Monday, April 30, 2007

Things are Never Black and White

I just corrected a typo on last Thursday's "The Technician Versus the Venture Capitalist" post. I meant to say that the argument in that post was not an attempt to reduce the debate between Vinod Khosla and Hermann Scheer "to a four-legs-good-two-legs-bad situation, pitting 'two-legged' business decisions against 'four-legged' public policy." Last night, Guy Dinmore, of the Financial Times, filed a story in which the interests of the shareholders seemed to be aligning themselves with public sentiment over a particularly ugly policy decision. Here is Dinmore's lead:

Warren Buffett is known for hanging on to profitable stocks long term. This week, however, at the annual general meeting of his Berkshire Hathaway company, the “sage of Omaha” will hear an unusual case from shareholders who want him to sell his huge holdings in a well-performing Chinese oil company – to help stop the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region.

I am particularly struck by the timing of this story, since my Saturday post had included the following quotation from French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal:

I'm today holding out my hand ... to all those who think that human values must always prevail over financial and market values.

Those of us who cannot afford to become Berkshire Hathaway investors, can enjoy a certainly level of irony in this little narrative of opposition between human values and financial values. After all, people invest in Berkshire Hathaway because they attach high value to Buffett's judgment and skill for making them a lot of money; but, in this particular case they seem to have acquired a distaste for what may be "blood money." This all harkens back to that little "prose poem" about self-execution from my youth.

Fortunately, I do not have to take sides on this matter. If Buffett chooses to exercise judgment that places financial values over human values, then that is his business, in the strictest definition of that word. Shareholders who do not like that priority can always "vote" by selling their shares. I am not convinced that a shareholders' meeting is the right place for a debate over moral questions. On the other hand, the world being what there is, I am not sure that there is a right place for such a debate; and , after all, a shareholders' meeting is supposed to allot some time for the "voice" of the shareholders. So I suppose I am glad that, at least in this particular case, this particular "voice" will be heard, if not because it will sway Buffett's own strategies then because it is an opinion that will be reported to fund managers around the world, each of whom can then make of that news what they will. It will also be reported to investors around the world, and they, too, can make their own decisions about their own investments.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Google Fails to Learn (again?)

It is not yet a month since the story broke over Google's use of pre-Katrina images in Google Maps and Google Earth. One would have thought that this incident had raised enough flack to teach Google a good lesson in the consequences that come from being too casual about their responsibility as an information provider. However, a Reuters story this morning seems to indicate that this is not the case and the Google's negligence has now scaled up from domestic embarrassment to an international controversy. (At least Google maintains its reputation for thinking big!)

The Reuters lead says it all:

The Chilean government wants Google to fix its Earth geographical search program that places a village named after Chilean independence hero Bernardo O'Higgins in Argentina.

The satellite image shows Villa O'Higgins, a tiny hamlet 1,000 miles south of the Chilean capital, Santiago, on the Argentine side of the border.

I had not realized the potential consequences of this error until, in a later paragraph, I learned something I had not previously known:

The two countries nearly went to war in the late 1970s over ownership of remote islands in the south. The dispute was resolved with the intervention of the Pope.

My guess is that no one at Google knew how sensitive this border issue was either, which makes me feel a little bit better! Once again, however, Google was out there with an official spokesperson, this time Megan Quinn. Unfortunately, her message was not that different from the Katrina patch-up:

We have received the request and are working with our partners to get more precise data for the region.

The operative word in that sentence is "partners." Google is quite happy to build the reputation of being the provider of all the world's knowledge, but it does not seem to have decided where the buck of responsibility for quality control should stop. Sadly, the current state of their revenue flow is unlikely to make them very conducive to learning. Would it help if, after his planned visit to the United Nations, the Pope extended his itinerary to include a stop in Mountain View?

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Third Candidate at the Runoff

Even though I shall not be voting in it, I must confess that I am thoroughly fascinated by what is happening in the French presidential election. I think a lot of my interest has to do with the far broader spectrum of choice that was available during the first round, even if I could not resist the urge to poke fun at some of the choices on the left. However, now that the field has been cleared to only two candidates, what particularly impresses me is that the centrist François Bayrou is still in the spotlight, even though his first-round numbers were substantially behind those of the leading candidates. Election watchers with far more expertise than my own were giving serious consideration to the prospect that Bayrou could eliminate either Royal or Sarkozy, just as Le Pen had eliminated Jospin in the last election. Personally, I am just as glad that this did not happen, since, by all rights, the distinguishing features between the two candidates are much clearer. However, both candidates now seem to be pinning their strategies on going after those who voted for Bayrou, while Bayrou is doing his best not to exert his own influence over those voters.

It is hard to tell what the deciding factors will be when the runoff election takes place; but it is beginning to appear that many voters will be swayed by which candidate is less annoying, if not downright alienating. Before the election was announced, Sarkozy was already building up a track record of provocation, often by disparaging sectors of the electorate by questioning whether or not they were "really French" (my words, not his, in the interest of full disclosure). Since, whether I like it or not, I carry with me a "cultural memory" of Jews who were subjection to questioning over whether they were "really German" (or "really Austrian" or "really Polish"), this kind of tactic gets to me at a gut level. Sarkozy must have realized that enough voters who really mattered would have similar gut reactions; so much of his "performance" (What else can we call it?) leading up to the runoff involved a "presentation of self" that was more moderate. This left me wondering whether any particular turn of events might knock down this facade and remind the electorate of the more provocative Sarkozy; and, of course, there was the question that, if such events would come to pass, would they have been activated by Royal, or, for that matter, Bayrou?

Reading the latest wire reports, it looks like such events have occurred; and they may have been due to both Royal and Bayrou? Royal seems to have decided that, if her objective is to win over Bayrou's voters, then the best way in which she could present herself to them in a persuasive manner would be in a debate with Bayrou, rather than Sarkozy. Such a debate was planned and scheduled for broadcast tonight on CanalPlus (a cable network that is becoming almost as much a household word as HBO or Turner Broadcasting). However, CanalPlus cancelled their plan on Thursday, claiming that it would violate their equal-time policy; and the debate will be covered by a smaller satellite channel.

As we can read in the Al Jazeera English account, this is where things began to get interesting:

Bayrou said the conservative leader from the UMP party [Sarkozy] had used his media contacts to try to stop him from holding a televised debate with the socialist hopeful.

Sarkozy called the accusations insulting and his campaign director, Claude Gueant said Bayrou was using "Stalinist" tactics.

"It's slander, a slanderous insinuation," he said.

This summary then received further elaboration, which also makes for good reading:

Bayrou has campaigned against Sarkozy's links to big business and media groups, notably the TF1 station owned by Martin Bouygues, a close friend of Sarkozy, who runs the media, construction and telecommunications conglomerate Bouygues.

Royal said: "I think all the pressure that has taken place, notably within a media-financial system to which Nicolas Sarkozy is very linked, have no reason to exist in a democratic country where freedom of speech and debate is very important."

"I'm today holding out my hand ... to all those who think that human values must always prevail over financial and market values," she told supporters at a rally in Lyon.

Sarkozy vehemently denied any involvement in CanalPlus deciding not to air the debate and accused Royal and Bayrou of trying to stage the "Moscow trials", in reference to the show trials of Stalin's political opponents in the 1930s.

"No one is under control, no one is putting pressure," Sarkozy said during a campaign swing in the central French town of Puy Guillaume.

"If renewing politics means staging Moscow trials like this one, this is not renewal," said Sarkozy, the 52-year-old candidate of the governing party.

So it would seem that both Bayrou and Royal may have had a hand in releasing that kraken that lurks within Sarkozy, leading the French voters to question his intimations of moderate conduct, if not his policies. If this was a "cunning plan," then it was well executed, although we shall not know how effective it was until the runoff takes place. One thing I know, however, is that, even though I cannot vote, Royal has finally won my sympathies, given how much of my own writing is about the need for human values to "prevail over financial and market values!"

Friday, April 27, 2007

Leveraging What Works

The thing that most impressed me about General David Petraeus was that, on his first tour of duty, he seemed to have a very good sense of what did and did not work coupled with an action plan for using the things that did work to his advantage. When he received his new appointment, I wondered whether or not he would continue to exercise this skill. Reporting for Reuters, Yara Bayoumy has identified at least one situation, in the Anbar province, where Petraeus is doing just that:

At a news conference in Washington on Thursday, the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, hailed Abu Risha and other Sunni tribal leaders.

He said the Sunni Arab tribes were "helping transform Anbar province and other areas from being assessed as lost as little as six months ago to being relatively heartening".

So what is it that Petraeus found at the Sunni tribal level that "worked" will enough to be incorporated into his own strategy? Here is Bayoumy's lead:

A year ago, Iraq's Anbar was the most dangerous province for U.S. troops. Al Qaeda had dug in across the vast desert region. Iraqis were afraid to leave their homes in the local capital Ramadi, where insurgents held sway.

Then last summer Sunni tribal leader Sheikh Abdulsattar Abu Risha gathered his fellow tribal chiefs together and created a police force to try to restore security.

Under the umbrella of the Anbar Salvation Council, Abu Risha says his initiative is showing early signs of success, with recruitment putting some 20,000 police on the streets of the Sunni-dominated province.

"The situation (in Anbar) was unbearable before, people were tortured, shot dead, bodies littered the streets. We couldn't even leave our homes to bury the dead," Abu Risha told Reuters from Ramadi by a crackly satellite phone.

Abu Risha's initiative -- partly in response to Sunni Islamist al Qaeda's indiscriminate killing of civilians in Anbar -- has revived 15 large police stations that now come under the control of the provincial police chief.

Now, while car bombings still plague Anbar, and especially Ramadi, their number has fallen, U.S. military officials said.

And for the first time in three years, U.S. military deaths in the insurgent stronghold stretching across western Iraq number fewer than in Baghdad, where a new security crackdown began in February with additional troops.

This is definitely a "good news" story; but, more importantly, it is a story about a solution that was conceived and implemented at a tribal level. Not only that, the story is about a Sunni tribe that refused to have anything to do with the practices of another Sunni-based organization, al Qaeda. We are so obsessed with the primacy of the concept of "nation," whether in our own world-view of government or the world-view at the core of the United Nations, that we find it hard to conceive of any governance structure grounded on any other concept. T. E. Lawrence was probably able to conceive of such governance but had no skill in trying to convince his own country, which was both nation-bound and empire-bound. This is not to promote Petraeus as a latter-day Lawrence or as a "wise man" of political theory. Petraeus just believes in leveraging anything that works. If his superiors allow him to continue with this strategy, he may be our best hope for getting out of the mess we have made for ourselves.

On the Logic of the "System"

I have never expected to make any money off of blogging. Presented with the prospect of signing up with AdSense, I basically applied chicken-soup-logic: I could not see any reason why it could hurt. I have had a bit of exposure to processes like keyword auctions, so I was kind of curious as to what the system would do with me. These days I am trying to engage my text analysis skills to figure out why the ad I keep seeing on my home page is a link to! My working hypothesis is that this is driven by my tag list, which happens to have entries like "discrimination" and "intolerance." I like this. I feel it is important to bring acts of discrimination and intolerance to light, lest we delude ourselves into thinking that they are things of the past; and, as a result, I am likely to be sympathetic to any organization that has decided to bid on either of those keywords!

Another Award for Neoconservative Chutzpah

Condi already has her Chutzpah of the Week award, so the timing seems right for Paul Wolfowitz to get his. Think of all they have in common, from their prestigious academic credentials to a preternatural disposition for aggression in the face of adversity. In this case the context can be found in Steven Weisman's current "review of the bidding" in Wolfowitz' conflict with the World Bank over whether he should keep his job. Weisman's lead paragraphs illustrate the delicacy and tact that the Bank, as an institution, has tried to bring to bear on what must be such an unpleasant situation:

Paul D. Wolfowitz’s struggle to hold on to his job as World Bank president suffered a major setback on Thursday when more than 40 members of the organization’s anticorruption team, formed to promote transparent government and closely identified with Mr. Wolfowitz, declared that the controversy over his conduct was undermining their work.

Without directly calling for his resignation or removal, the team said that Mr. Wolfowitz and the bank’s board needed to take “clear and decisive actions to resolve this crisis,” which it said was undermining the bank’s “credibility and authority to engage” on the corruption issue.

“The credibility of our front-line staff is eroding in the face of legitimate questions from our clients about the bank’s ability to practice what it preaches on governance,” the statement said. “In these circumstances, we cannot credibly implement the GAC strategy,” using the acronym for governance and anticorruption.

So how has Wolfowitz reacted? We learn this by progressing further into Weisman's article:

Mr. Wolfowitz, who has steadily lost support in recent weeks at the bank and in finance ministries around the world, had asked Wednesday to appear before the board next week. He conveyed that request in a letter charging that the board had treated him “shabbily and unfairly” by not giving him enough time to make his case.

Having read several other accounts of this affair, I am willing to stick my neck out and say that Weisman did a pretty good job of keeping bias out of his lead paragraphs, leading us to wonder just how it is that the Bank board has been unfair, let alone shabby, to Wolfowitz. Having enough time seems like a pretty shallow argument, given how long this pot has been boiling. Perhaps Wolfowitz needs the time because he assumed that the controversy would just run out of steam; but to now accuse his accusers of unfair and shabby treatment in the wake of his own failure to recognize the need to prepare a defense makes for a good working definition of chutzpah!

We are Known by the Company we Keep

Amnesty International has released its annual report on global death penalty statistics. This got brief coverage on BBC World Service Radio, but the best place to see the numbers is at Al Jazeera English. Here are the most important statistics:

Amnesty International reported 1,591 executions last year.

It said 91 per cent of all known executions took place in six countries.

- China: More than 1,000 executions reported but actual figures could be as high as 8,000.
- Iran: 177 people at least, doubling the number in 2005.
- Pakistan: 82
- Iraq: 65, including at least two women - death penalty reinstated in 2004 to combat violence.
- Sudan: 65, chief among six African countries that carried out executions in 2006.
- United States: 53 people in 12 states, the only country in the Americas to have carried out any executions since 2003.

I find this particularly interesting in light of our efforts to be seen as the exporter of democracy to the rest of the world. Sadly, our value system is determined less by what we say than by what we do and, apparently, by the company we keep in doing it.

Jack Valenti's Last Take

Rostropovich was not the only subject of a BBC obituary this morning. There was also the report of Jack Valenti's death last night. Those of us who saw the documentary This Film is not yet Rated or have investigated the business side of Hollywood through other lenses are most likely to associate Valenti with the introduction of the rating system employed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). This has turned out to be the closest any American procedure has come to the workings of the old Star Chamber system; so, if we are to remember Rostropovich for championing the principle of freedom of expression beyond the bounds of music, Valenti may best be remembered as an anti-Rostropovich. This provides a light under which we can examine the final paragraphs his BBC obituary:

Valenti once said that the 1966 film A Man For All Seasons was his favourite movie.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world, because I spent my entire public working career in two of life's classic fascinations, politics and Hollywood," he said.

"You can't beat that."

While "classic" is the sort of hyperbole we have come to associate with the entertainment industry, Valenti's sentence cleverly overlooks the fact that the common fascination behind politics and Hollywood is the extent to which all of their operations revolve around resolving questions of who gets to manipulate whom. As I recall, Dante had a particular beef with those occupied with manipulation (Machiavelli was, after all, his contemporary); and, since much of the Divine Comedy was his personal exercise in retribution, one can imagine Dante assigning Valenti to some circle in which he will be subject to the kinds of manipulations he dished out for all eternity! Thomas More was, of course, another skilled manipulator while his head was on his shoulders. I do not know if he invented the literary form of biography-as-propaganda; but he is certainly responsible for one of the best examples. His portrayal of Richard III as one of England's darkest villains, basically as a way to legitimize Tudor rule, has been so immortalized by Shakespeare that no one cares very much any more about any of its inaccuracies! More was just the sort of person Valenti would want on his staff!

Remembering Rostropovich

I first heard the news of Rostropovich's death on my XM BBC feed, so I made it a point to check out the story on the Web site. My one opportunity to hear Rostropovich in concert was at a recital he gave in Singapore. I was particularly delighted that he included the cello version of Schnittke's "Suite in the Old Style." On the surface this appears as sentimental nostalgia, and I suspect that it is still heard that way by most audiences everywhere. However, Schnittke had a sarcastic streak in his nostalgia that Rostropovich handled with politic delicacy, making it clear only to those who knew how to hear it. Programming an anti-authoritarian like Schnittke in Singapore involved a certain amount of risk, but the risk was a subtle one that Rostropovich handled with aplomb.

The BBC announcer tried to portray Rostropovich as an artist who preferred to avoid politics but could not always do so. Find this hard to believe on the basis of his own reflection of the letter he wrote to Pravda in support of Solzhenitsyn back in 1970:

The best step was not found in music, but in one page of this letter. Since that moment my conscience was clean and clear.

I think it would be fairer to say that Rostropovich was strongly political without being blatant about it. That was the spirit in which he introduced Singapore to Schnittke.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bill O'Reilly Takes on Semantics

I try my best to avoid Bill O'Reilly. I figure that if the blogosphere can let me do my thing, then Fox Network can let him do his. Nevertheless, I was intrigued that Rolling Stone's National Affairs Daily blog should post a YouTube clip under the headline, "Bill v. Bill: See O'Reilly's Attempt to Smear a Real Reporter." Now, for all my appreciation of much of what Rolling Stone reports (a far stronger feeling than my desire to avoid O'Reilly), I have to confess to blog editor Tim Dickinson that the language of a barker for a carnival side show leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. Then I confess that I was still curious enough to watch the video!

I think it is fair to say that every accusation that O'Reilly made did not hold up under scrutiny. I say this on the basis of the fact that O'Reilly was explicit about his evidence, playing what he felt were the relevant excerpts from an interview that Moyers gave to Rolling Stone. Moyers was very careful with his language, deliberately speaking in terms of categories to avoid being attacked on instances. Thus, it would be fair to say that all grounds for O'Reilly's attacks were products of O'Reilly's own reading of the text; and he would probably be hard pressed to find others to validate his particular reading.

Nevertheless, O'Reilly chose to do just that, bringing Marvin Kalb on to comment on the whole affair, entirely on the basis of what had just been aired. Kalb, of course, is no stranger to the skills of critical reading; and, like Moyers, he is very careful in the language he uses. So, Kalb did not explicitly call O'Reilly out on the holes in his reading but proceeded, instead, to start to tease out some of the subtleties in the language being used. This was too much for O'Reilly, who cut Kalb off with the sentence, "I'm not going to argue semantics; you came here for journalism."

As they say, give a man enough rope and he will hang himself, perhaps even before your very eyes. O'Reilly's single sentence at the very least carried the connotation that semantics has no place in the business of journalism, leaving those of us old-fashioned enough to view journalism as a form of communication (with all the contingent implications about both semantics and rhetoric) to wonder if O'Reilly might have been citing a Fox policy statement. Now, having done more than a little international travel, I know that, like CNN, Fox now provides news and comment to an international, rather than just domestic, audience. If this is a statement of what Fox thinks about semantics, then I should not be so surprised that we are now living in that world without reflection!

More about Rhetoric in Music

The idea that we should be able to take a rhetorical stance in responding to a musical performance continues to fascinate me. My initial position was that rhetoric is all about suasion, so the role of rhetoric in music is one of convincing the audience to pay attention. However, if we wish to draw analogies between musical performances and spoken utterances, then it may be necessary to draw distinctions between (at least) two separate categories in the domain of utterances:

  1. Utterances of oratory
  2. Utterances of conversation

The first category is the one I had in mind when I proposed my argument based on suasion; and, indeed, this is the context in which most principles of rhetoric have been framed. However, I believe there are many settings in which it may make better more sense to think of those of us sitting in the audience of a musical performance as eavesdropping on a conversation. Much of what we experience at the opera falls in this category; and, in that respect, there is a lot to be gained in examining how the best composers of opera, such as Mozart, have managed to anticipate the insights of far more recent analytical work in conversation theory by social theorists such as Erving Goffman. However, in the world of music we do not need singers (or, for that matter, speakers) to have a conversation. When I wrote about the Artemis Quartet, I wrote about the "dramatic crutch" I used to engage when trying to "make sense" of Schoenberg's first string quartet and the way in which the Artemis relieved me of the need for that crutch. The fact is, however, that much is to be gained by listening to the voices of any contrapuntal composition as if they were voices of a conversation, even if the conversation does not necessarily have a well-defined "topic." (The validity of such a stance can be seen in the work of playwrights, such as Samuel Beckett, who have turned the proposition on its head, assigning texts to their characters that are driven more by musical than by dramatic motives.) Furthermore, such conversations are not restricted to the scale of chamber music. Once again, we can turn (as I recently did) to Mozart and the extent to which the conceptions of his concertos, particularly those for piano, are so conversational in nature. Of course not all music is, by nature, contrapuntal; and, in the case of Bach's sacred music, which for voice or strictly instrumental, contrapuntal techniques may be engaged for oratorical purposes. Nevertheless, there is probably value in accepting the fact that we, as audiences, are frequently eavesdroppers and that our understanding of this role may help us to be better listeners.

Is Condi Still Fighting the Cold War?

The American press has not been paying very much attention to our plans to build a "missile shield" in Europe, not to mention Vladimir Putin's resistance to those plans; but this is a major story for the European press, given that their own backyard is at stake. Our own "party line" has been nicely summarized in the latest SPIEGEL ONLINE report:

The US claims that the planned missile shield is intended to protect the US and its European allies from a ballistic missile attack from a so-called "rogue" state such as Iran.

Putin, on the other hand, just used his annual speech to the Russian parliament (both houses, just like our own State of the Union address) to state his resistance in no uncertain terms:

The rhetoric heated up Thursday as Putin, in his annual speech to both houses of parliament, said he was suspending Russia's obligations under the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, in response to the US missile shield plans. He said the NATO signatories to the treaty were not respecting it, and criticized US plans to locate elements of the anti-missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, saying they create "real dangers and possibly unpleasant surprises."

Is poor Europe caught in the middle of an attempt to revive the Cold War? Is Putin right to be suspicious of the American "party line?" Certainly, if he watches Bill Maher (does HBO now serve Russia?), he is unlikely to believe anything our government says or, for that matter, anything he reads or hears through American mass media! On the other hand he would probably pay attention to what Condoleeza Rice told reporters prior to her meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a NATO-Russia meeting in Oslo:

The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in Eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic deterrent is purely ludicrous and everybody knows it.

Excuse me? Did she really use the adjective "Soviet?" Does she view today's Russia as a "front" for a Soviet Union that is still lurking somewhere in the culture of the Kremlin and is still engaged in a Cold War with the United States? Whatever one may think about Freud, this was a very revealing slip of the tongue and hardly the sort of thing that should come to the attention of a Russian leader who probably still has very strong roots in the Cold War! It is chilling to think that one adjective could turn history back some twenty years, and I sure hope that the State Department realizes that some form of damage control is now in order. (Since the meeting with Lavrov has a two-day agenda, there will certainly be plenty of opportunities for damage control.)

When Reagan made his little joke about bombing the Soviet Union, it was a thoughtless act of mouthing off without knowing that a microphone was live. Condi knew her microphone was live; and, worse yet, she knew she was speaking to reporters. So what was she thinking?

The Technician Versus the Venture Capitalist

I continue to worry about the blinders that cultures wear that inhibit just about any chance of their communicating with other cultures, even in the face of the persuasive arguments set forth by the likes of Isaiah Berlin, Anthony Appiah, and Jürgen Habermas. These blinders inhibit conversation on just about any topic, even those of critical global importance. One of the most important topics right now is the climate crisis. Yet, whatever Habermas may tell us about the need for enlightened understanding, it would appear that heated disputation occupies most of the spotlight.

The "heat," of course, comes from what I have called "'points of friction' across social boundaries;" and those points of friction constitute a fact of life in the social world. In fact, as Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing argued, in her appropriately-titled book, Friction, they can be a source of innovation as readily as a source of conflict. What will result from the friction can rarely be predicted, but often it helps to have a better understanding of those points that are actually bumping into each other.

On February 15 Pacific Gas and Electric, along with the MIT Club of Northern California, organized a forum on the topic of solar technology. This forum turned into a prime example of heated disputation; and, unfortunately, when we start to tease out the "story behind the story," we discover that this particular source of friction is unlikely to turn into a source of innovation. The specific points of friction that bumped into each other were Vinod Khosla, who can probably be described fairly as one of the most influential venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, and Hermann Scheer, whose early resume presents a background of qualifications for dealing with both technical and social issues:

Born in 1944, Hermann Scheer graduated from highschool in 1964. He attended the Officers School of the German Federal Army from 1964 to 1966, serving as lieutenant during 1966-67. Hermann studied economics, sociology, political science and public law between 1967 and 1972 at the University of Heidelberg and the Free University of Berlin. He received his PhD in Economic and Social Science in 1972. Dr Scheer was appointed Assistant Professor at the Technical University of Stuttgart in the Faculty of Economics, 1972-76. He worked as system analysts at the German Nuclear Research Center from 1976-1980.

To understand the origins of the friction, we should first recognize that any event sponsored by Pacific Gas and Electric will have, as its first priority, the business of energy. To warp my recently-cited Mencken adage, no one ever rose through the ranks of an energy company by obsessing over the consequences of a clearly sound business decision. (When the energy companies put out those advertisements that try to convince you otherwise by showing really cool nature footage, it helps to remember another adage: Whenever anyone says, "It's not about the money;" you know it's about the money!) So, when we read about what happened at this forum, we should put aside anything Al Gore may be trying to tell us about the future of the planet and recognize that this was a discussion about making good business decisions.

In that context Khosla, with his reputation for making some of the best business decisions in the history of Silicon Valley, was perfect for the forum. The fly in the ointment was Scheer, whose combination of technical and social expertise has earned him a seat in the German parliament, where he now feels more beholden to the German public than to any business institution. Thus, the heated dispute that ensued was not so much about energy policy as it was about the classic question of whether an enterprise is more accountable to its customers than it is to its shareholders, with Scheer serving as advocate for the customer and Khosla assuming the role of "shareholder par excellence."

The good news is that the debate has spilled over from verbal exchanges to text; and CNET has provided a "venue" for the resulting texts. Khosla provided his position statement last week. His rhetorical strategy was to frame the argument as one between environmentalists and pragmatists. Personally, I think this put him in a weak position, since everything else he said then begged the question, "Pragmatic for whom?" After all, this would not have been the first time in history where what was pragmatic for the shareholders was not at all pragmatic (and perhaps even damaging) to the customers! This forced Scheer into the position of defending his own pragmatism from the customers' point of view, and that is basically what he did in responding to Khosla this morning.

Since, in this particular situation, I feel I am more of a customer (of Pacific Gas and Electric, mind you) than a shareholder (since I have no direct investment in any energy company but I know that the energy sector is covered in many of the funds whose shares I hold), my sympathies tend towards Scheer's arguments. Nevertheless, I fear that Scheer has not really grasped that the playing field for this argument is not one of "technology facts." Scheer can throw as many of those facts as he likes a Khosla, and he can even back many of them up with sound economic figures. However, he never really recognizes that these are not necessarily the criteria for making those good business decisions; so I doubt that he will score any significant points against Khosla. The real problem, however, is, as I observed above, that, while their differing contextual assumptions could complement each other in innovative ways, both parties are so intensely invested in their own contexts that this is unlikely to happen.

I would like to conclude by not trying to reduce this to a four-legs-good-two-legs-bad situation, pitting "two-legged" business decisions against "four-legged" public policy. I am a firm believer that sensible business decisions played a strong role in breaking the oppressions of apartheid in South Africa at the end of the Eighties. I am more concerned with that metaphor of cultural blinders that I invoked at the start of this post. Yes, the interests of the general public are in opposition to the interests of the shareholders; but, if that opposition is now cutting off any possibility of conversation, then we are in really deep yogurt. Furthermore, if the climate continues to change the way many of the models are predicting, a large number of us, shareholders included, may soon find ourselves in very deep water!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Beyond the Brotherhood of Mourning

In his latest blog post for The Nation, Tom Engelhardt has tried to put the mass killings at Virginia Tech in the perspective of two attacks of Mustansiriya University in Baghdad that took place this past January and February. Here is the way he summarizes his comparison:

In terms of body count, those two mass slaughters added up to more than three Virginia Techs; and, on each of those days, countless other Iraqis died including, on the January date, at least thirteen in a blast involving a motorcycle-bomb and then a suicide car-bomber at a used motorcycle market in the Iraqi capital. Needless to say, these stories passed in a flash on our TV news and, in our newspapers, were generally simply incorporated into run-of-bad-news-and-destruction summary pieces from Iraq the following day. No rites, no ceremonies, no special presidential statements, no Mustansiriya T-shirts. No attempt to psychoanalyze the probably young Sunni jihadis who carried out these mad acts, mainly against young Shiite students. No healing ceremonies, no offers to fly in psychological counselors for the traumatized students of Mustansiriya University or the daily traumatized inhabitants of Baghdad -- those who haven't died or fled.

He then proceeded to an analysis of the hypothesis that, rather than cultivating a "brotherhood of mourning" (one of the themes I explored), Virginia Tech had been turned into a distraction from what has been going on in Iraq (without trying to play any sort of numbers game as to which was worse). While he made some good points and cited some good sources, I have two alternative reactions.

One I have already explored. It is that, while Engelhardt may be correct, his vision is too narrow. The Bush administration is concerned not only with Iraq but with that broader vision of foreign policy that got us into Iraq in the first place. This was most blatant in Bush's speech during his visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where he tried to turn the memory of the Holocaust into an opportunity to float his vision for dealing with Sudan. The underlying narrative is a familiar one: A major crisis shakes up the general public at an intensely visceral level. The general reaction is that something needs to be done, without necessarily reflecting on the question, "Done about what?" This reaction reveals a public at its most vulnerable; and vulnerability means receptivity to new ideas, whether or not those ideas really pertain to the crisis at hand. When you think about it, it was really quite a cunning plan (more cunning than anything Baldrick ever devised)! It was a useful reminder that, while the Democrats landed some good punches in the last election, the neoconservatives still have a lot of fight left in them.

My other reaction is more sensitive. If Giuliani decided to advance his own political purposes by trying to compare Blacksburg to both Oklahoma City and 9/11, I have to reflect back on Columbine, not so much on the mass killings themselves but on the immediate public reaction. The footage of the Columbine adults shot soon after the shootings there is now a distant memory, but I shall never forget how much of what I heard had to do with turning the incident into an injunction to return to those Christian values that were supposedly the heart of the community there. Reflecting on that language, I realized that those "Christian values" may have been a factor in the alienation of the two shooters aggravated to a point where their reaction was as extreme as it was. Community, after all, is the expression of "self" across a group; and you cannot have "self" without "other." If you choose to identify "self" by demonizing "other," then you should not be surprised when "other" resorts to demonic actions. I think there is a lot to be said for the hypothesis that Cho Seung-Hui had the making of such an "other" demonized by some combination of inability and refusal to identify with the "self" of the community around him. On the basis of the communications he left, I am not sure that Cho's alienation was over "Christian values;" but, even if the values were not anchored on a particular approach to faith, I wonder how similar they were to the values of the adult population of Columbine. In this respect Engelhardt is right in arguing against Blacksburg as a distraction from Iraq, but he missed out on a deeper message. The real danger is the way in which we are using foreign policy as a distraction from domestic social conditions that are seriously pathological (which is why I invoked the term "identity pathology" in my own writing about Cho); and the more our administration tries to use foreign policy to distract from domestic negligence, the worse that pathology is likely to get.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"I want me pap!"

Bartlett's only attributes the quotation to H. L. Mencken: "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence [or taste] of the American people." It is certainly consistent with other Mencken barbs, although, for me, it will always take second place behind his observation about the folly of simple solutions to complex problems. Nevertheless, this morning I found myself free associating it with my "headline" quotation, one of Nagg's lines from Samuel Beckett's Endgame. The puns are running fast and loose, between Nagg's name and the implication that he is likely the father of one of the other characters; but Beckett could not have anticipated in 1957 that a later generation of New York theatergoers would form their own punning link to Joseph Papp.

Back when I was a student, Walter Slezak gave a talk at the MIT Lecture Series entitled "Show Business is No Business." It was from him I learned that going into the theatre was one of the best ways to go very broke very quickly. The fact that Joe Papp could keep his Public Theatre afloat for so many years made him a shining example of Mencken's law. Joe became the grand master of pap, giving theatergoers flashy packages of predigested pabulum guaranteed not to depress anyone with the slightest intimations of cognitive reflection. Some playwrights, like Sam Shepard, preferred sacrificing the promise of mass audiences to putting up with Papp's obsessions with watering down and slicking up; but Papp made the Public not only an institution but also a harbinger. If today's Broadway deserves the "vast wasteland" epithet that Newton Minnow laid on television in the Fifties, a lot of the blame can be attributed to the Papp legacy.

However, that legacy has expanded its scope far beyond what passes for theater today. Papp can also be seen as the harbinger of the way just about any content is now presented to the American people, particularly when that content is supposed to be "informing." This is probably most evident in the way news is now packaged and delivered; and every four years we see the news fed by a similar process in the great race to the White House. Mencken, himself, was a journalist. We may never know if he intended his remark to anticipate the undoing of his own profession; but, were he alive today, he would probably be among the ranks of those going broke through misjudgments of both their organizational superiors and the clients of those organizations.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Linguistic Scrutiny

One of the reasons I like to read Niemann Watchdog is for the essays that unpack certain phrases that everyone (particularly in the press) seems to be using and drill down to what those phrases are actually saying. This morning Dan Froomkin took on two of these exercises of usage: the phrase "War on Terror" and the question of how to describe what we are doing in Iraq. Froomkin does not really resolve the second exercise, so that set me to thinking about how I have been approaching that problem.
I discovered that the last time I needed this kind of descriptive language in one of my own posts, I just used the noun "mess" (enclosed in scare quotes). This emerged from the context of that post, in which I was referring (yet again) to the Neustadt-May thinking-in-time approach to dealing with crisis situations. As a quick review, what they prescribe is that any crisis situation should be addressed by asking two fundamental questions, which are (in my words, not theirs):
  1. How did we get into this mess?
  2. If we take this particular action, what will the consequences be?
They wrote up a collection of case studies, all concerning Presidential decision-making, in their book Thinking in Time. My guess is that it would be hard to find a copy in any of the current executive-level offices!

In his first exercise Froomkin focuses on the extent to which the use of the phrase "War on Terror" has created a culture of fear. This is an important point, even if Froomkin is far from the first to have made it; but the point should be pursued further to recognize that it is not the only fear-inducing phrase. "Homeland Security" has strong connotations of fear even before we get to their color-coding system (which, of course, is coding levels of fear). I still support Gore Vidal's assertion that the acts of 9/11 were criminal, rather than military. The proper response is better law enforcement; but that kind of language lacks the marketing power of "war on terror." Sure, it would be easier to use clearer language to describe what we should be doing; but using such language will make it easier to see how badly we have been doing it!
However, if it is clarity we seek, we would probably do better to look to the European Union, rather than our own government, at least on the basis of the following news just reported by Reuters:
The European Union agreed on Monday to inform groups and people why they are put on its list of terrorist organisations, a move aimed at avoiding decisions being overturned in court.
This seems to be based on the premise that being better informed is far more advantageous than being kept in fear. It will be interesting to follow the impact of this decision on EU efforts to control terrorist acts.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

From the Notes to the Sounds

When Marino Formenti first started giving interviews about the three "San Francisco Piano Trips" he gave over the course of this past week, he would invoke the progression that many of us learned from our study of mythology (through Edith Hamilton probably) from gods to heroes to men. These were originally to be the themes of his three concerts, but, shortly before the series began, he decided to begin the series of "Kurtág's Ghosts," a fascinating exercise in free association that juxtaposed a broad collection of miniatures by György Kurtág with an equally broad collection of selections from the history of music (ranging from Guillaume de Machaut to Karlheinz Stockhausen) that could be interpreted as influences on Kurtág's own work. In the Hamilton framework one could say that Formenti began with the Titans in his first concert, proceeded to the Olympians and heroes in the second, and ended, as originally planned, with the "men" (generic semantics, since one of the composers was female) of today.

What was not stated explicitly was that there was another progression supporting this one, which made the whole series an important lesson to music theorists. One may say that the Titans forged the traditions of musical composition that have shaped the way music theory as taught and, for the most part, practiced—a focus on structural analysis that is basically confined to notes on a printed page that essentially constitute "instructions" for performance. When we look back on Formenti's "Olympians" (Ives, Bartόk, Webern, Stravinsky), we discover that the all "overthrew the Titans" with new approaches to writing their compositions; but the focus was still on the notes on the page. The "heroes" (Stockhausen, Messiaen, Nono) pushed the expressiveness even further (sometimes, as with Stockhausen's notation of rhythms, to the point of absurdity); but, as we gain more appreciation for their work, we realize (as did Formenti), that they were less interested in new ways to combine "the old notes" than we ways to elicit new sonorities. Thus, when we came to the age of men, Formenti presented a series of compositions in which "it was all about the sounds." Appropriately enough, the final concert was entitled "Nothing is Real" (deliberately acknowledging the Beatles, who, in turn, had been acknowledged by one of the composers of the evening, Alvin Lucier), relaying the subtext that, while printed music may, with suitable care and preservation efforts, last forever, the sound of music vanishes into memory as soon as it is heard.

So it was that each of the "men" in Formenti's framework (Pintscher, Lucier, Lachenmann, Haas, Ustwolskaya, Sciarrino, Cage) presented different strategies for what I have previously called "going for the sound." This was the riskiest of the three evenings, because the works of the age of men have not yet been subjected to the tests of time. In this particular collection Cage was someone like the old pioneer, since his "Music Walk" was conceived during Formenti's "age of heroes;" but, like the more recent works on this final program, it is still fresh enough to challenge us to rethink how we listen at concerts. More importantly, because this was an experimental setting, one could not expect all the experiments to "work." (As I recall, it was Cage's artistic collaborator, Merce Cunningham, who lived by the motto, "Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't.") However, such inconsistency does not invalidate the lessons of new ways of listening but only broadens their scope.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Google Paradigm and its Discontents

A recent confused of calcutta discussion about search, in which phrases like "search fatigue" and "Google rage" emerged, made me realize that, by virtue (?) of an interface that is so deceptively simple and brutally efficient, we have become hopelessly locked into a "Google paradigm" for thinking about search. This was driven home to me by a comment that Lou Paglia contributed to the discussion. Here is his key paragraph:

The fundamental question for search to answer is to either through interface or algorithmically solve the user’s problem or task. It sounds simple but obviously not. And the solution sounds obvious but clearly not simple. There is the concept of “role-based search” that is emerging as well where by the engine itself ‘knowing’ the role of the user, it can can have a baseline of the type of data and information is important, and the types of questions/answers such a user in that role asks.

I would like to consider this point from my own perspective:

I think that what I (actually Habermas) call an “action situation” is a useful generalization of “the user’s problem or task.” The reason that simplicity eludes us is that this is such a broad category that we have to unpack it ontologically (and probably epistemologically, as well). I took a first crack at the ontology last month during the confused of calcutta discussion of the opensourcing of processes. However, the concept of “role-based search” taps into an epistemological issue that derives from this ontology and needs a lot of further consideration. As I suggested in the opensourcing discussion, we cannot talk about processes in any productive way unless we are as “epistemologically comfortable” with verbs and verb phrases as we are with nouns and noun phrases. Database technology has cultivated a mind-set that is so restricted to nouns and noun phrases (the foundations of all schemata and query languages) that we have pretty much deluded ourselves into believing that verbs and verb phrases are unnecessary. However, if we are going to talk about processes, we have to shatter that delusion, because processes are epistemologically verb-based; and, when Lou introduced the concept of role, he emphasized that search is fundamentally a process! Now there is obviously a lot more to the epistemology of processes than roles. Much of my own research in this area has focused on Kenneth Burke, who developed a terminological framework for motivated action; but I believe that framework can be generalized to any verb-based epistemology, such as an epistemology of processes.

I also think that the comment by Washington DC SEO on the virtue of librarians taps into an important distinction that is often overlooked. A librarian is a service professional, whose “role” is neither defined nor evaluated according to the criteria of a production economy. While search engines are definitely products and need to be evaluated as such, the support of search is, strictly speaking, a service. It is more likely that such a service will be rendered by people with particularly skills for using particular tools, rather than by making those tools available to anyone who needs the service. This latter alternative is basically the crux of the "Google paradigm." Like all paradigms it has confined us to a box, and it is about time that we start thinking outside that box!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Will Advertising Trump Ridicule?

One of my recurring themes has been the thesis that ridicule is a far more effective weapon than indignation when it comes to shining a strong light on messes made by world leadership, whether in the public or the private sector. However, there may be an alternative if you happen to have a lot of money at your disposal; and that is television advertising. Consider the following item, written by Andrew Wallenstein for the Hollywood Reporter and subsequently related by Reuters:

Filmmaker Oliver Stone will direct a TV commercial questioning the Bush administration's military strategy in Iraq.

The Oscar-winning Vietnam veteran was hired by activist groups and to shoot a 30-second spot derived from video of U.S. soldiers and their family members speaking out against the war. Members of MoveOn will select one of 20 video interviews on its site, as well as on YouTube, for Stone to turn into a commercial.

"We have leaders in Washington who say they're 'supporting our troops' -- but the people who suffer most from their policies are the troops themselves," Stone said. "I decided to participate in this project because, as a veteran, I know that America needs to listen to our servicemen and women."

This appeals to me for a couple a reasons. The most important is that, for all the changes that the Internet may be bringing to advertising, the television spot is still a powerful way to get the word out to a mass audience. Of course, making the spot is only part of the strategy. The real trick will be placing it in slots where it will have the greatest impact, which is not always an easy matter. I am also intrigued by the prospect of Oliver Stone directing the spot, since we tend to associate him with the sprawl of epic proportions. I suspect that working within the limitations of 30 seconds will be a real challenge, but I am counting on him to rise to it.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Early Chutzpah

There has been a lot of discussion of chutzpah this week (not without good reason); and I have already had at least one encounter with the risk of making the weekly award too early. However, every now and then there is a story that just jumps out at you; and in this case there was so much energy in the leap that I viewed it as a serious and justified challenge to the outstanding nomination for George W. Bush. My intention is to assign this week's award to Jean-Marie Le Pen. Now Le Pen is probably already a leading contender for a "Lifetime Achievement Award," should I ever decide that it is time to issue one of them; but this week's award involves a very specific story that Al Jazeera pulled from their wire services.

Actually, it is really a "multiple-chutzpah" story; so I have to sort out and attempt to prioritize the details. The bottom line (which would have been enough to make Le Pen a viable competitor against Bush) is simple enough: Running in fourth place in the polls for the French presidential election, Le Pen has decided to court the Jewish vote. Those who are unfamiliar with Le Pen's reputation among Jews may recall that in 1987 he gave a public speech in which he described the Nazi death camps as a "detail of history!" Well, as they say, the devil is in the details; and in this case the devil is the long cultural memory of the French Jewish population, many of whom either survived or lost relatives (or both) in those death camps.

So Le Pen does things in a big way. (Did anyone hear him singing La Marseillaise on the news?) In this case it is not just that he is courting the Jewish vote but how he has decided to do it:

Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the National Front, made the appeal in comments printed in the Hebrew-language Maariv newspaper on Thursday, ahead of his fifth presidential run.

Now, if this is the Maariv I think it is, then it is an Israeli paper; and, at least when I was living in Israel, it was one of the more reputable ones. I have no idea what its circulation in France is like, but I have to wonder if he opted for this strategy under the assumption that French Jewish voters understand Hebrew better than they understand French. If this is the case (and, given the history of Le Pen's judgments, that is not a far-fetched assumption), then we have him on at least two counts of chutzpah!

Nevertheless, it continues to get better (or worse, depending on your perspective). In spite of my comments about a "long cultural memory," Le Pen decided to revisit 1987. Here is what he told Maariv:

I did not deny the Holocaust. I only said simply that the gas chambers did not constitute but a detail in the history of World War II. It is not something that should provoke anger.

You have to wonder whether he has been taking lessons from Bush. He seems to have that same talent for getting in a hole and then digging deeper in his efforts to get out of it!

I would like to have faith in the French. Beyond the long memory to 1987 there is the more recent experience of Le Pen making to the runoff for the last presidential election. My guess is that most of the French population does not want to see that happen again, but Le Pen has done a great service in reminding them why they do not want to see it again!

A Brotherhood of Mourning?

Yesterday I accused the President of using his visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for political purposes and reflected on whether this could be considered chutzpah, since we have to assume that politicians do everything "for political purposes." Today, to invoke the terminology of Kenneth Burke, the act is the same but the agent and scene have changed. This time the agent is Rudy Giuliani, and the scene is the gathering in Oklahoma City on the occasion of the 12th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. I was struck by one particular sentence quoted by Associated Press Writer Tim Talley:

We mourn and hurt and will never forget, but we don't live under fear.

Because it is hard for me to view Giuliani as anything but a politician (and one trying to become the Republican candidate for the next presidential election at that), his use of the first person plural just stuck in my craw. It was as if he wanted to gather the Oklahoma City bombing under the same tent as 9/11 in the formation of a "brotherhood" of mourning and personal pain, then alluding to Virginia Tech for adding new members to this brotherhood. I am really chilled by this kind of political maneuver, possibly because I fear that it may actually work. Sartre had conceived of such a "brotherhood of mourning" in The Flies. This was his version of Aeschylus' Oresteia; and the brotherhood concept was invented by Aegisthus in memory of Agamemnon, who had been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra with the assistance of, you guessed it, Aegisthus. Sartre saw this as manipulation of the worst kind; and, for better or worse, my own world-view was informed by seeing a performance of this play back in my student days. The San Francisco Chronicle recently observed that, in time of war, it is very easy to find theatre companies mounting productions of Lysistrata. Perhaps some of those companies should also think about reviving The Flies to remind us of how the political mind can actually work.

Deceptive Headlines

Matt Apuzzo's analysis is now available through the Associate Press Web site. The bad news is that it is available under the headline "Va. Tech Awarding Degrees to Victims." This seems to be a reflection of the fact that the following paragraph was added to his report (probably while I was working on my own reflections):

University officials also announced that Cho's 32 victims would be awarded degrees posthumously, and that other students terrorized by the shootings might be allowed to end the semester immediately without consequences.

I am not sure how I feel about the first clause in that sentence, but it is not for me to say. The only reactions that matter are those of the family and friends of the victims. On the other hand I was very glad to read the second clause. Notwithstanding the "Life must go on" injunction of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Lament" (do Virginia Tech English students read that poem?) it is hard to imagine any university being able to sustain "business as usual" for the remainder of the semester.

Identity Pathology

Associated Press Writer Matt Apuzzo has written one of the better extended analyses of the Virginia Tech shootings in the wake of the packet of information that Cho Seung-Hui sent to NBC. Unfortunately, you cannot find it on the Associate Press Web site. It is currently on Yahoo! News, but my experiences in recovering Yahoo! News articles more than a few days after they appeared have been pretty frustrating. So the story is probably worth reading there sooner rather than later.

I suppose what I liked about Apuzzo was the way in which he helped me reflect on a theme I have been examining from a variety of angles recently, which, at least for purposes of this post, I want to call "identity pathology." My most recent venture into this area was a post about "culture death," along with a somewhat related post about Clive James' book Cultural Amnesia. However, these were both basically "pre-Internet" topics; and I have been concerned with more urgent questions of identity pathology since the flood of discussion over the death threats against Kathy Sierra. In that regard I would like to interpolate (with some editing) one of my confused of calcutta comments, responding to JP Rangaswamy's effort to enumerate different perspectives on the nature of identity. With his usual literary panache JP identified several of these perspectives with familiar quotations. This is the one I wanted to examine:

My name is Bond, James Bond: A licence to do something. Granted by someone else. Usually not transferable. Usually not permanent either.

I thought about this while doing one of my “major San Francisco walks,” from my place in the Civic Center to the celebration of the newly-dedicated Jack Kerouac Alley and back (with a stop in Chinatown for congee). I decided that Midnight Cowboy provided a better perspective on identity than the Bond movies; and the particularly characteristic phrase I had in mind was “I’m walkin’ here!” For me this phrase embodied what we might call it the looking-out-for-number-one syndrome; and I wanted to explore it further.

I have spent large portions of my life in large cities where hiding in my car was more trouble than either walking or using public transportation. However, whether you walk or drive, such cities bombard you with more examples of stupid behavior than you can shake a stick at. I used to joke about this being the result of our government putting something in the water. Then I had my insight: It isn’t the water; it’s the population density! While I find something very satisfying about being able to manage a major metropolis on foot, there are a lot of people out there who experience (not necessarily consciously) a strongly dehumanizing effect from the crowds. The result is a growing feeling of insignificance, countered by a need to act out in ways that will assert the self against all those “others” out there. (In this respect I am a Spinozist: there cannot be a sense of self except as a negation of the sense of other.)

Let us now extrapolate “from the city to the Internet” (what a great title for a book). If the sense of self is besieged by walking up Van Ness Avenue, what happens to it in the cosmos of cyberspace or, for that matter, in specific “solar systems,” such as Second Life or the blogosphere? I find myself particularly interested in the way some bloggers start getting obsessed with ranking. It is not to hard to imagine folks out there desperate to be something other than an insignificant (or nonexistent) blip on the Technorati rankings. If they get really obsessed over such things, who knows how they might lash out in an attempt to assert self? They might even start sending death threats to those who have elevated themselves beyond “blip status.” In that respect, then, my conclusion probably aligns very much with the key point that JP kept trying to make I and kept contesting: Where the “social health” of cyberspace is concerned, it really is all about Identity! It just happens to be about a particularly social aspect of identity that slipped through the cracks of JP's particular analysis!

To return to Apuzzo's report, the Virginia Tech campus is significantly smaller than the city of San Francisco; but an attack on the sense of self does not require a large scale. Indeed, it can happen within the scale of a single classroom (or, in a more adult setting, a single committee or panel). The only thing that really matters is how robust the sense of self is under feelings of threat, small or large. Apuzzo accounts for a lot of questions being raised about Cho's sense of self at levels that included the student body, the faculty, the campus administration, and even the more clinical medical perspective. One comes away from reading Apuzzo with the feeling that "everyone knew there was a problem."

Let me now shift to some orthogonal questions: Why do we read reports like this with so much fascination? Why was that package such a scoop for NBC? Why has even the BBC sent reporters to Blacksburg? I think the answer is that we, as audience, are less interested in the underlying problem than we are in the way in which Cho lashed out "in an attempt to assert self;" and the reason for that latter focus is that we seem to have an inbred cultural need to affix blame when the lashing out assumes catastrophic proportions. We refuse to accept that a mess this big can be "nobody's fault" (as I tried to argue was the case with the "racially offensive Canadian couch").

Suppose we take the questioning to a higher level: Why do we act the way we do? There are a variety of answers that hold in different settings. I want to consider three of them:

  1. The act is the "effect" of a "cause" (in which case we tend to call it a "reflex").
  2. We act on the basis of decisions we make that are grounded in Kantian principles of "pure" and "practical" reason.
  3. We act in a particular way because our environmental context disposes us to do so (sometimes called "situated action").

We are all familiar with the first but feel strongly enough about "free will" to reject the premise that everything can be reduced to reflex. We appreciate the second but probably see it more as an idealist theory than anything that would hold up in the "trenches of practice." The third, however, is probably pretty alien to most of us and more than a little disquieting. It has a vague connotation of reflex at a scale too large to comprehend, along with an associated connotation of fatalism. However, it is also disquieting because it denies that an action can be attributed to some single isolated factor, which means that it undermines the concept of an object of blame (human or otherwise).

I realize that it might sound glib to suggest that the horrific events of Monday can be described as a tragedy of situated action, but I think that this is my way of going back to yesterday's reflections on morality. Reducing the discourse to good and evil is just another way of focusing on seeking out that object of blame; but this is simplistic thinking in opposition to the "moral clarity" that President Bush attributed to Elie Wiesel. Unfortunately, our "world without reflection" has a hard time with that particular brand of moral clarity; so is it any wonder that we are left at such a loss when the context of that world provides the disposition for catastrophic action?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Playing the Holocaust Card

It would appear that President Bush wanted to turn his visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum into a rather broad variety of agenda items. Therefore, it pays to give the remarks he made after his tour of the site a close reading, rather than just another sound byte on the evening news. Fortunately, these remarks have been made available through the good graces of PRNewswire. I shall not examine them exhaustively, under the assumption that, if I have committed any serious sin of omission, some reader will be quick to inform me!

These affairs always begin by naming all the right names; but, even here, we can see Bush pursuing his own agenda:

I thank very much Elie Wiesel for joining us. He is a -- he's a big figure in the life of the world, as he should be. He speaks with moral clarity. And I can't thank you enough for being a leader of talking about what is right. And I'm honored to be in your presence.

This passage attracted my attention because of the way in which Bush made such a smooth transition from "moral clarity" to "talking about what is right." Morality involves far more than simply being able to classify everything as either "right" or "wrong" and then deciding upon one's actions according to what has been classified as "right." Wiesel does speak (and write) with moral clarity; but he applies that clarity to plummet the depths beneath superficial right-versus-wrong judgments. His is a keenly reflective mind that has elected to reflect on one of the most agonizing periods in the history of human behavior. Today he apparently had to endure the agony of having that mind trivialized, but he could probably endure it in his understanding of all the greater agonies he had previously confronted. As for the rest of the audience, I suspect that at least some of them could read the subtext: "Today there are far more important issues than the Holocaust that I need to discuss."

The first of these issues was the Virginia Tech tragedy. Bush was able to maintain his role of "chief mourner" due to the fact that one of the victims on Monday was a Holocaust survivor:

We meet at a time of sorrow for our nation. Our flags fly at half-mast in memory of 32 souls whose lives were taken at Virginia Tech on Monday morning. That day we saw horror, but we also saw acts of quiet courage. We saw this courage in a teacher named Liviu Librescu. With the gunman set to enter his class, this brave professor blocked the door with his body while his students fled to safety. On the Day of Remembrance, this Holocaust survivor gave his own life so that others might live. And this morning we honor his memory, and we take strength from his example.

My friend and reader David Berkowitz brought this to my attention as a nomination for this week's chutzpah award. My own reaction, though, is that Bush was grandstanding, letting us know that he has been following the news as it is played out to the rest of us and is sincere in his mourning rather than playing a role in an ex officio capacity. I suspect that there are a fair amount of folks out there who saw this a the latest effort to improve the approval ratings, and my guess is that most of them did not buy it.

After this gesture, though, we hear comparatively little about the Holocaust itself. Instead, the rest of the speech took on the broader concept of genocide, beginning with a minor linguistic exercise:

Today we call what happened "genocide." But when the Holocaust started, this word did not yet exist. In a 1941 radio address, Churchill spoke of the horrors the Nazis were visiting on innocent civilians in Russia. He said, "We are in the presence of a crime without a name."

This led me to make a brief visit to the OED, where I discovered that the word first appeared in the first volume of the four-volume supplement, a project that originated in 1957. I do not know whether or not OED policy has been to document the first known occurrence of a new word; but the earliest example they provide is dated 1944 (Lemkin's Axis Rule in Occupied Europe). My guess is that Lemkin was aware of Churchill's 1944 address.

The reason for the shift is that Bush wanted the opportunity to speak about genocide today, rather than genocide sixty years ago. In other words this was the forum for him to speak out about Sudan and the Darfur refugees. Now, in all fairness, this is part of the Museum's agenda, given special attention by virtue of their exhibit based on Google Earth images of Darfur (which, we have been informed, are more up-to-date than those of New Orleans). Once again one could hear the sound of sabers starting to rattle behind his voice:

If Sudan's obstruction continues despite these measures, we will also consider other options. Last week, I sent Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte to the region. He informed Sudan's government and rebel groups that our patience is limited, that we care deeply about the human condition in Darfur, that it matters to the United States that people are suffering. I have spoken in the past about the need to end Sudan's use of military aircraft to attack innocent civilians. We're also are looking at what steps the international community could take to deny Sudan's government the ability to fly its military aircraft over Darfur. And if we do not begin to see signs of good faith and commitments, we will hear calls for even sterner measures.
The situation doesn't have to come to that. I urge the United Nations Security Council and the African Union and all members of the international community to stand behind the Addis Ababa framework and reject efforts to obstruct its implementation. The world needs to act. If President Bashir does not meet his obligations to the United States of America, we'll act.

So everything looped back to Bush's opening misreading Elie Wiesel's "moral clarity." The ending message was the same as the beginning message: It is all about right and wrong. Somewhere along the line Bush seems to have lost track of the fact that the Holocaust was the product of some very strong minds with equally strong convictions of right and wrong and an even stronger authority to override any disagreement the rest of the world may have had about those convictions. I may be old-fashioned; but I always thought that we go to museums to learn. Did our President learn anything during his visit today? Perhaps David gave me the right idea for the wrong reason: To visit a museum devoted to one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century and then use that setting to back up a dangerously simplistic morality as an excuse for yet another threat of aggression probably can be classified as chutzpah!

Is Innovation the New Kool-Aid?

It is hard to find any arguments that would dispute that our educational system is a mess. There may be debates over the extent of the mess and even more debates over the how-did-we-get-in-this-mess question; but the mess itself is no longer the dead moose on the table that everyone is trying to ignore. Now we have to start looking for that moose on the tables of those proposing how we should deal with the mess.

As a case in point, I would like to consider Janet Napolitano, governor of Arizona, who came to Cupertino yesterday to sit on a panel of experts to discuss the mess. (By the way I am beginning to believe that dealing with any mess convening a panel of experts may be the ultimate dead moose. These panels very rarely descend to the nuts and bolts of action items; and, even when they do, the recommended actions never progress any further than getting documented.) Ms. Napolitano is the current chair of the National Governors Association; and one of her actions (as opposed to "action items") has been to establish the "Innovation America" initiative. My concern is that, if this initiative is not a dead moose, it is at least a road paved with good intentions (along with what that particular figure of speech entails).

Ms. Napolitano came to Cupertino with precisely the rhetoric that Silicon Valley likes to hear:

In technology and engineering we're really doing nothing. In math and science we're basically teaching the same things we taught when I was in school and we're teaching it the same way.

Right on, sister, for saying what needs to be said; but what comes next? Apparently, all the talk is about science, mathematics, technology, and engineering, supplemented by "incentives for entrepreneurship." This is all very well and good, but what about the bread and butter that always seem to be ignored by Silicon Valley. More specifically, what about the basic skills of reading and writing?

This brings up another case in point. News of this panel was reported at CNET by Joris Evers, and the writing was almost as dismal as the opinions voiced by the panel itself. The most glaring error was the omission of any context for the report other than the vague reference to "an event here that's part of a National Governors Association initiative." At least good readers know that you figure out what "here" means by checking the byline! My point is that, in the absence of context, the report is little more than a transcription of the ego-fest that reflects the true nature of these panel discussions, making sure that we know who was there by name and sound-byte. Probably without any intended malice, this report became a case study of the extent to which ours has become that "world without reflection," concerned more with making Silicon Valley feel and look good in the eyes of "concerned citizens" without really investigating what Andy Grove liked to call "intellectual ergs."

Of course it is not just reading and writing that are missing. There is also the question of reading matter that fails to reflect the scope of a liberal education, the sort of education that John Dewey believed was so necessary for the effective functioning of democracy. This is not to deny that the United States is losing its ability to compete in the world. However, the priorities of Innovation America run the risk of endowing the country with an army of "techno-morons;" and such an army is unlikely to enhance our ability to compete in a world whose population is so diverse and must deal with so many different priorities.

"Hey, Kids, What Time is It?"

Caroline McCarthy's coverage of the BlackBerry e-mail outage for CNET provided an interesting demonstration of how globalization is changing the ways we think about time. This is the paragraph that caught my attention:

This is likely due to a backlog of e-mails stemming from the service outage, which was first reported on the New York metro news site The outage is believed to have originated around 5 p.m. PDT on Tuesday. WNBC then reported that service was resumed around 4 a.m. Wednesday but that problems with a backlog of data were likely.

I initially reacted to the account of activities in New York being given in Pacific Time, but this led me to wonder further about where the story was actually taking place. Presumably the mail servers are managed by Research in Motion, meaning that they are probably in Waterloo, Ontario; and, unless my memory is failing me (again), Waterloo is in the same time zone as New York! The reason, of course, that Ms. McCarthy was using Pacific Time as her "frame of reference" is that the CNET offices are in San Francisco (a healthy walk from where I happen to be writing this); so her "preferred clock" is probably the one in her office (or cubicle or whatever).

This poses an interesting problem of ethnocentrism. CNET probably knows full well that it has readers around the world. The BBC certainly knows this. The strategy they seem to employ at their Web site is to give the local time at the site of the story followed by the GMT time in parentheses. I personally find this a good way to deal with a global context. When I lived in Singapore, I cultivated an instinct for converting to GMT (along with an instinct for converting to Pacific Time, since that was "home"). Sadly, most of the settings I have encountered in the United States have been blissfully unaware of GMT; and I see that as one of the lesser factors that is now putting us so much at odds with the rest of the world. This one is clearly minor compared to so many of the others; but it is one in which tackling ethnocentrism could begin at home, if we really wanted to do something about it!

Retaliating with a BON MOT

Unregistered Truthdig commenter Jed Wing deserves a tip of the linguistic hat for his deft handling of potentially inappropriate speech. The context, appropriately enough, was the seemingly never-ending discussion of the Imus affair, this time around James Harris' "Imus Distraction" piece. Mr. Wing had obviously become so exasperated by some of the assertions in the ensuing discussion that he eventually had to erupt in expletive: "N-word, please!" After a brief pause, I had my own eruption … of laughter (probably the first healthy belly laugh I had to break the ice of the excessive seriousness with which this topic has been handled). Those of us who understand both the denotation and the connotation of Mr. Wing's little bit of linguistic legerdemain can appreciate that the challenge of respecting the constraints of "appropriate speech" can be a source of creativity, not to mention fun. The rest will have to seek explanation elsewhere and take comfort in the fact that this was a no-harm-no-foul move in the great language-game of life!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Chutzpah Delayed is NOT Chutzpah Denied!

It was not until I was hanging out at the pizza-and-beer "Blogger Dinner," which my friend, David Berkowitz, organized in conjunction with the Web. 2.0 Expo, that I suddenly realized that I had not bestowed last week's Chutzpah of the Week award! I suppose this had something to do with my own way of being caught up in the Imus affair and the extent to which the whole week was one of chutzpah overload. However, I definitely had a strong preference for the most deserving candidate by the end of the week. As a hint, I just affixed the "chutzpah" tag to my "Restitution is Necessary for an Injury" post. That's right, chutzpah fans, the recipient of the award for last week is none other than the Reverend DeForest Soaries, for how else can we describe the way he imposed himself on a situation that demanded the utmost delicacy in all matters and turned it into the bargaining situation that provoked my rant last Friday?

"Yesterday THIS Day's Madness did Prepare"

In this morning's New York Times Scott Shane has written a preview of Robert Dallek's new book (due out next week with excerpts currently available for reading in Vanity Fair), Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power. There are so many ways in which this history can be read in the light of our present situation (not to mention my favorite how-did-we-get-into-this-mess question) that the book may best be reviewed as an extend (700-page) reflection on the 74th quatrain of Fitzgerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (whose first line is quoted above). Given my own reluctance to ever use the word "dignity" in a sentence about Nixon, I feel it is best to begin with the "Imus connection." We already know the abundance of expletive in Nixon's spoken utterances (making him perhaps a mentor for the current Vice President), just as we already know his use of the epithet "my Jew boy" in his reference to Kissinger; but Dallek appears to have elevated the latter into "a sadistic pleasure in flaunting his casual anti-Semitism before his Jewish national security adviser" (Shane's text). There are any number of ways in which Imus' recent behavior can be described; but I would not include "sadistic" among them (nor to I recall encountering that particular adjective in any of the many media accounts). (Need it be mentioned that, back in those days, the only connotation of "Ho" was of the formidable opponent we had encountered in North Vietnam.) Kissinger, of course, could give as good as he got. While he may not have done this to Nixon's face, Shane reports on discovering in Dallek's text incidents of "Mr. Kissinger describing his boss to aides and reporters as 'that madman,' 'our drunken friend' and 'the meatball mind.'"

Far more serious is the way in which Shane reads Dallek as commentary on our current "mess" in Iraq:

One pattern in particular seems relevant, he said: the reassurances that Nixon and Mr. Kissinger continually offered each other between 1969 and 1973 about the likely success of each of their moves in Vietnam, from the incursion into Cambodia to the prospects for “Vietnamization,” the gradual shift of the burden of combat from American to South Vietnamese troops.

With them, as with other presidents he has studied, “there’s a degree of autointoxication,” Mr. Dallek said.

“They convince themselves of what they want to believe,” he continued. He said he sensed the same phenomenon in the Bush administration and what he called the plan for “Iraqization” to reduce American involvement in the current war.

I particularly like that term "autointoxication," perhaps because it reflects on the recent HBO series on addiction. Now that the media has gotten beyond acting as cheerleaders for both the White House and the war it created for us, we can find no end to the examples of decision making by an inner circle extremely adept at convincing themselves of what they wanted to believe; and the metaphor of intoxication seems particularly appropriate when the "decider" for that inner circle had to wrestle with his own demons of alcoholism. Meanwhile, we continue to be haunted by the ghost of Marx, not for his Communist Manifesto but for his assertion that, when history repeats itself, what first is tragedy returns as farce. We may have finally encountered the ultimate counterexample to this proposition, since this time tragedy seems to have returned as an even greater tragedy.