Thursday, May 31, 2007

Book Review: Cindy Sheehan and the Starfish Movement

Cindy Sheehan is leaving the anti-war movement to which she gave so much life, energy, and focus. She will be back, no doubt, in some form. I wish her well in restoring herself and renewing her own life. But I firmly disagree (and this is a blue-moon moment) with William R. Pitt that "Anyone glad for her departure from activism is celebrating a disaster."

While I doubt I'd use the word "glad" to describe my own feelings, certainly "relieved" qualifies. At any rate, in no way does "disaster" describe this moment. Quite the contrary: this woman endured everything from divorce to death threats to arrest to public taunting and ridicule from the mass media; it is time she retreated and renewed.

There is also a broader theme to this, which I am going to explain with a book review. Yes, a book review. The book is The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. The authors are Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, and they have written one of the most crystalline gems of social insight that I have seen in any non-fiction these past 20 years. In a mere 200 pages of text, these two Stanford grads provide more clarity of perspective on our society, its group psychologies and cultural transformations, than you are likely to get from a shelf full of punditry or a year's worth of television. I do not think I am overstating the case for this book: it is the most important and clarion piece of non-fiction to arise in this first decade of the 21st century. It is a book made for, and by, its era.

The metaphor of the title is a comparison of "top-down", hierarchically-structured groups and organizations, such as we are all familiar with in corporate America and government (that's the spider, who can be made lame from the loss of its legs and dead from decapitation); and the fresh wave of decentralized, leaderless, or non-hierarchical organizations that have become such a force in society over the past decade of the Internet (this is the "starfish," which can be chopped up into numerous pieces, each of which will respond by growing a new organism or member).

The book opens with a heady analysis of how a starfish phenomenon evolved in one particular category: the P2P file sharing services in the Napster/Grokster model. The authors show how the early versions of these spontaneous organizations got stuck in "spider" mode, and were therefore eventually trapped and killed by big corporate media and its legal juggernaut. But these Napster-type experiments benefited from such attacks by a response of ever-increasing differentiation, diversification, and "starfish"-style regrowth. Brafman and Beckstrom finally lead the reader to the eMule service, which took decentralization to the point of anonymity and total leaderlessness. Big Media cannot attack an entity like eMule, because it has no head, no governance, no bank accounts: there is nothing for a legal or corporate machine to assault, except for individual users of the service, who, aside from being virtually innumerable, are mostly children and rarely wealthy.

The authors go on to reveal both the beauty and the danger inherent in the starfish-mode of organizational being, drawing examples as diverse as Wikipedia and al Qaeda. Along the way, they present portraits of environmental groups, activist organizations, online merchants, and Internet services. But if this book stopped with mere sketches of eBay, Alcoholics Anonymous, Apache, craigslist, Goodwill Industries, and IBM, then it would be merely an interesting intellectual snack for the MBA crowd.

The Starfish and the Spider becomes a banquet of cultural insight because it digs past the surface that so many pundits and social commentators stop to admire. Brafman and Beckstrom turn the starfish on its back, examine it in varying light, carry it into vastly disparate environments, and constantly ask questions of it. In doing so, they discover some principles and characteristics common to starfish organizations and the people who inspire and influence their growth.

One of their most fascinating discoveries is in the figure of what they term "the catalyst." It is here that we are brought back to Cindy Sheehan (this is my own connection, so if you think it's a stupid association, don't blame the authors of the book). The catalyst is the person who founds a starfish group, the one who gives it form, ideas, value, focus, and meaning. Examples of catalysts that Brafman and Beckstrom offer are:

  • Granville Sharp, leader of the abolitionist movement against slavery in England

  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who founded the women's suffrage movement that Susan B. Anthony later took up with still greater energy

  • Craig Newmark of craigslist

  • Bill Wilson of AA

  • One thing the authors point out is that

    a catalyst is like the architect of a house: he's essential to the long-term structural integrity, but he doesn't move in. In fact, when the catalyst stays around too long and becomes absorbed in his creation, the whole structure becomes more centralized.

    So one common feature to the life and health of a growing decentralized movement or organization is that the catalyst almost always leaves or at least recedes into the mesh of the whole, once the group has matured enough to work autonomously and to withstand assault. Whenever a catalyst attempts to assume a traditional, CEO-type of leadership role, the organization loses its dynamism, its life as a starfish, and becomes a centralized, hierarchical spider--much easier to mark, and then suppress or assimilate.

    For a corporate entity, this may not necessarily be a bad thing: growth-as-profit, after all, can be nurtured in a traditional corporate management structure. But growth-as-message can become stilled or silenced when there's a top dog in place, approving this, denying that; or simply being a figurehead in a particular place as the focus of activism or just attention.

    The anti-war movement has benefited enormously from Cindy Sheehan's presence, personality, experience, and energy. We have admired her from afar for some two years now: I first wrote about her here (note also that the fractiousness and in-fighting that Sheehan noted in her parting statement existed way back then, too).

    Since then, however, the movement has grown, thanks largely to Sheehan's example and leadership. But I agree with Brafman and Beckstrom, that a time inevitably comes for every starfish organization when its formative human force must retreat. In our own democracy's formative stage, George Washington had to decline the crown that his followers attempted to place on his head. Other catalysts have had to spurn a crown or a corner office, and always for the good of the whole, for the sake of the movement's continued growth.

    Since Sheehan first camped out in George Bush's backyard, Code Pink, IVAW, and hundreds of other "starfish arms and legs" have formed around her and taken on their own life in the anti-war sea. It is time that these organisms were allowed to share in both the light and the tribulation, the accolades and the calumny.

    The blogosphere--itself a starfish organization--has benefited from Sheehan's influence and example. I think she recognizes this as well, and thus chose Daily Kos as the forum for her parting message. It is perhaps only seemingly ironic that the world wide web is perhaps the least "spidery" vehicle of communication on earth today. Only on the Internet, for example, could you find a science writer for a stodgy paper like the New York Times writing a scathing indictment of the Bush administration--it happened today.

    As Brafman and Beckstrom point out in their book, this kind of seeming chaos is unique to a starfish-style organization: "When you give people freedom, you get chaos, but you also get incredible creativity." Even on the website of a spider organization like the New York Times.

    Clearly, we probably need more chaos; and we certainly need more creativity. Congress has failed to carry out the will of the people, because it cannot respond to the fluid movement of the starfish; it is too mired in its own iron-stranded matrix of excess, corruption, deceit, and self-indulgence. As the authors of The Starfish and the Spider indicate, we can only overcome the turgid inertia of Washington politics by redoubling the starfish energy of the anti-war movement. In other words, it is time for a catalyst to step into the background, so that the whole is given renewed life. And so that a long-suffering and heroic Mom can once more feel the quiet joys of private life that the rest of us so often take for granted.

    Wednesday, May 30, 2007

    Geek Wednesday: How Much Does Air Cost?

    Save the Internet: Click here
    Geeks, technophiles, gearheads, and webaholics: we've got a new assignment for you, once again courtesy of our friends at Save The Internet. Here's the pitch:

    The FCC is on the verge of turning over a large chunk of the public airwaves to the same giant phone and cable companies that control high-speed Internet access for more than 96 percent of connected American homes.

    This public "spectrum" could revolutionize the Internet in America. Its wireless signal passes through concrete buildings and over mountains; it can connect tens of million of Americans who are being passed over by Internet providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.

    Don't let the FCC give away our wireless Internet to these price-gouging giants. The FCC deadline is fast approaching. Act now!

    Remember when Bechtel Corp. "owned" the water of Bolivia--even the rain that fell from the sky, so that you were expected to pay them even if you went outside and opened your mouth in the rain? (to see and hear the whole insane story, rent or buy The Corporation, one of the great documentaries ever made). Well, this is along the same lines: selling the air to Big Telcom so they can charge you megabux for your Wi-fi so that fat corporate trolls are made wealthier, fatter, and more trollish.


    Social Networking Update: LinkedIn now has an "Answers" module, where users can post questions to the community and receive intelligent, well-thought responses. I found a question about what is required to be a success as an author or editor, so I posted a response. By the way, the titles of those books in that post are all real: I just sat beside a "Business Motivation" shelf at B&N and copied them out on the MacBook. Amazing.

    But LinkedIn is for our professional and not our horny self. For the latter, I recently discovered Orkut, a Google-administered social networking and dating site. The profile entry section is very detailed, though not a total slog to get through; and because it's run by the geeks of the big G, the design and functionality are very cool, sure, and breezy. I'll let you know if it helps me with my HTML (come on, you know what HTML really stands for, right?).

    Fire-foxy Lady: In case you don't recognize that lovely lady in the picture, she's the Lizard-Wrangler-in-Chief of Mozilla/Firefox, Mitchell Baker. I've been reading her blog at the Mozillazine, and much of what I see as the potential of open-source modeling for government and mainstream business can be discovered in the writing of this extraordinary woman.

    The Geek Groan, or why there are no geek comedians: So the Tux car at the Indy 500 finished last, and one reader of C-Net's story on the disappointing finish commented "It's real hard to get good drivers for Linux hardware."

    Dell-buntu ships: You can order one now. Though the savings won't exactly blow your socks off, these units are cheaper than comparable Vista boxes, and marginally less expensive than their counterparts at System76 or Linspire. I put together a Dell desktop box, sans monitor, for $700 that I know would make Ubuntu fly; and my friend Nearly Redmond Nick added a monitor and ended up with $1080 for a box with 2GB RAM, 22" monitor, upgraded processor, video card and 1 year support.

    Still, my previous advice stands for any Windows switchers who are contemplating Linux but don't want to stick their head under the hood and spend a lot of time in Synaptic Package Manager (software download utility for Ubuntu) or the Terminal/Console (geek command line): get a flavor of Linux that features a more complete installation with all available third-party drivers, such as Xandros, Linspire, or my own favorite, MEPIS. I have another video demo of MEPIS, below. I'll simply say it again: the more I use this Linux distro, the more I like it.

    But as I said last week, I'll slip into a Best Buy one day later this week, once the Dellbuntu boxes are there, and check out what Dell has done with the Feisty Fawn. Meanwhile, if you're looking for a way to install Ubuntu onto your existing hardware but without having to partition your hard drive or jump through any other geek hoops, Wubi may be your best option. It will allow you to run Ubuntu just like any other software application on a Windows box. And Ubuntu running in Wubi will run your Windows applications inside Linux...your computer will be like those Russian dolls, one within another within another...

    But what's the big deal about open source software, after all (aside from the fact that it's cheap to run, free to have, exponentially safer than Windows and usually just as functional)? Here's one answer, which I wrote nearly two years ago, in June, 2005:

    To me, the Open Source Society represents a return to, and recovery of, Democracy. A democratic society works through its challenges collaboratively, in a spirit of active inquiry, where dissent is both tolerated and even encouraged. In a culture like ours, where the Cult of the Specialist seems to have locked us into inner cubicles of narrow expertise in which one's identity is defined exclusively by one's specialty, the Open Source model offers us some hope of recovering Freedom--especially freedom of the press.

    Later in the week I'll have a review of an ingenious book that goes further into this theme. It's called The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, by yet another two Stanford geniuses.

    But then again, really--who needs open source when Microsoft is constantly innovating on behalf of the people? Yep, the coffee table PC: just think of the possibilities.

    "We see this as a multi-billion dollar category, and we envision a time when surface computing technologies will be pervasive, from tabletops and counters to the hallway mirror," said Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.

    Tuesday, May 29, 2007

    Hugo-Not: Crossing the Border of Tyranny

    Sometimes, even those toward whom you are favorably disposed cross a boundary and make you question how you'd ever thought kindly of them.

    Granted, I've never felt completely warm and fuzzy about Hugo Chavez. True, I defended his right to live when Pat Robertson was ready to call out the Death Squads of Christ to Venezuela. And I did find Chavez's UN speech, in which he referred to Bush as a "demon" both entertaining and revealing.

    But now he has crossed the line from socialist revolutionary to petty despot. He is taking over the businesses and the press of his country and turning them into state organs of profit and propaganda.

    However you look at it, this is a brute force example of Stalinism. Hugo Chavez has crossed the line, and he had better step back quickly, or else he has taken the first step on the road to the destruction of his government and his former vision of a better, more just nation.

    Who else is blaming the media for all his problems? Our buddy Paul Wolfowitz, who is just returning to his old employer's favorite fallback excuse: the liberal media is to blame for everything we do and for every seeming error we commit.

    I've been fired a number of times in my career, and I have never had to sling shit or spit backwards at anyone in public over it. Where does this guy get off? He swung his main squeeze into a corporate cushion so he could more easily slap her up on the desktop whenever he felt like it during the day. And this is the media's fault?

    This last one would be as funny as that, except that it's about an author I really do care a lot about. There are reports that the final Harry Potter tome is being printed in secret and amid darkness by employees who are under threat of immediate dismissal if they are caught reading, let alone copying, the text they are printing in a perpetual night of police-state fear.

    If this is true (and if it's not, I blame the media), and Ms. Rowling is endorsing this insanity, then she too is setting herself up for a fall. This kind of obsession over plot, this compulsion over suspense, is what makes for bad stories--the kind we have not gotten from Rowling so far. Literature is not about what happens; it is about the meaning that each individual takes away from the story. Before I ever read Arundhati Roy's novel, The God of Small Things, I knew a lot about it, and I knew how it ended. But once I read it, it was just as beautiful and original as if I'd never heard about it before. I also remember seeing The Green Mile well before I read King's novel, and the book was still one of the most moving reads I've had in my life.

    The same goes for Harry Potter: if you were to tell me everything that's going to be in this final book, I'd still read it and love it for its messages. In fact, I had seen the first movie before I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and its metaphor fairly leaped off the page at me nonetheless. Two years later, I was writing my own book about the penetrating social and personal messages contained in these stories of wizards and witches.

    Ms. Rowling: if you are going to go stir-crazy over information leaks from printers, it will degrade the quality of your future work. Let go and let this phenomenon take its own course, so that you can remain an artist and not lower yourself to the level of a plot-hack. You stand in the forefront of fiction writers today because your work causes affliction to demagogues like this kook. Why do you think Bishop Burke (who, in addition to hating Harry Potter, also hates Ted Kennedy, Sheryl Crow, and Michael J. Fox) wishes to suppress your work, Ms. Rowling? Could it be that when he looks at Lord Voldemort, he sees himself? Could it be that you successfully strip away the purple veneer of piety and reveal the rotting corruption beneath it? Could it have something to do with the way a "Ministry"—either of "magic" (religion) or of state (no KR reporters allowed on our plane)—manipulates and intimidates the press? Yes, you've laid that bare as well, in front of the most dangerous audience of all—the children. Voldemorts like Bush, Burke, and Chavez can't stand that kind of treatment, you know.

    So it doesn't matter to me, Ms. Rowling, what we hear or when about the outcome or the plot of the final book. What matters is the meaning, which no one can "spoil," try as they might. I am far less concerned about whether Voldemort dies in Book 7 as I am about whether we can succeed in killing him off in our world, before it's too late.

    And now, your Bush Administration MSE moment. We'll be presenting these quotations from one of the core texts of every psych graduate student's bookbag, The Psychiatric Mental Status Examination, by Paula T. Trzepacz and Robert W. Baker, throughout the coming weeks. Today's comes from page 51, in the "Mood and Affect" section—just think of the Bushian comedic "search" for WMDs at the Correspondents Dinner a few years back:

    La Belle Indifference: Lack of the normally expected concern for an apparently serious condition...La belle indifference is associated with conversion disorder (previously known as hysteria) and various neurologic disorders. These patients typically lack insight regarding the emotions or conflict that underlie the conversion.

    Monday, May 28, 2007

    Monday with McKenna: Gay Marriage

    The images are from APOD; the music is from the Beatles; the movie is from Apple's iSight. Oh, and the blog today is from Terry McKenna.

    June is the month of weddings, so as we head into June, it’s time for this blog to consider Gay Marriage. 

    Gay Marriage is one of those issues that keeps bubbling over (similar to the issue of illegal aliens).  One of the guys I know (he’s a member of the church choir where I sing) asked me to sign a petition that demands that our state legislators put the question of gay marriage to an UP or DOWN vote.  I said no.  He was stunned.  Actually nonplussed! (You don’t have many opportunities to use nonplussed, so I thought I’d fit it in). 

    For gays the issue is simple: they want to join the rest of us in having the right to express a lifelong commitment of love and devotion, and what else but marriage fits the bill?  Think about it.  Where formerly, gays had been restricted to the shadows of our society, they now want to bring their lives and relationships in from the shadows and make them part of the public record.  Quite a change from the closeted world of gay life before the 1970’s.  Also different from the androgynous late 70’s where public gay life was marked by hedonism and abandon (a period that came crashing down with the AIDS epidemic). 

    So gay marriage is a good thing, isn’t it?

    Polls are an inaccurate resource, but if you watch the polls, you’ll see that the American people have been both generally for and against gay marriage at different times over the past year.  Apparently now is not a good time for gay marriage.  According to the most recent CBS News poll, only 34% of Americans support gay marriage, and nearly half believe that gay sex should be illegal.  Hmmm…. 

    But despite the polls, most Americans don’t devote much time to the topic of gay marriage as they go about their lives.  The issue is really a right wing smokescreen, useful to distract voters from the overall failure of the Bush program.  I don’t accept their arguments, but their fear of change is to be expected.  Conservatives articulate two concerns: first, that marriage as we practice it now is essentially an unchanged and universal institution - so how dare we alter it?  Their second concern is that the restructuring of marriage would somehow threaten all of our marriages. 

    Before I discuss marriage (briefly) let me first point out that our civil society should concern itself with one thing only – is the change beneficial or harmful?  And by the way, despite the polls which suggest otherwise, the shift toward gay marriage has ALREADY HAPPENED.  By the time a middle of the road institution like the CBS News Poll is ready to ask the question “should gays be allowed to marry” the societal changes that would allow gay marriage to be accepted have already taken place.  All that's left is to bring up the rear – our very conservative South and the mountain states. 

    Change can be a problem.  The 1960’s was a time of vast societal change.  The changes in favor of racial civil rights were good.  But the era also began a questioning of the rest of our society’s norms, and the intensity of the questioning was accompanied by a drift into permissiveness that became outright abandon.  A few middle class kids lost their way in a blizzard of sex, drugs and rock and roll (many more passed safely into and out of their purple haze).  The era was troubling to sincere representatives of society.  Nixon may have been manipulating us by speaking about the silent majority, but I still remember my parent’s confusion about the pot and LSD that at least one of their kids was using.  (He eventually straightened out).

    My summary above omits a lot, and sounds like pop sociology, but it serves one purpose: to remind us that when change is occurring, we have a genuine concern – is it ok?  Regarding gay marriage, our question should be: does Gay Marriage represent a throwback to wantonness? Or is it something worthy of support?

    Before I answer, let me complete my musings about marriage.

    On the surface, my parent’s marriage was identical to mine with my wife.  But the preconditions for marriage were different.  In theUS, from the Federalist era through the early 1960’s, marriage was the only way that women could secure a place in society.  Unmarried, a woman remained on the margins.  My mother wanted in.  She was 32 years old and a practicing RN when she married.  Immediately after marriage, she stopped working, and soon after started raising a family (6 births over 10 years).  By the time my wife and I married, it was different.  She and I had both recently obtained MFA’s and we both expected to work throughout our lives. 

    But at least my father didn’t purchase my mother’s virginity, and neither did my mother bring a dowry.  But dowries continued to be paid in Europe, through the Victorian era and were respected by European law.  Before the Victorian era, among property owners, marriages were often brokered and the woman was very much property.  If Biblical marriage is at all similar to ours, then what do we make of this passage from Exodus?  "If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins." NIV   Here is a reference from Wikipedia: One common penalty for the kidnapping and rape of unmarried women was that the abductor or rapist had to provide the woman's dowry.   (In either case, the unmarried woman compensated only for the loss of her value on the marriage market.)

    So marriage HAS changed.  (And I haven’t even mentioned polygamy or concubines).  Along with the change, we now expect a man to remain faithful and sexually exclusive – women have always been expected to be faithful.  This last change is VERY recent.  With marriage being a love match between equals, we expect life long fidelity. 

    Despite the moralizing of those on the right who deplore moral relativism, in fact, morals are defined differently by different cultures. As culture evolves, morals evolve as well.  The people who wrote the Bible did not notice the personhood of women (almost no one did, so the Bible is not alone).  In our day, we recognize both woman and gays as persons, so our societal codes and restrictions must change along with our changed perceptions.

    So… what of gay marriage? 

    Conservative’s qualms should be dismissed as nonsense.  Marriage is a multifarious institution that has evolved to meet the needs of each age and culture.  And as far as impacting straight marriage – it’s hard to imagine how.  For myself, I don’t like to see men kiss, but that’s pretty much my only inhibition.  When gays want to marry, they are moving in a conservative direction.  They want to be part of our social order, and given a place at the table.  As such, gay marriage represents moral renewal, not a retreat into degeneracy.  Yes, gays still frequent their leather bars; but straight men seek their amusements too.  I’m not going to moralize, both sets of amusements are fine as far as they go.  But neither is representative of what either straights or gays want from marriage.  Again.. Gays want In. 

    It is time.

    --T. McKenna

    Saturday, May 26, 2007

    Painting, President, Planet

    I saw this painting hanging on the wall of my accountant's office (click the graphic to enlarge it), and it was so revealing to me that I snapped a photograph of it. My accountant thought I was simply admiring, as he did, the impressive realism of the painted scene. But what I saw was an artist's rendering of modern culture.

    "Can you see what this painting is telling us about our culture, and the relationship between spirituality and commerce?" I asked Peter, my accountant.

    He gave me a blank look in response, so I stood beside the painting and explained:

    "There's the Stock Market, massive, brightly lit, with a stream of busy blurs of people moving before it. On the right is the Federal Reserve Building, seen in profile as it were. Again, massive, rising out of the steps over which Washington stands in regal, giant splendor. Squished between these two and shoved way into the background, so that it is thrown into near-total shadow, is Trinity Church. It has a narrow, cramped, faded look about it, compared to the bright, white, flag-draped monumentalism of the other two buildings. This is a picture of how the spiritual center has been pushed out of the center, and into a distance of shadowed, pale irrelevance."

    The accountant's jaw slowly dropped as I delivered this little speech, and then he muttered that "this used to be my favorite painting..." I told him it still could be, but for a different reason.

    Now for the rest of us, the point of all this is not to bewail any supposed morbidity in religion and spirituality. If you've read my writings about fundamentalism at this blog, or my discussion of Lord Voldemort in The Tao of Hogwarts, then you know that the eclipsing of institutional religion is to my mind anything but a subject for regret or lamentation.

    So what's the problem, if any? Well, what isn't in the painting? Nature, of course: not a single bush, animal, plant, even a cut flower. Hell, you can't even see the sky! Only the brick and stone monuments of two ideologies: church and commerce, with the suggestion of state in the Federal Reserve Building.

    Thus, my point is that we can't reduce this issue to a debate about competing institutions—church and state, spirituality and commerce. We have to transform both by making Nature and the health of the Earth primary, ascendant in our thinking. This, in a nutshell, is the entire message—the mission, if you will—of our blog. We need a new leader within ourselves, before we can think about leaders in our governments and businesses. That leader must be Nature—the nature within us, and the nature around us. There is no separation.

    With that point made, maybe you can guess who I'd like to see in the White House. The rightful and duly elected President of the United States. If he decides it's not right for him now, I respect that decision. He will remain a force of sanity and truth in any event. But if he tosses his hat into the ring, I'll hand out leaflets for him in downtown Crawford or at Liberty University. My only advice for him would be: turn within and trust nature, your own true nature, Mr. Gore. It'll lead you right.

    Friday, May 25, 2007

    Friday Reflection: A Call for Compassion

    How can you hear the voice of the people when you are deaf to yourself?

    This goes for calculating cynics like Reid and the yes-Dems as well as for despots like Bush and Cheney (I cannot buy the line that the former are merely spineless cowards--they are cowardly like vultures; otherwise, they are just as calculatingly carniverous as their opponents on the other side of the aisle).

    It is times like these when I have to remind myself that all these people, demonic as they may appear to the family members of our military personnel in Iraq or the innocents trapped amid the slaughter, are vibrating strings of energy like me and you. They have stilled their energy, wrapped themselves in a stone shroud of institutional hatred and self-aggrandizement, so they only appear evil, as their cloak of death splinters and drops its murderous fragments onto the lives of the unwilling participants in their crusade of tyranny.

    How many more must die; how many more families must be desolated by an irremediable loss, between now and September, or by yearend, or by 2009? How many more social programs and helping extensions of government must suffer or themselves die while our nation continues to fund its cruise into the hell of unremitting destruction?

    There are no ready answers to those questions. As I have said before, we can only wish that the proponents of desolation, both Donkeys and Elephants among them, be led to retreat from their greed, the lust for the poison of fame that fuels their connivance and their cynicism; that they be removed from their seats of falsehood and taken into themselves, where they might find the way out of their acculturated ignorance and back to their true nature.

    But if you have aligned yourself with inner death, the way back is perilous and often difficult. It must begin with the forced escape from the institutional and the lies with which it covers your true self. This is the way back to a natural compassion--not "compassionate conservatism" or the calculated compassion of group affiliation, but the compassion that comes out of the core of the individual, the heart of uniqueness.

    Therefore, we will offer the Friday Reflection space to Mr. David Carson, who presents the symbol of the "Deer Man"* as a metaphor on the path from ignorance to compassion.

    Deer Man is keeper of the heart. He embodies the marriage of compassion with wisdom. He has the power to melt every conflict in life...There are many old tales of meetings with Deer Man. One old tale tells of a cruel tyrant who makes life miserable for all those about him. He pillages, murders, and joyfully inflicts pain and sorrow on others. When the tyrant meets with Deer Man, he realizes his own self-loathing and fear. His heart suddenly opens and great compassion is born within him. He does his best to make amends to all he has harmed. The rest of his life is dedicated to service and loving kindness to others...

    Compassion streams through the universe riding the thrumming rhythm of life. Time, space, and movement can be collapsed into one universal resonance because it is the first sound of creation--the great Om. Deer Man speaks a common language that links us all...

    Compassion is the milk of experience. Compassion is courage to face and fight with yourself until you are rid of false beliefs. It is a self-compassion as well as the compassion for others. Compassion is the courage to find, acknowledge, and love your true self.

    Culture traps one in the game of self-importance, to strive, to get to the top. Deer Man is humble even with his great ability and strength. He knows that the intellect can be proud. He knows that true humility is one of the most difficult of all powers to carry. Deer Man knows that he doesn't know within the paradox of knowing. Compassion is beyond belief systems. It is finding your lost heart, realizing your deep love and giving it to all of creation.


    *My fellow Potter devotees will no doubt notice the parallel between the symbolism of the "Deer Man" and that of Harry's Patronus symbol, the stag. The Carson quote is from the 2013 Oracle, a book based on Mayan and Native American prophecies of a cosmic transformation at the end of 2012 (NOT the end of the world, as many presume these oracles portend). Whatever your view of such teachings, there can, I think, be scarcely any question over the human value of Carson's message.

    Thursday, May 24, 2007

    Roll Over, Tacitus: A Return to Rome

    Olbermann on the "bipartisan betrayal" of the American public (click to view)

    I can't stomach the idea of doing the right wing's legwork for them, but I have also been nauseated by some of the punditry on the left recently. Particularly:

  • Maureen Dowd's Wednesday column in the Times, which reduces a discussion of Al Gore's new book to gossip-tainted rumor-mongering, accompanied by a pathetic rant on weight loss. I sent this complaint to Eric Alterman's blog, which he kindly posted. Incidentally, Dowd's strange surface-obsession with Gore goes way back to the 2000 campaign, which Alterman documented in his book, What Liberal Media? Dowd's better than this; much better. But if she can't, for whatever reason, be reasonably objective or focused about Al Gore, maybe she should just shut up and let others review Gore's new book. In fact, that's what we'll be doing here soon.

  • Something is wrong, to my mind, when the Huffington Post has to add a gossip column to its front page, just to (presumably) keep up their traffic and revenue stream. I've written about the problem with this before; so I won't go over that ground again. It's disturbing, that's all. And speaking of disturbing...

  • Roll Over, Tacitus: Back to Ancient Rome

    Morrell Wine

    The Monica Goodling testimony before Congress was a reminder to me that we live under the sway of a theocratic oligarchy. An obscure youth with no outstanding credentials (beyond her religious zealotry) for the position she took at DOJ, she basically revealed her own ignorance of the foundational principles of law throughout her testimony.

    But Ms. Goodling was not hired to advance the understanding or practice of law at DOJ; she was hired to join in mute conformity with the demagoguery of a cultish state based on the rule of a fundamentalist clique that uses the name of God to enforce and perpetuate oppression. In fact, the basis of it is remarkably polytheistic: several gods, multiple ideologies mixed together, and even a cult of the virgin thrown in (how else are we to interpret "abstinence only"?).

    In short, the imperialism of Rome, redux. What they went through under the likes of Nero, Caligula, and Galba. A society defined by excess and the self-indulgence of the ultra-wealthy, employing the tools of belief and oppression under the various names and disguises of God. Now Rome lasted for a long time amid depraved and decadent rulers, because every so often a Hadrian, a Trajan, or a Vespasian would come along to right the ship of state, and persist (and survive) at this long enough for order and prosperity to be restored.

    So is this what America needs now? I have nearly boundless admiration for Al Gore: I'd knock on doors and make telemarketing calls (the ultimate sacrifice) to help him get elected to the office he once fairly won. Yet one thing holds me back, and I think it's something that Gore himself recognizes: we don't need an Antoninus or a Marcus Aurelius here now. What we need is a restoration of the individual citizen in a truly participatory democracy. Our mass media continue to look for the Next Big Thing, the New Savior, the next People's King. They thought they had found one some six and a half years ago, and look at what it's turned into. It became what every such undertaking of public vanity and passive dependence inevitably descend to: a failure.

    If we are to hope to witness a new morning of democracy, we will need to see, above all, the proper relegation of the President, members of Congress, and all government officials, to servants. Right now, they are all petty rulers, each in his or her domain; intent on carving out the greatest arc of power available to them, until such time as they can comfortably retire into the private sector or the perpetual book tour or media pundit's seat. These people are no more public servants than were Nero or Caligula. They are the devotees of a cult of excess who mouth the platitudes of a defunct religion as they descend further and further away from its original teachings, into a dark pit of opulence, excess, and vanity.

    Wednesday, May 23, 2007

    Geek Wednesday: How (Not) to Get Sued by Microsoft

    MEPIS Linux on a widescreen 22" Samsung monitor (click to enlarge; also see our video demo, below)

    Before we get to Geek Wednesday proper, I'd like to pass along a little tech/research project that Eric Alterman is starting over at Media Matters. Here's the basics of it:

    ...make a list -- with source material -- of every effect on the world, whether, um, good or bad, of the invasion of the United States and its "allies" of Iraq. We all know the litany; goodness I wish I had a key on my keyboard that automatically typed in: "cost trillions, killed tens, possibly hundreds of thousands, wounded hundreds of thousands more, increased terrorism, aided Syria and Iran (and China), destroyed a functioning country, increased hatred for the U.S. worldwide, undermined political allies, undermined the U.S. military, etc., etc. But seriously, let's do it systematically, with good sourcing.

    So if you have some old bookmarks, downloaded web pages or pdfs, or simply old newspapers showing past evidence of such effects, then by all means write them up and send them to Prof. Alterman. And bookmark that page once it's up there at MM: it will make a fairly compelling case the next time some petty despot like Bush takes it into his feeble mind to start a Crusade with other people's sons and daughters. 120X90 Logo Banner

    Geek Wednesday: Use the Source, Luke!

    Perhaps you have wondered why we have a tech column every week here, at a political sort of blog. Well, politics can be boring: there are Democrats and Republicans. No viable third party. Oh, all right: we've got Nader and Liebermann. Like I said, no viable third party; case closed, next case.

    But in technology, you have Microsoft, Apple, and Linux. Hey, a viable third party! Don't think so? Well, consider that Dell is soon to start taking orders for Ubuntu machines (for a feature list on these, check here). As we've been saying for awhile here, Linux is on the rise.

    So why are open source geeks asking to be sued by MS? If you have a few minutes, check out some of the 700+ listings there (I'm number 447 on page 3)--you'll find some pretty funny stuff. If you want to know what this is all about, just check out last week's post here. As our observer geek Nearly Redmond Nick predicted then, MS isn't drilling down to the details of what MS patents Open Source has violated and how, because they don't intend to sue, nor do they have any grounds to do so.

    Why, then, are they pissing off a lot of geeks and technophiles with baseless charges? Because, like the Bush administration, they just take a fiendish pleasure in spawning hatred (it's good publicity, at any rate). And, as we suggested yesterday, it may have something to do with the fact that Ballmer's not really an IT executive but a reject from Jackass. As we've pointed out many times with respect to the Bush administration, there is a certain strain of incompetence that infects every imperial entity, and MS is no different.

    Anyway, here's a few links on the MS patent stew and how it's being digested:

  • Linus Torvalds himself, the inventor of Linux, thinks the violation shoe is quite on the other foot.

  • Groklaw wonders whether MS is actually infringing on the GPL

  • And Sam Varghese of IT Wire is having the same thought.

  • Open Office geek John McCreesh thinks it's simply more MS bullying tactics

  • But we believe in equal time here at DR. Since we've already featured plenty of Ballmer's foot-shooting antics here, how about a different closed-source proponent? So here's a self-professed cynic (wear it proudly, chum--it means "dog" or "cur"), who will bash open source for you. Open source, he says, is for losers, also-rans: the winners hate open source, and they should. Wow, chief, you must be...a winner! And yes, you are--you get the DR horns for the week!

    So what's Apple up to? Oops, getting sued again, this time for false advertising of how many colors show up on their laptop screens. I checked the comments board on this story, just out of curiosity and because I had nothing to do at work. Amazing how people tie their shorts into knots over stuff like this; but I guess if the lawyers do it, then Mac geeks can, too. I learned everything I wanted to know about dithering, and then some. One guy defended Apple and said that they would show how weak the charges are. I countered with this:

    Apple wouldn't deny the allegations so quickly, because they don't want the allegations to go away. You see, this is classic Karl Rove, gang. Here's the likely scene inside a recent Apple exec conference:

    PR FLAK: Steve, we've got to do something to get the press off our tail over this stockdating Smart Mailboxes are getting stupid from all the inflow...

    STEVE: Don't worry, Flak. We'll give 'em the old BushCo end-around / diversion tactic. Hire a couple geeks to sue us for something really inane but technical-sounding, number of colors on our displays. That will get the media off your tail about the stockdating business...

    PR FLAK: Jeez, Steve, you're a genius!

    Before we leave MS and Apple alone for this week, here's your tip of the week: if you run MS Word for Mac, then you know how long it takes to open. This tip will help some--it involves turning off WYSIWYG font and style menus. Of course, what will really help is if MS shakes its tail on getting MS Office for Mac into universal binary mode. But rest assured, Ballmer will make you wait, because he hates you, Macophiles!

    All right, before we go, let's say you've got $1500 burning a hole in your pocket and you need a keyboard. But you have to go haute couture all the way--every key has to be an OLED display, and you must type on a designer label: here you are. Or if you want to shop around a little, try this page. And people think Macs are overpriced...

    Our last bit is about geeks who care. Most I've met do: as I've said before, they're not a bunch of horn-rimmed reeds strung out on Red Bull. They're socially aware people who feel and see more clearly than the most powerful people on this planet. Some examples:

  • Geeks around the world have spoken out and even volunteered to help a woman in Connecticut who's facing prison because IE allowed some porn popup ads to show up on PCs in her elementary school classroom one day. I'm telling you, people, as long as shit like this is allowed to go down, Jerry Falwell is still alive.

  • The geek press, led by the extraordinary Declan McCullagh of C-Net, is raising red flags again about government instrusion on our private lives.

  • And Slashdot posted this piece about the Smithsonian Institute's sellout to big oil and fat government in "toning down" an exhibit on climate change—and this isn't the first time they've pulled this shit.

  • Seen any of these stories in the mass media lately? Yeah, I didn't think so. Now you know why we have a tech column every week here at DR. See ya next week, geeks.

    Pssst....Google—stop buying things and fix the damned Preview link on Blogger in Safari. And while you're at it, get Google Docs working in Safari, too.

    Tuesday, May 22, 2007

    The Quality Goes In...Before the Spin Goes On

    No rocks in his head: Mike Gravel talks about his plan for America (found at

    Tomorrow, on Geek Wednesday, we'll be asking the most burning question in technology today: is Steve Ballmer really a tech executive or just a former extra from the Jackass program? But today, Part 2 of Terry's discussion of the quality level in public policy. In this section, you Krugman fans may notice that my co-blogger takes up a couple of themes (trade with China and food) visited in Mr. K's Monday column at the Times. I'm here to assure you that I get Terry's posts every Saturday, before anyone has seen Krugman's column; and I've got the email logs to prove it. This is about the fourth time this has happened, by the way, and my opinion is that McKenna and Krugman are on parallel rails of a TGV track of punditry consciousness. Or maybe (since they're both from New Jersey), there's some complex triangle involving Jim McGreevey...

    Now while we wait to see how long it takes for Drudge to pick up that rumor and report it as established fact, here's Terry with Part 2 of "Zen and the Art of Blogging".

    Apple Store

    Think of how often we are confronted with major public policy questions: champions from both sides emerge to do logical battle. Then it is up to us to separate the rhetorical wheat from the chaff. Politics may be trivial in comparison to the larger philosophical questions, but the quality of our lives is very much impacted by the results of politics. So let’s consider the quality angle of a few political questions. I’ll start with the Iraq war. The various arguments that are bandied about vary not according to the arguer’s intelligence, but by his or her political baggage. Thus, persons who typically favor the military have been more likely to argue in favor of the president’s policy (their support is wavering now); persons who are more interested in social policy, generally have been more likely to argue against the war. Logic doesn’t help us sort any of this.

    But suppose we ask a new question: is the Iraq War a good or bad experience? Nearly everyone would agree that the Iraq War is a bad experience. If bad, then we can assign it low value. Hmmm… if it has little value, then what? All the arguments in the world can’t make us overlook the low value or Quality.

    For Robert Pirsig (as expressed in Lila) his study of Quality began while in college, when he noticed that any number of hypotheses could be developed to explain any problem (and he was working in the hard sciences, so this dilemma was especially troubling). He became so obsessed over the question that he flunked out, but his obsession also led to his eventual enlightenment – and perhaps also to his nervous breakdown. And let me make it clear that I am not an amateur philosopher, but as a layman, I find myself distressed by the inconclusive nature of logical arguments. For what good is logic if it can’t help us sort out the value of various points of view? For both Robert Pirsig and for myself, the arguments (or spin) become just more sound and fury… (and as Shakespeare said, they signify nothing).

    My point is to boil Pirsig’s complex thesis into this simple statement: Quality is intellectual job one. Saying that, let’s look at another issue. One that has fewer political overtones than the Iraq war. Consider our trade with China. We’ve abandoned much of our manufacturing sector in favor of buying the same goods from the Chinese (at lower prices); yet in spite of this enormous boon to them, their reward to us has been to ship us worthless animal feed (filled with ground plastic) that proved poisonous. By the way, they have done worse to others: they sell poisonous cough medicines around the world, replacing sugar syrup (expensive) with di-ethylene glycol (a poisonous solvent). It amuses me that anyone would believe that China had sufficient protein to export their excess (animal feed typically includes added protein). Sources of protein include wheat gluten, dry milk, egg powder, fish meal, and so on. It is the Americans and Europeans who possess the most excess protein, especially dairy sources. The Chinese do have poultry, eggs and fish, but they also need to feed a billion citizens, and presumably need to use their protein at home. Still, we bought the feed, and the feed killed a few of our pets – now there is a rising concern about the quality of all Chinese goods. And what do the Chinese buy from us? Their well-to-do citizens import a few of our big cars, but much of what they could purchase from us, they counterfeit instead. So how would you rate our experience with the Chinese so far? Not that good! So of low value, or low Quality.

    I hope you see what I’m after. When voices are raised that our trade with China is causing lots of problems, and that we need to use government to correct the abuses, economists argue instead that the unencumbered free market will eventually turn the China trade to our benefit – though just when, they can never tell us.

    Let’s look at one more issue – our food. Food is a fairly neutral matter. But consider how food becomes a public policy concern. We have ever more obesity in America, and at younger and younger ages. We also have illnesses such a diabetes and heart disease, also appearing at ever younger ages. But what do we see when we walk around a typical American grocery store? We see that all of the fresh food is placed along the walls. The aisles are devoted to processed foods (and to non foods). We have entire aisles devoted to cookies, or chips. Or soda! And the breakfast cereal section is cluttered with over sweetened and highly processed junk. If we look into the grocery carts at the checkout lines, we see carts full of the same processed junk: brightly colored bags of chips, huge bottles of soda, cookies, and boxes of “diet” meals. So what can we conclude about the quality of our food? Again – it is of low Quality.

    And the next time you read a discussion about whether we should ban soda and snack vending machines from our public schools – you should put aside the money the schools get from the vendor and instead consider the value added by making junk food available.

    I’ll close by returning to Iraq. This blog has repeatedly argued in favor of leaving. We remain willing to listen to the other side (represented by George Bush and John McCain) but if they want us to hear them, they need to overcome our gut reaction that arguments in favor of staying have no value or quality.

    Monday, May 21, 2007

    Monday with McKenna: Zen and the Art of Blogging

    It can be one of the truly beautiful things about growing old: the voice becomes clearer, the truth more timely. Thank you, President Carter.

    And speaking of the quality that sometimes comes with age, here's Terry McKenna, with the first of a two-part piece on quality and policy.

    Quality is Job One. If that is so, why don’t we use Quality to help us determine public policy?

    Industry has invented many slogans to suggest that Quality comes first. But how do we know if something is good or bad? Is it by rational analysis, or do we make our judgments in some other way?

    The other day I got caught in the rain, and so bought a cheap umbrella from a store on the way to Penn Station. The price was just $3. It’s hard to imagine anything so complicated costing just $3. I examined the umbrella that I bought with a sense of wonder. It had lots of small metal parts, and the fabric of the umbrella, though thin, was water proof. It was probably worth its low price, but even so, it was still a flimsy and cheap umbrella, a piece of junk.

    Was my snap judgment typical of how we determine value? I think so. I believe that the value judgments come not from rationalization but from some other mechanism – one that resides outside of logical argument. Think of the manner in which you learn about the people you work with. You don’t make lists of the good and bad traits and then review your lists to assign values, you rely instead on your sense of how your encounters with others go – and based on your Quality sense, you create a private ranking of the folks you work with. I bet that if you compared your rankings with your peers, they would be strikingly similar.

    Netflix, Inc.

    My sudden interest in Quality stems from my reading the novel, Lila by Robert Pirsig. If you don’t know his name, perhaps you've heard of his other book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. ZAMM was released 33 years ago, and was a big hit at the time. Though its title now sounds New Agey, in fact, ZAMM is a novel with a serious work of philosophy contained within. My purpose is not to defend either book, but if you’d like to read about philosophy from a different point of view, read both. And by the way, read ZAMM first. (My son read ZAMM, and felt that it answered a question that is no longer being asked – maybe so.)

    As I read Lila (and I’m only about 1/3 the way through) the most important insight is that Quality is central to understanding, AND forms the baseline from which all other characteristics can be understood. If you are familiar with western philosophy, this book moves us away from the subject/object discussions that are the basis for many philosophical ruminations. My intellect is not as sharp as is Mr. Pirsig’s, but from my perspective, his ideas sound compelling. Regardless, it is interesting to consider that value judgments may come first, at the beginning of recognition and understanding – AND NOT LATER.

    So what? What's this have to do with politics or culture? Tomorrow, the answer. Or at least, one answer.

    --T. McKenna

    Saturday, May 19, 2007

    How to Get Kicked Upstairs: Don't Show Up

    Going from Senator to President would be considered a job promotion of sorts: I think we can all agree on that, left, right, and whatever.

    When you are gunning for a promotion, it is expected that you show that you've been able to do your current job well. And if you haven't done it at all, well, that might fairly hurt your chances. We're still agreed on that, Donkeys and Elephants alike?

    A Senator is expected to participate in the business of that august body, and regularly vote in its chambers. Part of the job description, you know: something that is simply essential to the basic performance of that work.

    OK. Now, John McCain has failed to vote over the last five weeks at his current job--you know, in the Senate.

    Well...would you promote him?

    Our government: of the people, for the people, and by The Peter Principle.

    Friday, May 18, 2007

    Friday Reflection: A Force for Healing

    I read Time's excerpt from Al Gore's new book, The Assault on Reason, and my eyes filled with tears of fury, so lucid and wise is his voice. He was supposed to be our President: we elected him. So I say to every one of those Supreme Court justices who voted Bush into office against the will of the American people, and to every mass media pundit and faux-journalist who cheerleaded for Bush (you'll find them listed here): history will condemn you far more than I can here. You have the blood of countless human lives and the stench of a corrupted democracy on your hands. Simply because you refused to do your jobs.

    Here's a small slice of the excerpt from Gore's book:

    Our Founders' faith in the viability of representative democracy rested on their trust in the wisdom of a well-informed citizenry, their ingenious design for checks and balances, and their belief that the rule of reason is the natural sovereign of a free people. The Founders took great care to protect the openness of the marketplace of ideas so that knowledge could flow freely. Thus they not only protected freedom of assembly, they made a special point—in the First Amendment—of protecting the freedom of the printing press. And yet today, almost 45 years have passed since the majority of Americans received their news and information from the printed word. Newspapers are hemorrhaging readers. Reading itself is in decline. The Republic of Letters has been invaded and occupied by the empire of television.

    Radio, the Internet, movies, cell phones, iPods, computers, instant messaging, video games and personal digital assistants all now vie for our attention—but it is television that still dominates the flow of information. According to an authoritative global study, Americans now watch television an average of 4 hours and 35 minutes every day—90 minutes more than the world average. When you assume eight hours of work a day, six to eight hours of sleep and a couple of hours to bathe, dress, eat and commute, that is almost three-quarters of all the discretionary time the average American has.

    In the world of television, the massive flows of information are largely in only one direction, which makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation. Individuals receive, but they cannot send. They hear, but they do not speak. The "well-informed citizenry" is in danger of becoming the "well-amused audience." Moreover, the high capital investment required for the ownership and operation of a television station and the centralized nature of broadcast, cable and satellite networks have led to the increasing concentration of ownership by an ever smaller number of larger corporations that now effectively control the majority of television programming in America.

    Wolfgang's Vault now offering full concert downloads!

    Friday Reflection: A Force for Healing

    The source of this week's banner quote would be completely opaque to all but a few specialists, so it may have been a bit unfair to put it up there. The writer is Cheng Yi, an 11th century commentator on the ancient Chinese oracle book, the I Ching. It's proof again that, millennium to millennium, human folly is so constant as to be thoroughly predictable.

    The quote in our banner is from Cheng Yi's commentary to Hexagram 7, "The Army":

    The course pursued by the army basically should be correct; if you raise an army and mobilize troops in a cause that is not right but just causes the country trouble, the people do not really obey, they are just coerced. Therefore, the guiding principle of the army should be uprightness. But even if the army acts in the right way, the leaders must be mature to obtain good results...If those who are to lead a group are not respected, can they get the people to follow willingly? (from Cheng Yi, The Tao of Organization, translated by Thomas Cleary).

    Apple Store

    The reason that such a message resonates today goes beyond the obvious reference to the misuse of military force. Cheng Yi's warning is a call to every kind of leader--corporate leaders, heads of government, mass media pundits, and of course, military officers. It is a reminder to each of these that, as a leader—whether of people, institutions, or opinion—you are responsible for more than your in-group--your staff, your squad, your stockholders, your advertisers, or your political base or party. You are responsible to a whole that includes and surpasses you, your group, and its mission, however expansive and noble that mission may appear.

    There is also a message within the I Ching about a personal use of its insight. The army, for example, can be conceived and felt as a principle of protection within the living personality, distinct to each individual. The best leaders are able to inspire such a personal meaning of their vision, a meaning that is unique to every person who hears it. This, indeed, is how true unity and real motivation are achieved in an organization: through the freedom that is given to the individual to respond to a group message with his unique understanding, and thus add vibrancy and energy to the whole. In my book, Drinking From the Darkness: Living Completely in a Time of Estrangement, I offered two examples of such a message--one from the I Ching, and another from one of the great teachers of modern times.


    A Cry in the Wilderness: Ancient and Modern

    [The healing of our society] cannot be done all at once—to even entertain such an expectation would be to open the door to despair. Our generation must begin the work of recovery with a resolute cry in the wilderness—the kind of firm and clarion call that induces the sanity of silence. The ancient Chinese oracle, the I Ching, contains a description of such a cry for the freezing of ignorance in its 43rd hexagram, titled “Resoluteness/Breakthrough”:

    BREAKTHROUGH. One must resolutely make the matter known
    At the court of the king.
    It must be announced truthfully. Danger.
    It is necessary to notify one’s own city.
    It does not further to resort to arms.
    It furthers one to undertake something.
    (from the Richard Wilhem/Carey Baynes translation)

    There is a beautiful sense of urgency in this poem, written some five thousand years ago, which can be read at both the societal and the personal level. At the societal level, the cry of “Danger!” and the need for truthfulness in “notifying one’s own city” while avoiding the impulse to opposition or violence (“it does not further to resort to arms”) remind me of the message of another eloquent writer of more recent times:

    Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

    These are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., written from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. He and his ancient counterpart, King Wu of China (the man traditionally credited with having written the I Ching), both endured personal danger and frequent imprisonment for their resolute cries of truth “at the court of the king.” Both were men of spiritual insight and teachers of mindfulness in living; both believed that violence was a resort that “does not further”—as Dr. King said in accepting his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, “nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.”

    Less than five years after writing the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered—perhaps, it must be said, executed—and his voice was stilled. But not silenced: others have, and will, “resolutely make the matter known” before the court of Institutional Authority—in the presence of the world and to all the people who are awake enough to hear and respond. Dr. King’s life and message will enduringly have the deepest, most resonant meaning to people living amid estrangement, because he chose to speak and to act from his heart—his true and undying spark from the fire of the Universe—with the force of insight and clarity, rather than of weaponry and oppression. This, too, is where we can begin, where we must begin.

    Thursday, May 17, 2007

    The Face That Cannot Be Saved

    My blogging partner, Terry McKenna, and I were trading emails this morning about the Comey testimony. I mentioned that it was astonishing to see how Ashcroft comes off as a hero of liberty in all this. Terry replied: the ethical desert that is the Bush administration, Ashcroft's momentary lapse into moral courage stands out, like a single blooming flower in the Sahara.

    The Wine Messenger

    Of the Face that Cannot--and Should Not--Be Saved

    There are more big layoffs coming where I work. They have started already, in fact. They will go for the old ones first, because here we believe that to pass 50 is to enter into senescence. Unless, of course, you're on executive row. The less you need the money, the more surely does it flow to you.

    I am safe for the moment, because the corporation targets the full-timers. More bang for the buck, or blood for the axe. We consultants cover fewer lines on the ledger sheet: no insurance, no pension, no vacation, no sick pay, no strings of attachment. Get rid of one of us and you've just cleared a desk and a single line, the hourly rate. Far better to remove that servant who has sat at the same desk for a generation, wearing the same path in the carpet each day. What could he possibly have left to offer the modern company? He is a relic, let him have his pension and go to where relics belong. If he has a family to support, well, that's what Social Security and unemployment insurance are for. The company must go forward.

    But if you have started a war that no one seems able or willing to end, and then been discovered in your next job pulling the strings of power to secure your main squeeze a comfortable office with a six-figure salary, you must be allowed your dignity, even as you face the axe. You must be allowed to save face.

    But the face of power cannot, and should not, be saved. It must be killed, for this is how we recover the reality behind the face; the truth beneath the image. Wolfowitz, for example, has far greater problems than the loss of a title or a position of power—this loss, in fact, is his only good fortune. He has blood on his hands, flowing up his arms and drowning his heart. It is the blood of tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of innocents.

    Yet there is another sacrifice he made when he gave up his true self to a tyranny of connivance. He delivered himself to inner death—the only kind worth fearing. Nothing can bring him back from that death except his own choice to retreat from power.

    So it goes for all who choose the delusion of authority or the power to dominate other peoples, other creatures, through violence and oppression. The following links come from today's email.

  • It is true of Gonzales and Cheney, who have turned America into a police state.

  • It is true of Bush, who ordered and arranged this tyrannical assault on human liberty.

  • It is true of our mass media kingpins, who chose to ignore the latest of a long line of impeachable offenses.

  • It is true of al-Bashir and the Janjaweed, who continue their depredations against humanity.

  • It is true of those who torture and kill any creature of the Earth.

  • To fire such people, to say No to their enslavement to death, is to do them the greatest favor. It is to offer these living dead their only chance at recovery. A demon can only be expunged by a forceful removal from his self-made hell. To insist on the impeachment, the disenfranchisement, and the impoverishment of these walking dead is to deliver them their last chance at life. Today and every day that follows, do all you can to give them that chance.

    Footnote: Whether he is fired or resigns, Wolfowitz will receive a severance package of at least $375,000. Now I consider myself a fairly well-paid contractor--and I am far more fortunate than most workers in this nation--but it would take me four and a half years of continuous work to equal that.

    Compare it with your own salary; if you think it's a little less than fair that this guy not only gets to negotiate his firing, but receives a fat payout at the end, let the World Bank know.

    Wednesday, May 16, 2007

    Geek Wednesday: Attack of the Borg

    Microsoft: hegemony, arrogance, brutishness, surreality. Their latest imperial movement is all over the geek news: they are proposing to attack Linux, Open Office, and various other open source products and providers for violating some 250 MS patents. For some perspective on this, we call on our resident IT guru, Nearly Redmond Nick.

    Toshiba -

    Here's an interesting article:

    "Microsoft could have several motives for rattling its patent saber: slowing down open-source rivals, raising fears of open-source legal risks among customers, and winning payment for technology the company believes it deserves from a group that's generally been unwilling to pony up."

    Given the company behind all this noise, I am leaning towards the last of the three. Just as Microsoft forced Novell into their deal, I think they're trying to do more of the same here. If this was legitimate and MS wanted a different result, they would be releasing many more details about each and every infringement. The reason they are bundling all of these up instead of fighting each one individually is because of their desired outcome. It's traditional conflict resolution - don't fight about every little thing, find the underlying theme or overall relationship and focus on that. I guess it's almost a compliment to MS that they are doing something well. They are definitely living up to all their nasty stereotypes.

    Some good news is coming out of this, at least. The Free Software Foundation is promising to include language in the next version of the GPL that prohibits deals like the MS-Novell pact. That should be a fairly large step forward, given the popularity of the GPL. And, as with any MS announcement, the Open Source troops are riled up. Opponents of Redmond are calling the software giant's bluff. It's not just a legion of intelligent developers you're dealing with, Bill - it's fans of OSS from all professions, including lawyers who are calling "bullshit". You got away with one with Novell. Let's not get too excited now and think this will go much further. Remember, Novell is a corporation with a vulnerable head - the OSS community has many leaders. There is no single weakness, and their low-tech "weaponry" just may be a bigger asset than their high-tech software.

    —N.R. Nick

    The only point I'd add to that is the potential for a collision with Sun: after all, how different from Open Office is Sun's Star Office? If MS wants to shoot the goose, they'll have to go after the gander, and they might find both more than they bargained for. And they'll have more stuff like this shaken in their face by the geek press. Bottom line here is that David's finally gotten big enough to bother Goliath, and the monster is reacting as all trolls will. In fact, as this writer points out, the goon is getting scared.

    Science Watch: Great piece in the Times yesterday on the CERN Hadron Collider, with a slide show and movie.

    So what's that fruit vendor from Cupertino up to this week? Ah, romancing Paul McCartney, of course, even as they release a modest upgrade of their MacBook laptops. Very cool, Steve, and good timing on the heels of those questions you had to face at the stockholders' get-together.

    I was thinking about doing a review of .mac, Apple's country-club style networking, email, backup, and family website creation offering ($99 a year). But a recent tip I've gotten from one of our regular readers at Geek Wednesday, Mr. D. Vrai, has basically closed the contest on .mac. He told me about Mozy, an online backup solution that comes free with 2GB of storage capacity, with unlimited storage available for a mere $5 a month. So when you put that together with Gmail (free with 2.8GB of storage) and the ability to make your own websites in Google Pages (100MB of content free), along with Picasa Web's photo upload application (1GB free), it would seem that .mac is toast. Here's an idea, Steve: use those fat iPod profits to Google-ize your servers and then just give away a basic .mac subscription, with a charge for a premium edition. You'll soon be watching those new MacBooks jumping off the shelves. Yeah, I know, it's a great idea, and I don't know why you didn't think of it first. You can hire me if you want: just give me a call.

    But there are things you can do on a Mac that are just too hard or too clumsy to do on anything else. Next week, we'll show off a few of those. Until then, here's a brief excerpt from my new book, The Open Source Society, and our fractal of the week from Ben Haller's Fracture product.

    Technology is supposed to be about innovation, and indeed, it often is. But true innovation happens over time and by degrees. As we will see in Chapter 5, the software development model provides a map of how real innovation occurs. Briefly, it follows these high-level stages:

    Ø Vision (the idea, its purpose, potential benefits, and general structure)

    Ø Scope (how far a reach this innovation will have; its overall compass of influence)

    Ø Requirements (what will be needed, structurally and functionally, for this innovation to fulfill the vision without exceeding its proper scope)

    Ø Development (the physical creation of the elements required to make the innovation work; usually this is the writing of computer code and the preparation of systems and physical machines on which the code is to perform)

    Ø Testing (trying out the innovation in a controlled, limited environment and under carefully planned test conditions)

    Ø Implementation (the delivery of the finished product, after multiple rounds of testing, development, and demonstration of working models to the users or audience for whom the innovation has been made)

    You have an idea; you write a proposal; then you create a design and write some code. Finally, you hoist it onto a sandbox or development machine to try it out, take a walk around it. By the time anyone sees a test version of your innovation (for example, an alpha, beta, or release candidate), it has probably changed considerably from its early form and substance. Most live releases of a new product only barely resemble the original concept.

    But the corporate advertising/media spin on innovation is different from this reality: it feeds us images of overnight transformation, of revolutions conceived in a boardroom and born the next day, with scarcely a moment's effort or reflection in between.

    Such distortions of reality are dangerous, in that they create a false perception of how challenges are most effectively met. When this fantasy-based spin on solving problems is granted broad acceptance within a culture, the results can be positively disastrous. In its sale of the Iraq War, for example, our corporate government followed the same advertising model in its manipulation of the news media: it gave us "shock and awe," a dramatic and patently irrational response to a challenge that was nevertheless uncritically lapped up by the mass media. If we are to hope to prevent the recurrence of such tragic failures as the Iraq War became, we must see to it that we transform our thinking about facing challenges within our businesses, our technologies, and even in our personal lives. It is one goal of this book to contribute toward that transformation of consciousness.

    Tuesday, May 15, 2007

    The Flight of the Honeybees

    When you think of the past six years in Washington, do you get an ulcerous feeling in your gut? Do you feel that existential nausea and soul-diarrhea of Irritable Bowel Syndrome? Do you just feel like the entire Earth has got Krohn's disease and is ready to expel us in one violent abdominal retch?

    Well, friends, now you know why it's Digestive Diseases Week in our nation's capital. If you have some time to visit and let out some wind with some friends over a Prilosec cocktail or two, check it out. And now, for some more news that may make you want to blow lunch...

    Sierra Club

    Flight of the Honeybees

    Ignorance is the fuel of conflict, the force that keeps cruise missiles flying and torture camps operating and aircraft carriers afloat, aimed toward Iran. Ignorance has been the stock-in-trade, the defining mark of the Bush administration, perhaps nowhere more than in its open and malignant contempt for science. We are nearing a pay-the-piper moment on this score.

    Science is not conducted on the "shock and awe" model, nor is it an American Idol entertainment, where you can go from a set of alternate hypotheses to a working theory or a practical solution in a single season. Science works according to a gradual process of testing and re-testing experience and refining understanding. Scientists are taught to be skeptical toward the overnight solution, the slam-dunk prediction, the cakewalk conclusion. For they know that understanding (let alone practical application) matures by degrees far larger than the instant fixes of Karl Rove's parallel reality or the six month victories of Dick Cheney's fantasy realm.

    Read the conclusion to virtually any research article in a scientific journal, and you'll be likely to find something to this effect: "more research (or repeated study) is required to verify these findings and develop better understanding..."

    That reminder, of course, is always ignored by the media who report any scientific findings of public interest or import, such as research into a new drug or the effects of a diet or lifestyle modification. But such a reminder needs to be noted, because it also contains a warning for all of us: the maturity of scientific understanding occurs as gradually as does the maturity of a person. And the problems that have beset us in this age simply can't wait that long.

    We should have learned this lesson from the AIDS epidemic. A new disease entity appeared nearly 30 years ago, and it took some time to even understand the etiology (causative factors) and pathology of the illness. It required more than a decade for scientists to begin to develop and apply treatments that offered some hope to sufferers from the disease. It's not that scientists are lazy or lack an appreciation of the urgency of a condition like AIDS; it's simply that they know that the impulsive rush toward success is precisely what opens the door wide to failure. They know that effort, repetition, and above all time are required for understanding to mature and for real, enduring solutions to develop.

    Now quite apart from the lesson that this holds for our government and its belief in the drop-kick, mass murder approach to exporting democracy, there is more that we need to take note of here. For one of the themes I've been reading and hearing from the media on the climate change issue (I prefer that term to the misleading or easily distorted phrase "global warming") is that our advanced scientific and technological know-how will doubtless bring us the solutions we need to prevent disaster, and that there is, after all, no need for any urgent, Kyoto-style guidelines from government or the corporate realm.

    This reassuring pabulum, that our hi-tech, corporate-funded science will fix everything in time, is an anti-scientific attitude, based on ignorance. Scientists are barely beginning to understand the nature and scope of the problem; the distance from where we are scientifically to the point where a comprehensive solution can even be proposed, let alone achieve consensus, cannot even be estimated today.

    A potentially related issue has recently appeared in a segment of the news market: the mysterious disappearance of the honeybee (also see Mark Morford's excellent meditation on the broader meaning of this occurrence). Here's an excerpt from Gerber's article:

    90% of the feral (wild) bee population in the United States has died out. Recent studies in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have shown that bee diversity is down 80 percent in the sites researched, and that “bee species are declining or have become extinct in Britain.” The studies also revealed that the numbers of wildflowers that depend on pollination have dropped by 70 percent. Which came first, the decline in wildflowers or the decline in pollinators, has yet to be determined. If bees continue to die off so would the crops they support and with that would ensue major economic disruption and possibly famine.

    No one, including the world's leading experts on these creatures, their history, and their behavior, has the remotest clue as to what the hell is going on. You could suggest (as Morford does in his piece) that it might be cell towers, and be on equally solid (or shaky) ground with the experts. There isn't even consensus on what is happening, let alone how, or what to do about it. The bees might be dying, they might be traveling to other lands or passing into parallel universes—the only thing that is clearly known is that they are disappearing.

    The only other point of agreement for everyone who understands the meaning of this mysterious disappearance of the bees is that it bodes terrible misfortune for every person on this planet, as Gerber pointed out in the passage above.

    Yet how dare we suggest that this could be the fault of a single President or an administration that has had barely six years of power? This has obviously been going on for decades. Point taken, and duly noted.

    But before we absolve the Bush administration, let's be clear on this: the past six years have seen the hardening of a culture in which the mouth of inquiry was stoppered—in the media, in the halls of Justice, in the military, in Congress, in the inner circle of the White House, and in science. From climate change to stem cell research to AIDS to birth control to the study and management of natural disasters—from sea to shining sea—the spirit of scientific exploration has been quelled, its inquiring voice silenced, its funding cut back or revoked.

    So, even if we had been aware (as, it turns out, some in the scientific community were), we would not have been ready to begin to understand the meaning of the disappearance of the bees. When Brittney's addiction or made-up mushroom clouds or Anna Nicole's funeral trump true awareness, there will inevitably be consequences. Perhaps, as Morford concludes, it is the very bed we have made, not just these past six years, but over the entire course of the industrial age:

    See, the sweet, sticky ontological truth is nature doesn't really give a damn whether our species lives or dies. It is very possible that we are not nearly as essential or significant as we like to believe. Though I imagine if nature had her druthers, she might very well choose to eliminate us like a bad dream and let the honeybees and the ants and the trees and the whales take over.

    Or, as Gerber concludes:

    It could also be that our methods centred on mass production and factory farming are in conflict with nature, as we can see in the case of avian flu, we may be creating a world of pestilence having forgotten that we are part of nature and there is a natural order, balance and harmony that needs to be maintained in the dance of life. Like any species in nature that gets out of hand, nature has a way to keep it in check, and humankind may be the next species in line for severe adjustment or even step-by-step eradication.

    We won't know until we begin to ask, examine, and understand. For that, we will need leaders who encourage, support, and fund a culture of active scientific inquiry, debate, and exploration--right here on the Earth.

    There's more here on the disappearance of the bees. Once you get past the stuff about what the author named her cat, you'll find some valuable information.