Friday, August 31, 2007

It's not just about Candy Bars!

At the beginning of this week, there was are really interesting report and discussion on confused of calcutta over the role that Facebook played in Cadbury deciding to reintroduce the Wispa candy bar, which it had withdrawn from production four years ago. The report originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune; and JP Rangaswami's blog post includes a link to this story. True to form, my own position in the ensuing discussion was to dampen the enthusiasm to a point where we could sort out signal from noise with cooler heads. However, another contributor named Nic pointed to a similar story that was emerging over operations at HSBC. His link pointed to a Guardian article about a policy that HSBC had introduced to provide interest-free overdrafts to university graduates to cover them over the period between graduation and starting the first job. It turned out that HSBC had decided to restore charging interest, and the university graduates responded with a massive protest through Facebook.

Today BBC News Education reporter Sean Coughlan has released a story that HSBC has reversed their decision:

HSBC is to abandon plans to scrap interest-free overdrafts for students leaving university this summer.

Thousands of students on Facebook had threatened to boycott the bank. The National Union of Students said this made all the difference to the protest.

The HSBC bank said it was not too big to listen to its customers.

Once again the pursuit of separating signal from noise is not an easy one, since Coughlan does not provide any data more precise than that "Thousands of students" phrase. Nevertheless, if one bothers to read the story in its entirety, one discovers that there is no mention of Facebook in any statement issues by HSBC. Rather, the only acknowledgement of the "Facebook effect" came from within the National Union of Students:

NUS vice president Wes Streeting said: "There can be no doubt that using Facebook made the world of difference to our campaign.

"By setting up a group on a site that is incredibly popular with students, it enabled us to contact our members during the summer vacation far more easily than would otherwise have been possible.

"It also meant that we could involve our former members - the graduates who were going to be most affected by this policy."

There are definitely data points in this text, but they should not be confused with Streeting's interpretation of them. Further investigation will be necessary to determine how much of a role Facebook actually played and what the nature of that role was. Nevertheless, this may be an excellent opportunity for social science to move from its usual theoretical perch into a more experimental discipline!

The Chutzpah of the "Gentleman's C"

Chutzpah on schedule: that's a little bit more like business as usual! As we should all know by now, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), true to its middle name, has pointed the Fickle Finger of Fate at the Bush administration (and we all know about it because a draft of their report was leaked to the Washington Post yesterday afternoon). The report, whose final draft will be delivered to Congress on Tuesday, assesses our progress in Iraq on the basis of eighteen target goals; and the bottom line of the leak is that only three of those target goals have been met.

This is where the chutzpah enters the picture, on the basis of a report filed on the BBC NEWS site early this morning. In the tradition of a mediocre Yale student whose primary academic activities consisted in bargaining his grade up to the level of a "gentleman's C," the White House is contesting the GAO findings. The reason I invoke the "gentleman's C" metaphor, however, is that, according to the White House version, eight of the target goals have been met. Those of us who still have some math skills left to our names will quickly note that this is still less than half of the target set, which usually falls short of the criteria for even a "gentleman's" C; but the mere fact that the Bush administration has been reduced to this kind of petty bargaining over such a serious matter is the hallmark of true chutzpah.

Since this is a "group award," there is also the question of who would be the best recipient on the part of the administration. While there are many who would like to see our President amass an entire shelf of these awards, I think the recipient should go to the man most responsible for putting a public face on all this petty bargaining (whose credentials include not just a previous award but an award for his extraordinary skill in meta-chutzpah), Tony Snow. Here is how the BBC reported the latest Snow job:

White House spokesman Tony Snow also said the GAO's conclusions were unrealistic.

He said the GAO set the bar for success too high and did not assess whether progress had been made towards the benchmarks.

"The real question that people have is, 'What's going on in Iraq?' Are we making progress? Militarily, is the surge having an impact? The answer is 'Yes'," he said.

This is the magical-realism world of Gabriel García Márquez where those who play the game are not obliged to agree on the rules. As just about anyone outside the Bush administration (and that includes our country's electorate) knows, the real question is not whether the surge is having an impact but what that impact is. This is not a yes-or-no question. Indeed, the complexity is such that is not even a scale-of-one-to-ten question. The only satisfactory answer will be one of goal-by-goal accountability of what has actually been done without any quibbling over whether those achievements reduce to "met," "partially met," or "not met." I would hope that anyone who takes the time to read the final draft of the GAO report will be able to answer the making-progress question far better than Snow has done so simplistically.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Interviewing the Victims

My wife did not want to see the HBO Documentary White Light/Black Rain; so I have to confess that I did not get around to seeing the copy on my DVR hard drive until today. Watching it was not a pleasant experience; but it was such a well-made film that the unpleasantness of it all was at least tolerably bearable. Indeed, there was a strong positive feeling to be derived from the ways in which the survivors were able to finally talk about their experiences in ways they either could not or would not do over the past sixty years. Also, the balancing interviews with the Americans involved with the bombing missions over both Hiroshima and Nagasaki added to the value of the Japanese interviews without overdoing any sense of regret or contrition.

Most disconcerting, however, was the opening footage of interviews with today's "youth culture" in Japan. This simply documented, without any effort to pass judgment, how oblivious today's young are to what happened over sixty years ago; and one of the interviewed survivors was even blunt enough to state (without any particular emotional coloring) that the memory of what happened in August of 1945 will probably die with the last survivor. For me this confirmed my post on Hiroshima Day, where I talked about our proclivity for "cultural blindness." As one of the Americans observed, those who talk about using nuclear weapons today have absolutely no idea what they are talking about (not that ignorance has ever impeded any culture from making decisions with catastrophic consequences).

Finally, I was impressed by the clarity of language engaged by both the Japanese and Americans interviewed for this film, because it contrasted so radically with the way I hear and read language used today, whether through the media or in the workplace. Hegel spoke of the "end of history" as the culmination of progress to an ideal state from which further progress is impossible. For me the "end of history" will be a time when we either will not or (worse yet) can not talk about the past in clear and straightforward language. I fear we are close to that "end" than most would like us to believe; and, worse yet, I fear that those who care are a pretty sparse minority.

Knowledge of the Social World Considered Dangerous

I received an interesting comment from America Jones about my most recent reflections on the social world; and, given the level of substance in the comment, I decided that it would be better to address his points in a new post, rather than a "comment on the comment."

The first point is basically a be-careful-what-you-wish-for argument: If enterprise software eventually does get around to addressing the dynamics of the social world, it is just as likely to be used for ill as for good. Jones supports this position with a link to the recent Wired article on the current state of the art of FBI surveillance:

The FBI has quietly built a sophisticated, point-and-click surveillance system that performs instant wiretaps on almost any communications device, according to nearly a thousand pages of restricted documents newly released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The surveillance system, called DCSNet, for Digital Collection System Network, connects FBI wiretapping rooms to switches controlled by traditional land-line operators, internet-telephony providers and cellular companies. It is far more intricately woven into the nation's telecom infrastructure than observers suspected.

It's a "comprehensive wiretap system that intercepts wire-line phones, cellular phones, SMS and push-to-talk systems," says Steven Bellovin, a Columbia University computer science professor and longtime surveillance expert.

DCSNet is a suite of software that collects, sifts and stores phone numbers, phone calls and text messages. The system directly connects FBI wiretapping outposts around the country to a far-reaching private communications network.

Many of the details of the system and its full capabilities were redacted from the documents acquired by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but they show that DCSNet includes at least three collection components, each running on Windows-based computers.

This article also includes a link to a post by John Borland to the Wired Threat Level blog; and I was pleased to see that the comments to this post included a reminder of Thomas Hobbes "panopticon" concept.

I think America Jones has a point. It is hard enough to monitor a panopticon-like view of an overwhelming volume of data for a state that deserves more focused attention. Monitoring all those data for "process features" is problematic unto an extreme. Think of what an air traffic controller has to do and then bump it up by three or four (at least) orders of magnitude. If a theory of the social world were to lead to a technology that made that volume of data more manageable, then that technology would probably germinate a seed that would ultimately grow up into Big Brother. So, if we really do want to expand our knowledge of the social world, we shall have to be even more careful about were our investigations lead than were those researchers who contributed to the Manhattan Project!

America Jones also expresses concern that an increased understanding of the social world may raise "the potential of making an economic commodity out of knowledge." This is a problem that has concerned me since the earliest days of the knowledge management fad, and I sometime wonder if it was not just as well that the fad brought about more confusion than enlightenment over the nature of knowledge and its role in the workplace. Unfortunately, America Jones also falls victim to that classic confusion that results from philosophy students misreading Plato's "Theaetetus:" the assumption that knowledge is "justified true belief," even though Plato has Socrates tear this definition to shreds. Nevertheless, his point that "knowledge about knowledge" may be as dangerous as better analytic tools for "process features" is well taken; and I would apply the same cautionary remark to those who wish to seriously investigate it!

Avoiding Controversy

Having credited Agence France-Presse for its coverage of that 147-page report on the Virginia Tech massacre, it seems fair to note that I had to go to SPIEGEL ONLINE to learn about a rather interesting approach to composing a portrait of President George W. Bush. The composition is by Jonathan Yeo, a British artist who apparently went through several cycles of receiving a commission to paint a portrait of Bush, only to have that commission rescinded. Here is how the Spiegel report describes the consequences of this situation:

In the end, though, the artist decided to go ahead with his artistic portrayal of the 43rd president, even if he wasn't getting paid for it -- and created a portrait of Bush using a collage of pornographic images.

For those who must know, the article includes an image, both reduced and enlarged; and, yes, I did examine the enlarged version! I was reminded of the story of the proper British matron who complemented Doctor Samuel Johnson on how well he had avoided including any offensive words in his dictionary. Johnson's reply is now classic: "We're you looking for them, madam?" My own opinion is that one would not take the trouble to find what Spiegel called "offensive elements" in its caption without knowing the artist's source material; and, even then, it is quickly apparent that Yeo's use of his materials is far from blatant.

Needless to say, this latest exercise in artistic expression has succeeded in provoking:

The tribute has not gone over well with Bush's supporters. A spokesman for Republicans Abroad International described the portrait as a "cheap stunt" in an interview with the British tabloid The Sun. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Republican Party in Bush's home state of Texas didn't find much humor in the portrait either. "This picture is very distasteful," he told the paper, adding angrily, "Why would anyone want to make a picture of our president from pornographic material?"

The Spiegel article actually provides Yeo's answer to that question; however, since I suspect that many readers will have answers of their own, I shall let them dwell on them before consulting the Spiegel hyperlink!

The Scapegoating of Virginia Tech

I find it ironic (but not surprising) that Agence France-Presse has provided one of the better reports on the findings of the 147-page report on the Virginia Tech massacre of April 16 (beginning with the fact that they are the only source I have encountered that gave the page count). This report was prepared by an eight-member panel appointed by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, and it seems to do a good job of affirming my own reflection on April 19 about our "inbred cultural need to affix blame." Indeed, the lead paragraphs of the AFP story give the impression that affixing blame was the primary agenda item for the panel:

Virginia Tech was too slow to inform staff and students about a shooting incident in April that rapidly spiraled into the bloodiest campus massacre in US history, an investigation concluded Wednesday.

The probe by the US state of Virginia said lives might have been saved if not for crucial errors by university police and officials following the early morning shooting of two students on April 16 by mentally disturbed gunman Seung-Hui Cho.

Personally, I see this as yet another example of how we can set priorities that blind us to the realities of the social world. One has to wonder how much effort this panel put into understanding the realities of day-to-day life and work on the Virginia Tech campus from the point of view of students, administrators, the university police, and all other support staff. Indeed, one can wonder further whether any member of the panel could recall those realities from that chapter of personal life history that covered college days (or whether, for too many of the panel members, those realities were only perceived from within the walls of a fraternity or sorority house). There is also, of course, the nagging question of whether or not, in an age of academic budgets cut to the bone, Virginia Tech had the resources to deal with the pathologies of campus life, small or large.

Needless to say, that "inbred cultural need" explains why the report turned out as it did. If the Governor could not find a scapegoat for the blame, then he would be the most likely target. The only way he could cover his rear was to direct the fire elsewhere, and Virginia Tech was the easiest option. However, the trouble with assigning an "institutional scapegoat" is that it punts on the most important part of any post-crisis analysis: identifying action items as a precaution against future crises. The AFP report has little to say about this side of the story. What it does say is not encouraging:

The panel did not recommend any officials be dismissed as a result of the probe and stated that issues such as the right to bear arms and gun control were beyond its scope.

I read this as a "license to ignore action items," which makes me wonder just why the Governor needed those 147 pages in the first place.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Few Thoughts about the Social World

Now that the discussions on confused of calcutta are beginning to recognize the social world, this seems like a good time to sort out a couple of key observations.

First of all, I think that the best way to understand the nature of the social world is in terms of motivated interpersonal actions. In the Kantian spirit of breaking a topic down into its components, that means we need a theory of action (a major topic in social theory), a theory of motives (which has occupied literary theory as much as social theory), and a theory of interpersonal dynamics (which I happen to think is still beyond our grasp because most of our abstractions involve statics rather than dynamics). In other words we have a long way to go before we understand the social world well enough to take a theoretical approach to managing the impact of new technologies on it!

Furthermore, in my own efforts to develop a better understanding of interpersonal dynamics, I have been revisiting the concept of "legitimate peripheral participation," which constitutes the subtitle of the book Situated Learning by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. However, while Lave and Wenger try to argue the distinction between legitimate peripheral participation and apprenticeship, I am becoming more and more convinced that the former is just “newspeak” (thank you, George Orwell) for the latter. The world that now revolves around enterprise software is also a world of educational institutions that have devalued the practice of apprenticeship as some antiquarian artifact from the days of craft workers. I find it sad that, in order to convey its relevance to “knowledge work” (whatever that may mean), we have to dress this practice up in new terminology!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Packaging Pathology as Entertainment

Almost exactly a month ago I posed the rhetorical question, "Can anyone do anything about the pathology of today's workplace?" Well, assuming that the latest post on Caroline McCarthy's "The Social" blog has not been taken in by the latest Internet hoax, it would appear that Redline Films has posed a non-rhetorical answer, which is to milk the situation for as much entertainment value as it will yield. Here is most of her post:

If you thought Kid Nation was pushing the envelope, wait till you hear about this one. Production company Redline Films has just announced that you can now audition for its latest creative masterpiece, Office Fight. It's exactly what you think it is: it'll take co-workers who don't like each other and make them go face-to-face in a boxing ring.

Do you find this as supremely awesome as I do? Of course! To make it even awesomer, getting involved with Office Fight is easy and you can totally be part of it too! Just e-mail Redline, tell them who you want to pummel and why ("Jason smells like rotten cheese," or "Sean totally meant to let his pet python loose in my cube," or the serious stuff, like "Andrew cheated me out of a promotion and then ran off with my wife"), and if you have a valid claim, you're in like Flint.

The production company will then come to your office to shoot some spicy B-roll of how much you and what's-his-name hate each other, and then they'll train you for two weeks. Then you fight. If there's enough space in your office, they'll set it up right there, but otherwise, they'll hold the event in a local gym. The judges, fittingly, will be your other co-workers, and you'll have to wager bets in which the currency is pure unadulterated shame. ("If you lose, you have to wear a chicken suit to the office for the next week.")

Redline seems to have discovered that you do not have to invest in slaves to take a mass-entertainment approach to gladiator combat (or perhaps they have discovered that they can capitalize on the already existing enslavement, or serfdom if you are a Hayek reader, of today's office workers)!

Synchronic and Diachronic Listening

Apparently JP Rangaswami is not the only writer who likes to assume the rhetorical stance of being confused. Anthony Tommasini has chosen to play the same rhetorical card in his New York Times story about The Sibelius Edition, a plan by Bis to release a 70-CD collection of the complete works of Jean Sibelius. Here is his reaction to the project:

Sibelius lovers, myself included, may find this project too much of a good thing. Nevertheless the fashion for completeness has been gaining hold on the classical recording industry.

It used to be enough to own, say, a complete Wagner “Ring” cycle, or Murray Perahia’s splendid recordings of the complete Mozart piano concertos. In the last 10 years we have had complete editions of the recordings of Maria Callas, of Artur Rubinstein and more. In recent years Brilliant Classics has released bargain-priced boxed sets of what is asserted to be the complete works of Bach (155 CDs) and Mozart (170 CDs), performed by some esteemed artists and many barely known.

The archival value of these projects is real. But especially with regard to Sibelius, who is the intended buyer? In a way, all of his pieces sound like rough-hewn works in progress. His musical language was essentially late Romantic in character, unaffected by the atonal upheavals of Schoenberg & Company. Yet the utterly unconventional way Sibelius fashioned his dark and brooding pieces makes his music sound radical on its own terms. Wayward harmonies, abrupt mood shifts, discontinuities and ruminative episodes are allowed to do what they will. The music is almost beyond historical place, like the late Beethoven string quartets.

That said, Sibelius’s best works, while elusive and confounding, convey emotional, dramatic, even psychic integrity. I’m not sure his reputation will be enhanced by having all of his sketchy experiments and early efforts (like the preliminary version of “Finlandia”) made available.

This all leads to a punch line in which Tommasini confesses to being "confused" over why this project was undertaken. So, as I have tried to do so many times in my reactions to JP's articles, I would like to try to resolve the confusion.

With all due respect to Tommasini's capitalist stance, I would like to begin with the suggestion that, rather than asking about the "intended buyer," we ask who is the intended listener. I take this position to honor that remark by Stravinsky that I recently cited, which addresses the question of what it means to be a "good listener." As we unpack Stravinsky's argument, it does not take much to recognize that that path to being a good listener is one that leads through (duh!) doing a lot of listening. Thus, the more we have at our disposal for listening, the better our chances at becoming good listeners (bearing in mind, as I observed about reading, that this result is far from guaranteed).

Now there are a variety of ways we can go down this path; and, while I have long been skeptical of their work, I would like to invoke a framework that I learned from Leonard Meyer and his student, Eugene Narmour. This framework is basic on the distinction between the synchronic and diachronic approaches one may take in examining a piece of music. (The distinction also applies to literature and has long been a subject of great controversy.) The operative definition of "synchronic" in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (fifth edition) is as follows:

Concerned with or pertaining to the state of a language, culture, etc., at one particular time, past or present, without regard to historical development.

Where music theory is concerned, this means that one addresses a composition without regard to the historical context of other compositions. One may even reduce the scale to examining a single movement of a symphony in isolation from the other movements. The diachronic approach thus entails taking such a context into account.

Now I personally believe that a good listener is a diachronic listener; and I further believe that, on the basis of the text I cited, Stravinsky thought the same. On the other hand I have to appreciate that Tommasini is primarily a newspaper critic; and, whatever attention he may pay to the recording business, his highest priority involves writing accounts of "live" performances. Having written such criticism in the past, I also subscribe to the principle that a good critic is a good journalist, providing the reader with well-written description and saving judgmental opinion for whatever column space (however anachronistic that concept may have become) may remain once the description has been completed. I thus honor Tommasini's need to take a synchronic stance and might only quibble with him on the question of scale, given my own interest in seeking out a unifying theme for an entire evening's program.

Having discussed this distinction, I would now argue that a collection like The Sibelius Edition best serves the needs of the diachronic listener. Indeed, my most recent listening experience with Sibelius was a decidedly diachronic one. It took place this past April, when Osmo Vänskä (who happens to be one of the conductors involved in the Sibelius Edition project) conducted the San Francisco Symphony in that composer's first symphony. Like most listeners I am far more familiar with Sibelius' second symphony than I am with his first; but it took Vänskä's performance to reveal the extent to which many of the "seeds" of that second symphony are being "planted" in the first. Whether or not one might hear, in a chronological approach to the full corpus of Sibelius' compositions, the sort of "diary in music" that I have claimed to find in Mahler's work may not have been resolved by the music theorists; but it is a hypothesis that can only be resolved through diachronic listening. Furthermore, Bis and Vänskä already committed themselves to a diachronic examination of Sibelius when they released a CD of his violin concerto that coupled the 1905 version with the first recording of the original version of 1903/04. This makes for listening as fascinating as the three takes of "Tea for Two" that were made available on The Complete Bud Powell on Verve.

All this is my way of saying that I am far less "confused" about the BIS Sibelius project than Tommasini claims to be. (Of course, by way of disclaimer, I should remind readers that I already invested in the BIS collection of the complete piano music of Edvard Grieg and have never regretted that purchase!) It is not just a question of "archival value." It is a matter of having more resources through which I can learn to be a good listener and making those resources available to as many would-be good listeners as the market will allow!

It's the Poverty, Stupid!

The good news about the Associated Press report of the study by the Trust for America's Health, which ranks Mississippi as "the fattest in the nation," is that it goes beyond (in its own words) "making Mississippi the butt of late-night talk show jokes" by recognizing that this is not so much a story about obesity, or even the impact of obesity on public health, as it is about poverty. Here are the key paragraphs from the report:

Poverty and obesity often go hand in hand, doctors say, because poor families stretch their budgets by buying cheaper, processed foods that have higher fat content and lower nutritional value.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee a self-described "recovering foodaholic" who lost 110 pounds several years ago explained during a Southern Governors' Association meeting in Biloxi last weekend that there are historical reasons poor people often fry their foods: It's an inexpensive way to increase the calories and feed a family.

Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation, and the Delta is the poorest region of Mississippi.

That Delta region, of course, shared with New Orleans the dubious honor of being one of Katrina's prime targets. Thus, all the that cautionary prose by Walter Mosley that I cited yesterday applies as much to the Delta (if not the rest of Mississippi) as it does to New Orleans. Couple these observations with President Bush's announcement last month that he would veto legislation to renew a program that provides health coverage to poor children, and we see that the Delta is as much a "front line" in the war against the poor as is that fortress of unbridled capitalism, the new floor of Saks devoted entirely to designer shoes. When the neglect of the impoverished by public health policy is at stake, it is hard to ignore what I have previously called "the reduce-the-surplus-population philosophy of Ebenezer Scrooge." Scrooge, of course, ultimately changed his ways, but only through the narrative machinations of his creator, Charles Dickens. The fate of the population of Mississippi rests in the hands of agents acting of their own free will, rather than the decisions of some skilled author; and, if there really is a war against the poor, then someone should be asking those agents which side they are taking in current and future battles.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Inexorable Rhetoric of Literature

The mainstream media are already in the process of "celebrating" the second anniversary of the Katrina disaster. As early as last night ABC News had already relocated their anchor to New Orleans. Those scare quotes are, of course, an indicator of irony; and the irony, in turn, is a reminder of an arrogance of an industry the cares only about selling soap, regardless of whether the news is good or bad.

As I write this, I am listening to Igor Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex oratorio, whose libretto is basically Sophocles as interpreted by Jean Cocteau. That interpretation begins with an Oedipus full of his own arrogance for having saved Thebes from the Sphinx now having to contend with the outbreak of a plague. When the Delphic oracle declares that the plague is a punishment for the murder of its previous king, Laius, Oedipus' arrogance leads him to demand that he learn the truth behind his murder, whatever the consequences may be. The ultimate consequence, of course, is that he pays for his arrogance.

Reading Walter Mosley's essay for The Nation about Katrina I could not help but be reminded of the arrogance of Oedipus. It is the same arrogance that transmogrified a culture from waging war against poverty to waging war against the poor. It is the arrogance of what Lewis Lapham has come to call the "American Ruling Class" that constitutes the focal point of Mosley's well-wrought prose:

Not only did our government fail to answer the call of its most vulnerable citizens during that fateful period; it still fails each and every day to rebuild, redeem and rescue those who are ignored because of their poverty, their race, their passage into old age.

The disaster named after the hurricane is not confined to the areas affected. Every emergency room, empty bank account and outsourced life's work could be named. We live in a country rife with ignored and condemned poverty. The rich, high on their great corporate steeds, ride over us believing that they are out of the reach of global warming and its symptoms, of terrorism and dwindling natural resources. When government officials tell them to evacuate, they drive their cars, board their corporate jets or simply climb to higher ground with ease. At this very moment they are looking down on Baghdad and New Orleans, Pakistan and Sudan, you and me. The feeling of invulnerability that these people have is unfounded, but nonetheless it makes them reckless. They take chances and cut corners believing that everything will come out all right. Their delusions of grandeur and ultimate power put us in ever more dire straits.

However, Mosley does not stop with criticizing that Ruling Class. Rather, he then extends the argument to recognize how all American citizens have had their values warped by the Ruling Class, particularly through the influence of the media controlled by that Class:

If we call ourselves Americans (and mean it), then we are all victims of Katrina. If we breathe the air or eat fresh fruit, if we call on our cellphones, drink water from a plastic bottle or just nibble on a chocolate bar, then we are Katrina; we are the rising waters around the ankles of this world.

When the day comes to mark off the two-year point since the deluge descended on the Gulf of Mexico, we should take care not to make too much noise. We shouldn't march in that shadow of time or even protest. Rather, we should sit alone in a room with our imaginations open to feel what they experienced on that day: the waters rising, rising and us climbing stairs and ladders, chairs and fire escapes; sitting on rooftops while bodies float by; calling out to passing boats and helicopters that go by in mute witness; being pressed to the roof by the rising tide and being engulfed shouting, shouting out for the ones we love underwater, unheard; the darkness swirling around us as we die with no one coming to save us, or themselves.

This, in turn, brings Mosley to the climax of his conclusion:

Two years have passed and we are still exporting democracy while we continue living under the semibenevolent oligarchy of international corporations and their candidates. This two-year point measures how far we have sunk under the weight of the rich and their political flunkies--while so many of us still celebrate them as if they were pop stars. We experience the silence of drowning men and women. We call out and are not heard. We believe in systems and people who have no faith in us. We perpetuate the rising temperatures and waters and hatred and feelings of hopelessness. New Orleans's defeat is also our defeat. Its closed schools are a metaphor for our minds and our futures. We see the storm's passage but we don't see it coming. But it is coming. And there are no leaders, no corporations, no benevolent billionaires who are going to save our grandmothers and our babies. We must unite outside of the systems that lie like fast food heaped on golden platters at our feet. We must organize at the ground level, where the water has already begun to rise.

Thus, by invoking the rhetoric of literature, Mosley has seen through to the painful premise that the havoc of Katrina also serves as a metaphor for the havoc that Ruling Class arrogance has brought and will continue to bring. Furthermore, the environmental implications of that arrogance have escalated the consequences from the Gulf of Mexico to the entire planet (as any number of this summer's news reports have confirmed). Mosley believes we must unite to confront this arrogance. Cocteau, however, understood that such arrogance can only be brought down by "an inconvenient truth;" but, as the Gore lecture/documentary has demonstrated, that truth will not set us free but will bring us down along with the arrogant. This is what I shall be thinking when I sit alone in that room, imagining how others felt when the levees broke and the water kept rising.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Facebook in the Funny Papers

I am happy to report that my ongoing argument with JP Rangaswami over Facebook has been distilled into the mini-narrative of a Sunday comic strip. The strip is Elderberries, a delightful account by Phil Frank and Corey Pandolph of life in the Elderpark supervised-living retirement community (or, as the artists put it, "a great place to park your elder"). This strip is provided to the Web by GoComics and is currently on the Elderberries home page. As of tomorrow, it should be on the page for the date August 26, 2007. I got a good laugh out of how Frank and Pandolph managed to capture both JP and myself, and I hope that JP can share the humor!

Citizen Journalism: The Latest Dispatch from the Front

The logo for News Groper says, "News Analysis by Newsmakers;" but, as Caroline McCarthy pointed out on the latest post on The Social, her CNET blog, "the title of every News Groper page contains the terms 'Fake parody blogs, Political humor, Celebrity Satire, Funny Commentary.'" However, as McCarthy pointed out, this did not prevent MSNBC reporter Alex Johnson from taking one of the items, a satirical fabrication of Al Sharpton commenting on the Michael Vick dog fighting case, for the real thing. The timing could not be better, since Scott Gant was on Book TV last night talking about his book, We're All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age. What I had not realized was that Gant is a lawyer with no direct experience in journalism. This may be one reason why, in the course of the hour he spent talking about his book, the word "editor" was never used. It strikes me that the really bad news about this item is that MSNBC seems to be embracing the "citizen journalism" standard of editing (which is to say none at all). At the very least, it would not surprise me if more editing goes into turning out good parodies over at News Groper than goes into preparing material for broadcast or "Web release" over at MSNBC.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Interaction Rituals: An Introduction

Yesterday I found myself taking umbrage over Amy Jo Kim, primarily on the basis of her decision to title a book Community Building On The Web. I decided it was time to take on all of those rabid technology evangelists, whose only rhetorical technique seemed to involve using words so casually as to evade even an intuitive grasp of what they mean (let alone anything objective enough to support necessary and sufficient conditions). The word that set me off, of course, was “community;” and, after a bit of research, I discovered that most of my heroes in the scholarly literature (both present and past) do a pretty good job of steering clear of it. The Shorter OED definition, “A body of individuals,” is too general to provide a benchmark for whether or not “community building” (or, for that matter, another favorite bête noir of mine, "online community") is a viable concept in either theory or practice. However, if we turn to the first man to write a substantive treatise about community, Ferdinand Tönnies (certainly the most venerable of the sources cited in the Wikipedia entry for “community,” even if I do not think the author of that entry read him very well), we find that he invokes the term to signify that “body of individuals” structured along organic lines, as distinguished from a “society,” which Tönnies sees as an “imaginary and mechanical structure.”

In the twentieth century one of the social theorists who best appreciated the need for organic, rather than mechanical, thinking in dealing with the social world was Erving Goffman; and on this blog I seem to invoked Goffman twice in dealing with issues of enterprise software, primarily for his insights into the nature of conversation as a social practice. More importantly, however, Goffman recognized that there was a lot more to interpersonal engagements than conversation; so he introduced a piece of terminology to accommodate this broader category. That terminology is the phrase, "interaction ritual" (IR). Unfortunately, the only appearance of that terminology in the Wikipedia entry for Goffman is for the title of his book, Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior; and, as the reader can see, the hyperlink on this title points to a placeholder. So I have decided to use this post to provide some introductory remarks about this concept in the hope of blowing away all that blue smoke that the technology evangelists keep puffing. However, by way of a disclaimer, my effort to discuss this concept will not draw upon Goffman's book but on some excellent summary material prepared by Randall Collins in his book, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change.

Here is how Collins introduces the concept:

"Interaction ritual" is Goffman’s term, by which he calls attention to the fact that the formal religious rituals which Durkheim analyzed are the same type of event which happens ubiquitously in everyday life. Religious rituals are archetypes of interactions which bind members into a moral community, and which create symbols that act as lenses through which members view their world, and as codes by which they communicate.

Put another way, ritual provides the basic framework within which we derive understanding from our communicative actions. Notice, also, how Collins deals with the terminology of "community." He does not talk about a community being built; rather, by drawing upon religion as an analogy, he talks about a "binding" of members, without going into detail over either the nature of the bonds or how they are formed, because these are secondary concerns. Collins then develops this analogy as follows:

Intellectual life hinges on face-to-face situations because interaction rituals can take place only on this level. Intellectual sacred objects can be created and sustained only if there are ceremonial gatherings to worship them. This is what lectures, conferences, discussions, and debates do: they gather the intellectual community, focus members’ attention on a common object uniquely their own, and build up distinctive emotions around those objects.

It is at this point that we must begin to assess Goffman's theories (and Collins' interpretations) in light of how technology has shifted our context. When Goffman was studying "face-to-face behavior," the idea of a "virtual world" had not even entered the realm of science fiction. Thus, we now need to reexamine Goffman's observations and conclusions it terms of whether or not they can take place in software-mediated encounters as they do in those face-to-face situations. If nothing else, the gamer world has sensitized us to the proposition that "sacred objects" can reside in virtual worlds; and, regardless of whether or not they have succeeded, we have to examine the extent to which Second Life has tried to implement what Collins calls "intellectual sacred objects."

The next stage in Collins' exposition is to recognize that an interaction ritual rarely exists in isolation but, rather, is "chained" to a context of related rituals; and it is that context that embodies the nature of the concept of "community:"

An intellectual IR is generally a situational embodiment of the texts which are the long-term life of the discipline. Lectures and texts are chained together: this is what makes the distinctiveness of the intellectual community, what sets it off from any other kind of social activity.

The last stage of Collins' exposition that I would like to examine concerns how these "interaction ritual chains" are constituted, because this returns us to the question of the nature of those social bonds and how they are formed. There are three elements that constitute such bonds:

  1. Cultural capital
  2. Emotional energy
  3. Stratified network structures

Here is what Collins says about cultural capital:

Each person acquires a personal repertoire of symbols loaded with membership significance. Depending on the degree of cosmopolitanism and social density of the group situations to which they have been exposed, they will have a symbolic repertoire of varying degrees of abstraction and reification, of different generalized and particularized contents. This constitutes their cultural capital (CC).

Here is his synopsis of emotional energy:

And they will have, at any point in time, a level of emotional energy (EE), by which I mean the kind of strength that comes from participating successfully in an interaction ritual. It is a continuum, ranging from a high end of confidence, enthusiasm, good self-feelings; through a middle range of lesser emotional intensity; on down to a low end of depression, lack of initiative, and negative self-feelings. Emotional energy is long-term, to be distinguished from the transient, dramatically disruptive outbursts (fear, joy, anger, etc.) which are more conventionally what we mean by "emotions."

Finally, the networks that derive from the formation of these social bonds are stratified, which simply means that not all members of the network are "created equal." Different individuals exhibit different levels of activity (intellectual, emotional, and/or cultural) in interactive behavior; and, more often than not, the strata reflect, rather than define, the activity that takes place. I recently discussed the role of Usenet and what may have been the earliest demonstration of a "community of communities" in a virtual world; but it is probably more accurate to say that Usenet demonstrated that the virtual world could sustain a stratified network structure just as readily as the physical world could. Furthermore, anyone who gave a serious number of cycles to participating in one or more Usenet groups knows that the activities in those groups were rich (sometimes too rich?!?) in both cultural capital and emotional energy.

So can we conclude anything by virtue of a "cleaner" sense of all that terminology that the evangelists tried to drag through the mud? Actually, I think those evangelists can derive some benefit from this exercise. We not only have a more robust foundation for the concept of "community;" but also we have discovered that this concept can accommodate social bonds in the virtual world as readily those of the physical world. On the other hand our understanding of the nature of those bonds probably supports the dismissal of the concept of "community building" as (to invoke language I appropriated in an earlier post) techno-centric tosh. Finally, I hope I have now affirmed my previously-stated assertion that the social theory literature can be just as exciting (if not more so) than any of those books put out by the technology evangelists!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Ironic Piety

It turns out that the reason the announcement for the "Bon Voyage" concert by the San Francisco Symphony last night did not include information about the soloist is that the soprano who will be singing the final scene from Richard Strauss' Salome in Europe was not performing with them last night. As I shall elaborate, this did not in any way diminish the quality of the evening here. The program was still the same one I had previously cited, and there is a lot to say about it.

My choice of title is intended to reflect a question that often arises when I face a program like this one: How seriously should I be taking the whole affair? There was a lot of overt spectacle in the program, but much of that spectacle had an ironic edge to it. I would like to explore that edge in terms of the two symphonies on the program and then extend the exploration to the rest of the program.

It is hard to imagine two symphonists less alike than Charles Ives and Dmitri Shostakovich. As I have previously argued, if we want to find a kindred spirit for Ives, we would do better to look backwards to Brahms than forwards to twentieth-century Soviet Russia. Nevertheless, at least on the surface, both symphonies on the program (Ives' third and Shostakovich's fifth) may be viewed through the lens of a pious acknowledgement of authority. In Ives' case the authority is sacred in the form of the nineteenth century religious camp meetings. For Shostakovich, whose symphony was labeled by an "ideologically correct" (but anonymous) reviewer as "a Soviet artist's reply to just criticism," the authority was secular. Nevertheless, it is not that all far-fetched to group together God and Stalin, at least in terms of stories about how they respectively exercised their authority, in which case it is also not far-fetched to ask whether composers as creative as Ives and Shostakovich where actually submitting to authority or invoking irony in ways that would elude the perceptions of more superficial listeners.

I can only speculate about how serious Ives was about his religion; but this was a man who could treat the burial of the family dog ("Slow March: Inscribed to the Children's Faithful Friend") with all the solemnity associated with a proper Christian burial, complete with an unadorned citation of the "Dead March" from Handel's Saul. My guess is that Ives had a child's perception of religion, always capable of seeing through the overly serious and just as always on the lookout for opportunities for fun. We thus have one of the richest collections of Sunday School hymns as can be found in any of Ives' works, all of which are deconstructed and patched together in oddly appealing configurations. When a tune emerges long enough to be recognized, the emergence is blatant, as with the trombone booming out with the longest stretch of "Fountain Filled with Blood" we ever get to hear.

Does all this amount to that "ironic edge;" or is it just exuberant celebration? For me the answer resides in the final movement, where the most central hymn is concealed to an extent where it can barely be recognized. What is the tune that is so scrupulously concealed? The text is "Just As I Am, Without One Plea." Is Ives asking us to accept him, as the composer of this statement, "just as he is" while, at the same time, concealing just who he is? I have no idea; but, sitting there listen to Michael Tilson Thomas bring out all the intricacies of this complex score in ways that a recording can never capture, I found myself thinking for the first time about all those subtexts that could be lurking behind all that was familiar in Ives' scores.

It is this idea of the need for a subtext that connects Shostakovich to Ives. After all, Shostakovich got himself on Stalin's bad side with Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District. Whatever Ives may have believed about the wrath of God, Shostakovich had plenty of "hard evidence" that the wrath of Stalin could be far worse. At least on the surface, his situation was far more desperate than that of any Christian penitent; and his fifth symphony may be seen as a desperate plea for Stalin's mercy and forgiveness. If the propagandistic press can be taken as the yardstick of success, then this symphony did the trick for poor Shostakovich; but was it really a "reply to just criticism?" Now that we are at a safe distance in time, it is hard to imagine that Stalin was ever capable of "just criticism" of music; and Shostakovich must have known this. However, he also knew that he could never let on that he knew it; and I doubt if we shall ever be able to tease out of the historical record what Shostakovich really thought. His very soul was too fried by the prospect of terrible persecution to ever make a directly honest statement.

So can we "listen for subtexts" in this symphony? My personal feeling is that this is the only way we can approach it. So much of it is rendered in such broad brush strokes and in such bite-sized gestures that we have to believe that this was a meal cooked strictly for Stalin's satisfied consumption. This is not to say that the craft is missing, but it is still a craft of manipulation. Thus, the middle section of the first movement comes off more as an effort to "pep things up" (because the serious side has gone on long enough) than the sort of turn-on-a-dime mood swing that comes from suddenly wondering if there is a knife at your back. Then the final movement bursts forth in a sustained acceleration that is less growing celebration and more running faster and faster without being sure who or what is pursuing you. The conclusion is, of course, as celebratory as Stalin could have wanted it to be; but we can still hear the celebration with an awareness of the assassins who have been assigned seats in the stadium. So it is that I feel Shostakovich could not have seen this work through to its conclusion without being sustained by the efforts of scrupulously concealing an ironic subtext.

Between these two "pillars of irony," the program offered the final scene from Salome sung by soprano Lise Lindstrom. At the very least this is a case where the libretto has to be read at more than a surface level. Oscar Wilde wrote it in French (at least some sign of concealment), leaving the translation into English to Lord Alfred Douglas. My own feeling is that Wilde had set himself the ideological task of demonstrating that the proper aesthetic veneer could make even the most offensive pornography palatable. Given what literature has produced since his time, the text now seems far tamer; but we can still appreciate how far over the top Wilde wanted to take it. This brings us to Strauss. Wilde could derive wit from the practices of excess, particularly his own; but you have to wonder whether or not Strauss realized that wit was at the heart of it all. This is a case where the music is very much a surface reading of the text, but what a reading it is! So much is piled on to the few paragraphs of this scene that coordinating all of the instrumental voices against the soprano's delivery is as daunting a task as juggling all the hymn fragments in Ives (and, in this particular case, the orchestra resources for Strauss are so much larger). Meanwhile, Lindstrom opted for a minimum amount of dramatization, mostly around presenting Salome as totally unhinged with the consequences of getting her way with Jochanaan. The only weakness came at the end when, on the stage, Salome is killed by the soldiers. Lindstrom just stood erect with outstretched arms, looking a bit like Joan of Arc at the stake (whoops! that's Honegger!).

This brings me back to the very beginning of the concert, John Adams' "Short Ride on a Fast Machine." Like many, I came to know this work through the San Francisco Symphony recording, where it was released as one of Two Fanfares for Orchestra. Even this is a case in which subtext may have come into play. After all, between Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and Leo Arnaud's "Olympic Theme," our sense of fanfare has been enculturated almost to the point of triviality. Therefore, there has to be some irony in the fact that this fanfare (for the 1986 Great Woods Festival) was conceived from a sense of raw self-indulgence, best captured in Adams' own words: "You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn't?" Nevertheless, as audience we have the luxury of seeing the fun in both the up-side and the down-side of such an experience; and, since Thomas conducted the work at its premiere, this was very much a horse's-mouth performance (for which the horse got to take a bow, too)! Not all irony has to cut to the bone.

As I mentioned previously, this was basically the program that the Symphony will be performing at the BBC Proms concert on September 1. This is a rather peculiar social setting, particularly if one chooses to "promenade" on the floor; and I have to wonder if such "promenading" is good for the kind of reflection that irony usually provokes. So the experience in London is likely to be quite different from the more formal setting of Davies Symphony Hall, although I have to wonder if the person in the balcony who seems to have been "moved by the Spirit" to give off a joyous hoot before the final notes of the Ives symphony had even sounded might have been preparing for a Proms experience!

Confused about Communities

The latest "Facebook foray" over at confused of calcutta shifts the front of the battle over to "community building." The first shot in this case is an unabashed advertisement for an out-of-print book (reinforced with endorsements from Howard Rheingold, Kevin Kelly, and Jon Katz):

It’s rare for me to buy more than three copies of a book, and Amy Jo Kim’s seminal Community Building On The Web is one such book. It’s so good that, over the last seven years or so, I have repeatedly bought it and given it away. Which was fine when the book was actually in print, but started getting a tad expensive when I had to go into the secondary market for it.

While the book continues to be “out of print” in a traditional sense, I’m glad to see that Peachpit now make a PDF download available, albeit at a price.

This then provides the opportunity to put out more Facebook flags:

What does all this have to do with Facebook? Well, I wanted to get you hooked into the way I was thinking when I first came across Facebook. I didn’t think of it as a “social networking” site. I saw it as an online community, one that had been built by people who understood the precepts and guidelines of people like Amy Jo Kim.

The scope of those precepts can best be grasped through the table of contents of the Kim book:

  • Introduction: Calling All Community Builders
  • Purpose: The Heart of Your Community
  • Places: Bringing People Together
  • Profiles: Getting to Know Your Members
  • Roles: From Newcomer to Oldtimer
  • Leadership: The Buck Stops Here
  • Etiquette: Rules to Live By
  • Events: Meetings, Performances and Competitions
  • Rituals: Handshakes, Holidays and Rites of Passage
  • Subgroups: Committees, Clubs and Clans

This then provides the grounds for the "big gun" thesis statement:

Facebook is not a “social networking” site. It is a community of communities. Now this is potentially of immense value in an enterprise, if we use it sensibly.

Fortunately, Balaji Sowmyanarayanan was there with a comment to put things into a most useful perspective:

All of this is true with Usenet too.
But FB is sugar coated blackhole trap.

This transported me back to the realm of cautionary remarks (particularly Marx') about those who ignore history. Usenet has much to teach us about the “community of communities” phenomenon; and, as old-fashioned as I am, I felt that, at least in its earlier days, the content was richer for being limited to text. However, I think there are more lessons to be learned than Balaji chose to invoke in his comment.

Most important is that Usenet was not about community building. It was about creating forums for discussion of topics of shared interest. This is neither a necessary nor a sufficient attribute of a community. Communities certainly emerged within many of the discussion groups, and that emergence could lead to the formation of new discussion groups. However, the very concept of community building seems to be invoked the most by those who have never seriously studied the social theory of communities and, as a result, quickly cotton on to all the surface features (as in the topics of the chapters of Kim's book) while in blissful ignorance of the “deep structure.” (I took my flame-thrower down this road back in the days of the communities-of-practice fad.)

So Usenet was primarily about enabling conversations (one of those "four pillars" of enterprise software that I recently tried to unpack); but it was also about providing the option to moderate those conversations (which is why I continue to argue for the need for quality editing). A Usenet moderator was, first and foremost, a filter. However, other forms of moderation surfaced, with responsibilities often shared by members of the group. An important one was keeping the discussion “on topic.” Another, which I would often do voluntarily, was to “review the bidding:” When a discussion got hot and heavy, going down many different paths at once, it was useful to synopsize the key points and contributors and identify the outstanding issues and questions that still needed to be resolved.

Finally, while Usenet preceded the Internet with its use of gateway management technology, its population was extremely limited compared to today’s Internet demographics. The opening of the Internet killed many (most?) of the discussion groups, for the simple reason that people flooded in for no other reason than to babble. Content quickly sank to the lowest common denominator (if not lower); and many of the original participants who had engaged Usenet as a resource began to see it as a waste of time.

Marx’ remark about repeating history, as many know, was that what is tragedy the first time comes around as farce the second time. The deterioration of the quality of discussion on Usenet may have been the first great tragedy of the Internet. Perhaps what Balaji called a “sugar coated blackhole trap” is just the farce of the second appearance.

Meanwhile, I hope that those who are seriously interested in community-like behavior in either the virtual or the physical world will spend less time with books by technology evangelists and more time with the more serious (but just as exciting) social theory literature!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

In Praise of JOHN's Gospel

Bill Carter has a piece in today's New York Times about the "stumbling" of HBO:

Has HBO, the pay-television channel stocked with so many outstanding shows that it declared itself in a category all its own — as in “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” — finally tumbled from its pedestal of prestige?

While the channel rejects that notion as both inaccurate and unfair, some of its long-suffering competitors are only too eager to advance that message. As evidence they point to the final exit from center stage of HBO’s greatest performer, “The Sopranos,” and the subsequent quick demise of the show that inherited its spot on the schedule, the quirky surfer tale “John From Cincinnati.”

Lest readers think that my review of Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of William Shakespeare's As You Like It was intended as another nail in Carter's coffin, I feel a need to say a few words in praise of John From Cincinnati.

First of all, I do not follow the media "buzz" when it comes to choosing my own entertainment. My wife and I watch what we want to watch; and, when it involves a series, we have periodic "sanity checks" over whether we really want to continue. Thus, I had no idea how John was playing to audiences in general. However, I was certainly not surprised that it "didn't resonate," in the words of Michael Lombardo, the president of the HBO Programming Group. I suppose I was also not surprised that, at least according to Lombardo, the series received "poor critical response." The truth is that it was not particularly easy to write a newspaper column on what that series was about or to classify it according to some familiar ontology of genres. Since I am currently immersing myself in the life and work of Lennie Tristano, I know that defying genre categories can be the kiss of death among both critics and the audiences who read them. So I feel some need to set down a few words about why I was as passionately supportive of this series as I was passionately antipathetic towards Branagh's latest attack on Shakespeare.

Most importantly, this series was, by no means, a "quirky surfer tale," although I am sure that Carter was far from the only one who described it that way. In Kenneth Burke's terminology surf culture, particularly that part of the culture centered in Imperial Beach (a key choice because of its proximity to the Mexican border), certainly establishes the scene but is relatively secondary with respect to the acts that constitute the narrative. This was best appreciated by a San Francisco Chronicle critic's reference to magical realism, which, in many ways, is a license to stretch logic to the breaking point, if not beyond; and one way of viewing magical realism is as a literary perspective on theology, the primary scene where it is acceptable to logic to be trumped (in the case of theology, by acts of faith and their consequences). From this point of view, just as Seymour Chatman had analyzed Mon Oncle d'Amerique as argumentation cast in the framework of narrative, John From Cincinnati is, at its core, a theological exposition rendered through narrative, instead of the more systematic structures of paragraphs that state and support a thesis. Furthermore, it is a theology of self-reflection. If prayer is the ultimate reflective act through which we try to confront who we are and what role we play in the complexity of the cosmos, then just about every character in this series engages in such acts; and, whether or not there were any thoughts of continuing the series (which seem to have been dispatched by now), all of those characters come to a closure that gave the final episode a satisfying sense of conclusion, however many petty questions of logic were still littering the narrative landscape.

Yes, I can understand why an exercise like this would not have a strong following. On the other hand I finally got around to watching Absolute Wilson yesterday, and I never expected that Robert Wilson would have a strong following. Indeed, Wilson's greatest supporters and enthusiasts remain outside the United States; so it would not surprise me if John From Cincinnati garners similar support in both Europe and Asia. My first exposure to Wilson was when I saw King of Spain over 35 years ago, and I had absolutely no idea what to make of it. John From Cincinnati left me just as stunned; but this time around I had more interpretive skills in my knapsack and enough eagerness to engage them that I could make something out of it all!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Wisdom of Dwight David Eisenhower

Presumably, the budgetary neglect of both health coverage for poor children and education benefits for veterans of Iraq can be attributed to the mismanagement of funding in Iraq itself, which seems more concerned with maintaining the support of war profiteers than seeing to the need of the troops. In this context it is good to see John Nichols, in his blog for The Nation, reminding us of what former President Eisenhower had to say in 1953, when one of his highest priorities was getting our troops out of the quagmire on the Korean peninsula:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. [...] This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.

Eisenhower was far from the "great communicator" that Ronald Reagan was; but it is valuable to recall that his texts often embodied far more substantive content!

Branagh Versus Shakespeare

Yes, there are some good things about Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of William Shakespeare's As You Like It, which had its first airing on HBO last night. Kevin Kline made the melancholy Jacques a far more interesting character than the usual stereotypes of him. His only down side was having to deliver the "seven ages of man" monologue as if it were a set piece that had little business being in the play (the splices on either side of the speech were practically, if not actually, audible); but, even so, he gave it an admirable delivery. He was also wonderful in playing off Alfred Molina's Touchstone; and Molina was not afraid to go over the top, particularly in his scenes with Janet McTeer's Audrey. Finally, lest I forget, Audrey's goat was definitely up there in the same class with Kline and Molina.

All the rest was a colossal mess, best called "ill seen and ill said," would that not involve ripping off Samuel Beckett. This was not strictly a matter of trying to set the play in late nineteenth-century Japan (after the country had been "opened"). After all, Kurosawa was as good at setting Shakespeare in Japan as he was at setting a John Ford Western in Japan; but, when it comes to making a film, Branagh is no Kurosawa. Yes, there are a few pratfalls that are good for a laugh, until you realize that Branagh just throws one in when he cannot figure out what else to do. Then, of course, there is the final song-and-dance after all the simultaneous marriages, running wild through the forest and sounding for all the world like the chorus behind Andy Williams singing, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." As a teenage girl said in a one-act play I once saw, "It's to barf!"

Facebook in the Enterprise: The Reality Factor

This morning Tim Ferguson filed a story on CNET that nicely complemented my recent post about the impact of Facebook on worker productivity. Ferguson's story is about a poll recently conducted by the security company Sophos, which he nicely summarizes in his "secondary" headline:

Half of businesses are restricting employees' access to social-networking site Facebook, due to concerns about productivity and security.

The productivity factor basically aligned with the results I had previously reported, so much of my interest was in the security side of the coin. Here are the results that caught (seized?) my attention:

The issue of security was also raised by the Sophos research. In a separate poll by the company, 66 percent of workers said they are concerned about colleagues sharing information on Facebook.

Details such as employment history and mobile phone numbers have been found on the site and could be used for identity theft or to launch corporate phishing attacks, security experts warn.

Sophos research found that 41 percent of Facebook users are willing to divulge personal information to complete strangers.

Sophos last week released the results of a Facebook ID probe indicating that a relatively large percentage of people were willing to divulge e-mail addresses, dates of birth, phone numbers and other data to a stranger--a fake character created by Sophos, in this case--who requested "friend" status of 200 randomly selected Facebook members.

"Everyone's just sort of letting it all hang out online without thinking who might be watching," [Graham] Cluley [a Sophos "senior technology consultant"] said.

So, if JP Rangaswami really does believe in that "wisdom of crowds," then is there not some element of "wisdom" in those 66 percent of the participants in the Sophos survey; and, if so, what does that wisdom entail?

My guess is that this is not a story about the triumph of an "economics of abundance" over an "economics of scarcity," as JP has recently tried to argue. (Indeed, I find the very concept of an economics of abundance to be as suspect as any other utopian ideal; but that is another story better told by H. G. Wells or Isaiah Berlin!) Rather this story involves an issue raised in a comment by Peter Smith, which is the proper role of freedom in enterprise work. Smith sees enterprise management through the lens of the conflict between freedom and controls; but I wonder if this might be a case where we should be thinking in terms of a dialectical synthesis, rather than an opposition. Just as Justice Holmes recognized that freedom of speech is not the freedom to shout "Fire!" in a crowded building, enterprise managers need to find the right mix of freedom and controls that can derive benefit for social networking sites while remaining cognizant of their risks and liabilities. This is clearly no easy matter; but, in a world of complexities and consequences, why should we kid ourselves into believing that major management decisions should be easy?

Alliance Chutzpah

Once again I am faced with the question of whether or not it is too early in the week to announce the Chutzpah of the Week award. However, this one has the merit of a historical context, since it is a follow-up to an award given to Taro Aso last March, when he was Foreign Minister of Japan. The basis for the award was but one of a chain of absurdities that culminated in an election in Japan that resulted in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe losing control of the upper house of his country's parliament. Nevertheless, Abe has remained as Prime Minister; and the capacity of his judgments and policies seem to have followed in his wake. This week's award is based on a Reuters report of his current visit to India filed by George Nishiyama and Surojit Gupta:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called on Wednesday for a "broader Asia" partnership of democracies that would include India, the United States and Australia, but omit the region's superpower, China.

It is hard to view any proposal for a "broader Asia" that ignores China as anything but an arrogant absurdity. Certainly, one can hold up the standard of democracy as that reason for excluding China; but what is really at stake is a power play to counter the growth and domination of the Chinese economy. The absurdity of the vision stems from the fact that countries such as the United States, Australia, and India are as interested in cultivating China as both as customer and a partner as they are in facing the challenge of China as a competitor. To reduce such economic complexity to a competitive threat (which is likely fueled by a long-standing Japanese cultural tradition) is to trivialize it to a level that will likely do more harm than good, which may well be the best criterion for chutzpah this week!

A New Insight into Memory

I spent many years banging my head against the problem of organizational memory and why so many purported technology "solutions," particularly those that emerged during the heady days of the knowledge management craze, did so little to contribute to how large organizations could benefit collectively from the wealth of experiences derived from their work practices. Many of my thoughts were ultimately compiled into a massive Word document that currently sits on my desk as I try to figure out what to do with it (and one of the few things I did with my Yahoo! GeoCities site was to create a page with the abstract for this document and a link to its current version). I have even tried to get my mind around the latest results in biological models of memory, although readers of this blog have probably discovered by now that my understanding of memory is as much informed by Proust as by biology.

My biological interests were recently revived when the Reuters BlogBurst service brought my attention to a recent post on the Anxiety Insights blog. The post concerned an explanation for why emotionally charged events are not easily forgotten in terms of the chemical behavior of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. It basically reports on a paper that has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America:

Tully K, Li Y, Tsvetkov E, Bolshakov VY. Norepinephrine enables the induction of associative long-term potentiation at thalamo-amygdala synapses PNAS 2007 Aug 20; doi:10.1073/pnas.0704621104 [Abstract]

The text of the paper, as quoted in the blog post, translates this rather unwieldy title into a more straightforward summary:

We previously demonstrated that the learning of fear is associated with increased synaptic transmission between neurons in the amygdala and brain regions, which provide information about sound to the amygdala. We found that norepinephrine facilitates this increased transmission.

The research leading to this conclusion was conducted in the interest of finding treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD); and the paper concludes with the hope that, now that this particular chemical process has been identified, it can be treated through "certain manipulations of the adrenaline system." This could, of course, be a good-news/bad-news result that recalls a famous letter by Rainer Maria Rilke on why he decided to withdraw from psychotherapy:

If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.

On the other hand only the patient who has to deal with those "devils" of PSTD has the right to decide whether they should be expunged at the risk of losing the angels as well.

From my point of view, the interesting theoretical question now is whether similar chemical links exist for the more positive emotional associations, such as those unlocked by Proust's tasting that madeleine dipped in tea. There is also the way in which Proust's memories then all spilled out in narrative form, thus invoking my previously cited quotation "that what does not get structured narratively suffers loss in memory." The biological models for these mechanisms are still hidden from us, but it is still encouraging to read that research is continuing to expose that which had been previously concealed.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Useful Way for the Virtual World to Inform the Physical World

Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor for Reuters, has an interesting report on how online gaming may be benefiting the real world of epidemiological research. The story is based on the outbreak of an epidemic in a virtual world:

The outbreak was an accidental consequence of a software challenge added to the "World of Warcraft" game in 2005, [Nina] Fefferman and [Eric] Lofgren report in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The virulent, contagious disease was introduced by maker Blizzard Entertainment Inc. of Irvine, California, as an extra challenge to high-level players. But, just as a real virus might spread, it was accidentally carried out of its virtual containment area.

"Soon, the disease had spread to the densely populated capital cities of the fantasy world, causing high rates of mortality and, much more importantly, the social chaos that comes from a large-scale outbreak of deadly disease," Fefferman and Lofgren wrote.

"When this accidental outbreak happened, players embraced it. Some thought it was really cool," Fefferman said.

The makers did not. They reset the computer game to eliminate the disease, wiping out any data that may have been collected.

However, while this was the end of the story in the gaming world, it was just the beginning for Fefferman and Lofgren:

Fefferman, a medical epidemiologist, immediately recognized human behaviors she had not ever factored in when creating computer models of disease outbreaks. For instance, what she calls the "stupid factor".

"Someone thinks, 'I'll just get close and get a quick look and it won't affect me,'" she said.

"Now that it has been pointed out to us, it is clear that it is going to be happening. There have been a lot of studies that looked at compliance with public health measures. But they have always been along the lines of what would happen if we put people into a quarantine zone -- will they stay?" Fefferman added.

"No one have ever looked at what would happen when people who are not in a quarantine zone get in and then leave."

She will now incorporate such behavior into her scenarios, and Fefferman is working with Blizzard to model disease outbreaks in other popular games.

"With very large numbers of players (currently 6.5 million for World of Warcraft), these games provide a population where controlled outbreak simulations may be done seamlessly within the player experience," she wrote.

There is, of course, the question of whether or not gamer behavior should be taken as a reflection of how they would react to a real-world crisis; but, regardless of how they would act in the real world, it may still be an indicator of how they would think. What may be most important is that these first results have been published in a journal with internationally-recognized authority. As such, it may be one of the first instances of published results in "hard medical science" being based on an analysis of social behavior in a virtual world (recognizing that Fox cites a similar article by Ran Balicer in Epidemiology); and Fefferman and Lofgren deserve recognition for that achievement.

Seeking a Social World Solution with Objective World Thinking

Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent for Reuters, has submitted a report on a climate change conference that convened about 750 miles from the North Pole. Here is his lead:

Climate change is the biggest security challenge since the Cold War but people have not woken up to the risks nor to easy solutions such as saving energy at home, experts said on Tuesday.

"We're not yet collectively grasping the scale of what we need to do," British climate change ambassador John Ashton told a seminar of 40 scientists and officials from 13 nations in Ny Alesund, Norway, about 1,200 km (750 miles) from the North Pole.

He said global warming should be recast as a security issue, such as war or terrorism, to help mobilize support for tougher global action to cut emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.

"The Cold War was the last big problem the world faced on so many fronts -- economic, political, industrial," he said.

This may be a sign that even the scientific community is recognizing that all the powers of the objective world may lack the necessary utility when the problem actually resides in the social world. This was particularly evident in another observation from Doyle's report:

Researchers noted that people often act without weighing up long-term consequences -- many smoke cigarettes or eat too much without rationally reviewing risks of lung cancer or obesity.

Nevertheless, at least in Doyle's account, there seemed to be a general reluctance to accept the idea that there are "laws" about the nature of the social world, which, even if not as hard-and-fast as the laws of physics, need to be recognized when trying to solve problems. In the past I have tried to compile a list of such laws. Two of those laws summarize my reaction to this seminar:

  1. Comfort is the enemy of will.
  2. People who are comfortable do not want change, since that may lead to discomfort.

Both of these laws imply that we are unlikely to see action until the discomfort becomes prevalent enough to impact the behavior of those who currently lack the will to address the problem. There are, of course, those who would prefer to take refuge in "faith-based truths" or, worse yet, the precepts of what I have called "secular Messianism;" and many of those folks may even be strong enough to weather many winters of discontent. My hope, however, is that their influence over those who make and implement policy, which has been so strong during the current Presidential administration, will begin to ebb as the general level of discomfort increases. With any luck this will happen before we end up like the smoker who only recognizes that he has a problem after he has to rely on an oxygen tank.

Who Pays?: An Incomplete Story

Yesterday's Associated Press report, released under the headline, "Medicare won't pay for hospital mistakes," on Yahoo! News, raises more questions than it answers. From a chronological point of view, the beginning of the story was postponed until the end of the report:

Last year, Mark McClellan, then director of the Medicare and Medicare programs, said the government could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year if the Medicare program stopped paying for medical errors such as operations on the wrong body part or mismatched blood transfusions.

About the only thing wrong with this proposition is that no one had thought of it (or had the intestinal fortitude to implement it) sooner. After all, negligence in matters of fiscal accountability is probably one of the major reasons why health care is in the mess it is now in. The result is a new rule that identifies several hospital procedures that will no longer be eligible for Medicare payments:

The rule identifies eight conditions — including three serious types of preventable incidents sometimes called "never events" — that Medicare no longer will pay for.

Those conditions are: objects left in a patient during surgery; blood incompatibility; air embolism; falls; mediastinitis, which is an infection after heart surgery; urinary tract infections from using catheters; pressure ulcers, or bed sores; and vascular infections from using catheters.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said it also would work to add three more conditions to the list next year.

Reading these paragraphs reminded me of Bob Newhart's old routine about those vending machines that sold flight insurance policies in most airports. The punch line was, "Buy the damned thing, if it make's you feel better; but, for God's sake, don't read the policy!" There is nothing like being told what might happen to you when your in a plane, and the same seems to be true of going to the hospital.

Nevertheless, this is still an incomplete story, since every hospital procedure has to be accounted for by the billing system. The rule recognizes this fact but not in a particularly comforting way:

Hospitals in the future will be expected to pick up the cost of additional treatment required by a preventable condition acquired in the hospital.

"The hospital cannot bill the beneficiary for any charges associated with the hospital-acquired complication," the final rules say.

This much is clear: Medicare won't pay; and "the rule" states that the patient cannot be billed. So what happens? Are those entries in the billing system logged as bad debts for tax purposes? Is the hospital truly bound by that rule, or will it find loopholes through which the patient can be billed? Or will the hospital just raise all of its rates to absorb these new expenses, meaning that, in the grand scheme of things, both Medicare and the patients will continue to pay for those errors?

From an objective point of view, we are probably talking about something that can be covered by malpractice insurance; but, as far as I have been able to determine from the news, this is just another ingredient in that whole stew that is the current health care mess. It is as if everyone recognizes how bad the system has become, yet no one has the will to clean up the mess. This is very much a time to reflect on the connotation of that phrase that Vonnegut made so famous, "So it goes."