Monday, May 31, 2004

Another 2x2 matrix

Here's a taxonomy that seems to describe some people I come across. Some people have a vision (which I describe as a personal conviction about how the world ought to work), and some don't; some people can manipulate others, and some can't.

 Own VisionOther's vision
Influences othersLEADERMANAGER
Little influenceMAVERICKWORKER

Each of these styles contributes in its own way, and will be motivated in different ways. Those with a vision (the leaders and mavericks) are motivated by seeing their vision realized. People who follow another's vision can be motivated in two ways: either by getting satisfaction from realizing the vision, or by getting pleasure in simply making progress along the way.

Those who can influence others (the leaders and managers) contribute by leveraging the efforts of others. People who cannot influence other people make a difference by actually doing the work of imagining new worlds (in the case of mavericks) or building them (in the case of doers).

Sunday, May 23, 2004

So far

The flashbulbs strobed, and pandemonium raged. Neon hair, over-wrought glances, beautiful people begining to sweat. Insecurity vied with egotism, body odor mingled with perfume. Necks, lapels, real fake fur, haute hauteur.

The three-legged chihuahua sat expectantly in the ashen gloom. Hip hop bass boomed incessantly from a distant room. It got up and hobbled down the tenement hall, nails ticking on the broken tiles. A door opened onto the sky of a distant city. It was the day after Easter, and tentative clouds trailed through wrought-iron balconies. It was going to be a hot day.

(Inspired by Heather Champ.)

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Fake Band Names

Peter Rinearson put me onto Brian Whitman's Ten Thousand Statistically Grammar-Average Fake Band Names. It's a useful resource if you can't think of a name for your band, though if you can't think of a silly name for a band, you probably shouldn't have one. It's even better as a Random Grin Generator. And it's a great way to generate haiku:
rotator landing
dandelions onto hull
smoker betrayal

Retro Bond

I recently saw a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream set in "Athens High" in the Fifties; Shakespeare meets Grease. Such conceits are the stuff of theater; favorite plays are re-envisaged in all manner of periods.

I just heard a fragment of an NPR Weekend Edition Sunday story on the myth and reality of spying, in which Liane Hansen asked the expert if there would ever be a period without spying, and he replied, of course, "No". It set me wondering about the next James Bond film. The real Bond was able to work under cover since he wasn't known. Today's Bond has been in so many movies that his opponents are sure to recognize the name when someone introduces themselves as Bond, James Bond. But that wasn't the case when he started his career in the Fifties...

Let's hope Cubby Broccoli will take the leap and do a retro Bond. Star Wars has made backstory sequels mainstream. I'd love to see a Bond movie set in the Fifties; plumes of cigarette smoke, the shadow of atomic Armageddon, wholesome nuclear families with rotten cores. If it was shot in Black & White, so much the better.

It'd be a challenge, since so much of the Bond schtick revolves around the latest cool technologies, not to mention lucrative product placements. You can't do that if you roll back time -- unless, of course, you construct a parallel universe in which the Fifties weren't quite the same as ours. This is a common SF trope, as in Sterling and Gibson's The Difference Engine, and Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series. Bond movies have become increasingly self-referential, and some knowing anachronism would sit well with the franchise.

But even leaving all that aside: being true to the cynical and vicious spy of Ian Fleming's novels would match the disillusionment and war weariness which may well be Americans' lot in the next couple of years.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

It's OK, we're not torturing them any more

The Associated Press reported on 15 May 2004 that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, issued orders on Thursay 13 May to eliminate the most coercive interrogation tactics that had been used by US forces. Until then approved techniques included depriving detainees of sleep for more than 72 hours or forcing them into "stress positions" - making them kneel or stand uncomfortably for more than 45 minutes.

In my book, this treatment amounts to mental and physical torture.

Until Thursday, the US Army approved the torture of detainees.

According to Article 17 of the Geneva Convention, "No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever."

This is a prima facie case that the United States has been contravening the Geneva Convention in Iraq.

The abuses of the US in Iraq pale beside the atrocities of the Baath regime. The public soul searching on these topics that's in full swing in the United States is an example of how an open society should respond to such a situation, and is laudable. However, the moral basis for invading Iraq -- which was dodgy to begin with -- is seriously undermined when the invader is found to behave in even remotely the same bestial way as the regime it deposed. The Administration's cavalier attitude to international law should, however, come as a surprise to no-one.

When the scaffolding becomes the building

The Charenton asylum by Jacques Gilbert, one of the paradigmatic Neoclassical buildings of the 19th century, was built on the principle of categorizing patients by sex and by twelve specific kinds of illness. Its layout, like those the asylums in Rouen and Marseilles, followed a plan specified by the theoretician Esquirol: residential quarters in two arms, arranged in a U shape around a central court and anchored by the common facilities and the administration building. (Architecture in France 1800-1900,Betrand Lemoine, Abrams 1998, p64)

The human mind loves categorizing, and cultures love to turn categories into concrete structures. Categories are useful tools for thought, but they are means, not ends; in other words, they're the scaffolding, not the building.

When the scaffolding becomes more important than the building, the results range from the obscene to the mundane. All the bad -isms like racism, sexism and ageism are the result of categories that are used to discriminate between people (in the sense of discerning a difference) becoming reified into self-evident truths which are used to discriminate (in the sense of treating unfairly).

The layer model for regulation of the internet is a current mundane example. (See, for example, Werbach, Whitt.) The OSI stack is a good way to analyze networks, but in and of itself it is not a basis for regulation. The way a given technology is built -- or, more precisely, explained -- at a given moment does not generate the basis for regulation in a straightforward way. It's worth noting that there is no one agreed-upon model; there are many ways to count and name the Internet's layers.

The material force of categories is inescapable and immediate, as Bowker and Star describe at length in Sorting Things Out: classification and its consequences. As they say: "Each standard and category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing -- indeed it is inescable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous -- not bad, but dangerous"

Sunday, May 09, 2004

The Mason

Juan the Mason was the blacksmith’s son. His hands were strong, and his eye was keen. He was famous for the strong, intricate walls he built.

He was a man of many parts. He had learned how to control fire and iron by helping his father in the forge. He played the accordion in the village band. He loved music; it made the men relax, and the women smile. It was the only way he could touch the girl he was too shy to talk to. But above all, he was a mason.

Juan’s projects became bigger and bigger. He discovered how to combine fire and stone. He worked in molten rock. He built volcanoes, and he moved continents.

He became a God.

In the end he never slept. Juan loved making mountains. No-one could do it better than he. It was his calling and his responsibility. He didn’t play the accordion any more.

Law and software

In his last book, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities, Stephen Jay Gould argues that science and the humanities are two distinct areas of intellectual authority, or "magisteriums". Science concerns itself with what is, and the humanities with what ought to be. Science describes and predicts, while the humanities prescribe. For example, the social sciences study how people behave in fact, while ethics concerns itself with how they ought to behave. One can never subsume the other; the claim of reductionists that science can eventually include philosophy is misguided, according to Gould. With this given, the most interesting cases will be on the boundary between the two magisteriums, where the techniques of both endeavors might apply.

Jurisprudence traditionally falls under the humanities. Laws prescribe how people should behave, and the justice is the process of ensuring that they do. On the other hand, lawyers have a lot in common with software engineers. Both write code where every word and punctuation counts, and both spend a lot of time worrying about edge cases.

This deep similarity leads software people to be disturbed and outraged when a legal case goes against them. They study legal code and treat it like a program; when it runs in the legal machine, they feel it should give a predictable outcome. In fact, law is rooted in the humanities: the decisions of judges and juries include moral judgments: how ought someone to have behaved, what does justice require to be done. While the process no doubt has a lot of factual content - a judge has to establish the facts, and only then apply the law - applying the law is subjective; it's hard to imagine a machine doing it since this application needs to consider human motives and morals. Even establishing the facts is not a purely mechanical process; it is based on establishing the truth, which is different from demonstrating a mathematical proof, even in scientific terms (see Godel). Deciding which facts are germane to a case is even more complex.

The judicial process is unpredictable; ethical and moral judgments can't be computed, and we have to depend on fickle humans to do the work. Hence the willingness of lawyers, engineers and business people to settle cases before they go to trial; they may end up paying out in spite of when they believing that they're in the right, but at least the outcome is more predictable than going to court.

This uncertainty, even beyond the complexity of the humanities in general, is due the law's location in the borderlands between the scientific rigor of code, and ethical concerns of justice.

Saturday, May 08, 2004


Johan rolled up his trouser leg above the knee, took off his boot and sock, and reached out with the ball of his foot towards the puddle. The sun was setting, and the mosquitos were coming out. He was sitting on a rusty oil barrel that was lying, crumpled, on its side.

He could hear cars and trucks passing down the road on the far side of the clearing.

He gingerly swept aside the leaves lying on the water. He felt the cold water, and hoped there wasn't broken glass down there. As the twilight failed, the passing cars brought sweeps of glare was well as the rush of tires on the asphalt.

Johan let his foot down into the water. It went further than he thought, covering his toes. He felt silty mud, rather than the gravel he was expecting. He lurched forward into a upright position. He raised his other knee, and stood like a heron.

Where have all the scientists gone?

The National Science Board (part of the US National Science Foundation) has observed "a troubling decline in the number of U.S. citizens who are training to become scientists and engineers, whereas the number of jobs requiring science and engineering (S&E) training continues to grow." I have my doubts about this claim, since finding the direct evidence on the Board's site has proven to be difficult. Let's take it at face value for now, though; what really interests me are the international trends that lead to this being a problem.

America has always depended on foreign scientists and engineers, from the days of the railroad (Brits), through the Manhattan project and ICBMs (Germans and Hungarians), to the burgeoning of the software business (South Asians). For the last hundred years, America was the place to come as a scientist. Not only did you find world-class colleagues, but the quality of life was unequalled.

The emergence of India and China as world-class knowledge economies means that natives from those countries can now stay at home and still get the benefits of an intellectual life. And more: they will be able to stay close to their aging parents, and be assured that their children get a relatively sober and culturally sound upbringing, which they may doubt they'll get in the US.

This trend will gain momentum rapidly, since it is a social network effect; Metcalfe's Law applies. The more world-class scientists and engineers remain at home, the more attractive it will be for their peers to do so - in a non-linear way.

Craig Mundie has observed that, everything else being equal, brain power is distributed with population. If stable economic and social development continues in India and China, they will surpass the United States and Europe in the number - and hence aggregate quality - of scientists and engineers. The challenge for the old knowledge economies will be to find a way to make a distinctive contribution that will maintain the differentially high income that they've become accustomed to.

Christopher Ireland believes that they'll become theme parks. America is already the world's entertainer, judging by Hollywood's influence. Providing emotional satisfaction is a difficult and rewarding business - and one where humanists and artists are as important as scientists and engineers. However, entertainment is much more culturally diverse than science. Euro-Disney and US-Disney may become attractive places for a holiday (visiting Italy is apparently Americans' favorite dream holiday), but I wonder if it'll be a sustainable business.

Perhaps I'm wrong about the Okies' (Old Knowledge Economies - OKEs) need to maintain a differentially high income. Incomes in the new economies will rise, but as long as it doesn't follow that it'll fall in the old ones, the Okies will be OK. In this scenario, though, one has to start wondering about sustainable energy use. As environmental analysts have pointed out for decades, it will be difficult for the planet to cope with everybody burning as much fossil fuel per capita as the Americans do.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Between Iraq and a hard place

I don't know which is worse: the idea that the US Army's chain of command knew about the prisoner abuse in Iraq, or that it did not.

If the chain of command knew about the abuse, it at the very least condoned it by not taking action. That significantly tarnishes the reputation of the US military. It's possible that this behavior was encouraged; I would not be surprised if there were explicit or implicit directions to soften up Iraqi prisoners from military intelligence or those mysterious "civilian contractors".

If the Army did not know what its troops were doing, it severely damages its shining reputation as an examplar of military professionalism. Mistreating prisoners is human nature. However, just because something comes naturally doesn't mean that it's ethical. Discipline means anticipating and counter-acting inappropriate impulses, and a military is about nothing if it can't impose discipline.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

This blog is not dead

It's on life support, not least for statistical purposes - it's been almost a month since the last post. I think a lot about the fact that I haven't posted, but I just don't have the will to post something inane; or at least, I haven't had until now.

The experience reminds me of the Vodafone ad: "You don't forget family, you just forget to call."

Not having posted for so long makes me feel stupid: it's proof that I don't have anything to say. I have good excuses. I've been traveling a lot, work has been all-consuming. I don't think I'm any less articulate for not having posted, but I don't feel persuaded. One can see the source of all sorts of insecurities in people who Do, and don't have time to Write. The words demonstrate insight, the act lives only momentarily.