Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sometimes Things Just Don't Come Together

That's me trying to light a folded piece of news paper. The folds are quite simple; a piece of newspaper is folded much like an envelope. At the center where the corners of the paper come together they're twisted a bit, then the construction puffed up a little. The tricky part is to quickly light the four corners and then allow the flaming contraption to float into the sky from the updraft of a camp fire. Done right it can float high and then the disintegrating embers float wildly to the ground. I hardly ever get it right; the paper is in flames and simply drops into the fire. Some people have a knack for it.

I like having the MyBlogLog widget here to see who's been stopping by. I thank BlairSupporter for leaving a comment on my last post. Daisy of Daisy's Dead Air commented too and Phil Jones gave me a nice shout out about the post. I see that Linda Nowakowski has been around and Geoffrey Philip too. I end up spouting off on the Internet quite a lot, but the idea that anyone reads what I write is a bit frightening. Most of the time it doesn't come together.

Daisy's Dead Air always gets me thinking. I didn't link to anywhere for Linda Nowakowski because I'm not sure of the etiquette about linking to content on social networks. But she writes at among other places and what she writes always makes me think hard. Linda often writes on the subject of Buddhist economics. There are many schools of thought outside the mainstream of economic orthodoxy, often together called heterodox economics. Heterodox economics are not simply anti-neoclassical economics, or at least that's not what I find so interesting about them. What's important is cross fertilization across schools of thought in economics and with other disciplines.

Daisy posted a long post Ash Wednesday ruminations on feminism, religion, etc. During the week I had been struggling to write something regarding a proposal Linda was making to make a presentation at the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions. I'd written many pages, but it just wasn't coming together. Reading Daisy's ruminations on religion among other things caught my attention because I was thinking and trying to write about that too.

One of the reasons I enjoy reading Daisy's blog so much is I get to click on links to feminist blogs. It would be great to say I would find such links otherwise, but that's probably not the case. Part of her "ruminations" post has to do with how commentary at feminist blogs sometimes runs towards vitriol. That's a more general fact of the Internet which often seems impossibly hard to figure out and to imagine how to stop. Phil Jones has written smart commentary about this phenomenon, including Sarcasm Doesn't Scale. Phil has really smart comments on his blogs and various discussions on them have clued me in about what a knotty and interesting issue this is. Something I love very much about Daisy and Linda online is their arguments. It's not just that their arguments are good, it's also their fearlessness in engaging that I admire.

Nowadays more people my age are getting online and getting involved in the social Web. I've got one friend who's been involved since before there was a World Wide Web, so of course she knows a thing or two about Internet discourse. But talking with most of my friends about arguments online I'm greeted by blank stares, apparently they've never encountered such. I can't imagine how this is possible. The exciting thing about the Internet is people can engage in discussions across all sorts of boundaries. As it turns out this is very hard to do, not for technological reasons but for social reasons, and fireworks ensue.

More generally, it's difficult for people immersed in disciplines to engage with people immersed in different disciplines. But such interdisciplinary work is fertile ground for increasing knowledge.

Ethan Zuckerman has written brilliantly about xenophilia, which is a love of engaging across boarders. Homophily is the opposite number of xenophilia, meaning "birds of a feather flock together." Zuckerman observes:
Homophily can make you stupid.
Daisy's post notes that religion seems a sure fire way to kindle big and unreasonable arguments on the Web. That's of course true in meat space too. Mother always told us to avoid sex, politics and religion at the dinner table. I don't think she mentioned sex come to think of it, but sure she meant to.

Something really interesting about Buddhist economics is the intersection of religion and what is considered by many the dreadfully dull subject of economics. I had been vaguely aware of E. F. Schumacher before encountering Linda Nowakowski, but was quite uninformed about Buddhist economics, a term Schumacher coined in 1955, the year of my birth. Buddhist economics is not a huge school within economics, but is remarkably widespread. I'm impressed with the spread and durability of the whole notion of it.

Collen Wainwright *[update] writes a wonderful blog Communicatrix. I'm a bit confused about religion, I tell people that I don't believe in God, and yet I "hew to the woo." I knew I'd read that last bit somewhere, but couldn't remember where. I searched the term and Communicatrix came up and as thought to myself, "yes, of course." This isn't the post that came up in search, but is the post I remember reading it. I'm pretty skeptical about The Law of Attraction which communicatrix writes about, but her approach to thinking about it won me over.

I think about all sorts of issues in religious terms. Because of my upbringing I tend to think in terms of Christianity. I just do. I'm also skeptical of these habits of thought. Far from rebelling and turning into a staunch atheist in response to my internal dialogs, thinking about how my thoughts turn to religion seems to inform the subjects I'm thinking about. But what comes out of this sausage making is hardly ever doctrinally sound in any religion!

Linda is sure that economics must take into account not only value in economic terms, but human values as well. That is a subject near and dear to my heart. My thinking about values is somewhat peculiar and overlaps with iconoclastic thinking about God. The really odd thing about my thinking of values and God, is these come into play when I'm trying hard to be rigorous in my thinking, that is, when I'm trying to think about science in a formal way, or philosophy and other subjects. What I've just written seems easily misconstrued, and I'm not sure how to correct that. I'm not saying that I think it's necessary for people to think of God when they think about science, philosophy and other subjects in a formal way. What I am saying is that when I do that thoughts come together in some surprising and fascinating--to me--ways.

Alas, most of the times when trying to show others these patterns I've imagined too often things just don't come together.

The deadline for Linda's proposal has passed. I've seen the drafts of it and they look great. I didn't contribute a thing, but am very happy she opened up the process to view and comment. I think there are some parts in the draft I'm writing that make some good points. I won't give up trying and one day will share them.

What this post is about is really how people on the Web share the process of thinking. Their sharing changes my thinking, but not always, or even most of the time, by argument. Rather, first is a modeling of good thinking and second by their wonderful creations the encouragement to think. Sometimes thoughts come together nicely, but often not. Often that's when the most joy comes, like a puzzle where there's clearly a solution and the fun is in trying to discover it.

Cheers to the generous souls on the Internet who don't hide their light under a basket.

*Update: I'm not sure why, but I mistakenly identified Joann Wypijewski as the communicatrix. I apologize both to Colleen Wainwright, the real and inimitable the communicatrix and to JoAnn Wypijewski. Furthermore I must apologize for not only the misidentification, but also for butchering the spelling of JoAnn Wypijewski's name.

Most of the time when I screw up I can't figure out why. In this case I'd just watched a videonation video at YouTube Church Sex Scandal: False Memories, False Justice, the print version of the story is here and took note. I probably wrote down JoAnn Wypijewski's name on the same scrap of paper I wrote down Colleen Wainwright's name.

I've mentioned that religion is a hard topic for me, especially the notion of collusion and conspiracy. I took note of JoAnn Wypijewski's report about a Massachusetts court taking up the scientific, evidentiary basis for repressed memory, because the subject of repressed memory is such a staple or the conspiracy minded. A big part of that conspiracy are attacks on the reporters who report that scientific studies do not tend to support repressed memory claims, neither have courts who've examined the issue.

Knowing what a hot button issue repressed memory is on Internet discussion boards, I was impressed that Wypijewski is willing to report on the issue and to do do a video too. Taking up subjects ignored by most, but which are so vigorously attacked by a few, seems hardly a great career move. Wypijewski must see her role as reporter to present the facts in news stories and not to back away, even when it might be advantageous to do so. I applaud her gumption.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Godwin's Law

Mike Godwin is an attorney and effective advocate for free speech online. He's also known for Godwin's Law which states:
"As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."
All day long I've been kicking myself for leaving a comment on a post at Phil Jones' essential blog Composing. I conclude that seeing my comment as idiotic he simply didn't post it: Thanks very much Phil.

It's not the first time I've said something stupid on the Internet, and probably won't be the last. But I find this gaffe particularly egregious because there were no comments and I lead not by comparison to Nazis but to Fascism and that's close enough. I'm so amazed that I didn't immediate recognise my fallacy of reductio ad Nazium.

Phil points to a video of former Prime Minister Tony Blair speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast. The National Prayer Breakfast is organized by The Fellowship Foundation.

Religion in American life is apparently a subject that makes me a little crazy, even falling into conspiracy theories. Of course conspiracies sometimes exist, but most reasonable people are surely correct to be skeptical about conspiracy theories which attribute complex cultural and political events to an underlying conspiracy theory.

Phil makes the point:
At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what a politician believes in private. But the moment he or she starts letting their ungrounded faith guide their actions, it's time to get them out of office.
The point has merit, I'm all in favor of reason, and I think reason is what Phil is positing in opposition to "ungrounded faith." The essence of Phil's point is reason provides some defense against errors resulting from faith. The trouble is I'm not sure how really reasonable any of us really are. Acting by faith provides a sort of economy of effort we really don't do without; it's not just religious faith. Something very much like faith seems at the root of the current financial crisis. Nassim Nicholas Taleb is really smart in helping us see how easily we all can be fooled by randomness, and how distruptive black swan events are.

What Taleb is talking about seems related to the problem of faith generally. Phil is talking more specifically about religious faith. I am not a theist, that is one who believes God as the creator of the universe. But I probably can't claim that I'm an atheist, or at least many atheist wouldn't claim me. The trouble I have is both with the meanings of god and belief.

Recently The New Scientist published an article Born believers: How your brain creates God. the article points to studies which suggest that religion emerges as a natural by-product of the way the human mind works." In other words that people in general have a tendency towards supernatural thinking. That sure rings true to me! Also in that issue the editors posted an editorial which they linked to the previous article, The credit crunch could be a boon for irrational belief with the quite sensible argument that we ought "to be careful." And that caution is very much in line with Phil's post.

What sent me over the edge in my comment essentially suggesting that Tony Blair and his Tony Blair Foundation are hawking a version of Fascism? First it should be noted that this really is over the edge and in sharp contrast to Phil's reasoned arguments. The truthful answer is that I'm not sure. I am well aware that reductio ad Nazium is a fallacy, and that my use of that suggests a blind spot which would be good of me to examine so to perhaps help me avoid making a fool of myself in the future.

My last two posts on social networks made me feel kind of stupid too. I think social networks are important and also hard to understand. It's good to try to understand what they look like and how they work because they are important. But it's also important to recognize that networks are complicated so not to be too quick to assume I understand what's happening.

All over the world there are networks of associations which figure significantly in how power is exercised. We talk about "old boy networks" and "good old boy networks." The former referring especially to public school affiliation in Britain, and the "good old boys" a term more American and not so closely aligned with schools. Religious affiliations do seem to me a strong contributor to these American "good old boys" networks. The Fellowship, or The Family, has in it's history traditions of secretiveness, which lends itself to conspiratorial theories. Jeffery Sharlet's investigative report at Harpers, Jesus plus nothing: Undercover among America's secret theocrats provides some background. There is also within the traditions of the organization certain tendencies familiar to Fascist movements. And Chip Berlet's What is Fascism? provides some definition of what Fascism is.

In the USA The Fellowship is hardly alone as a Christian network that insinuates itself into halls of power in somewhat secretive ways. We American tend to be religious, as everyone knows. I'm not sure how all these various networks operate, but it's hard to miss the fact that networks do exist and exert some influence on governments.

Sharlet's piece mentions connections with the Fellowship and Uganda's president Museveni. I look at Ugandan news some, and as an outsider I can hardly claim to understand. Nevertheless occasionally news reports which feature connections between very right wing American representatives and various Evangelical Christian groups make me wonder what's really going on. I'm not sure I can ever really find out either.

It appalls me that Pat Robertson is still a respected figure in American politics. His association and support for former Guatemalan dictator Gen. Rios Montt discredited him in my eyes. A rather similar set of circumstances with Robertson's business dealings with Liberia's Charles Taylor made my blood boil.

There are lots of atrocities associated with religions of all sorts. I don't think anyone denies that. Indeed such atrocities are brought up as arguments against religious belief. But most of the people I truly love are religious. I think there's quite a bit to the New Scientist article that religious belief seems a sort of "default" position in our psyche. I think humanity's ties to religion are deep, even for irreligious folks like me. So when Blair and others, for example Karen Armstrong and her move for A Charter For Compassion, aver that religion should be a force for good in the world, I'm sympathetic. I'm sure that's possible, just as I'm sure religion is sometimes a force for bad.

Phil's post suggest that voters in democracy should demand reason of our politicians. I'm sure he's right, that is desirable. I'm not sure that personal religious beliefs really can be separated from our guides to actions so neatly. Phil goes on to note that part of the problem with religious faith guiding actions is that such faith inhibits learning. That religious belief can contain a strain of vanity leading to ill-conceived actions. Blair in his speech remarks:
It is that humbling of man's vanity, that stirring of conscience through God's prompting, that recognition of our limitations, that faith alone can bestow.
No question humility is in order; the only question is what prompts it?

In the news Blair has been awarded a million dollar prize "presented by the Dan David Foundation, based at Tel Aviv University." He'll give the money to his foundation. But if one accepts, as I do, that humility is good in the face of human vanity, the source of humility Phil suggests is probably going to be more effective in terms of keeping Blair vanity in check than faith ever will be!

The Tony Blair Foundation urges religious tolerance. I'm not sure sufficiently so. I'm trouble by the networking approach familiar to The Fellowship, Young Life, Intervarsity Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ, and many other Christian organizations closely associated with hard right politics in the USA. Chris Hedges is an American journalist, author and student of Christian theology. He's a Christian who argues forcefully against religious Chauvinism and Fascism. Christianity and rightist politics don't have to go hand in hand.

I think I went over board when I saw that Tony Blair was addressing the National Prayer Breakfast. I'm sure Blair is aware of the rightwing cant of the Fellowship. I'm also sure he knows that Americans of various political stripes attend the meetings. So his remarks were knowingly political. And the politics of it is suspect to me. I also find the decision to accept the million dollar prize from Israel politically suspect for someone so engaged in peace advocacy in the Middle East. It's unreasonable for me to accuse Blair of Fascism, but not unreasonable to notice dangerous mixing of politics and his religious views--A point Phil manages quite succinctly.

Phil also worries about Obama years down the line. But Obama's recent handling of religion and politics seems hardly encouraging to me. That's a subject for another time. But to end this post I'll point to an online magazine called Religious Dispatches it's a thoughtful publication promoting understanding of religious forces in today's world. Understanding is something I could use much more of.

Photo Source: Mike Godwin by Alice Lipowicz CC 2.5 from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Further Ruminations about Social Networks.

I know my posts are bad when even I won't read them! The last post I did wasn't coming together and instead of just sitting on it and thinking some more, I clicked "publish." Socioeconomics is not new, but I was quite impressed with the point in the video A City Made of Waste that the important thing to pay attention to was the "layering of its socio-economic procedures." I was curious to explore this notion of "layering of socio-economic procedures" and online social networks. I quickly got lost in the weeds.

I'm probably not going to do any better tonight than I did the last time, but I still want to try to think a bit more (aloud) about the relationship of online social life and economic activity.

I put forth the incident of a PR executive's Twitter posting which insulted his client. I think it's just a given that when people are putting up a lot of content online, some where along the line some of that content is going to be embarrassing.

At my age I know teens and folks in their twenties who I remember well as babies. They've grown up using the Internet. As far as what I put up on the Internet, for the longest time I figured hardly anyone I knew would see any of it. That assumption no longer holds much water thanks primarily to Facebook. Not only do I get updates from teens and twenty-somethings I know in my newsfeeds, I'm in theirs. My name is very common, so I don't turn up high on searches. But now with the newsfeeds, I provide regular search terms which substantially improve the results, if someone wants to find out more.

I don't go snooping around my young friends and relatives online content (much). Many of them have 500+ friends. I realize that for them the higher potential for embarrassment is not something I will find in their content, but that something goofy I put up will be seen by friends of friends of friends. Since I didn't seek them out to friend me, I have to conclude they must have calculated the risk and found it acceptable. Needless to say I know young people who haven't friended me. Had I grown up online like they have, I'm not sure that I would be one to friend my uncles and friends of my parents!

When I was that age, the last thing I wanted was for my parents to know what I was really doing. Some things never really change that much. Anthropologist danah boyd observes how young people use the Web to engage with friends outside of adult supervision. It's amused me having access to feeds at Facebook how hilarious the Urban Dictionary is now. Like Wikepedia the Urban Dictionary is a wiki, but translating slang is tricky business. Attempting to decode youthful argot using the Urban Dictionary seems to yield a greater chance of misunderstanding than understanding. Anyhow, young people have ways of avoiding discovery on the Web. but they also seem to understand better than people my age the upsides of sharing online, even with clueless old folk like me.

Recently an Internet friend sent me an IM. He'd just gotten back from a frustrating trip and needed to vent. Years ago when he was a teen we chatted frequently, now now so much. In this conversation almost in passing he mentioned an email I sent to him way back when a friend of his was killed in an automobile accident. It amazed me that he said he still had the email! Sure we've got some history, but both now and then I was just some guy on the Internet. Yet, somehow I'd managed to say approximately the right thing at approximately the right time for him. I think this is simply an example of something that's commonplace now.

Young people often have lots of friends in their online social networks. A lot of the correspondence is chatter with a good dose of teasing. Still, when there is a need, friends respond. Being on the receiving end of attention is important, but just as significant is the responding. People my age miss how good and responsible young people are towards their online friends.

At Seed Magazine there's a salon between Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and James Fowler. Folwler's work on social networks and happiness got a lot of attention in the popular press. In the Seed Salon piece he points out how new it is that so many of us are aware via online social networks of friends of friends of friends. He notes there are two general ways to react:
You can think about it in one of two ways. If you think that you are tied to all these people that you don't know and have never met, yet they are going to have an influence on you, you might just feel like, "Geez, I have no free will. I might as well just give up. I am just a piece of flotsam on the sea, floating up and down with the movements of everybody on the network."

But the other way to react is to take responsibility for all those people because they are also influenced by you. I have noticed that it has been easier for me to lose weight now, for example. And when I am walking home from the bus stop, I make sure to put on my favorite song. Because I know now that if I enter my house in a crummy mood, I'm not just going to make my son unhappy and my wife unhappy; I'm going to make my son's friend and my wife's mother unhappy. There are going to be all sorts of indirect, unintended consequences of my behavior, which makes me feel that I should take more responsibility.
For young people, and for people who spend a lot of time online, the umbrage over the PR executive's Twitter message seemed overblown. Being responsible feels less about the faux pas and more about doing something good when you can.

In my last post I also mentioned Micheal Arrington being spat upon at the DLD Conference and Jason Calacanis description of IAS--"Internet Asperger's Syndrome." What Arrington and Calacanis are talking about is something different from the Twitter flap. In some ways it seems what they are talking about is something that happens to people who become widely read like they are. But in another way what they are talking about is common and often called cyber-bullying.

There's quite a lot to this. I brought up the shutting down of and the ups and downs of and connected it to what Arrington and Calacanis talked about in their posts. Phil Jones pushed back in the comments saying about Tribe:
I don't remember seeing any bullying or overt threatening behaviour there.
He's right, at least from my experience at Tribe too. was an online social network of do-gooders. While I am not quite so quick to say that bullying wasn't going on there, bullying is far too simple a description for very much more nuanced goings on. I have often thought that would make a great research study of the social dynamics of social networks. Lots of what happens in online social networks isn't obvious, and requires careful research to really understand. Needless to say I haven't done the research.

Calacanis concludes:
"[H]ow we treat each other does matter. It matters because, without empathy, our lives are shallow, self-centered and meaningless."
That's an important observation. Empathy is a huge topic in it's own right. But my thoughts turned in a different direction as I wrote. I knew going down that path would take a bit of time, so I simply published what I had already written.

I've written more than a reasonable length for a blog post already today. So I'll just put sketch out a little towards what I was thinking about. Zbigniew Lukasiak is a really smart guy. He's thought about the decay of online social networks for a long time. Zbigniew has been looking to devise algorithms in the software to make such decay less likely. When I've read some of what he's had to say about it, generally my response has been something very much along the lines of Calacanis's point that we've got to learn to be nicer to each other. But Calacanis's observation didn't seem enough after reading his excellent essay. That lack, and the image of "layering of socio-economic procedures" from the video gave me a glimmer that there's a lot more to the way Zbigniew has been addressing the problem than I've been comprehending.

To finish up this post I want to point to a few links. Last summer I stumbled upon an essay by Gotthard Gunther, Number and Logos: Unforgettable Hours with Warren St. McCulloch. Knowing me even a little, it's obvious there is so much I don't understand. I don't know much about logic. I don't know so much about the problems of logic, merely that there are some. For example, I know that Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell's Principia Mathematica opened important philosophical questions and controversies, but I don't know much about them. More simply I know that timeless logic often becomes self-contradictory when trying to map circular or more complicated sequences of cause and effect. Since circuits are fundamental to electronics and computing, I know that the trouble with logic bothers computer sciences. Alas, yet again I know little about electronics or computer science. I don't really understand Gunther's essay, but it excited me because it seemed to be pointing to new approaches to logic which address some of the problems with classical logic.

The Web site with Gotthard Gunther's essay was put up by Rudolf Kaeher who also has ThinkArt Lab. I'm not sure how, but I'd stumbled upon ThinkArt Lab a few times before reading Gunther's essay and had never known what to make of it.

Remembering how I get to sites isn't always easy, nor is my memory always right. Rarely is the way to a Web site straight forward, generally it involves some sort of pincer movement. I think that I kept arriving at ThinkArt Lab via Paul Ryan, for example this page on Peirce and Work. The funny thing is I don't understand Ryan very well, and he doesn't link to ThinkArt. I was just using searches to try to make the questions I was asking clearer.

If I remember correctly, I landed at one of Kaeher's blogs Rudy's Diamond Strategies with search terms I came up with from reading Paul Ryan and about Charles Sanders Peirce. From Rudy's Diamond Strategies, I linked to another of his blogs The Chinese Challenge. As I had stumbled upon ThinkARt Lab before all of this searching from different directions and ending up there makes me think it's a good idea for me to look around and try to understand why it is I keep discovering the place.

The really big problem is I don't have a very good head for figures. It's a rather general deficit, which includes not being able to follow symbolic notation very well. So the Kaehr's work is very difficult for me to understand. Even with my very rudimentary ability to understand, the work is really, really fascinating.

Before the problems that come up in online social networks seemed to me social problems. I think about social problems in terms of psychology, sociology, political science, etc. Turn again to the discussion between Albert-László Barabási and James Fowler. Fowler is a political scientist studying social and biological links, and Barabási is a physicist who uses mathematics to study networks on the Web. My ideas about the boundaries of academic disciplines are old fashioned. Kaehr's work on polycontextural logics has much to say about how computer scientist design online social networks, but it also reveals something about what it is for people to be social.

Valdis Krebs blogs at TNT--The Network Thinker as well at Network Weaving blog. Here's what they say about the Network Weaving blog:
A social network blog about the creation of robust & vibrant economic and community networks... using network mapping, weaving and leadership development.
Math-challenged as I am, that blog seems like I'd have a better chance understanding than the former. That's probably true.

Participating on social networks makes certain problems visible; issues like bullying and seeing a picture of Michael Phelps with a bong to his mouth. There's some formal and rigorous thinking coming out of the study of online social networks that I'm only dimly becoming aware of. What's less apparent is that formal thinking would have something to offer about such issues. I'm becoming convinced such formal thinking will change how I think about online social networks. I'm not sure how, that's what I'm trying to learn more about.