31 July 2007

Lord Voldemort Un-Masked

Tonight I completed the last Harry Potter book. Rowling has created a world and set of characters that folks will still be reading about a century from now (folks who read only about 40 pages a year and will thus need 100 years to get through the entire 4,000+ page series).

The one thing that I should have seen coming? The rather Mission Impossible-like scene in which Ron Weasley pulls off Lord Voldemort's mask to reveal a sneering Dick Cheney. It explains so much.

Disequilibrium Economics

One of the problems with economics is that it assumes economies gravitate towards equilibrium. In this model, economies are all about moving towards a resting point, a balance between supply and demand, a quiescent state that suggests that the status quo is normal.

Yesterday would have been Thorstein Veblen's 150th birthday. (Curiously, had he actually been alive, that would have made him the world's oldest living economist.) Veblen is probably best known for coining the phrase "conspicuous consumption." Referencing the potlatch ceremonies in which Indians gave away or even destroyed surplus goods to gain status, Veblen explained the robber barons who might light a cigar with a $100 bill.

But to me, a more interesting dimension of his economics was his adoption of Darwin's (at the time) novel idea of evolution as a model upon which to base economic analysis. He emphasized two things that most economists of his time ignored, two things that have proven to be of vital importance to progress (as opposed to equilibrium): technology and institutions.

We all realize how disruptive and defining technology has been to economic growth in century since Veblen began publishing. We still tend to overlook the importance of institutional change. Veblen saw institutional change as essential to economic progress, and reminded us that institutions can be thought of as habits of thought. Changing habits of thought is often harder than changing technology.

Thanks to the Bob Edwards show and Edwards' interview of economist Ken McCormick for alerting me to Veblen's birthday yesterday and for the refresher on his influence. If you'd like to learn more, one great place to start is with Heilbroner's Worldly Philosophers, which includes a chapter on Veblen (whose penchant for fellow professors' wives did little to help him overcome resistance to his novel ideas).

Pay Back the Election in 4 Days!

An odd thing has happened on the way to the White House. For the first time since they've tracked these things, the Democratic presidential candidates lead the Republican candidates by $100 million in fund raising.

It's fashionable in the blogosphere to show that we're not naive and to point to the stupidity of supposedly smart people, decrying the futility of politics and the emasculation of the average voter by special interest groups. But in this little tidbit I see something delightfully positive.

Each year, the American voter is out about $100 billion for a war they no longer want. Even if it costs $1 billion in campaign support to put up a candidate that ends this, the financial returns to the average voter will be higher than anything Wall Street could offer. Basically, the campaign money spent will be returned in the first week after a withdrawal!

With this in mind, the American people are showing themselves delightfully rational - finally learning from the lobbyists who have for years spent pennies to make dollars. If this doesn't make you smile, you're committed to scowling.

30 July 2007

Experts Call Chief Justic Roberts Idiopathic

Chief Justice Roberts suffered what doctors are calling "a benign idiopathic seizure."

Expert Bernard Benoit said that such a condition follows from a series of idiopathic decisions. "An idiopath, like a sociopath, makes decision that follow from an oddly idealistic notion of the world rather than the facts," Benoit claimed. "The seizure is benign even though the decisions themselves can be rather malignant."

During his tenure as Chief Justice, Roberts has led the Supreme Court to rulings that have argued against student's having freedom of speech even when off school property and have decided that even substantiated instances of sexual discrimination in the work place don't hold unless the claimant sues before being aware of the discrimination.

"The seizure is called 'idiopathic,'" clarified Benoit, "because it is the brain's attempt to purge itself of a series of really idiotic decisions. Think of a wet dog shaking dry and you'll get some sense of the brain mechanism."

Bathtub Sloshing

There is a degree to which the most advanced have to advance in order to bring along the whole. If you've tried to push water in a bathtub, you'll see this. The water sloshes forward and, with no where to go, sloshes back to collide with the rest of the water moving forward behind it. If the advanced aren't able to move forward, their energies are diverted towards getting even more from those behind. Thwarted from movement forward, they return to compete. Progress needs a path.

This is just one of the reasons that we need to move beyond the information economy to an entrepreneurial economy.

28 July 2007

Brazilian Soldiers

Bush was listening to his regular morning briefing from General Petraeus.
"Insurgents killed two Brazilian soldiers in the Anbar province yesterday," Patraeus calmly reported.
"Oh no!" exclaimed Bush.
"Oh no," Bush groaned again, dropping his head into his hands.
His staff were confused and shaken by this display of grief from their normally stoic leader.
"Sir?" inquired Condoleezza. "Are you alright?"
"No I'm not alright," Bush said dejectedly. "This is just awful."
A long and awkward silence followed, finally broken by Bush's quiet voice.
"How many is a Brazilian?"

Pass Me Six Slices of Bacon, Kevin

My buddy Bernard is a nervous wreck. He's afraid he could be implicated in the obesity epidemic of the last two decades. His concern has been triggered by a new study arguing that obesity is contagious. It seems as though the notion of acceptable weight is heavily influenced by our friends and relatives who, in turn, influence their friends and relatives' notion of normal, an odd variation on the game of six slices of bacon, Kevin.

This from the San Jose Mercury News
The study found a person's chances of becoming obese went up 57 percent if a friend did, 40 percent if a sibling did and 37 percent if a spouse did. In the closest friendships, the risk almost tripled. Researchers think it's more than just people with similar eating and exercise habits hanging out together. Instead, it may be that having relatives and friends who become obese changes one's idea of what is an acceptable weight.

In 1988, for no particularly good reason, Bernard's weight spiked. He gained 43 pounds. Shortly after that, his brother gained weight. And his friend. Then his brother's friends. His friend's friends. Now, as he walks through the mall, Bernard can see that the ripple effect outwards has seemed to have hit everyone, like a slow-motion, silent video of a fat kid executing the perfect cannon ball at the public pool. Fearful that sociologists will soon trace this epidemic back to him, Bernard is seeking solace in comfort food. Pass the bacon, Kevin.

27 July 2007

Nursing Home Cat Can Sense Death? Oh Sure

Nursing home cat can sense death?

CHICAGO (Reuters) - When Oscar the Cat visits residents of the Steere House
Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, the staff jumps
into action -- Oscar can sense within hours when someone is about to die.

In his two years living in Steere's end-stage dementia unit, Oscar has been
at the bedside of more than 25 residents shortly before they died, according to
Dr. David Dosa of Brown University in Providence.

The article goes on to speculate about how Oscar the Cat can sense imminent death and mentions that the cat visits lots of patients but when it curls up besides one, the nursing care staff spring into action because they know that they're about to lose someone.

Well, where I come from we have a label for people like Oscar the Cat. It's not clairvoyant. It's not hyper-sensitive. What we call people who just happen to continually show up beside people who promptly die? Murder suspects.

23 July 2007

Brooks, Bush, and Blind Faith in God

A professor of astronomy mentioned to a hall full of students that the sun would likely die out in about 3 billion years.
“How long before the sun dies out,” asked a worried student.
“3 billion years,” repeated the professor.
“Oh,” said the relieved undergrad. “I thought you said 3 million years.”

David Brooks rather timidly defends Bush from his critics this week, talking about Bush’s confidence in his plan for Iraq and his continued excitement about his job as president.

Rather, his [Bush’s] self-confidence survives because it flows from two sources.
The first is his unconquerable faith in the rightness of his Big Idea. Bush is
convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy, or as he said
Friday: “It’s more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an
Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will
tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn’t
Second, Bush remains energized by the power of the presidency. Some
presidents complain about the limits of the office. But Bush, despite all the
setbacks, retains a capacious view of the job and its possibilities.

Even granting that Bush is right about the direction of progress – that all nations will become democratic – he has confused the inevitable with the immediate. If God wants citizens to have the freedom to vote, he hasn’t demonstrated much urgency about this goal. Assuming that man has been on the earth only 6,000 years, the first 5,800 were spent democracy-free (save for a few anomalous experiments along the way). Assuming that man has been here closer to 100,000 years, the lead time to achieving democracy has been even more alarmingly slow. Even now, a minority of countries are democratic: roughly 60-some of the more than 200 countries registered with the UN.

The question is not whether Iraqis are capable of achieving democracy. They are. The question is whether they’re capable of achieving democracy as they are currently organized (within one state and with their current constitution) and in something less than half a century. One of the few predictions one can safely make about Iraq is that the American people will not support the loss of 1,000 lives and $100 billion a year for 30 to 100 years. Even if the Iraqis are able to cut that time in half, drawing lessons from our own experience, this ignores a flaw in Bush's logic.

Bush and his supporters fail to admit that the Iraqis are hesitant to find in our experience relevant examples of adopting democracy. It is one thing for different kinds of protestants to see how to separate church and state; it is quite another for Muslims to accept a relationship between church and state first pioneered by Protestant Christians.

Bush’s remains a blind optimism rooted in faith and not fact. The philosopher Karl Popper argued that a proposition is not scientific if it does not have the capability of being proven false. To say that democracy is God’s will or is inevitable is not a scientific assertion, as there is no way to prove or disprove this claim. By remaining in the domain of flat assertion rather than testable proposition, Bush, strangely, evades accountability and this country, sadly, evades resolution.

What is even sadder is that bloggers (e.g., All Spin Zone) are left to make these obvious points instead of a columnist like Brooks. It is as though NBA professionals have become caught up in exhibitions of dribbling expertise at half court and have left the fans to do the work of taking lay ups to the hoops. It is not that Brooks cannot see this very argument - it is that he looks away. If he and other columnists were doctors, they would be liable for malpractice.

21 July 2007

Post-Capitalist Capitalism, Crowdsourcing, & the Democratization of Media

From Wired
Gannett to Crowdsource News
Jeff Howe
12:00 PM

The publisher of "America's newspaper" is turning to America to get its news.

According to internal documents provided to Wired News and interviews with key executives, Gannett, the publisher of USA Today as well as 90 other American daily newspapers, will begin
crowdsourcing many of its newsgathering functions. Starting Friday, Gannett newsrooms were rechristened "information centers," and instead of being organized into separate metro, state or sports departments, staff will now work within one of seven desks with names like "data," "digital" and "community conversation."

The initiative emphasizes four goals: Prioritize local news over national news; publish more user-generated content; become 24-7 news operations, in which the newspapers do less and the websites do much more; and finally, use crowdsourcing methods to put readers to work as watchdogs, whistle-blowers and researchers in large, investigative features.

"This is a huge restructuring for us," said Michael Maness, the VP for strategic planning of news and one of the chief architects of the project. According to an e-mail sent Thursday to Gannett news staff by CEO Craig Dubow, the restructuring has been tested in 11 locations throughout the United States, but will be in place throughout all of Gannett's newspapers by May. "Implementing the (Information) Center quickly is essential. Our industry is changing in ways that create great opportunity for
The article makes crowdsourcing sound promising - a way to reverse the drop of 30% in readers since 1985. And it is not the only model folks are tinkering with. (An example of how the Napster model could be adapted to newspapers, for instance, is mentioned here at co-render.) To me, it sounds like one of two things: either exploitative or incomplete. It could, in fact, be both.

Resorting to crowdsourcing - turning to readers for content - is actually a great example of the need for a corporate revolution. If the readers are going to become the writers, it suggests that ownership of the newspaper ought to be democratized as well. It is one thing for publishers to make exorbitant profits when they invest millions in complex and expensive publishing machinery and professional staff. It is quite another when the expense is Internet cheap and the staff is comprised of an odd hybrid of professionals and amateurs.

We've yet to fully embrace the implications of post-capitalist ownership. Distributing the ownership of the newspaper along with the work of creating it is just one of those implications.

20 July 2007

After the Locust

Spying squirrels and terrorist badgers have descended on the Middle East.

Iranian police have arrested 14 squirrels on charges of espionage.


British forces have denied rumours that they released a plague of ferocious badgers into the Iraqi city of Basra.

I can only speculate that the beleaguered badgers, feeling unsafe in Iraq, had hired the squirrels to scout out a safer location.

[And I'm not sure what more surprises me. That I finally got to use the term "beleaguered badgers" or that both of these accounts come from actual news reports in the same week. The absurdities continue to pile up like so much snow in winter. ]

Love & Money

It seems to me that a person can make one of two mistakes regarding money and a career: choose a career simply because it pays well or choose a career in spite of the fact that it pays poorly. Perhaps a similar thing could be said about choosing romantic partners.

19 July 2007

Standing on the Corner: Gangs, Tribes, Nation-States and Other Suspicious Groups

We complain about congestion, but it's a fact that we're drawn to other people.

This draw has sophistication to it. We don't just saunter up to our fellow man, plant ourselves and stare, like an attentive Irish Setter. We socialize.

If our world is small, we socialize in families. If it is a little larger, we socialize in tribes. (In urban areas, that shows up as gangs.) Even larger and more sophisticated groups are referred to as city-states or nation-states. We cluster. We organize. We mobilize. We find a purpose within an agreed upon context, using a particular set of rules and people. We belong.

All that to point to this tidbit from Report: Gang suppression doesn't work
Anti-gang legislation and police crackdowns are failing so badly that they are strengthening the criminal organizations and making U.S. cities more dangerous, according to a report being released Wednesday.
Mass arrests, stiff prison sentences often served with other gang members and other strategies that focus on law enforcement rather than intervention actually strengthen gang ties and further marginalize angry young men, according to the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates alternatives to incarceration.

The advocate for a new approach (Condi Rice's relative Connie Rice) claims the current policy makers are "stuck on stupid." The defenders of the current approach counter by claiming that the study authors are "thug-huggers" who don't appreciate the need to deal with these criminals as criminals.

Given our instinct for assembly, it might be better to focus on using gangs rather than breaking them up. At some point a community has to look at the data and conclude that gangs are a fact of life rather than something that can be eradicated.

I wonder what might happen if we harnessed the instinct for gangs into a better kind of organization. As a student of history, it strikes me that the gangs are not much different in composition and rules of engagement from small groups that eventually channeled their violence into social order in the form of settlements. What if gangs were looked at as a natural progression in social evolution rather than aberrations? What if they were looked at as groups that should be hastened through a violent stage of development to a more formal stage of order and productivity? What if gangs are not a cancer but a new organ that needs to fully develop in order for communities to gain coherence and for individuals to feel a sense of power?

As I’ve said before, it still amazes me that there is so little interest in social evolution and development, the ontogeny and phylogeny of social groups. How we can pretend to engage in nation-building, transforming gangs, or enter into transnational trading alliances without drawing from something akin to social development and evolution baffles me.

18 July 2007

Positive Thinking

I once tried positive thinking but I knew it wouldn't work.

Confusion About Incentives & Management

You wouldn't think much of a doctor who dangled a $20 bill in front of a child with a fever and told him, "You can have this money if you'll just lower your temperature by 2 degrees." In fact, you'd know that you were dealing with a doctor who knew little about the body or medicine.

So what to make of the managers who dangle incentives in front of their people and then say, "You can have this money if you'll just increase profits by 10%." Or the school administrator who tells a principal or teacher, "You can have this money if you just increase average test scores by 10 points."

A management practitioner needs to understand system dynamics that ultimately define outcomes, just as a doctor needs to understand the physical processes that ultimately define states of health or disease.

Particularly in schools, this sensibility seems to be missing. The thought that vouchers, incentives, and ranking of schools will actually transform schools seems to me naïve, and resorting to incentives strikes me as an admission of defeat. If school administrators know what helps children to learn, they should institute this across all classrooms. If they don't know what to do, they should learn rather than admonish teachers.

If you need a clear example of how bankrupt is this approach, look at Iraq. Bush has basically been told by the American people to get things in order there. Unable to create order in Iraq, he's offered inducements to the generals. They, in turn, have ordered the Maliki government to create order. Maliki has, in turn, ordered those below him. And all the way down - from the American press and public to Bush to the Pentagon to Maliki - there is ignorance and inability. No one knows how to create order in Iraq and inducements are not going to make a difference. Not dips or rises in opinion polls, not additional troops or money (or fewer troops or money).

[The example of dangling money before a fevered child comes, if I remember correctly, from Alfie Kohn, whose delightful writing on competition and rewards will likely transform your opinion about such topics.]

17 July 2007

Progress is Boring

Progress is boring. Emotional upheaval may be dramatic, but it interferes with the stability needed for people to focus on inventions, novel writing, or creating a business. In 1700, per capita GDP in the U.S. and Mexico were roughly the same ($490 and $450). By 1800, the U.S. per capita GDP was not quite double ($807 vs. $450), but by last year, the U.S. per capita GDP was about four times Mexico's ($43,500 vs. $10,600). Why did Mexico fall behind? It may have to do with political turmoil. Between 1824 and 1867, the U.S. had 13 presidential administrations; Mexico had 52, or 4 times as many. Could it be that 4 times as much political turmoil led to one-fourth the per capita income? It certainly sounds plausible to me.

This is something that families and companies can forget. Progress depends on fairly boring and stable conditions. A child learning how to play piano can't do it in a noisy, turbulent, emotionally draining environment. Or, better put, is less likely to learn it in such conditions. Companies that get caught up in reorganizations, a string of initiatives, and lots of reassignments have a difficult time simply going about the business of producing and creating new products and services.

And speaking of creating, boredom can be conducive to creativity as well. One might argue that most acts of creativity were attempts to create one's way out of a desperate situation - a situation that often included boredom. Unconstrained, a child won't stay bored long; she'll invent a game or begin to play or find something to do.

Progress is not exciting. It is engaging.

16 July 2007

Vitter Cheers Wife’s Broken Political Promise

Apparently, the job of a politician is to make the future sound sure. Of course, the promises made to assure the constituency are bound to disappoint: the future has little regard for our expectations. We seem to have problems even predicting our own actions.

It turns out that for Senator Vitter (R. Louisiana), this is a good thing. He was not the only one to break campaign promises when a DC Madame revealed that Vitter bought "services" from her prostitutes.

Vitter ran as a social conservative, a family values man. His career in DC began when the representative for his district was revealed to have had numerous affairs. It wasn't just Vitter who was going to be different. When Vitter's wife was asked about how she'd handle a cheating husband, she made this comment:
"I'm a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary [Clinton]. If he does something like that, I'm walking away with one thing, and it's not alimony, trust me."

This week, Vitter's wife showed up at a press conference beside her husband. Neither he nor his wife mentioned whether he'd be serving as this nation's first eunuch.

14 July 2007

Bjork and Social Deconstruction

Bjork is the most intriguing artist in pop music since John Lennon.

Art is important to the construction and deconstruction of social reality. The iconic art of medieval times gave way to the art of the human in the form of Michelangelo's David and DaVinci's Mona Lisa. This art helped to loosen the hold of form on the West, bringing the individual into focus. The classical music of the Enlightenment was pre-echo, if you will, of the symphony of factories and workers in the new world of capitalism - the importance of precision and coordination in art as prelude to commerce.

Bjork is one of those rare artists for whom the manipulation of notes is secondary to the manipulation of common clichés, symbols, and culture. She plays with the elements of pop culture. Anyone who thinks that pop culture can’t change society didn’t pay attention to the impact of the 60’s.

In this video, she deconstructs the odd symbiosis between media and culture, the muse and celebrity. It's a rare bit of genius in the midst of mindless videos. Enjoy.

In Praise of Dick Cheney

Oh. Wait. I've got nothing here. Sorry.

13 July 2007

My sense of relief is, like, totally ginormous

Merriam-Webster is going to include ginormous (akin to gigantic and enormous or even bigger) in its new dictionary. Finally. I can express my true feelings without fear of violating the conventions of language.

12 July 2007

Which Comes First? Bad Morality or Bad Thinking?

George Bush still maintains that he can win Iraq. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has, at a minimum, returned to its original state.

So, this is the question about events that turn out poorly, events that have a moral dimension. Does the destruction of Iraq and the strengtening of a terrorist group reveal George's poor thinking skills or immoral behavior?

And more broadly, which better explains bad behavior? A lack of understanding of consequences or a lack of concern about consequences?

10 July 2007

Blogs Not Bullets

Ammo for the new revolution.

The End of Childhood

This month, it is over. The childhood which, for my children, began 18+ and 20+ years ago is officially over by the end of this month.

Their childhood will not be ended because I'm forcing them out into the street. It will not be ended because the state says they've suddenly reached the age of accountability. No, it will end because, quite literally, a chapter of their life is closing.

This month the latest Harry Potter book will be released. I read them the first two or three aloud - the voices fun to perform, the names easy to distort. They soon outgrew that, impatient with my slow progress, and began to devour each book within days of its release. My daughter - an adult in most ways - was incensed at, and saddened by, Dumbledore's treatment in the last installment. They have grown up with Harry.

For them, this last installment will likely signal an end of childhood. It does for me. And now truly curious bit is revealed: what does Harry Potter, and their generation, do once the series that brought them into adulthood is done?

08 July 2007

Travel - Waiting Punctuated by Movement

Flying to the midwest today. Again I'm reminded that travel is merely waiting punctuated by movement. Wait in line to check in. Wait in line for security. Wait in line to board. Wait on the plane to take off. Wait to land. Wait for luggage.

07 July 2007

My California Whine - Live Earth Excludes Us

In between laundry, a trip to the beach, and various other things, I've been watching Live Earth today. A music nerd, it was fun to learn about a variety of artists I hadn't heard before. But I have a complaint.

For one thing, the United States had two concerts - both on the East Coast. Second, artists who've been activists for decades, artists who've led the charge on issues like alternative energy, were excluded.

My kids are fifth generation Californians, so I know that I suffer from myopia, but I can't think of a state that has been a bigger stage for the development and emergence of pop rock in the last forty years. The Grateful Dead and the Eagles, Jefferson Airplane and Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Little Feat, and Bonnie Raitt are just some of the artists who came to or from California and became music stars. And all have been activists in environmental causes. Even our Republican governor has signed off on environmentally progressive legislation.

I know that Bob Dylan & the Band, the Beatles, & the Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen have done more to define modern pop rock than the above-named groups, but California is still a place of enormous importance for both the environmental movement and the music scene. Certainly more so than D.C. (one concert location today) and New York (another). If D.C. is a music center, than San Diego is a ski resort. California is not just the biggest exporter of agriculture in the U.S. - it is the biggest exporter of pop culture. LA movie and music studios produce a staggering percentage of the world's movies and music. And California has consistently led the U.S. in environmental regulation.

So why would California be ignored as a venue and a source for performers? Probably because the event was organized by Al Gore. American politicians have learned to ignore California; in the last 20 years, Republican presidential candidates have come to believe that they can't win the state and Democratic presidential candidates have come to believe that they can't lose it. The result? The most populous and richest and creative state in the U.S. - the sixth largest economy in the world - is once again ignored.

Live Earth & Social Evolution

Today, the Live Earth concert is playing out across in 9 different stadiums around the world, featuring 150 different musical artists. You can watch it online at

To me, it is just one more reminder that the story of evolution has shifted from biology to society. The amazing diversity of pop artists from Japan and Africa, from rock groups like Rize to soft ballad singers like Ai Otsuka (and that just from Japan's channel) is testament to the variety of forms that humanity takes.

As the number of species is dwindling, the ways of being human are multiplying. We are living through humanity's cultural cambric explosion, an inflection point of diversity in human culture. And perhaps no where outside of pop music have people done more to intentionally make this a game. And we all know from watching children that we learn the most when we play.

7/7/7 & The Perfect Life

The number 7 has long been associated with perfection, yet perfection has been misunderstood. When someone is called perfect in the Bible, perfect is actually better associated with complete than flawless. Confusing the two meanings can create undue stress and a distinctly un-perfect life.

When you have more than two elements in your life, you have to subordinate one thing to another. When you have a conflict between your daughter's piano recital and your client's request for a report the next day, you have to subordinate one thing to another, have to decide which is more important to you. Much of life is made up of the continued negotiation between our emotional and social needs, our physical and spiritual yearnings, and our intellectual and mental inclinations.

Deciding that the perfect life is flawless, you have to jettison parts of your humanity. It simply isn't possible to embrace and excel at all the dimensions of being human. So, you focus on becoming a marvelous piano player, a powerful politician, a rich entrepreneur. Flawless is no way to be perfect. In fact, flawless doesn't even guarantee that you'll be flawless.

Deciding that the perfect life is complete, you have to embrace the various ways of being human. You have to acknowledge that you have soul and scrotum, stomach and frontal lobes, a social life and an inner life. With such an approach, you are guaranteed to have flaws. Your life will be messy and full of mistakes. But you do have a shot at perfect with such an approach. Your life can be complete.

Happy 7/7/7. Check out the fabulous diversity of music. What a day. Strive for perfection.

05 July 2007

Is the Story of History the Story of Progress?

The philosopher John Gray is out with a new book, tantalizingly named Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. This is not a review (I've not read the book, due out today in Britain), but a comment about what he says is one of his central points.

Progress is chimerical, he says. It is delusional to think that history has a direction. This is reminiscent of the late Stephen Jay Gould's argument that complexity is not the direction of evolution.

It seems to me that both ignore a central point of evolution. Species adapt (or, in the case of social evolution, institutions and peoples adapt) to their environment. It may be true that the adaptation that will prove advantageous is random rather than teleological, but the environment to which the species is adapting is continually more complex. What this means, practically speaking, is that there is a direction in evolution - towards greater complexity.

John Gray may argue that such a direction does not constitute progress, but it would be hard to imagine a scenario in which species (or institutions and processes and cultural norms) didn't become more intricate, more complex, and more able. To my simple mind, that's close enough to progress.

Transformers - Box Office Smash & Sign of a New Reality

Toys matter. The little girls who first played with Barbie dolls became the first generation to finance the cosmetic surgery industry. The little boys who first read Buck Rogers's comic books became the first generation to finance Star Wars missile defense programs.

So what can we learn from the success of Transformers at the Box office?

Michael Bay’s giant freakin robots movie debuted with a massive $27.4 million on Tuesday, making it the biggest ever take ever brought in by any movie on a Tuesday. You might think the competition isn’t very fierce there, since Tuesday’s aren’t exactly prime movie going time, but the previous champ was Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest with a very distant $15 million.

There are a variety of lessons to be drawn from this. One, the generation that first played with Transformers are now old enough to drive to theaters. Two, nostalgia is a huge draw (how long before someone puts out a Captain Crunch movie, ala Pirates of the Caribbean?). But there is also a prediction in here.

Transformer toys were very clever. A car becomes a monster - a plane becomes a monster - a vending machine becomes a monster. Okay, they weren't so very clever because everything unfolded into a monster. But the concept was clever - something that could be one thing until it was folded into another thing.

Kids who grow up playing with Transformers are less likely to take the form as fixed. This generation is unlikely to see the school as a place for learning only and not a place for fun or work. They are less likely to accept a work place as a static place where only work can be done and no play or learning is expected. This is a generation unlikely to conform to institutional norms, expecting these institutions to transform instead.

Toys become the building blocks of social invention, the stepping stones of social evolution.

[I first heard Russell Ackoff make the point that with our analytical world model, we've set up very distinct places for work, play, and learning. Schools are places for learning but not fun or work, for instance.]

04 July 2007

Compare & Contrast: Cheney and Skateboarders

Compare and contrast how this country handles those who snub their noses at the law. In exhibit A, we have kids who ignore the law about skateboarding. You can see in this video the violent reaction of cops. In exhibit B, we have Cheney who ignores the laws about transparency in the conduct of his office. You see in this editorial the capitulation to his unreasonable defiance.

Exhibit A (thanks to Thomas):

Exhibit B:
Has he gone too far?
[Taken in its entirety from The Week]

Dick Cheney has his own special way of dealing with the rules that apply to everyone else, said USA Today in an editorial. “He just ignores them.” In just the latest example of a long series of “arrogant” decisions, Cheney is refusing to obey President Bush’s Executive Order 12958, which compels White House personnel to regularly inform the National Archives about material they’ve classified. Newly released documents show that Cheney’s office is claiming that he’s not an “entity within the executive branch” and so is not governed by Bush’s order. Since the vice president also serves as president of the Senate, Cheney argues, he belongs to neither the executive branch nor the legislative—and thus is not bound by the rules of either.

Even for our famously secretive vice president, said Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, this is a breathtaking, “new level of gall.” Not only is he saying he’s above the law, but that he functions on “his own dark planet—a separate entity from the White House.” The man is beyond parody, said Aziz Huq in The Nation. To keep the public from knowing what he’s doing behind the scenes, Cheney has made “extravagantly petty claims of secrecy.” Claiming executive privilege, he’s refused to let Congress or the public know what energy-industry and Christian right figures he’s met with in shaping the administration’s policies. Then, when the federal Information Security Oversight Office tried to get him to obey Executive Order 12958, he tried to abolish that agency. “If it weren’t so frightening, the irony would be delicious.”

There’s a method to Cheney’s madness, said Barton Gellman and Jo Becker in The Washington Post. By remaining completely behind the scenes while exerting enormous influence over President Bush, Cheney has made himself the most powerful vice president in history. It was Cheney who decided that the Geneva Conventions should not apply to captured terrorists, instituted interrogation tactics that many consider torture, and insisted that the administration could monitor phone calls and e-mails without warrants. Yet for all the policy that flows across his desk, “almost nothing flows out.” Cheney won’t reveal the size, much less the names, of his staff. Cheney also stamps everyday documents Treated As: Top Secret/SCI and locks most of his paperwork in “man-size Mosler safes.”

Cheney is probably the only politician in Washington who doesn’t give a damn what people think of him, said Jonah Goldberg in National Review Online. Unlike most people, “I love that.” He doesn’t pander to the press or the public; he simply does what he thinks is right. But as one of the few Cheney fans left, even I think he’s gone overboard. His argument that he’s not part of the executive branch is “goofy on its face,” and only makes a wounded White House look even worse. Cheney may not care that “millions of Americans think he’s a comic-book villain,” but his unpopularity is now dragging the entire administration down.

Many other Republicans have come to the same conclusion, said Sally Quinn, also in The Washington Post. They see Cheney as so “toxic” that they are whispering about begging Bush to replace him with a more palatable No. 2—someone like Fred Thompson. It’ll never happen, said Michael Currie Schaffer in The New Republic. First of all, Bush would never cut him loose. Second, the beauty of Cheney’s extravagant refusal to abide by any rules is that, on one level at least, it works. Cheney’s crazy, everybody says. So what else is new? After a few days or weeks, the furor dies down, and Cheney goes on making his own rules—unembarrassed and unrepentant.

Independence Day - Barzun on Freedom

“The very point of emancipation … is not to give power to those who have earned the right to it, but to lift the helpless to a level where they are free to learn how to use the right.
“Those who oppose freedom argue that as illiterates, as slaves, as children, they cannot manage the household, which is true though illiberal. The political history of the West has been a running battle between the ‘realistic’ deniers of one freedom after another and the generous ones who gambled on another truth, that capacity is native to all and depends only on fair conditions for its development. ”

Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (New York: HarperCollins, 2000) 534.

Happy Independence Day.

02 July 2007

Ben Franklin's Dark Prophecy

"I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such: because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of government but what may be a Blessing to People if well-administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other."
- Benjamin Franklin's review of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 (from Gore Vidal's Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson).

A friend of mine came from Iran shortly after the revolution that catapulted the Ayatollah Khomeini into power. I asked him what was most remarkable about the transition from Iran to the U.S. He said, "All the things that are being taken away. Liberty. Freedom. Privacy. Refusal to torture. In Iran, they used religion to intimidate and to support law."

Perhaps Ben Franklin was right that we will simply become too corrupt to maintain a great government. But for me this kind of thing is so unnecessary. There are a lot of problems we haven't yet solved. For instance, how to create a thriving economy without creating lots of green house gases. Or how to ensure a sense of meaning to employees and citizens within large companies or countries. But the problems of individual liberties, of keeping religion out of government, of privacy - these are problems that we've solved. It is the worst kind of idiocy to turn our backs on those already provided solutions and retreat from progress.

It's Impossible to Prove a Negative

Liebermann, like the Republican candidates for president, is still arguing that the troop surge in Iraq needs to be given a chance. He and his peers are singing the same song they sang before the invasion.

Just as the neocons agitating for the invasion of Iraq knew that Saddam could never prove that he did NOT have WMDs, Lieberman has to realize that no one can ever prove that if troops were allowed to stay in Iraq just three more months they would NOT gain a victory.

And in this we have the slow bleed of a strategy that, once it is stopped, has to be deemed a failure. Until it is stopped, it can be labeled a build up to success. For this reason, Liebermann and other Bush supporters will never see conditions that suggest a troop withdrawal.