Wednesday, December 15, 2010

No Dumping

Somewhere recently I read an essay about blog posts condemning exactly the sort of posts I write; saying "No dumping." I can't be arsed to find a link, it looks like I didn't save it anywhere. The weird thing about blog posts is they aren't really conversations, but they do allow for comments and open up the possibility of conversations. My posts are like big question marks without any real sense that someone will answer them.

I write here mostly as a way to put my thoughts in some sort of order. And like the rest of my life my efforts tend more to disorder than to order.

Read Write Web posted a story which mentions a a new favorite tool. My obsession with WikiLeaks can be seem with the links I've saved there. I'm a bit pleased to see the links aren't just WikiLeaks. I use Delicious and have often thought there's a need for good ways to bookmark stuff for my friends using public computers. requires a bookmarklet so it really won't do for that, but there's something simple enough about how it works that it seems on the right track for that sort of thing. Anyhow I do like to use I kept looking at highlights there by "missrogue" and finally followed her to Twitter to discover missrogue is Tara Hunt. I promptly followed her on Twitter.

The past week or so has me addicted to Twitter, primarily as a way to follow the news about WikiLeaks and protests about tuition fee increases in the UK. The Internet is really good for finding others with opinions like our own. It's also good for looking for contrary opinions, but find that part harder. At Twitter I've tried for a a little diversity of opinion with my choices of whom to follow. I haven't been too successful with diversity, really and part of the problem is the links I follow tend to be ones I think I'll be interested in. So even with what diversity there is in my Twitter stream I don't pay enough attention to views very different from my own. Still I try to pay a little attention and glad that Twitter makes that possible.

The photo is of the late Richard Holbrooke the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was not surprising to me that with the news of his death some of the links and comments in my Twitter feed were along the lines of "That bastard!" but I was surprised in going through obituaries and remembrances of him yesterday what seemed a forgone conclusion that Afghanistan is a lost cause. I expected more sentiments like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen:
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Holbrooke's presence would be especially missed this week as the Obama administration finishes its review of the Afghan war, expected Thursday. Mullen said Holbrooke helped write and "deeply believed in" the war strategy.

"That we have been making steady progress in this war is due in no small measure to Richard's tireless efforts and dedication," Mullen said. "I know he would want our work to continue unabated. And I know we will all feel his bully presence in the room as we do so."
Adm. Mullen sent out tweets wishing Holbrooke a speedy recovery after he'd fallen ill. I noted them because General Stanley McCrystal seemed to loathe Holbrooke and that was part of McCrystal's undoing. There's plenty of circumstantial evidence which suggests the military brass hates Obama.

My father is 89 so very much a part of the WWII generation. Towards the end of the Vietnam War almost everyone--despite what many present-day Republicans say--thought the war had been a tragic mistake. Many of the children of the WWII generation got pretty cynical about the USA being a force for good, but I don't really think the WWII generation ever really did. Anyhow my father was interested in the news that Holbrooke had fallen ill. No entirely uncritical of Holbrooke, still in my dad's eyes Holbrooke had a good reputation. I know my dad admires George Mitchell for his diplomacy in the Northern Ireland peace. His sense of a favorable reputation of the two is probably pretty close.

My mother was a New England Republican but Nixon and Vietnam throughly disillusioned her not just about Republican politics but American Empire. She detested Jerry Ford and didn't vote for Reagan. I think my dad has been more conflicted about neoliberalism than she. I shouldn't suggest either one of them had more interest in politics than they have had. The simple point though is my parents, I think typical of their generation, have felt that the USA has tried to act as a force for good internationally even if sometimes the nation fell short of that ideal.

George Bush's re-election in 2004 was in no small part won on the basis of the idea that as a country the USA could be a force for good in the world; as strange as it sounds a force for good in Iraq! I've been against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from the start. My mother died in 2002, but suspect she wouldn't have been in favor of the wars. If my father has sometimes agreed with me in private about my views, he's been uncomfortable about my making them public because they're unpopular. And I've appreciated my father's views as an indication of what people generally are thinking.

Zunguzungu has a post up about Holbrooke where he writes:
The sooner we put his life as the functionary of an amoral state power behind us, the sooner we can bury him and what he represents, the sooner we can close the door on a past that should never have happened the way it did.
Were my mother living perhaps she would have been okay with the notion of "amoral state power," I doubt my father ever will be.

Few of the mainstream remembrances of Holbrooke praised the Afghanistan war in moral terms, Mullen is an outlier in that regard.

It's odd here in the USA how the words "liberal" and "conservative" have become so charged. Neoliberalism is a good term that's hard to use here, I think in part because of the way the words liberal and conservative have come to represent polar opposites. So I think there's a pairing of neoliberal and neoconservative in people's minds where the dichotomy of liberal/conservative is assumed. Really it's more like the neoconservatives are the military wing of the neoliberals.

Richard Holbrooke was certainly a proponent of neoliberalism and a fair reading of his career would seem to make him a neoconservative as well. The sense I got from reading his obituaries and remembrances of him is neoliberals are wary of trumpeting their position these days. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars really don't make any sense and people are wondering how we got into them in the first place. It's not that I detect much serious opposition emerging, it's just the wars have made it more unpopular to praise the neoconservative project.

Republicans will take control of the House of Representatives in the new year and the Democratic party majority in the Senate is quite fragile. Josh Marshall notes that the public has more confidence in President Obama to solve problems than they do congressional Republicans. He notes that in two recent shifts of power in congress, 1994 when Republicans took the lead and in 2004 when Democrats did there was more confidence in congress by big margins than the president.

Despite the political polarization of popular opinion, neoconservatism has seemed up to now a big tent with both Republicans and Democrats under it. President Obama's escalation of the Afghanistan war was hardly a surprise as he campaigned on the issue--still it seems to have taken some by surprise. I suppose it's not surprising that Republicans didn't step up to praise Holbrooke, but on the other hand not doing so feeds the opinion abroad in the land that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't in the national interest. The Republicans are vested in their militarism, so much so they take support for it for granted. I wonder if they are smart to do so?

68% of Americans in polling say WikiLeaks has hurt the USA and 59% want Julian Assange arrested. I'm not sure what that means. An awful lot of Americans seemed in favor of the wars motivated by revenge and these numbers about Assange suggest a similar knee-jerk response.

Representative Eric Cantor will become the Majority Leader in the House. Shortly after the November elections he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and told Netanyahu that the Republicans will "serve as a check" on the Obama administration. Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in the House. The Republican House leadership will have to contend with a substantial contingent of the Tea Party in their ranks. That contingent has nativism, racism and antisemitism baked-in. The senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell said after the election that the main goal of congressional Republicans will be to deny Obama re-election in 2012.

I find president Obama's neoliberalism and militarism noxious. But I'm rather surprised by the Republican leadership urge to cripple the president; especially if I'm right that there is an increasing reluctance for Americans to identify strongly with neoliberalism as the prospects of good outcomes of the wars grow dim.

Digby at Hullabaloo is a very smart observer of the American political scene. She has pointed out numerous times the intense political ambition of General David Petraeus. Digby links to an article by Michael Brenner a professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh about Petraeus. While hardly ever mentioned as a possible Republican candidate for president in 2012, he is often described as politically ambitious in the press. Bob Woodward reports that in the development of the escalation plans in Afghanistan
During a flight in May, after a glass of wine, Petraeus told his own staffers that the administration was “fucking with the wrong guy.”
If the Republicans are intent on destroying Obama both in his conduct of foreign and domestic policy with an ambitious general in the wings, it would seem to me to risk the broad acceptance by the public of the big-tent of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism can be summed up in the nutshell-slogan: "More power to the corporation!"

Obama has hewed closely to the neoliberal agenda, while rage from the fallout over massive financial sector abuse has simmered. George Bush frequently joked that it would be a lot easier if he were dictator. There's little doubt that captains of industry might agree with him about the usefulness of dictators. It may be there's a steady plan toward that end in progress. My hunch is that Americans are just stumbling towards dictatorship carelessly.

Adm. Mullen was quick to praise Holbrooke and to emphasize that Holbrooke was fully in support of the war. The absence of many others saying as much suggests to me that the support for the effort is waning. Mullen was suggesting that the civilians are in charge of the policy. While it is certainly true that both parties are in the thrall of the military complex, the open question is how the politics will play out when this sentiment against the war turn from a simmer to a boil?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Capitalism and Four Antagonisms

Last night I was chatting online with a thirty-something friend. I knew December 8, 2010 is was the thirtieth anniversary of the murder of John Lennon and there would be a buzz about it. So I asked my friend if he'd ever heard of John Lennon. The answer was that the name didn't ring a bell. I said that Lennon had been a member of the band called The Beatles. He said I follow music much more than he.

Next time we talk I'll have to ask if he's ever heard of Elvis Presley. I bet he has, going on music I know he likes and also the quite possibly wrong premise that Elvis is an international icon.

My friend David Pohl pursued art adventures exploring Elvis. David has an encyclopedic knowledge popular music. The Elvis adventures involved deep reading, travel and emersion in the subject. His Elvis Set provides a sample of some of the art he created (David's Etsy Shop, House of PingTing).

Here's what he says about the set:
This series of images reflects on the mythology of America's king Elvis Presley. 30 years after his death, Elvis continues to mirror the times, reflecting what is both good and bad about American society. The rise and fall of Elvis reflects what has happened or can potentially happen to us, both individually and collectively.
I'm afraid mentioning Elvis is quite off-topic from what I intend to talk about, it's just I can't quite figure out what people mean when they call Slavoj Žižek "the Elvis of cultural theory."

It's easy to associate only with people who share your interests online, in fact the social part of the Internet make this homophily inevitable to some degree. So I've heard words to the effect, "Everyone knows who Žižek is." I'm not so sure about that, what I am sure is people who think they know generally seem to have strong opinions about him. The comparison to Elvis or a rock star probably has less to do with his notoriety, while great doesn't extend so far as popular music artists, but rather to the strong reactions his speaking provokes.

I snagged the picture from the Zeitgeist Films page for the 2005 Astra Taylor film Žižek!. That page has some further links.

I haven't read any of his books so I can hardly provide very much useful commentary about Slavoj Žižek (SLA-voy ZHEE-zhek) but I recently watched a talk he gave posted at the Lacan Dot Com Blog. In the talk he spoke of four antagonism to capitalism and I thought I'd try to sketch those out briefly. The lecture is split among several videos and the bits I'm talking about are mostly in the 3rd and 4th videos at the Lacan blog.

Definitions are always tricky. A short definition of capitalism might be:
An Economic system based on private ownership of captial.
That's probably an noncontroversial definition and I suspect that people who would quibble with it would suggest that capitalism is not only an economic system but a social system as well. It's a good point, but that's where controversy floods in. I think definitions for "socialism" and "communism" are harder to find consensus about because the aspect of a social system seems baked into them. The simple definition for capitalism seems sufficient for understanding Žižek's antagonisms.

The first antagonism is Democracy.

The second antagonism is intellectual property which he also describes as "symbols of social substance."

The third antagonism is bio-genetic property, for example Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

The forth antagonism are slums or apartheid.

Žižek notes that the first three antagonisms all represent conflict between the commons and capitalism's ownership of property.

Žižek points out that the prevalent way of linking capitalism to democracy is not a necessary linkage. He notes that China's market economy is not antagonistic to authoritarian governance. Democracy presumes a consensus with political power derived from the people which is not necessary to capitalism. Nevertheless democracy requires a commons to arrive at consensus.

The antagonism to capitalism by intellectual property is illustrated by noting Bill Gates as an anomaly. Likening market oscillations to a heart beat Žižek notes that extreme concentration or monopoly produce oscillations resembling a heart attack.

Bio-genetic property provides antagonism not only from the social ethics involved with the creation of new life forms, but internal changes to people themselves. Intellectual property provokes antagonisms in re external nature whereas bio-genetic property in re internal nature.

Each of these three present contradictions of what people hold in common and what is made private property. He also notes that governments as well as commerce make private property which intrudes on the commons.

Slums are where the excluded live, with the commons made property a chasm between the excluded and included create antagonisms. With each of the three antagonisms related to the commons, slums are the visible result of wide swaths of people not integrated into governance, the symbolic social substance of society nor the social ethics entailed in bio-genetic manipulations.

He does a much better job discussing these ideas than my summary suggests.

This week I've been obsessed with my Twitter feed. A good deal of that obsession stems form an interest about what people are saying about WikiLeaks. Titter is used by about 8% of online Americans with about of them viewing at least once a day. Lots of people, but a small percentage of Americans. What's more because people choose who they follow the content of Twitter streams are quite variable.

At Facebook I've got a few friends who follow and post Tea Party links. So I get to hear that "Obama is a socialist." presented with real acrimony.

Among the other subjects that has had me obsessed with Twitter this week involves fiscal issues and a tax deal which Obama made with the Republicans this week. I do get that social democracy has few followers in the USA. Nonetheless there is very broad support for Social Security. Among the political class there's a steady march towards very substantial restructuring of Social Security which alarms almost everyone paying attention to the issue.

American author Gore Vidal in a book, Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays 1973–1976, wrote:
There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party...and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt—until recently... and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.
The observation, "there is no difference between the two parties" is kind of a sore spot for many, for one thing there was the role Ralph Nader's presidential campaign played in the 2000 election. There are many other reasons that a difference seems to make a difference even while admitting the kernel of truth that there is only one party, "the property party" or "the money party."

It seems absurd to think president Obama a socialist. The polarization of political rhetoric is extraordinarily frustrating. I'm not interested in arguing against Obama with Tea Party folks, because I'm none too happy with the present politics either. I am interested in discussing the some of the issue raised by Žižek's four antagonisms. I don't need to refer to Žižek, socialism nor communism in such discussions, but it's rather hard not to mention capitalism or the system of property. It's damned hard to get past the hollering about party politics. I'm still trying to dream up ways to initiate and participate in conversations. Mostly I fail.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

You See What You Want

A couple of weekends ago I had the pleasure of spending a little time with an old friend I've rarely seen over the last twenty-five years. In reminiscing and catching up she asked me if I remembered her daughter's birthday party who was five or six at the time. I did remember the party, but was taken aback by her relating a memory from it. Apparently I'd tied-up one of her nephews, who was 10 or 12 years old then. She laughed remembering him flailing and rolling around in the grass. I don't remember that, but I'm sure it's true.

A few summers ago with a family visit here I was effusive in praise of one of my little nieces not allowing herself to be tricked into barking by me. Most of my nieces and nephews are adults now and it's only in their adulthood that I've come to know I was the source of much childhood terror by telling them ghost stories. At first I was incredulous that I had told them ghost stories, but their relating the stories prompted immediate recognition.

An older niece scolded me about trying to trick my younger niece into barking, pointing out that it wasn't nice to make someone seem foolish for my own amusement. She made a good point. Even though I'd managed to trick my sister-in-law into barking and other animal sounds, her wily daughter wouldn't be duped. But the whole charade from my perspective wasn't solely for my amusement; it was more to the idea that a family who howls together is happy. Likewise I'd tied up the boy as a Houdini escape challenge. I feel sure that I knew he would escape with some effort. The pay out was that his escape would bring adulation from the five and six year old party-goers.

This is the silly post has giving me writers block. I'm not sure where I want to go with it, all I know is that I seem to have a lot on my mind. Yet have a hard time developing a story. The best think is probably to simply delete the post; what I'm afraid of is that won't stop the block. So I think I'll put together some links.

The title of this entry comes from a favorite song by Zap Mama Nostalgie Amoureuse

The picture is from a report--links in this précis--by the IEA International Energy Agency. Click on the image to see it larger. It's a graphic that may not provoke a sense of panic in others as it did me.

Lately I've been using a fun Internet tool called It's quite simple and the How Does It Work link at the site is brilliant for it's brevity. I'll give the wrong impression of it with too many word, but here goes. provides a bookmarklet for your browser. It allows you to select a section of text from an article or Web site. A popup window makes it easy to assign tags as well as to edit a tweet which includes a shortened URL. It will then put your highlight on the site along with any tags you've assigned. The first page provides the highlights from various users in chronological order. Each highlight has a little bird you can click on to tweet other's highlights. People who click on the tweets are taken directly to the page where the highlight comes from along with an obvious to close popup of the highlight. It sounds complicated but is easy and obvious in use.

I don't often find myself asking myself, "What did I tweet today?" and then looking, which is easy to do. I do sometimes look over things I've linked to over time at Facebook. And I find that I enjoy looking over the highlights I've made. The highlights are not date stamped. I remember posting three to day which I'll share and the one just before which I posted last night.
“As the cybernetician Stafford Beer once said to me: “If we can understand our children, we’re all screwed.”
Brian Eno "What Happens Next?". . . and then:
“Telling students that they can’t read or discuss the primary documents is “absolutely contrary to any decent practice in international affairs or any other field of study,” Sick said."
Gary Sick who received his PhD in political science from Columbia in 1973 about warnings communicated from the State Department against discussing WikiLeaks. . .and then:
“the system has become so ossified politically that there is practically no way for such nonconformity to be implemented within its official structures”
That's from selections of Vaclav Havel's 1978 essay "The Power of the Powerless". . . and finaly:
“What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.”
Jimmy Carter July, 1979 speech, The "Crisis of Confidence".

I highlighted at various times of the day, so there were hours between posting each of these highlights. Each article was different stuff before and after, yet at the end of the day what's posted seems to have a common thread.

I have no idea whether will find a following. It would be very different if a lot of people do, a world-view collection of great sentences. Well, there may be problems to scaling. But seems quite fun now. I didn't mention that there's a tag cloud at the top of the page. It's easy to see pages of highlights by tag name. So far my favorite thing to do is to look at pages of highlights sorted by user. is worth looking at.

Okay well I think I got this post as a writer's block out of the way.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Gregory Bateson

I've been having writer's block for the last three weeks. I've been trying to find in my mind a way to combine my ordinary banal stories with Slavoj Zizek, the quality without a name, peak oil and the relationships between common general worldviews. Just listing the topics in a row makes it obvious why the post isn't coming together--geez. On top of my thinking about a blog post that won't come together, events with WikiLeaks have been unfolding and occupying my attention.

Sometimes it takes a while for me to get the utility of various Web sites and services. I was signed up at Twitter for a long time before finding it interesting. What changed my opinion about Twitter was when the G20 Meeting was held in Pittsburgh. On the last night there was a major police action in the Oakland section of town, that's where CMU and the University of Pittsburgh are located. I tuned into Twitter for reports about the G20 Meetings and by the time heavy hitting went down I was convinced of its importance. Lately I think I'm probably paying too much attention to my Twitter stream in response to WikiLeaks.

There's a heavy hand of government to suppress news about the recent release of some USA State Department cables marked "confidential." Certainly some news of the release and about WikiLeaks has been disseminated in the mainstream media, especially in opinion pieces. But there is a sufficiently coordinated effort by the government of the USA to control news about them that it's hard to gage to what degree my fellow Americans know the story.

In October news of Robo-Signers got a little traction in the press. I'm no expert in law or economics, but it seemed to me that the story was important in the larger context of the economy, politics and law. But most people I know don't get news primarily online. I found it incredibly difficult to explain why it seemed like such a big deal. Part of the difficulty it seemed to me followed something like this: If it's such a big deal, then why aren't I reading about it in the newspaper and seeing reports on TV? To which I can only wonder why too, but part of it surely has to do with the differences between how news is delivered via newspapers and TV versus on the Internet. For me the implications to the economy from mortgage fraud seem huge, but for most people I've talked with about it the big issue seems to be the people who took out the mortgages on homes. Primarily that's how it's been covered in the mainstream press.

The latest Time cover has a photo of Julian Assange with American Flag duct tape gagging his mouth. The thesis of the cover story written by Massimo Calabresi is:
Rouge activist Julian Assange wants to curb government secrecy, but his massive leak of classified U.S. diplomatic cables is undermining the Obama Administration's efforts to do just that.
The premise has a kernel of truth. One of the first things Obama did as president was to issue a Transparency and Open Government Directive. Not unpredictably the response has been mixed. Notably neither the Department of Justice, which is charged with the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, nor the Office of Management and Budget, which is charged with overseeing large portions of this Open Government Directive, have produced viable responses to it. I haven't found any reporting suggesting that these failures have had any repercussions or that Obama still has any interest in the matter. Certainly the authoritarian responses of the administration, government agencies, and elected Representatives of the government to WikiLeaks making .002% of the State Department cables public suggests Obama has little taste for openness nowadays.

My government's responses to the current WikiLeaks embroiglilo truly frightens me. The State Department has warned students not to discuss WikiLeaks on Twitter and Facebook. The Department of Defense has ordered soldiers under penalty of law about even reading public accounts of them. These actions are just the tip of the iceberg. Glenn Greenwald has a post with more links. Public opinion is bound to become even more polarized when the government attempts to forbid discussion of important news by threats of force. It's a dramatic shift from "-- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." (Video here of the Gettysburg Address)

As always I'm too long in the preliminaries. The picture is from a short video clip on a kinescope of an appearance By Gregory Bateson on TV in the 1950's. I was introduced to Bateson's book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind in 1974 and have been reading it ever since. My copy is battered and falling apart.

"Steps to an Ecology of Mind" is a fascinating book because it's a collection of writing over a fairly long swath of Bateson's career. The Wikipedia article notes that Bateson was an "anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist whose work intersected that of many other fields." So the articles proceed from the perspective of various fields, but taken together suggest a unified focus, if only able to be seen in retrospect. What Bateson was interested in is "the pattern which connects."

As the heat was being turned up on WikiLeaks I was reminded of a lecture that Bateson had given at "Two Worlds Symposium" at Sacramento State College in 1966 entitled From Versailles to Cybernetics" published in the book. I looked to see whether I could find the chapter "liberated" somewhere on the Internet. Excerpts are and there appear to be several sources for the entire book in illegal digital form--I seem to have downloaded a RTF file of the book translated into Italian while looking. But I couldn't find a good link to the article so I'll have to tell a little about it.

Bateson begins by saying that the proverb:
"The fathers have eaten bitter fruit and the children's teeth are set on edge."
and a statement by James Joyce:
"history is that nightmare from which there is no awakening."
had echoed in his mind as he prepared for the talk. Bateson identified two events of the 20th century to that point that had been especially important. As the title of his lecture says these two events are the Treaty of Versailles and the development of cybernetics as a discipline.

Bateson viewed the Treaty of Versailles as a gross betrayal of humanity. He notes that people care less about episodes and care very much about patterns of relationships. If "all is fair in love and war" it doesn't follow that treachery in a truce or peacemaking is fair. The betrayal at Versailles demoralized Germany but also the allied powers who perpetrated it. This change in attitude, "unfair whiplash" set the stage for the tragedies of World War II and more troubles.

Bateson identified cybernetics as the other significant event of the 20th century:
Cybernetics is, at any rate, a contribution to change--not simply a change in attitude, but even a change in the understanding of what attitude is.
Bateson was hopeful that cybernetics might make people more able to change the rules in such ways to break the cycle of violence stemming from Versailles which he likened to the house of Atreus in Greek tragedy. But he was not a cyber-Utopian, rather he was sure that cybernetics held dangers of its own. He wrote:
We do not know, for example, what effects may follow from the computerization of all government dossiers.
There are many complex and subtle issues regarding WikiLeaks, the issues are precisely the sort that require conversations. The polarization about the leaks where one end supports authoritarian control over the conversations--there can be none--strikes me a huge attitude change at least for Americans. It's this shift that tells me that how WikiLeaks has become so controversial is extremely significant. My position is poles apart thinking the only responsible approach is more speech about WikiLeaks. Note that I'm not saying we need more leaks, or that governments ought not to be privileged to keep secrets. The suppression of discussion by government is the appalling change. The privilege of the government to keep secrets follows the consent of the governed.

Governments contend that they need to deliberate in private confidence which seems reasonable within limits. It's an entirely different matter when my government conspires to suppress public deliberation. That's precisely the concerted response of American officials and private business leaders to the recent WikiLeaks release of a tiny portion of confidential correspondences vetted by respected international news organizations. I'm horrified that so many of my fellow citizens side with this effort to make public deliberations under the purview of private hands in the government. It's completely flips the relationship between the people's sovereignty over the government. How that's okay, I cannot even begin to fathom.

Nora Bateson has made a documentary film about her father called "An Ecology of Mind" which was released just recently. Here's a review of the film, the Facebook Page and the film's Web site. One of the quotes from Bateson used in the film is:
The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.
The issues of WikiLeaks and responses to it have very much to do with the way people think. Nevertheless Bateson is right to point out the danger in the disconnnect between how nature works and the way we think. WikiLeaks draws attention to the urgency with which we ought to address the way that we think. The suppression of speech in this matter makes it all the harder to address the major problems facing us all.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Some Links I Liked

I found myself responding in a thread somewhere today when I should have been making paper hats I've promised to make. I'm afraid my comment will annoy the few who will read it there. I generally don't cross-post, in part because where I wrote it there's an odd wiki mark-up convention which means I have to fiddle around with the text. Not meaning to annoy, in fact I liked these links and wanted to share them.

This discussion of scaling is interesting. As some of you already know I've stopped thinking by myself and just think links these days ;-)

The rise in inequality is something that concerns me a lot, and I think there's lots of reasons too much inequality is a very bad thing. I also think constructal theory is pretty cool. So I groaned when I read The Tea Party's weird science in the Washington Examiner.

The Examiner is owned by Philip Anschutz, a really rich guy, who we might say is "all about scaling."

I think it gets a bit tricky when physical laws are applied to social systems. I think physical science informs the social, but it's a common hazard not to see the trickiness. Anyhow I am discomforted that the Tea Party bigwigs have discovered constructal law and the rule of thumb: “few large, many small.” But I go along with the usefulness of the rule.

Robert Patterson has a really great piece on scaling Twitter and the Dunbar Number. Lawrence Goodwyn pointed to Thomas Jefferson in an article The Great Predicament Facing Obama about scale and democracy:
I refer now to Jefferson's understanding that democratic relations need a political home that was literally close to home. He advocated for what he called "ward republics" to be organized across the land. He suggested that each republic be kept small, not more than 100 people, so that in the aggregate thousands of them could form the structural base of the political nation. In fact, his most elegant term of description was not "ward republic" but rather "elementary republic."
When we think of scale and enterprise most of the time we think about the right size and arrangement of people in the company. The reference between the company and customers is thought to be adequately conveyed in terms of a measure of money. I think this view falls short, indeed it is the essence of greed.

The focus is "You can't manage what you don't measure." That quote is generally attributed to W. Edward Deming. The Wikipedia article on Deming points out that Deming didn't say that and in fact gets what Deming did say wrong.

The thing is in systems and organizations there's a constant interplay between Structure/State and Flux/Event.

Ivan Illich made an important observation about schooling, which applies to how we think of business too:
Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success.
Deming was keen for businesses not to be so confused.

Implicit in the Washington Examiner piece about the Tea Party and constructal theory is an argument in favor of inequality. Or to put it another way that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is a measure of success. Such inequality reveals a natural law!

Deming knew that much of what matters most cannot be measured. He knew that wisdom makes a difference. That dollars don't add up to wisdom, wisdom isn't quantitative at all.

Control in the Tea Party version of business and Government is often seen as the function of the big men--most often men--extracting rents by virtue of size--they are the key nodes of a vascular system. In contrast, Deming and later-day system thinkers know that control is actually an interplay between feedback and calibration; an interplay of form and process. "Scale" isn't the same as "size." Sometimes less is more. Escalation does not always lead to success but to often to catastrophe.

Wisdom lies in not confusing process with substance. And in not focusing too much on processes without regard to form, or the other way around. Wisdom isn't out there hard and fast. Wisdom is like dancing, in the interplay and relationships.

Monday, November 08, 2010

What do masks reveal?

The picture is a screen shot from the video Bling Bling Panda masked Nigerian musician, Lágbájá, Bisade Ologunde. I saw the video via Dangerous Minds. I was interested how Ologunde becomes Lágbájá, which means something like "a common man" by way of the mask.

American musician Johnny Cash performed in black clothing and explained his reasons in the song Man in Black
just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back/ up front there ought to be a Man in Black
Easy enough not to notice a Man in Black, harder to ignore a Masked Man.

I liked the video Bling Bling Panda a lot and if you're inclined to view videos it's worth your while. The story in the video follows a teenager's quest to be accepted by peers through acquiring bling bling. The boy comes to Lágbájá to complain and what is offered in turn to him seems all wrong, not the right kind of bling, but is right in a way too.

Last night I watched an interview of Tariq Ramadan by Harry Kreisler. Kreisler is the director of Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and has a long-running televsion program called Conversations with History. There are over 450 episodes at YouTube with fascinating people. Ramadan noted in the interview that religion cannot exist outside of culture but that religion and culture are different.

When people ask about my religious belief I say that I don't believe in God; or if they ask to describe that in terms of who I am, I say I'm agnostic. Often people say they don't believe me. I once told a friend, "I am not a Christian." He replied: "You can no more be not a Christian than I can be not a Jew." He then added with a grin, "I guess I can not be not-Christian either." This notion of being culturally Christian is complicated.

I was brought up in the Anglican tradition of Christianity. Anglicans are paedobaptists. That sound awful doesn't it? All that it means is that Anglicans baptize infants. While I have no memory of it I was baptized as a baby. Part of the ritual the priest marks on the forehead of the child the sign of the cross and proclaims:
you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever.
So I don't remember my own baptism but surely remember many baptisms. In the history of Christianity there's a great deal of persecution over the idea of baptism as it's fundamental to Christianity. So not speaking precisely theologically, rather more practically, here's one way baptism has influence me culturally. I saw babies marked as Christ's own and that's made me think of people as equal.

Because Anglicans baptize infants there is another ritual around the time kids are entering puberty. After a period of instruction in Christianity kids are confirmed, a ritual more or less repeating baptism where this time a bishop lays his hands upon the heads of kids. As children one of the things we have to learn about Christianity--there is a long list of questions we have to answer-- is the answer to the question: "What are the sacraments?" The answer in part is: "The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace..." Baptism is a sacrament and so there is a quality of it that is like: Don't look at my finger, but rather look to where my finger is pointing.

The shorter version of how baptism has impressed upon me the equality of people is in the notion "We are all God's children." Surely that's not the only lesson people might take from baptism, but it's not one peculiar only to me. While for various reasons I say truthfully that I am agnostic about my belief in God, I also have to admit that my belief in the equality of all people is fundamental to me and in this religious way.

My friend was pointing out how Christianity is rooted in me. He was pointing out both that we, growing up as we have, are culturally Christian, and that teasing out culture from religion isn't as straight forward as we might expect.

My friend recently attended his 40th high school reunion and a running theme there was being told he was the first Jew any of them had ever met. It's the sort of observation for biting ones tongue, but he wanted to say he was different in so many ways they don't know. My friend married a woman from a family of atheist, and my friend in his adult life has never been a practicing Jew. Their daughter grew up among Christians, although labeled a Jew. It was only in her first year of college she got to know Jewish kids. I smiled when she told me: This is how I describe myself. I'm Jew"ish."

The seams of religion and culture are not easy to tear apart.

Tariq Ramadan is a Swiss philosopher and theologian, a professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University. He is also the grandson of Hassan al-Banna the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Muslim revivalist organization. Ramadan was infamously denied a visa to enter the country after an appointment to teach at Notre Dame. Ramadan notes that he's culturally-Western and religiously-Muslim. He's a French-speaker, an Arabic-speaker and an English-speak. He is many differnt things. We all are.

Lágbájá is masked but like every pop star there's intense interest in his private life and gossip about it. There's an amusing story where he goes to the hospital to see a friend, another famous musician, but he arrives as Bisade Ologunde without a mask. The nurses won't give him the time of day and certainly won't allow him to visit his friend. The next day he comes to visit as Lágbájá and is ushered to his friend's bed side.

The mask obscures and reveals. One one level of course it's a gimmick, a device to be a character. But on another level obscuring his identities allows some semblance of truth about his real self. This is a part of a quality without a name. All which we identify ourselves by is not the same, or the sum total, of our being.

I found Zizek's lecture Materialism and Theology quite thought provoking. Towards the end he asks rhetorically: "What dies on the cross for me?" While he's been talking for forty minutes about theology, his posing still surprised me a little bit. Zizek is an atheist, but the question isn't posed from an objective distance but rather in a genuinely religious frame. He's not putting on a mask to mock religion, but rather to see through a religious perspective. That makes a difference.

Mary Midgley has a recent piece at Eurozine, Against humanism. And there's an essay at SSRC by Eduardo Mendieta, Religion as a catalyst of rationalization concerning Jurgen Habermas and religion in the public sphere. Zizek explicitly takes on Habermas in his lecture. The area of disagreement concerns Zizek's views on ontology which I'll write about another time. Midgley isn't explicitly mentioned by Zizek.

Youtube comments too often are mean. There are some remarks by Wolfgang Schirmacher the program director at the European Graduate School where Zizek presented his lecture. Many of the comments in re Schirmacher are to the effect: "What an ass!" But I appreciated the fact that Schirmacher directly responded to Zizek's religious framing. Zizek makes light of his irritation with Schirmacher, but suffice it to say Zizek framing is a little odd. Midgley makes an interesting point in her essay:
The language that has been developed over the centuries for talking about the mental and spiritual side of life is not some feeble, amateurish "folk-psychology". It is a highly sophisticated toolbox adapted for just that difficult purpose
It seems to me that Zizek finds the tools in the box useful so Schirmacher questioning whether he ought to be using those tools seem inconvenient to ask. Zizek is implying the question "Who is God?" matters very much and Schirmacher responds, one atheist to another: "Oh really?" (Neither are genuine quotes, but I dont think distort the exchange.)

Of course the question: Who is God? has never been simple to answer. Indeed even the word "god" is problematic as is certainly true naming. Donning a mask Bisade Ologunde becomes every man, Lágbájá. He is less a character than a question: Is there is anybody's children who can tell me: what is the soul of a man? (Bruce Cockburn video) The quality without a name is is vital.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Rambling On

A picture of me :-) Some people say that when we're in costume, like for Halloween, we're more our real selves. It's something along the lines that a mask can show something that's true about ourselves but is not otherwise able to be seen.

I'm not sure what my problem is, but I never seem to be able to think up a costume for Halloween. I had a poncho and a cowboy hat too and a friend helpfully suggested that I was Juan Valdez, a fictional character to advertise Columbian coffee. I was happy that how I was dressed could even mildy be construed as a costume, as I was wearing clothing I ordinarily wear. But the costume did not reveal the truth that I'm actually a fictional character; or did it?

Anyhow it's nice to have a picture. I haven't yet tried to put any pictures from my camera onto my computer. I have an old digital camera that has a resolution of less than 2 pixels, nowadays it seems cameras, even cheap ones have 12. And besides, I'm not good at taking pictures. But I really like pictures and always want to post them here.

Lately I've not posted anything to my Hats for Health blog. The premise of that blog is that people need clean water and we need more parties. To the first point: well obviously! I thought that people making party hats might be a way to raise money for water and sanitation initiatives. So far not so good. Paper party hats could only raise a little money and that's why the second part is so important. We need more parties because it's at parties we can talk about the really important things. Killing two birds with one stone, the idea of paper party hats for health.

I'm so lazy that often I will Google for a URL so I can copy and paste rather than just typing. When I just did that I discovered a site of a hat maker who gives some of the proceeds for cancer patient care.

I'm not sure who took the photograph as I got it from another friend. But I think the photo was taken by Teresa Foley, who I met for the first time at the party. Teresa was in costume, some sort of magical autumnal sprite, although I should have inquired about her costume. I didn't think to inquire because I heard her talking about one of her very cool projects Locally Toned and wanted to hear more about that. When I visited the blog I saw a link to a video she made telling about the project at the Waffle Shop.

The Waffle Shop is so cool, yet another great effort to co-produce culture. It's a real restaurant with a talk show which can also be engaged on line. So both Teresa Foley's Locally Toned, The Waffle Shop and it's sister restaurant Conflict Kitchen--now serving Iranian take out--are ways to get people to make something good together and be together in something good. That's what my hats are about too.

A friend has parties where he deftly V-jays recorded music performances. For many years now he's organized, with help from his friends, a big party to raise money for the Pittsburgh Food Bank. I was delighted to be asked to make some hats for the party.

I really want to get to a post about Zisek's lecture Materialism and Theology. There's a general thread about the quality without a name I'm trying to say something about. I think this quality without a name is very important when it comes to culture. There is also a thread of the metaphor of culture as software going on. I want ot contrast Gregory Bateson, Slavoj Zizek and Jack Balkin on one hand with Douglass Rushkoff, Terrance McKenna and John Lilly on the other. But I'm stuck.

Something that both Lilly and McKenna had in common was meeting entities while under the influence of psychoactive drugs. I thought of this and thought that I could elide the topic. It's not easy to talk about how we know, that is to talk about epistemology, even when there's general agreement about the nature of things or the basic ground of reality, that is ontology. But Zizek's talk deals to a great extent with ontology. Yikes, I find myself in over my head the more I think about it. I'm sure that won't prevent me from taking a stab, but not tonight.

This week there were elections in the USA and that's had me depressing about it. A friend's mother passed away this week and I caught a nasty cold. The Halloween party I attended last Saturday was the bright spot. At root there's so much wrong. Early on doing this blog I read that when G. I. Gurdjieff was asked what we can do in the face of evil, he replied:
Create something good.
That's been something of a slogan here. I am depressed about politics, but it cheered me to go to a party and especially to meet Teresa Foley for the first time. People coming together to make something good is truly a positive way to respond when so much is wrong.

Friday, October 29, 2010

What I Think

What I think hardly matters to anybody but me. Anyone who has read almost anything I've written knows that I'm quite naive. Still, I find my online excursions thought provoking and wonder about the ideas I encounter. The nice thing about blogs is that there is a space way out here on the long tail where I can ruminate about and point to what interests me without being told to often not to speak about what I don't know; simply because so few people see what I write. It's also nice that online is a social space and by sometimes sharing what I think on my blog at least I needn't be completely anonymous to others, especially others whose blogs I leave too-long comments on.

Christopher Alexander's idea of the quality without a name seems very important to me, but I find it hard to talk about it. Part of the difficulty is the absurdity of "the quality without a name" is the name of a quality without a name. And of course part of the difficulty is that I haven't really thought out why this idea seems so important to me carefully.

Recently I've been talking about computers, because I got a new one. But I'm also very interested in general by technologies: How the upsides are rarely clearly envisioned in advance, but can only be seen in retrospect, and that the downsides are almost always unintended.

For the last couple of weeks I've been thinking of a contrast of two views about culture. The first from Constitutional Law scholar J.M. Balkin's book Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology. Here's a short snippet taken from the first chapter here:
Cultural software does not merely obscure; it also clarifies. It does not merely limit the imagination but empowers it as well. The theory of cultural software thus rejects a uniformly pejorative conception that views ideology as a disease or a decrepit form of human thought. In the theory of cultural software, the mechanisms of ideological thought are the mechanisms of everyday thought. In this theory, truth and falsity, deception and empowerment enter through the same door
. The second view is that of ethnobotanist and psychonaut Terrence McKenna:
This is something, culture is not your friend. Culture is for other people's convenience and the convenience of various institutions, churches, companies, tax collection schemes, what have you. It is not your friend. It insults you. It disempowers you. It uses and abuses you. None of us are well treated by culture.
Not in the partial written transcript at that link, but ending the video clip posted there, the question was asked: "How do we fight back?" McKenna answers:
By creating art...By putting the art pedal to the metal we really maximize our humanness and become much more necessary and incomprehensible to the machines.
Both authors have spoken about what to make of our thoughts using the metaphor of computer software. Both are pointing out the importance of freedom and that's something important about the quality without a name.

My general temperament aligns me more closely with Balkin's use of the metaphor of software as applied to culture. His chapter begins with a metaphor from the Talmud:
God knew that He was finished with the task of creation, He endeavored to bring into existence everything that might be needed later on. At the end of this list of necessary items is a curious addition: the first set of tongs, for, as the Talmud tells us, tongs can only be made with other tongs.
Central to Balkin's conception of cultural software is the idea of "a tool that can be made only from another tool." Balkin locates cultural software in us, which seems pretty convincing. But I'm left wondering how to account for network effects and the observation that Balkin's metaphor of software seems to depend on a pre-Internet notion of what software is. Nevertheless, Balkin is speaking about a rather formal way of thinking, or is speaking in formal language, which is more in my comfort zone than where McKenna is coming from.

I haven't read Douglass Rushkoff's book Program or be Programmed, but I have seen a few videos and read a few Web pages about it. I'm not sure the connections I make are very good, but more generally connect Rushkoff to McKenna in re these quotes. The point about Balkin's fromal language is about outward forms or structure. McKenna, Rushkoff and Lilly--I'll get to him--pay more heed to processes than structure.

Terrence McKenna died in 2000 and I only discovered him in the last year or so. I'm not sure how I missed him before. In 2005 I went to an Afrobeats night at a local club and met some nice young folks who suggested that I connect with them through I think I probably was already on Friendster, but never connected with anyone there, so it seems like Tribe was my first exposure to online social networks. Very lively discussions there and I soon got a vivid picture of myself on the other side of a generation gap. Because there was so much discussion going on at Tribe then, there was ample opportunity for me to learn more and to begin bridging the gap. But it goes to show how clueless I still am not to have stumbled upon McKenna and his ideas directly at Tribe.

At there were ideas which in one way or another people were talking about back in the seventies, but the vocabulary and orientations to these ideas had changed. Because I've been lately thinking about the ideas which struck me as important in the 1970's and have continued to think about, I was reminded of John Lilly's book "Simulations of God." I lost my copy along the way but found a place to download it here.

I mentioned in a previous post that writing a philosophy paper about Kierkegaard was very hard for me--my paper was exasperating to my professor. It was hard because I was thinking of studying social science of one sort or another and "objectivity" and "subjectivity" and notions about them were driving me nuts. I've got a textbook on my shelf by Robert E. Ornstein, "The Nature of Human Consciousness." The old saw goes something like "If you can remember the sixties, you weren't there." I think that applies to the seventies too. Anyhow I can't remember what course the textbook is from. I think it was probably from a course in what was then the School of Library and Information Sciences, entitled "Cybernetics." I'm embarrassed to say that I walked out of the class after a session about defining "information" after asking the sophmoric question: "Then what is wisdom?"

I regret not having paid better attention in school. Nonetheless while not articulating the hard problem of consciousness in quite the way it's stated today, and without paying attention to my studies, I'd concluded even then that human consciousness was a hard problem. Lazy as I am I tend to put hard problems aside. That's probably why I don't still have my copy of "Simulations of God" even though I remember it impressed me back in the day.

Mary Catherine Bateson speaking of her father Gregory wrote:
[I]t seems that we have the capacity to be wrong in rather creative ways--so wrong that this world we cannot understand may become one in which we cannot live. But it is important to remember in this context Gregory's commitment to the principle of double description. The richest knowledge of the tree includes both myth and botany. Apart from Cretura, nothing can be known; apart from Pleroma, there is nothing to know. Gregory, convinced that the artist and visionary sometimes knows more than all our science, might have ended with this fragrant of prayer embedded in a poem by William Blake:

May God us keep
From Single vision & Newton's sleep!
The emphasis is mine. Bateson thought of himself as a Monist but certainly not a Physicalist. Whenever I've tried to talk about Bateson's ideas I always seem to give the impression that Bateson was a Dualist. A part of what I think about when I think about "a quality without a name" is Bateson's contention of "mind and nature: a necessary unity." With emphasis on the "unity" bit.

I certainly don't think I can solve "the hard problem of consciousness," but I think I can't really compare Jack Balkin's use of the metaphor of "software" with Terrence McKenna's without touching on the issue of human consciousness.

After re-reading "Simulations of God" recently I happened upon a lecture by Slavoj Zizek, Materialism and Theology on YouTube. Zizek doesn't really talk about consciousness, but is critical of "vulgar materialism" while stridently advocating materialism. I think it's a good jumping off point to explore being and thinking and in turn consciousness. I'll leave that for another day, but this is some of what I've been thinking lately.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


The picture is of Andrew Solomon. The photo comes from The Moth Radio Hour site, all right reserved. I am asserting a fair use of a small version of the photo for commentary purposes.

I must be crazy, but I've never quite found a list that seems to match my particular ways of crazy. I mean "crazy" with the connotation of mental illness as well as in the metaphorical sense of cracks and flaws as in pottery. Certainly I'm full of flaws. And sometimes I'm depressed, but I've never suffered major depressive illness. I know people who suffer from clinical depression and know that among people I admire some have had major depression. Depression is very serious condition.

Recently I was talking in a relaxed family setting. In the conversation was a psychiatrist and a mental health counselor. While the general tenor was social chit-chat there was a strong current of shop talk going on too. I wanted to relate the story that Andrew Solomon had told on The Moth. The podcast is about 18 minutes long and can be heard here.

Perhaps Solomon's most well-known book is A Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. None of my interlocutors had heard of it before. I haven't read the book myself. But we get the New Yorker at home and I think that I had read Solomon's article Anatomy of melancholy.

Damn it. This set-up sounds so depressing and that's sad because Solomon's podcast about undergoing an aboriginal healing strategy in Mali for his depression and is quite cheerful. The photo was taken mid-way through the ritual. Ignoring the blood on his face, he certainly doesn't look depressed in the photo. I wanted to tell the story precisely because the conversation had become a little too heavy.

I'm not an awfully good storyteller so I didn't presume that I could tell the story all that well; just enough to get the gist of it. I began by saying who Solomon is and then placed the action in Mali. Opps, that's when I realized it was going to be hard to get even the gist across. I've never been to Mali but it was clear to me from the start that the story would suffer from a typically American mental map of Africa. Chris Blattman recently shared a couple of maps dealing with perceptions of the continent. I'm thinking of the second one, a GraphJam with the outline of Africa and a legend with four categories: Nelson Mandela, Sudan, Pyramids, Tigers, each a different color. Sudan is a red square and misplaced, Mandela blue at the southern tip, the pyramids yellow located where Egypt ought to be on the map. All the rest is green, tigers everywhere.

This morning when I came online a friend in Kampala had sent a link to a Time Magazine article Uganda: Debating God in a God-Fearing Country. It's pretty cool because the article mentions James Onen. Onen has the blog Freethought Kampala. Onen is well-known in the city. The Sanyu Breakfast Club at Facebook has over 4,500 members including me. While I don't hear the radio program I do sometime check in on the conversation at Facebook. When Onen first started Freethought Kampala I think I must have left an over-long comment there. He was nice enough to send me an email to introduce himself and check me out. Onen has lived in Japan and speaks Japanese. He's one cosmopolitan dude.

I know that Uganda isn't Mali. But I don't see how to understand Solomon's story properly with a mental map of Africa with tigers everywhere. There are no tigers in Africa, but there are many cities.

It so happens that my history with with Onen overlaps with the prolific Ugandan blogger The 27th Comrade. The 27th may be banned from commenting at Freethought, but his blog is certainly a part of the broader conversation about faith in Uganda. So the next thing I read was at Comrade 27th's blog You-Genics and Ed-You-Cation which was prompted by an earlier comment I'd left there. I was at a loss as to what to say in the comments and this post serves as something as a response.

Next I read a post by Aaron Bady at Zunguzungu, Johann Hari, V.S. Naipaul, and bigotry which takes on British journalist, and atheist, Johann Hari's review of V.S. Naipaul's new book The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief. Bady is a good writer and I'm tempted to copy snippets here; better to just go there and read. A basic point he makes is how obnoxious the tired old script is when it come to writing about Africa. By this time my head was aching so I went out and mowed some grass.

James Onen writes cogently from the perspective of "A loud and proud freethinker, skeptic and atheist." The 27th Comrade's Christian apologetics is really quite extraordinary. I'm only a very casual reader of philosophy, even so his philosophical sophistication is evident. Usually when writing I begin with a title something near what I suspect I'll write about and then most often stray way off course. In psychology hypothetical constructs are explanatory variables which are not directly observable. Recently The 27th Comrade has written extensively about faith. He's presented how so many of the constructs people tend to agree on are like faith.

I tend to think more along the lines of James Onen than Comrade 27. So I try to argue with Comrade 27, but he's a more careful thinker than I am so he keeps pointing out holes in my arguments. What's surprised me is following his comments at blogs frequented by much more learned people than I and so often it seems they miss seeing the holes and gaps he's pointing to. It's quite frustrating because I want some help with my arguments. Oh, that's only one side of it. I so enjoy the palaver. I'm curious about what's true and it seems to me most of the time people can only come to what's true from multiple perspectives.

Thinking tonight about constructs, I'm reminded of a "metalogue" written by Gregory Bateson, "Metalogue: What Is an Instinct." Bateson over his career employed the invention of a metalogue as a discussion between he and his young daughter. Seven of his metalogues are published in Steps to an Ecology of Mind. "What Is an Instinct" was first published in 1969 in Approaches to Animal Communication edited by Thomas Sebeok. The piece is well-known enough that I suspect it's posted somewhere on the Internet. All I found tonight was Steps at Scribid. But I often have trouble getting files there even with a fairly fast connection. I also found a 45 minute long audio file with Bateson himself playing Daddie. It's really worth hearing if you can find the time and can get the file.

In the Time piece James Onen is quoted:
"Why should one difference in our beliefs make [believers and nonbelievers] not be friends?"
People being people, of course we come up with all sorts of reasons not to be friends. Still, in following various Ugandan blogs, and not just about subjects about beliefs, I've rather consistently found the presumption that we can be friends unless shown otherwise. It's a quality I find strangely lacking too often among Americans. I'm not sure why, it may have to do with our constructs and tired old scripts about Africa.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Quality Without a Name

My last post was entitled "Bad Writing." The biggest reason for my bad writing is that while I'm online my mind is always following one link after another. Tonight I was thinking of doing a post here, on a subject dear to my heart, when I noticed that Keith Richards has a new book out. In reading some of the press about it there was an expression, "tiny todger" I was unfamiliar with. The meaning was clear from the context,I'd just never heard the term.

Google is your friend in cases like these; except that the search for "tiny todger" has occupied me for the last hour or so with one entertaining Web page after another. I was particularly taken by a piece about Oliver Reed in The Sabotage Times. I hadn't stumbled upon the publication before. Right on the masthead it says:
We Can't Concentrate So Why Should You?
Sounds like a publication for me.

Over the weekend I saw a friend who'd happened upon my recent rantings about computers. He pointed out sensibly that Apple really isn't a luxuary brand like Cadillac, rather more like Volkswagen. He's fond of both Apple and Volkswagen and he's right that if the central point is design then Volkswagen is the better comparison. I disagreed with him in person, but figure he won't see me say he's right here; alas, because I drone on and on about subjects tangential to what I intend to write about.

Ah, but one more link before I get around to the intended subject. David Schlesinger (aka "Lefty") weighed in on the Linux desktop debate from the perspective of being actively engaged in the mobile open source community. A more extended version of Schlesinger's thinking on the matter is here. From that second link:
Organizations like GNOME continue to attempt to “market” free software on the basis of its inherent freedom-enhancing qualities, which is something like trying to sell electric drills based on the color of the extension cord. Just as people don’t really care about electric drills but rather about holes, people don’t care about computer operating systems, particularly: they care about creating documents and spreadsheets, using the web, and reading their email.
Schlesinger makes some really important points well, and because I don't know how to code or program, he's in sense making my case for me. But I have to weigh his points against Douglass Rushkoff's warning:
Program or be programmed!
Here's the buy-page for the text-inclined and here's a short video. Either way you might look, Rushkoff points out:
The real question is, do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it? Choose the former and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.
I'm pretty sure that "tiny todger" is completely off the topic I want to talk about, but I've got a hunch that the points Schlesinger and Rushkoff are on about are connected. I'm wondering if I can get down to making a connection?

In 1975 I was struggling in college. I was living in a house with a bunch of others and someone ripped off a book club membership that shipped four books for free as a hook. These books got passed around the house and one of the books that generated a good deal of discussion was Christopher Alexander's The Oregon Experiment. That book had a great impact on me. I was still in school so it was great that I had the opportunity to sit in the library and discover some of Alexander's earlier work. The Oregon Experiment is a book on architecture and architectural theory. In the library I discovered that Alexander had spent some time in Jerome Bruner's Learning Lab doing research.

At the time I was interested in studying Child Development and so was taking psychology courses. I suspect that every generation of young people is concerned about "relevance," and especially true of kids in the Seventies. My sense about what I was learning at university, especially in psychology, wasn't right, or at least wasn't connecting. The 27th Comrade somewhat recently pointed to a religious discussion he was participating in at another person's blog. In it he said that he was "wearing his Kierkegaard hat." The mere mention of Kierkegaard sent me reminiscing about the torment over the notions of subjectivity and objectivity I felt back in the day when I read Kierkegaard in college.

The American military withdrew finally withdrew from Vietnam in 1975. I was certainly not alone among other young people in hoping for ways to create a more participatory democracy. And Alexander's The Oregon Experiment filled me with a sense of possibility.

The Oregon Experiment is part of a series of books by Alexander. On the book spine are stars noting the sequence. There are three stars on The Oregon Experiment spine, two on Alexander's most well-known book A Pattern Language, which was published in 1977. There is a single star on the book spine of A Timeless Way of Building published in 1979. The quality without a name comes from A Timeless Way of Building. It's odd that the introductory book was published after the other two.
The Quality Without A Name

There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.
When I was in school, even before reading The Oregon Experiment, I had been introduced to Gregory Bateson's book Steps to an Ecology of Mind. That book was absolutely essential to me in thinking about an approach to psychology and academics. When I read The Oregon Experiment I was mostly thinking in terms of political possibilities.

Anyhow, I flamed out at school. I then tried to rehab a house in a very derelict area along the lines of The Integral Urban House--that book remarkably in a new edition. I was ambitious but not prepared. In any case when Alexander's book A Pattern Language came out I was working on a property and devoured the book. Also in that year Bateson's Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity came out and I tried to wrap my head around its contents.

My experiment in rehabbing the house turned into a fiasco that wouldn't go away, but by late 1979 it had failed, if wasn't completely over. I started working as a delivery driver for a wholesale grocer. It was in a context of feeling an utter failure that I read The Timeless Way of Building. The quality without a name is hard to talk about because there is no name. And so seems insubstantial. Nevertheless Alexander pointing out that there was a quality that was necessary to take seriously drew together threads of ideas I'd been wrestling with towards understanding.

On one level my difficulty understanding Kierkegaard at least so far as writing college papers had to do with my religious crisis of faith. But on another level I was struggling with subjectivity and objectivity in studying psychology. The classes within the Department of Psychology were very much in the experimental psychology tradition of operant conditioning and the like. Not that I continued into the Child Development program, but was well aware of a different fork in psychology. Well, aware of other approaches across disciplines at the university too.

I flunked out of my Introductory Sociology course, and didn't take a course in Anthropology. I did however read Bronisław Malinowski for a Philosophy of Language course of all things. So I had some idea about ethnography. Even though I failed Sociology the course at least presented Emile Durkheim's positivism and contrasted Max Weber's anti-positivism.

What Gregory Bateson had given me was a way to be careful to make distinctions between problems of material creation and problems of order and differentiation. In other words I knew that qualities were important. Bateson's book Mind and Nature includes a chapter which attempts a list of criteria of mental processes. They are listed here in summary form if you scroll down about 2/3rds. I thought I had a way to think about thinking by way of Bateson.

It's almost a cliche to say of certain professions that they are both an art and a science. In one way Alexander's approach to architecture can be read as integrating separate disciplines of art and science.
In talking about A Pattern Language Alexander notes: So in this case, art is concerned with the making of it and science with the explanation of it--but there is a continuous interplay between these two because obviously to the extent that you understand more about the phenomenon--the kinds of processes which create it, and so forth, which are scientific questions--the more you are able to make of it.
I got that quote out of Stephen Grabow's book Christopher Alexander: The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture. Grabow comments on Alexander's quote:
To him, the importance of the phenomenon of the unity of space is that it exists in a realm that is fundamental and basic to both--and that what we call art is part of it and what we call science is part of it. They are not two distinct activitites but, rather, two different ways of looking at the same thing.
Right, when I read Alexander's chapter in A Timeless Way of Building, "The Quality Without a Name" that strange idea that art and science are not "two distinct activities" dawned upon me as a Eureka moment.

In Bateson's book Mind and Nature there's a chapter "From Classification to Process." The model is elaborated on in his unfinished final work Angels Fear: Towards and Epistemology of the Sacred. The second book came out in the mid-1980's so I didn't have Bateson's more elaborate model when I first read A Timeless Way of Building. But I did have a way of thinking about two different ways of looking at the same thing, that is, from Bateson I had got a formal model for the unity Alexander maintains.

I realize that I've not fleshed out "the quality without a name." I have an idea in mind to do so sometime soon. For now I want to go back to the Schlesinger and Rushkoff. I think that Schlesinger is right that most people really don't care about operating systems, but I think Rushkoff is right to point out that we ought to.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bad Writing

The picture is the logo for Flattr a micropayment system.

My writing is really bad. I think it was John Michael Greer who offered that there is a certain amount of bad writing that writer have to get out before good writing can commence. Maybe it wasn't him, but this blog is one place I can get some of my bad writing out of the way. It's embarrassing to think of readers. But I'm very appreciative of Comrade 27 for taking what I write as possibly containing a little sense. I am trying to learn how to make some sense.

Recently among other things I wrote about the vision of Steve Jobs. Jobs takes design as primary and therefore favors integration over fragmentation. In a fragmented way I tried to take the side in favor of fragmentation. But Jobs's success is good evidence he's right about fragmentation, at least so far as too much fragmentation is untenable. So my point isn't against design, but rather it's not the only necessary thing.

I'm using Ubuntu as my Linux distribution of choice. A big reason for that is I'm not very computer savvy and Ubuntu is very well put together for people like me.

One doesn't have to be technically inclined to know that free and open source software FOSS, sometimes FLOSS, free/libre/open source software is something significant when it comes to computers and computing. Discussions of FOSS can be very broad and deep and I can't keep up, except to say that there is a moral core to the philosophy--morality meaning the ways we treat others. The FOSS community makes a distinction about free; their meaning is free as in speech not as in "free beer." The point being that "free" doesn't necessarily mean "no cost." Indeed there are commercial aspects to some of the distributions of Linux.

Mark Shuttleworth is associated with Ubuntu much like Steve Jobs comes to mind with Apple. In September Shuttleworth responding in part to criticisms about Ubuntu not contributing enough code to the kernel and core GNOME infrastructure wrote a blog post about what he views as Ubuntu's contribution to the Linux community. His answer really boils down to design.

Clearly both Mark Shuttleworth and Steve Jobs are serious businessmen and both see the importance of design. Jobs's rant on his call was about Google, but he was talking about bets about different business approaches. Shuttleworth's business play with Ubuntu represents an even clearer difference between Apple than Google.

It's not hard for me to imagine Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, talk about winning the whole shebang along with Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and the like. It's harder for me to imagine Larry Page and Sergey Brin the founders of Google talking that way. And certainly, at least in the context of Ubuntu, I can't imagine Mark Shuttleworth talking about winning in the same way other executives do. There's a different game at play concurrently with the old game.

Weeks back I began writing about social currency sometimes called Whuffie. Online social currency is an idea that lots of people have been trying to work out for quite a long time. I think often about what sort of incentives would increase online collaboration.

Recently I noticed that the New York Times is suing Kachingle. Kachingle's tag is "Social cents for digital stuff." In short it's a way for users to direct microdonations to online creators. My reaction to the take-down order by lawyers for the Times made me smile. I appreciate those who tilt at windmills because I so often do. Afterwards, I berate myself for being so foolish; still I do believe there are battles that ought to be fought even when winning is unlikely. Kachingle hasn't a chance.

I think the idea of Kachingle is stellar nonetheless. Flattr is a somewhat similar service to Kachingle. The premise with Flattr is that you have to give to get. So each month you load a small amount of money into an account and then you may click on Flattr buttons people have installed next to their content. At the end of the month the money you've uploaded is split among the people whose Flattr buttons you've clicked.

In RhythmBox the music player that comes installed with Ubuntu releases 10.04 and greater are three music stores. Ubuntu One is Ubuntu's store. Magnatune is a store that allows unlimited downloads for a monthly subscription fee. And Jamendo operates a pay scheme that bears resemblance to Flattr.

I had thought I'd seen Flattr buttons on artist pages I'd discovered through Jamendo, but I was probably mistaken or confused. I have seen Flattr buttons on blog posts by developers of applications. I thought I'd seen enough Flattr buttons that it would be worth loading a small amount of money so that I could Flattr people. Alas, once having the money loaded I'm having a hard time locating Flattr buttons I want to click!

I suggested in an earlier post that a pure reputation currency might be something that Microsoft could implement. My thinking was there are Microsoft users everywhere. There are lots of people online whom I'd like to Flattr, the problem is that none of them have signed up for Flattr. I'd like to be able to Flattr anybody I want. So while I'm keen on Kachingle, Flattr, Jamendo and other sorts of services that allow positive feedback to online creators the lack of a very widespread way to do so is a real drawback. I can't remember where, but I saw Mark Shuttleworth interviewed and he was asked whether Ubuntu was considering a service like Flattr. He said they were. But of course on the desktop Ubuntu has a rather low penetration.

Someone is going to figure this out. When I first came online in the late 1990's I thought it would be nice to have a little block of "stamps" on the desktop that people could purchase in a block and then drag a number of stamps onto a site that one wished to support, or were prompted to in order to see the rest of an article. Obviously I hadn't thought it through, but my point is that if I've always wanted a way to support online content with micropayments that surely others have too. Payments aren't quite the same thing as a reputation currency, but when they are transparent counters, as Flattr and Jamendo's are they are quite related to one.

Whuffie doesn't need to be free as in "free beer," but perhaps sometimes it is just that. And Whuffie ought to be in my opinion free as in speech. I do think people want to give credit to the creators of stuff we appreciate. Some sort of ubiquitous online currency would create incentives. Some of the incentives might be perverse, but surely not all.

Everytime I read Shuttleworth being questioned about whether Ubuntu is profitable yet, I hear an impatient "No." As rich as Shuttleworth is I'm sure money matters. Yet I suspect that if Ubuntu got lots of reputation points from users that sort of recognition would matter a lot to him too. Ubuntu as a business isn't just about winning in a zero sum game, but about creating more winners. I admire the vision of Steve Jobs, but the game he excels at of winners and losers is not the game I believe will succeed in the long term. I want to root for the business players who are creating public goods not just more stuff. The game that's being played makes a difference to the design.

Update What do I know, but saw this piece about the announcement of the Mac Apple Store and how Microsoft has got to make an app store like yesterday. A micropayment feature like Jamendo would be radical. Okay, I know it won't happen, but I still think Microsoft is well-positioned to be a leader in micropayments if only they wanted to be.