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 hatsforhealth.com 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.