the LambdaMOO software "instituted" a level of government to "secure" the "unalienable Rights" of the LambdaMOO population.

Learning from this lesson, however, will not be an easy matter. LambdaMOO was a far more "closed society" than the blogosphere is; and the prospect of governing the entire blogosphere is probably about as feasible (let alone desirable) as that prospect of "governing" the entire Internet (whatever that may mean). Rather, we need to think in terms of whether or not more "closed" environments may be created within which governments may be instituted in a viable manner. Entering such an environment would then entail a "social contract" to accept its governing authority; and violation of the contract would be dealt with according to that governments rules, just as the LambdaMOO wizards could deal with the presence of a rapist in their community.

This involves much more than the sort of code of conduct cited in the BBC report. Indeed, it probably involves considerable time and commitment in an environment that has prided itself on the minimum of commitment required to make "the system" work. The lesson of history, however, is that minimal commitment will not longer cut it for the social consequences that are beginning to emerge; so it is time to "review the bidding." A good first step would be for one of the major blog managers, such as Google's Blogger, to review their current "ground rules" and start thinking in terms of a move towards a more institutionalized government, whose organization could be "inspired" by the principles of our own Declaration of Independence. The decision to use Blogger would then also be a "commitment of citizenship" and acceptance of the consequences entailed by that commitment. This is a pretty tall order for a concept that has long prided itself on its anarchic spirit, but the most important lesson from the experience of Kathy Sierra is that anarchy may have finally had its day. If governance is not to emerge, better that its emergence receive due consideration.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Giving up the Ghost of Print Journalism

According to Dawn Kawamoto's Blogma post this morning at CNET, beginning in April InfoWorld will no longer have a print edition. Dawn's own take on this is in her final paragraph:

The print world, which includes newspapers, increasingly is finding its readers don't want to be couch potatoes. They want to participate via blogs, video posting or posted messages. That's a difficult thing to deliver when the printed word arrives carved in stone, via doorstep or mailbox.

Personally, I do not think that participation is the primary factor in sounding the death knell for print journalism; nor do I think it has to do with a sudden passion for the journalism business to save the trees or, as one of the comments to Dawn's post claimed, the temporary nature of journalistic content. Mostly it has to do with the struggle of the journalism business to break even, let alone turn a profit. Like any business in such a situation, the primary strategy is one of cutting waste.

In this particular case the real waste lies in the mass production of a large quantity of pages, most of which receive little more than a passing glance by most readers (probably even those who do their glancing during "bodily functions"). This is not to say that casual browsing is a bad thing; but, for most of my periodical reading, Google Reader seems to satisfy my skimming needs better than most printed pages do. There is, however, one disadvantage on the commercial side: When you browse with Google Reader, you do not see advertising on adjacent pages. Advertisers used to count on this, and some were particularly good with their placement strategies. However, the advertising business seems to be waking up to the need to explore other ways to grab eyeballs.

This, of course, is not the end of printing. Rather, it is the transfer of responsibility for printing from the publisher to the reader. Anything that requires serious reading (which, for my own habits, has yet to be the case for InfoWorld) is something that I usually decide to print; and it then follows me around to the many places where I do that serious reading. Electronic paper is not yet good enough to change this habit, nor are most portable devices. So paper is not yet dead, but publishers are beginning to recognize that they can make major cuts in the amount of money they spend on it. As a result, we are just likely to be using less of it; and that is good for the trees! (I just hope InfoWorld does not reveal that this is their idea of an April Fools joke!)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Debating Health Care

Having reached an age where the health care problem is likely to be one of the highest-priority deciding issues by the time I have to cast a vote next year, I was glad to hear that seven Democratic contenders met to debate the issue at UNLV yesterday. I was less pleased to discover that the only way I could hear about it was from the blog that Marc Cooper writes for The Nation. Apparently the United States desk at Reuters had better things to do. I was also disappointed that Cooper joined all seven contenders in ignoring the dead moose on the table, which was the colossal failure to reform health care during Bill Clinton's administration. I am one of those who believes strongly that we learn more from failure than from success; and, since Hillary was right there on the line of fire for this particular effort, I would have thought that this would have been an excellent opportunity for a serious "lessons learned" discussion.

Of course I should have known better. This was not an opportunity to wrestle with all the hard problems that stand between the present mess and a viable and equitable health care system. This was a media event; and the contenders were primarily distinguished by how they "played" the media (even if immediate media coverage was not as substantial as any of them would have wanted). Edwards did the most homework on details. He could get away with it without boring the media with a well-worded reminder that those details mattered in the context of his personal life. Hillary seems to have been there with the stirring rhetoric (again); but she ignored the question that she should have been best equipped to ask: "How do we get it right this time?" Obama also had little concrete to say, which did not serve his stature very well. Of the remaining candidates Kucinich was the most confrontational; but he, too, was ignoring the past. In his case, however, the past was more distant. He failed to see that raw confrontation with the role of corporate greed in managed health care is not that different from the efforts of the New York press to confront Boss Tweed and the corruption at Tammany Hall. Tweed had the same answer for any reporter who framed a confrontational question: "What are ya gonna do about it?" If Kucinich really wants to go after corporate greed, he better have a good answer to that question!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Rest of the Country

The Reuters report of the National Technology Scan broke yesterday, but I had to chew on it a bit before deciding how many of my own commenting cycles to invest in it. Reuters released it with the headline: "Many Americans see little point to Web: survey." Close reading revealed that this was a somewhat distorted summary. Fortunately, the lead paragraph was a bit more sound:

A little under one-third of U.S. households have no Internet access and do not plan to get it, with most of the holdouts seeing little use for it in their lives, according to a survey released on Friday.

At least one of the details struck me as particularly interesting:

The response "I do all my e-commerce shopping and YouTube-watching at work" was cited by 14 percent of Internet-access refuseniks.

This one says as much about general current workplace attitudes as it says about the Internet playing a role at home, as well as at work. It probably requires a study of its own that is at least as comprehensive as the National Technology Scan; but that study is unlikely to get funded, since it may reveal too many "inconvenient truths." Then there is the 44 percent segment of "refuseniks" who just are not interested in what the Internet has to offer. Are these people living happy and fulfilled lives without the Internet; or are they avoiding it because it is so stress-inducing at work?

The best results are always those that point the way to the next round of questions to ask. However, it would appear that those responsible for the National Technology Scan do not see things quite that way:

"The industry continues to chip away at the core of nonsubscribers, but has a ways to go," said John Barrett, director of research at Parks Associates [which conducted the survey].

"Entertainment applications will be the key. If anything will pull in the holdouts, it's going to be applications that make the Internet more akin to pay TV," he predicted.

In other words the question is not one of happiness and how it is being pursued, so to speak, but of why there should be "holdouts." Even if they constitute less then one-third of the population, they are still holdouts, which is just a statistical euphemism for "unexploited market potential." This survey is not about life in the world the Internet has made but about how to draw in those who are not already "hooked" (chosen deliberately for its connotation) on the Internet.

Weapons of Mass Ridicule

Assimilated Press has done it again; and I am beginning to appreciate the extent to which their satire goes beyond what I have previously called the representation of "reality with far more accuracy than conventional prose could ever do." This time the target is Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, christened (isn't that an appropriate verb?) "KSM" by the mass media almost immediately after the story of his mass confessions had broken; but did the story really "break?" This was one of those classic cases where mass enthusiasm drowned out the few voices that tried to raise question. This was particularly disconcerting, because one of those voices was Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl. Since KSM had claimed to have personally executed Daniel Pearl, one would have thought that the reaction of his father would deserve some attention; but the mass media seems to have thought otherwise.

At this point I should offer up a disclaimer about my own opinion. Back when I worked in Los Angeles, I knew Judea, who was teaching at UCLA. I would often sit next to him at cognitive science seminars, because he was good about letting me grumble aloud at some of the proclamations we would hear. Judea has a keen mind for logic; but he always was patient with my more-to-life-than-logic rants. My point is that, if he could detect logical inconsistencies in the KSM confession and how it was reported, then he had the professional credentials to do so; even if it involved subtleties of reasoning that the mass media not be able to follow very easily. If he had misgivings about the text, that was, at the very least, incentive to ask more questions.

The obvious question to ask had to do with the fact that these confessions really were not "news." At least some of the media were willing to acknowledge that they had been "on the books" for some time. The only thing new about the story was its connection to the closed tribunal being held and the decision of which parts of the proceedings would be disclosed to the media. What was new that week was that the heat was finally turning up on Alberto Gonzalez and the "President's bidding" to overhaul the practice of "due process" in unprecedented ways. Something needed to be done to turn down that heat; and, as I have said on many occasions, there is no better way to undermine a narrative than with another narrative. In other words KSM was a "narrative weapon of mass destruction," whose main purpose was to distract attention from what was turning out to be (with apologies to Al Gore) "an inconvenient truth" for the White House.

However, there is another rule of thumb, which is just as important as the one for undermining narrative. That is the one I first invoked on Thursday: "all a blogger can do today is ridicule." I formulated this rule as a way to deal with the ways in which intolerance and discrimination were worming their way into becoming normative practice. However, it is just as applicable when media distortions come into play, and that is where Assimilated Press enters the picture. They have decided that absurdity counts for more than fact (KSM confessed to at least one activity that took place while he was under our custody). Today's post exhibits such absurdity at its finest:

Today, after after another round of waterboarding, K.S. Mohammed added to his catalog of crimes by confessing to complicity in the new Medicare Prescription Drug Law, inflated housing prices in San Francisco, the introduction of hemorrhoids to America, and most shocking of all, the killing of Bambi's mother.

So, if the logical voice of Judea Pearl is not enough to make us realize just how suspect the whole KSM media blitz has been, we can thank Assimilated Press for explaining it to us in language that, hopefully, we can all understand!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Fear and Loathing at the Gasoline Pump

Chris Baltimore has prepared a Reuters article about the Web site. Anyone interested in content analysis should fine this site an interesting visit. Consider their declared objective:

Terror-Free Oil Initiative is dedicated to encouraging Americans to buy gasoline that originated from countries that do not export or finance terrorism.

We educate the public by promoting those companies that acquire their crude oil supply from nations outside the Middle East and by exposing those companies that do not.

We are also looking into creating a healthy debate concerning alternate methods of fuel production and consumption.

Consider then what their home page says about this objective. Begin with their logo, which could not have been a better design to cultivate fear and loathing of Islam:

Then let your eyes wander over to the video you can watch on this page and make note of its title: "Terror-Free Oil: Saudi Arabia is NOT Our Friend!" (complete with rhetorical flourishes in the setting of the text). The name of the game is fear and the use of fear to instigate intolerance and discrimination, all cloaked by the pretense of "healthy debate" over our new quest for energy independence. Fortunately, Baltimore explores the whole goal of energy independence with an eye to whether or not it may be a "fiction of convenience" that serves no purpose other than political advantage, taking his cue from one of the energy think tanks:

"If we mean it literally, we're almost certainly headed for great disappointment," Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, told a congressional hearing, though he admitted the idea has "deep political resonance."

There is no doubt that "a healthy debate concerning alternate methods of fuel production and consumption" is valuable; but there is no value in starting that debate with inflammatory rhetoric!

New Semantics for "Lean and Mean"

Writing for The Nation under support from the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute, Joshua Kors has uncovered another example of the kind of management pathology that emerges from a military run my bean-counting efficiency experts. His article needs to be read in its entirety to appreciate just how bad the "reformed" military has become; but here is the basic message:

A six-month investigation has uncovered multiple cases in which soldiers wounded in Iraq are suspiciously diagnosed as having a personality disorder, then prevented from collecting benefits. The conditions of their discharge have infuriated many in the military community, including the injured soldiers and their families, veterans' rights groups, even military officials required to process these dismissals.

They say the military is purposely misdiagnosing soldiers like [Jon] Town [whose case was used to introduce the article] and that it's doing so for one reason: to cheat them out of a lifetime of disability and medical benefits, thereby saving billions in expenses.

I suppose this is yet another example of how our government has chosen to set it priorities and yet another opportunity for Congressional oversight to look into just what consequences are coming out of Executive decision-making (made by "the decider," of course).

Succeeding at the Box Office

300 has now endured everything the American movie critics chose to throw at it and could then throw its box office numbers back in their critical faces. Nevertheless, I found it worth reading Sukhdev Sandhu's British perspective at this morning. I suppose what interested me most was a quote from director Zach Snyder, which I had not previously seen, to the effect that filmmakers "need to get in touch with their inner 15-year-old boy." Since I remember a review of The Phantom Menace in The New York Review beginning with the assertions that Titanic was a film for twelve-year-old girls and Star Wars was for thirteen-year-old-boys, Snyder's remark may indicate a step, however small, along the path to maturity.

I wouldn't count on it, though. While Sandhu did describe the plot as "the kind of clash of civilisations that Samuel Huntington and neo-cons have been talking up these past few years," the other particularly interesting thing about the review is that it says absolutely nothing about how the Persians are portrayed. This is the back-story behind the whole project to produce and release 300 that has attracted the attention of many American critics, particularly those writing for the alternative press. From their point of view, this was a major propaganda effort to encourage further intolerance in public opinion about Middle East cultures, especially the one that currently occupies what used to be Persian soil. Any critic with a sense of history would probably have reflected back on Jud Süß, the notorious Nazi film produced in 1940 to cultivate anti-Semitic attitudes (not to be confused with the version starring Conrad Veidt and more faithful to the Feuchtwanger novel, which, since it was made in 1934, was a rather bold voice against German anti-Semitism). If, as I argued yesterday, intolerance "rules the roost," then what better way to promote it than through fifteen-year-old-boys, who are just about at the age when they can start thinking about a career in the military? Why invest resources (which are already overstretched) in some latter-day version of the Hitler youth when you can count on the movies to provide exactly the attitude you need for your next generation of armed forces?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

That Word (again)

A recurring theme on this blog seems to be the extent to which the understanding of a text may hang on the interpretation of a single word, an interpretation that is likely to involve rhetorical strategy in addition to bread-and-butter semantics. Today's word is "apartheid" and its usage in referring to Israel. To some extent Jimmy Carter has had a hand in bringing this association to public consciousness with the publication of his book with the (unpunctuated) title, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid; but, as Joseph Lelyveld pointed out in reviewing this book for The New York Review, the association can be traced back (at least) to the World Conference Against Racism, which the United Nations convened in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Today the association was raised by John Dugard, special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, who happens to be a lawyer from South Africa. In reviewing Carter's book, Lelyveld felt it was important to address the question of whether or not the association is a valid one on semantic grounds. He argued that there are two interpretations of the term and then demonstrated that the interpretation behind the Durban usage (meant to invoke associations with pre-Mandela South Africa) "is relatively easy to dismiss as propaganda." The second interpretation, he argued, amounts to a side-effect of the actions of an occupying military force and is more problematic to assess:

The settlements, roads, barriers and military presence have effectively divided the West Bank into security zones or enclaves, severely limiting Palestinian passage from one zone to the next. The crushing impact on Palestinian lives and families is clear enough. The debate on whether it amounts to "apartheid" turns on whether it's to be seen as a legitimate and reversible response to the threat of terrorism across the border in Israel, or whether it's meant to be as permanent as it looks.

It is important to note that Lelyveld has invoked some pretty strong rhetoric in his descriptive language but still makes a case that the use of the word "apartheid" is debatable.

On the basis of the Reuters report by Richard Waddington, it would appear that Mr. Dugard is not interested in the semantic subtleties that Lelyveld explored, although, as a South African, his use of the phrase "deja vu" would indicate that he is leaning towards the Durban usage. However, there is a reason behind his intentions, even if they are propagandistic, and that is to use his United Nations position of authority to cast the situation in a more global context. Here is how Waddington describe it:

South African lawyer John Dugard warned Western states they would never rally support among developing nations for effective action against perceived abuses in Sudan's Darfur, Zimbabwe and Myanmar unless they tackled the plight of Palestinians.

"This places in danger the whole international human rights enterprise," he told the Council, a Geneva-based watchdog.

In a way this is "deja vu;" but it is a recollection of the rhetoric to elevate the climate crisis to global proportions. This makes for good rhetoric; but it can also inhibit local solutions with the dismissive argument that we-obviously-can't-do-anything-about-a-problem-that-big. Yes, Mr. Dugard is probably just trying to get the mule's attention; but he should take care that, when he whacks away with his two-by-four, he does not knock the poor beast unconscious!

"Justice Delayed and Justice Denied"

Like the rest of us who are not "part of the system," all Amnesty International can do is try to direct public attention. "Justice Delayed and Justice Denied" is the title of the sharply critical report the organization has just released on the subject of the trying of Guantanamo prisoners before military tribunals. It is not that this report has revealed anything that has not already been reported in the news. It is just that its authors have decided to account for the situation in one expository package. Unlike most reports it is light on "action items," except for a call to other governments "not to provide any information to assist the prosecution in military commission trials, even in cases where the death penalty is not sought." Given the way this situation has progressed, it is unlikely that this recommendation will be converted to action where any of the current Guantanamo prisoners are involved.

Recovering from the Triangle: Whose Problem?

Continuing the theme of "creeping racism," Reuters just released two stories on the subprime lending crisis (whose racist angle I recently explored) dealing, respectively, with the Congressional and the Executive perspectives. What may be most important about these reports is what the reveal about the priorities of both of these perspectives. The primary focus appears to be on the institutions that provided the loans and on the impact of their problems on the domestic (if not global) economy. Turning the telescope around, this means that comparatively little attention is being paid to the borrowers. As was the case with Katrina, the processes of the governmental system have once again demonstrated an inability to recognize who the victims are and to give serious consideration to how they should be treated as subjects (rather than objects in the databases of the lending institutions). In the remarks he prepared for a Senate hearing, Joseph Smith, the North Carolina Commissioner of Banks, described the situation of such borrowers as "unsustainable" but did not appear to have much to say about getting out of that situation through any path other than foreclosure. Nevertheless, that rather gratuitous verbal gesture was still better than the official statements from the White House, which simply chose to ignore saying anything about the borrowers in its assessment of the problem. It would be nice if these victims were spared the indignities suffered by the Katrina victims, but this is unlikely to happen if they lack a voice that can be heard by either the Congress or the White House.

Japanese Chutzpah

I was all set to award this week's chutzpah prize to the Bush Administration for accusing Congress of "political spectacle" by using its subpoena power to investigate possible unconstitutional activities such as the violation of due process; but that would have been too predictable. Instead, I decided that, once again, the Japanese have outdone the Americans, at least when it comes to comparing their Foreign Minister Aso with our President Bush. Those who follow the news from Japan know that Aso has a track record for this sort of thing. However, now that he has decided to use his bully pulpit to discuss the Middle East, his attitude deserves a bit more attention. Here is the Reuters lead on his latest move:

Blond, blue-eyed Westerners probably can't be as successful at Middle East diplomacy as Japanese with their "yellow faces", Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso was quoted by media as saying on Wednesday.

"Japan is doing what Americans can't do," the Nikkei business daily quoted the gaffe-prone Aso as saying in a speech.

"Japanese are trusted. If (you have) blue eyes and blond hair, it's probably no good," he said.

"Luckily, we Japanese have yellow faces."

This is, indeed, a quantum leap beyond anything that could be dished out against Bush, even by his harshest critics.

I also think it is important to acknowledge this episode as further evidence that, for all the injunctions from Isaiah Berlin and Anthony Appiah that would guide us towards better cross-cultural understanding (I see that the last time I introduced this topic, I also invoked Jürgen Habermas), intolerance still rules the roost just about anywhere you would care to look. (In the roughly two months since I started this blog, I have tagged seven of my posts with "intolerance." I just reviewed them and had not realized how diverse their scope had been.) There is no doubt that Aso is an easy target; but, if Wilfred Owen said about the First World War that "all a poet can do today is warn," then, where reckless language the reeks of intolerance is concerned, we may do better to take our lead from V for Vendetta and change Owen's text to say, "all a blogger can do is ridicule!"

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Everything I Learned about Life Came from the Sports Page

My most valuable writing experiences came from my graduate school days, when I was writing dance reviews for an arts weekly in Boston while working on my thesis. This meant that I was reading about dance as voraciously as I was reading background material for my thesis research. One of my most valuable lessons (on the dance front) came, I believe, from Agnes de Mille's To a Young Dancer, which actually had a thing or two to say to would-be writers like myself. The message was that, if you wanted to learn how to write about dance, read the sports pages. In her day that was a valuable insight, very much in the same school of thought as my editor's advice to read Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon. All three of these involved writing about processes, rather than objects. They all came in settings that discouraged note-taking, since paying attention to your own writing was a distraction from the processes you were supposed to be observing. All you could do was discipline your attention to take in as much as you could; and, once it was all over, get to a typewriter as fast as you could. Sports writers often had the luxury of typewriters at the site of the game. Those of us who wrote about dance had no such luck.

Things change. I am too consumed for nostalgia for that "Golden Age" of dance about forty years ago to feel much sympathy for any performances I see today, let alone want to write about them; and, having just read Robert Lipsyte's "Descent into March Madness" on the Web site for The Nation, I realize that the sports pages are not the lessons in writing they used to be, at least where writing about processes is concerned. Lipsyte's piece is blatantly curmudgeonly, but is also about much more than college basketball, or, for that matter, sports reporting. His lead paragraph makes it clear what kind of subject matter he is going to explore:

This is the mud season of the sports calendar. While we await blessed baseball and its promise of renewal, here comes the National Collegiate Athletic Association Men's Division I Basketball Championship--the Big Dance for sportswriters, the Bracket Racket for gamblers, a frat-rat party, a racist entertainment, and a subversion of higher education, perhaps democracy as well.

This is basically the abstract of the article, where he gives us the ladder he will ascend (descend?) that proceeds from press coverage to the more critical questions of the nature of college education and (in the spirit of John Dewey) the role that education plays in a democratic society. I shall not retrace Lipsyte's steps, primarily because it is just too much fun to read his own words. I just want to focus on those final rungs.

If sports writing used to have a close affinity with writing about the performing arts, that affinity has now shifted over to that I have previously called "freak show" arenas, by which I mean the domain of politics. The affinity is now so close that is poses a chicken-and-egg question: Are political writers (perhaps like that unabashed baseball fan, George Will) adopting the style of sports writers contaminated by commercialization on just about any front imaginable; or do the sports writers realize that they are in the middle of a "freak show" of their own and had better draw upon the methods of the political writers? In a way the answer does not matter. Both domains have regressed to a new norm where the marketing of the content takes precedence over the content itself, whether that content has to do with winning a basketball tournament or getting elected to the presidency. I would even go so far as to speculate that the precedence of the marketing is so strong that the content is virtually irrelevant.

I remember once seeing a play in New York entitled Geniuses, whose author I can no longer recall. They play was "inspired" by the making of Apocalypse Now. It was a satire whose primary (but far from only) target was Francis Ford Coppola. The line that said it came when the Coppola surrogate declared that anyone could make a movie, but the real work that turned him on was making the deals. This is the sort of thing I mean when I want to argue that marketing now trumps content. Lipsyte has shown us how such thinking has dragged sports into the mud, taking higher education in its wake. If democracy is also being dragged down, it is not entirely the fault of what has happened in the sports world; but it does have to do with the fact that writing about the democratic process is suffering from the same malady as writing about sports. The writing that matters most is steadily being bludgeoned to death by those who live or die by the success of marketing copy; and, since democracy is not a "marketable commodity," we shall all be the worse if such writing ultimately succumbs to its beating.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Catastrophe in Theory and Practice

The old joke goes, "To err is human; to really screw things up, you need a computer." The Alaska Department of Revenue is probably not laughing at this any more. A routine reformatting of a disk drive managed to wipe out a $38 billion account, and the backup drive was reformatted with the same effect. They then discovered that their backup tapes were unreadable. Thus, there was only one source for backup: the original pieces of paper, 300 cardboard boxes worth of the stuff. So much for the paperless office, and thanks to Yahoo! News for feeding this from Associated Press!

TSS on the Left

Yesterday I wrote about the TSS principle in French politics, which, on the left side of the political spectrum, stands for tout sauf Ségolène (anyone but Ségolène Royal). Today Martin Arnold reported for the Financial Times that left-leaning voters actually have six ways to choose an "anyone." They make for an interesting assortment:

  1. Olivier Besancenot – Trotskyite LCR party – a postman who likes to run for president
  2. José Bové – anti-globalisation campaigner – standing in his first election
  3. Marie-George Buffet – communist party – struggling to revive a flagging party
  4. Arlette Laguiller – Trotskyite Lutte Ouvrière party – standing up for all workers
  5. Gérard Schivardi – Trotskyite parti des travailleurs – representing far-left mayors
  6. Dominique Voynet – greens – has struggled to harness public interest in green issues

That's quite a field, and it is probably not surprising the there should be three opposing Trotskyite parties! The total number of parties, by the way, is twelve; but, since Bayrou is a centrist, that does not really make for an even divide between right and left. Also, I have to wonder whether or not at least one of those parties was invented by Monty Python:

Frédéric Nihous – the CPNT hunting and fishing party – appealing for the rural vote

The basic message, though, is that Royal has a lot of work cut out for her if she is to avoid the fate of Lionel Jospin (knocked out of the runoff by Jean-Marie Le Pen) in the last presidential election.

Still Trying to Break the Silence

Yehuda Shaul is the primary agent (in Burke's terminology) in a recent report for Reuters filed by Bernd Debusmann. Here is one reason why we ought to know about him:

Burly, bearded and from an ultra-orthodox background, the 24-year-old Shaul was one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers who shocked Israel in 2004 with an exhibition of photographs and video testimony on harassment and abuse of Palestinians.

The exhibition, which ran for weeks in Tel Aviv and was briefly on display at the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) spawned the tours of Hebron, where many of the soldiers in the group served during the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising.

I actually saw these photographs in San Francisco, and I hope they were on display in other cities outside of Israel. Debusmann filed his report because Breaking the Silence now has a new project:

Disenchanted Israeli army veterans have turned into guides to one of the bleakest places on the West Bank, the Israeli-held part of Hebron, to highlight what they say is the ugly face of occupation most Israelis never see.

Over the past 20 months, former soldiers have led some 2,500 people, in small groups of around a dozen, mostly Israelis, on grim show-and-tell excursions meant to explain the brutalizing effect of daily routine in an occupied city.

Shaul explained the project to Debusmann as follows:

"The tours have two goals," said Shaul. "Show the effect the occupation has on the occupied AND on the occupiers, the way it disrupts Palestinian life and the way it erodes the moral values of Israeli soldiers.

"The IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) blames excesses, when they come to light, on 'rotten apples'. But few soldiers end their West Bank tours with entirely clean hands. Israeli society prefers to keep silent about this."

This puts the Breaking the Silence group in the same camp as Yosef Lapid, the chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, who also happens to be a Holocaust survivor and who has chosen to focus on just how bad things are in Hebron. (I still find it ironic that I had to learn about Lapid from Al Jazeera and have yet to read about him in any other source.) What Debusmann fails to discuss, unfortunately, is the extent of the impact that Breaking the Silence has had on Israeli public opinion, perhaps because it is so rare that there is consensus about anything in Israeli public opinion!

McDonald's Declares War on a Dictionary

The Financial Times is not known for writing the sort of texts that send you to the dictionary, particularly since most of its readers probably do not have a dictionary close at hand when they are reading it. Nevertheless, after reading yesterday's piece by Stefan Stern and Jenny Wiggins under the headline "McDonald's seeks to redefine 'McJob," I could not resist pulling out my Fifth Edition Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Sure enough, there it was, between "McIntosh" (the preferred British spelling for the apple variety) and "McKenzie" (whose definition had nothing to do with Bob and Doug). I rather like their definition, perhaps because the final phrase of the text is likely to raise eyebrows for all the right reasons:

An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one creating by the expansion of the service sector.

Of equal interest is the etymological analysis:

from Mc- (in the name of the McDonald's chain of fast-food restaurants, popularly regarded as a source of such employment) + job noun

This brings us to the crux of the Stern-Wiggins report:

The UK arm of the fast food chain is starting a campaign to get British dictionary publishers to revise their definitions of the word “McJob”, a term the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector”.

The word first emerged in the US in the 1980s to describe low-skilled jobs in the fast food industry but was popularised by the Canadian writer Douglas Coupland, in his 1991 novel Generation X. It appeared in the online version of the OED in March 2001. McDonald’s plans a “high-profile public petition” this year to get it changed.

“We believe that it is out of date, out of touch with reality and most importantly it is insulting to those talented, committed, hard-working people who serve the public every day,” wrote David Fairhurst, chief people officer in northern Europe for McDonald’s, in a letter seen by the Financial Times seeking support for the petition. “It’s time the dictionary definition of “McJob” changed to reflect a job that is stimulating, rewarding and offers genuine opportunities for career progression and skills that last a lifetime.”

This story can be pursued in a variety of directions. First, I would make it clear that I, personally, have never used the noun "McJob," nor, to the best of my knowledge, have I encountered it elsewhere. From this readers can conclude that I have never read Generation X (although I have read plenty of other source material about the Generation X phenomenon). On the other hand I have (with great relish) Barbara Garson's The Electronic Sweatshop: How Computers Are Transforming the Office of the Future Into the Factory of the Past, which first appeared in 1988 and whose basic arguments are no less valid today than they were when the book first appeared. Indeed, I suspect it would be very hard for Garson to refrain from reacting to what I have called "The Big Lie of Customer Relationship Management" by saying, "I told you so!" Garson's basic narrative is best summarize by the titles of the three major sections of her book:

  1. Automating the Clerks
  2. Turning Professionals into Clerks
  3. Automating the Boss

In other words, if you want to understand the office of the future, start by looking at the clerks of today. (Did Kevin Smith ever read this book?) She does this in two chapters, the first of which is devoted to (you guessed it) McDonald's.

The next point I would like to make is that David Fairhurst, who seems to be spokesperson for McDonald's indignation (is that part of the job description for "chief people officer?") does not appear to be particularly familiar with the OED. At least he seems to be aware of the first page, which bears the original published title:

A New English Dictionary on a Historical Basis

Those last two words bear all the weight. This is a reference source that is, above all else, a historical document. Every definition is based on documentation of usage that carries enough weight to justify its entry. If that documentation did not extend south of our border with Canada, it may still have pervaded the Commonwealth, which would be sufficient to justify its inclusion in what is probably the Commonwealth's primary dictionary reference. (I bought my first Shorter Oxford English Dictionary when I was living in Singapore.) The point is that Fairhurst has it all backwards. People do not take the OED definition for "McJob" as the meaning of the word because the OED has sanctioned it; the OED published the definition because that is consistent with how people are using the word. If McDonald's wants that definition changed, they should be paying closer attention to what the English-speaking public thinks about them (which sounds like a good thing for a "chief people officer" to be doing), rather than picking a fight with Oxford University Press (not to mention threatening legal action).

Does the definition need to be changed? To the extent that McDonald's has tried to contest it with a substantive argument, they seem to have concentrated on the "prospects" aspect:

McDonald’s says it has an excellent record of promoting female workers and entry level staff to senior executive positions. In the UK, half the executive team started on the shop floor and 25 per cent are women.

Personally, I find this a pretty lame effort at refutation (and I can only imagine what the female population things of it). On the other hand McDonald's seems to have recognized that argumentation is not always the best strategy. Instead, one can invoke Emery Roe's principle that the only way to undermine a narrative is with a counternarrative:

A McDonald’s recruitment campaign in the UK last year featured slogans such as “McProspects – over half of our executive team started in our restaurants. Not bad for a McJob.”

This then transfers the onus to the reader, who has decided which narrative to believe. Personally, I embrace the OED strategy of keeping the definitions consistent with the life-world. I rarely go into McDonald's, and there is one right across the street from where I live. However, my last venture came on my way back to San Francisco after having delivered a seminar talk at the University of California at Santa Cruz; and I wanted to grab a quick bite before getting back on the road. Nothing had changed since Garson wrote her chapter. If anything thing, the clerks were even more bewildered by the technology, which now had to support more customer options than when Garson made her study. If things are different in the Commonwealth, I would be happy to hear about it!

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Mismanagement of Managed Health Care

Today's Reuters release concerning the Commonwealth Fund report on health insurance makes for a useful supplement to the HBO Addiction Project. One of the most painful parts of the Addiction documentary was the way in which it addressed addiction treatment in theory and practice. The theory was good news, dealing with the ways in which addiction can now be treated through both pharmacological and human interventions. The reason the practice was bad news was because the primary message was that such interventions are inadequately covered (if covered at all) by just about all managed health care systems, meaning that the people most likely to benefit from the theoretical results are least likely to have the practical means to do so. Dickens knew how to write about this kind of phenomenon. This is a case, however, where one cannot invoke the "nobody's fault" gambit from Little Dorrit when the more suitable characterization would probably be Ebenezer Scrooge's reduce-the-surplus-population argument.

This is the context in which Reuters released today's report on managed health care:

At least two of the health care proposals being presented to Congress would cover all or nearly all of the Americans who lack health insurance, and many would lower spending, too, according to an independent report released on Monday.

Many of the plans would do more to cover uninsured Americans and lower costs than President George W. Bush's proposals, said the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund, which studies health care issues.

Is this a matter of economic ignorance or just pure callousness? One possibility is that it involves an ignorance more social than economic that happens to be part of the family context. One has to recall Barbara Bush at the Superdome, captured for posterity in Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke, suggesting that conditions there (which had deteriorated pretty far by the time the elder Bushes put in their appearance) might be better than those of the evacuees' homes that had been destroyed by Katrina. What makes the rich different is not that they have more money (as the old Hemingway-Fitzgerald joke goes) but that their money impedes their perception of any world-view other than that of their own class. This comes precious close to old Scrooge where addiction is concerned: Better to "reduce the surplus population" of addicts than to support a health care system that would see to their recovery. Fortunately, there are now Democrats in both the House (Pete Stark) and Senate (Ron Wyden) more interested in seeing such unfortunates treated as human beings and still doing it in a cost-effective manner. They deserve our support.