24 December 2007

Requiescat in Pace: Oscar Peterson, 1925-2007

One of the greatest jazz pianists that ever lived, Oscar Peterson, died yesterday at the age of 82. In a 1966 interview, Peterson reflected, "There's an extreme joy I get in playing that I've never been able to explain." This is the extreme joy that his audience worldwide experienced as he shared his virtuosity and inspiration over a fifty-plus year career. The world is a lot less joyful today. On the other hand, heaven will be swinging tonight.

Goodbye, Oscar Peterson.

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12 December 2007

Seeking A Governmental Organization

The response to my first and second calls for participants has been great. I now have four organizations officially signed up and I have begun interviews. The four include a large multinational corporation, a web-based start-up company, a small, but global NGO with a strong social justice and feminist orientation, and a medium-size enterprise that is in the process of transitioning from having been a truly BAH organization to a more valence-y, collaborative organization.

Unfortunately, the governmental organization that was really interested in the research - at least at the line level - officially declined today after two trips through their bureaucratic hierarchy. Given how my request was, shall we say, significantly modified as it made its way through the first time, I have no idea what proposal was actually declined, nor the reasons. But, as the saying goes, tempus fugit.

So I am once again looking for one more organization, and the type is pretty specific. I am seeking a governmental organization - a department that is part of the public service at any level of municipal, provincial, state or federal government. Of course, all identities will be held in confidence, both that of the organization itself as well as the individual participants (three or four individuals from the organization is what I need).

Do you belong to such an organization? Do you know someone who does that might be interested in participating in my exploration of the future of organization? If so, please contact me and I'll be happy to provide more information about the research and the extent of participation, with no obligation.

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10 December 2007

The Geek vs. The Black Screen

I love my Thinkpad - it's been the best computer I've ever owned. I've tricked it out so that it looks and feels sufficiently cool, and configured it so that It Just Works - yes, with Windows XP. Switching over to Mac seems to be the hip thing to do these days, and fellow geeks who have ponied up the money and made the switch claim that it's so much better, easier and, you know, hipper, than Windows. But I hate learning curves, so I'm quite happy where I am. I'll take John Hodgeman over Justin Long in this case.

I keep my system up to date with the latest patches for both my hardware and software. So when Lenovo recommended some patches to both wired and wireless networking, the video driver, and power manager, and Microsoft did their regular "Patch Tuesday" trick, I was right there. And then... nothing. Screen was black (although the fluorescent tube was lit). My WiFi was more like Why? and Fie! And connecting via Ethernet didn't. I figured it was something with the drivers, so I tried hooking up an external monitor, and it sort of worked for a while. I tried rolling back the network drivers (system hung). I tried manually ripping them out and letting the system find the "new hardware" - which worked until I had to reboot, at which point the network connections stopped again.

I took off my critical data and rolled the system back to a previous backup (of course none of the system restore points worked). That allowed me to get the network connections back, but still the Thinkpad screen was black. A variety of posts online more or less left me with two options: wipe the hard disk and start from scratch, or lose my system for a couple of weeks taking it in for service.

I was reluctant to wipe the hard disk, since the screen was black from the get-go - not even the power on logo showed up. And I was equally reluctant to take the machine for service since it didn't feel like a hardware problem (I ran all the hardware diagnostics from the service partition - yes, I am a geek when I want to be). Almost in desperation, and after two days of struggling with this problem, I thought to take a wander through the BIOS. And there it was.

There is a BIOS parameter to specify Boot Display Device. In my case it was set to Analog VGA, with other choices being Thinkpad Internal, and Both. I set the parameter to Both, reboot the system, hit the toggle display control, and voila! I had a screen image! Three cheers and a tiger for me!

The only question that remains: How did the BIOS parameter get changed? (And while I'm asking questions, why were both the Broadcom Ethernet controller and the Intel WiFi drivers bad?)

Update (30 Dec 2007): Nope, I was wrong. Turns out it was a broken main board, as the problem got worse, and eventually, became no screen display at all, under any circumstances. Probably had something to do with a fall on the ice while carrying my computer bag just before this all started.

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07 December 2007

Two Conversations About Relationships and Valence Theory

I had the pleasure of two interesting conversations today with two organizations as different as one could get. The first was with one of Canada’s major financial institutions concerning online training for some of its employees. Institutionally, the organization is quite satisfied with online, distance education – cyber-ed, as I would call it – delivering content to employees in small, individual modules, and testing them to ensure “compliance” – that the material was indeed consumed. The problem with all of this? The focus of the exercise is on demonstrating that information is transferred to employees, not that the employees have actually learned anything. There is no opportunity for employees to learn from each other, or from experiences that they have had in live situations. Although the organization is technically compliant with training requirements, later checks of actual encounters in the live work environment, not to mention employees’ own feedback demonstrate that no actual learning has taken place.

What the organization has yet to realize – and hopefully will thanks to the initiative of the two people with whom I met – is that education is not merely about transferring information. It is about contextualizing that information in the real life experiences of the learners, and in relation with the experiences of other learners. Technological delivery may make training efficient. It does not necessarily make for effective learning. It is the relationships among people and sharing contextualized experiences that create emergent knowledge that is the basis of education.

The second conversation was with a relatively young agency whose aim is to provide funding, guidance, mentorship, and access to more traditional institutions for youth-led organizations. They are especially oriented to those who are marginalized and typically excluded from more traditional access. The challenge they are facing is how to incorporate some of the more important aspects of traditional management practice among their member organizations – things like budgeting, expense control, decision making practices and so forth – without becoming subsumed in the very traditional corporate management paradigm. This is especially important for the youth organizations that are based in non-Western cultures, practices, and communal decision making.

This organization found my ideas of Valence Theory quite compelling, as it provided them a non-hierarchical way of considering the organizations for which they are providing inspiration and incubation. For them, Valence Theory provided a way to minimize the traditional power relations between their organization, that provides funding among other things, and the emerging community organizations that they nurture. When one thinks about it, the last thing you want is to take marginalized youth, and further entrench systemic marginalization through the overall organizational model. Valence Theory gives them an alternative way of conceiving their network of organizations, preventing the dominance of the traditional corporate governance model.

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06 December 2007

"Black-hatted Villans" at Bali

The day when China can lecture Canada about environmental responsibility is the day when our country needs to have a good, hard look at ourselves (and "Canada's New Governement (tm)") in the mirror.

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02 December 2007

Copywrong for Canada

Time to gird for battle, circle the wagons, and (wo)man the barricades. Michael Geist warns us that Canada's copyright laws are about to be devastated by the Harper government, making Canada one of the most backward countries in the world with respect to intellectual and cultural creativity.
Sometime over the next two or three weeks, Industry Minister Jim Prentice will rise in the House of Commons and introduce copyright reform legislation. We can no longer speak of choices because those choices have already been made. There is every indication (see the Globe's latest coverage) this legislation will be a complete sell-out to U.S. government and lobbyist demands. The industry may be abandoning DRM, the evidence may show a correlation between file sharing and music purchasing, Statistics Canada may say that music industry profits are doing fine, Canadian musicians, filmmakers, and artists may warn against this copyright approach, and the reality may be that Canadian copyright law is stronger in some areas than U.S. law, yet none of that seems to matter. In the current environment and with the current Ministers, politics trumps policy.

The new Canadian legislation will likely mirror the DMCA with strong anti-circumvention legislation - far beyond what is needed to comply with the WIPO Internet treaties - and address none of the issues that concern millions of Canadians. The Conservatives promise to eliminate the private copying levy will likely be abandoned. There will be no flexible fair dealing. No parody exception. No time shifting exception. No device shifting exception. No expanded backup provision. Nothing.

The government will seemingly choose locks over learning, property over privacy, enforcement over education, (law)suits over security, lobbyists over librarians, and U.S. policy over a "Canadian-made" solution. Once the bill is introduced, look for the government to put it on the fast track with limited opportunity for Canadians to appear before committees considering the bill. With a Canadian DMCA imminent, what matters now are voices. It will be up to those opposed to this law to make theirs heard.
What can be done? Here are Michael's 30 Things You Can Do. If you are a member of Facebook, join the Fair Copyright group. If you think that this won't affect you because you don't download music or pirate videos, think again: imagine being prevented from recording your favourite TV show for watching later. Imagine being forced to repurchase music you already have if you want to listen to it on both a CD and your iPod. Imagine it being illegal to create a Jon Stewart-like parody of a politician's speech.

Despite the fact that everything the copyright lobby has been telling politicians for years has been a lie, despite the fact that many record labels have realized that DRM doesn't work and are abandoning it, despite the fact that in case after case, people who have legally purchased locked-down electronic content are shit-out-of-luck when something goes wrong with the technology, or when the vendor decides to change systems, the Harper government is planning to proceed with this regressive legislation... unless... unless the public outcry is sufficiently loud to resonate throughout Ottawa. It's time to stop the worst copyright law ever!

And for an inside look on how such a law could come to pass in an enlightened country like Canada, see what the Prime Minister has to say about it.

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30 November 2007

Why Not Call it Disgusting Delirium

Does anyone else see something fundamentally wrong about this?
Taser International and another company closely linked to the manufacturer have paid the way for Ontario's deputy chief coroner to lecture at their conferences on the phenomenon of "excited delirium," a medically unrecognized term that the company often cites as a reason people die after being tasered.
Of course the man in question has demonstrated tremendously good judgement relative to the public good in the past: "at an inquiry in Ontario, [Dr. Cairns] admitted to shielding disgraced pathologist Charles Smith."

Participating in a symposium that seeks to create a convenient medical excuse for the police's excessive use of force in inappropriate circumstances is morally and ethically wrong in my book. Dr. Cairns' participation in such a cynical enterprise should disqualify him from giving any future testimony or opinions with regard to Taser-related deaths. Talk about conflating private business interests with the public good. (And Dr. Cairns: Since when is accepting an expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas from a company against whose product you might be called to testify not a conflict of interest? What the heck is going on in the coroner's office?)

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27 November 2007

Organizational Therapy and Healing

Although I can't claim the term, "organizational therapy," I can claim a unique approach to an emerging practice in organizational change and enterprise strategy. It's an approach that brings a therapeutic model to organizational healing.

Many organizations today have a sense that things are not quite right, that the constant pace of change is both wearying and not really changing anything (at least, for the better). There is a sense of general malaise in the enterprise, and the favourite spectator sport seems to be schadenfreude (or here for a more musical explanation). Organizations be experiencing tremendous trauma after org-chart re-orgs, mergers, divestitures, large-scale layoffs, or other similarly disruptive changes.

Part of the problem in getting out of the mire is how to find processes that are neither blame-shifting exercises nor superficial, rah-rah whitewashing of deeply entrenched, systemic issues. An even bigger part of the problem is that conventional management lexicons don't really have a good vocabulary of organizational dynamics that are consistent with the times in which we live. Let's face it, most informal management experience and formal management education are solidly based in Bureaucratic, Administratively controlled, Hierarchical - BAH - organizations.

That's where I come in. Using the constructs of my Valence Theory of Organization, and using engaging and energizing facilitation tools, I can help create venues of culture change (scroll down to the section on "Effecting Organizational Transformation") in organizations that will help to enable the emergence of that elusive condition of success in the contemporary world, organization-ba (here, four paragraphs from the bottom, and here, in the section on "The Nature of Leadership").

Like any good therapist, I can't solve your problems. What I can do is facilitate your organization's members to collectively understand, and collaboratively begin a process of transformation towards solving those problems. Help is close at hand.

Update (31 July 2010): Here is the how-to guide for what I do.

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24 November 2007

Hope for a Troubled World

This is perhaps the yang to the yin of the previous post. Paul Hawken describes how the largest movement in the world came into being, and just how large it is: a movement with no name, no particular location, no ideology, and "not led by a male vertebrate." After watching, head over to WiserEarth.org, to connect with organizations, people, resources and more.

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23 November 2007

Unsubscribe Me: Disturbing Video and Campaign Against Torture

Among the insidious aspects of government-sanctioned torture are the euphemisms used to describe it. Softening the citizenry against its outrage is almost as important as "softening" detainees to reveal information that may or may not be accurate - and usually is not. (And note even the use of the word "softening" as the euphemistic substitution for "torturing.")

Two campaigns have begun to enable people to know precisely what is being done in their names: informed consent of the public is, after all, a requirement for democratic governance. One is waterboarding.org that explains,
Waterboarding induces panic and suffering by forcing a person to inhale water into the sinuses, pharynx, larynx, trachea, and lungs.

The head is tilted back and water is poured into the upturned mouth or nose. Eventually the subject cannot exhale more air or cough out more water, the lungs are collapsed, and the sinuses and trachea are filled with water. The subject is drowned from the inside, filling with water from the head down. The chest and lungs are kept higher than the head so that coughing draws water up and into the lungs while avoiding total suffocation. "His sufferings must be that of a man who is drowning, but cannot drown."
Especially have a look at this brief analysis on why waterboarding can be considered as the ideal torture.

The second campaign comes with a warning: the video is extremely disturbing, and is not recommended for viewing by those who are easily traumatized. Unsubscribe-me.org is an organization that is calling for people to unsubscribe themselves from supporting government-sanctioned torture, effectively withdrawing the democratic mandate that a government enjoys to perpetrate such atrocities.
Waiting For The Guards is the first of 3 films commissioned by Amnesty to highlight the enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA in the “War on Terror”.

The Directors approached the making of the film in a way that has never been done before, choosing to show the reality of Stress Positions in as authentic a way as possible. They filmed a person being put into Stress Positions over a 6 hour period. There is no acting on the part of the “prisoner” – his pain and anguish is for real.

This powerful film shows without doubt that what the US administrations say is interrogation is in reality, torture and must be stopped.
Additionally, there is an interview with the director, and with the "prisoner" about their experiences. In addition to seeing the actual effects of a so-called Stress Position, what is almost as disturbing is what can only be described as the banality of evil in the torturer, juxtaposed with the horror. After the film, you can unsubscribe yourself from giving tacit approval to torture. As of today, over 125,000 people have unsubscribed. Count yourself in, by counting yourself out.

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"Getting Paid is the Name of the Game"

Not the Daily Show has a great take on the Writers' strike that has sent all the late-night talk shows and much of daytime TV into reruns. Watch for a bunch of wintertime lameness on the tube as well as new episodes of top shows aren't being written. The issue is, of course, money - the media companies say they don't know how to value Internet content in order to pay the writers fair residual fees, while at the same time... well, watch the video for the creative spark, and great satire, of The Daily Show.

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19 November 2007

Shocking Denial

An item caught my eye today in the Globe and Mail concerning the tragic death of Robert Dziekański, the man who was effectively executed by Taser, courtesy of RCMP officers at Vancouver Airport. The Globe published a statement attributed to Tom Smith, the founder and chairman of Arizona-based TASER International Inc. Among other things, Smith denies that the tasering was the cause of Dziekański's untimely demise, saying,
The video of the incident at the Vancouver airport indicates that the subject was continuing to fight well after the TASER application. This continuing struggle could not be possible if the subject died as a result of the TASER device electrical current causing cardiac arrest. His continuing struggle is proof that the TASER device was not the cause of his death. Further, the video clearly shows symptoms of excited delirium, a potentially fatal condition marked by symptoms of exhaustion and mania such as heavy breathing, profuse sweating, confusion, disorientation and violence toward inanimate objects.

We are taken aback by the number of media outlets that have irresponsibly published conclusive headlines blaming the TASER device and/or the law enforcement officers involved as the cause of death before completion of the investigation. These sensationalistic media reports completely ignore the earmark symptoms of excited delirium shown in the video. TASER International is transmitting over 60 legal demand letters requiring correction of these false and misleading headlines and will take other actions as appropriate. These unsubstantiated, false headlines mislead the public and could adversely influence public policy...
As most people know by now, the RCMP were neither completely truthful, nor forthcoming, about the incident until the video surfaced, and they made every attempt to make the video disappear from the public eye until the videographer, Paul Pritchard, went to court to rescue the only real piece of hard evidence. There is much to be said about the RCMP officers' culpability in the death: from the near-immediate use of what has turned out to be deadly force, to the duration of the electrocution, to their reluctance to call for medical assistance until after they were sure the man was dead. But I'll let others discuss the police response.

Mr. Smith's response is another matter altogether. He assigns the cause of death by what he calls, "excited delirium." Of course, Mr. Smith is not medically trained. So-called "excited delirium" is a completely fabricated, and not medically recognized, condition that has been applied exclusively to deaths of people who are in police custody, typically when excessive force is being used. In most cases, it is a pseudo-medical, postmortem descriptor that is most frequently hung on death associated with Taser. That the press is all over this apparently excessive use of force is neither irresponsible nor "sensationalistic." Reporting on what might be inappropriate use of force resulting in death is what the press is supposed to do so that the public, represented by elected officials and duly charged civil servants, can appropriately decide public policy.

How dangerous is the Taser? Despite the fact that it has been tested many times on police officers who will ultimately administer the electroshocks, the fact is that all human tests have been done under controlled conditions, with the victim being prepared for the shock. Clearly, the only tests that appropriately mimic field conditions are those that have resulted in several hundred deaths throughout North America. How lethal is it? According to the Wikipedia article on Electroshock Weapons, "M-26 Taser models produce a peak current of 18 amperes in pulses that last for around 10 microseconds... Electrical current above 10 mA at 60Hz AC is considered to be potentially lethal to humans..." The Tasers in question apparently deliver this current at 50,000 volts. The article goes on to describe that the actual current flowing through the body depends on a number of physical factors relating to conductivity - suffice it to say that when someone is excited or in distress, their physical conductivity of electricity increases, thereby increasing the weapon's lethal potential.

It is not surprising that Mr. Smith is taking an aggressive legal stance against those who cast his product as an aggressive, offensive weapon, thereby stirring a review of public policy. Indeed, the Toronto Police and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary have put large orders of Tasers on hold. Mr. Smith's business stands to lose a tremendous amount of revenue if a public outcry against the Taser takes hold. However, I would say that this is largely a problem of Mr. Smith's (company's) own making. They have marketed the Taser as being relatively safe, and convinced police forces around the world that it is a better alternative for subduing a non-compliant suspect. If police officers were re-educated to place the Taser alongside their service revolver in the hierarchy of force, and required to document its use as rigorously as they must do when they fire a bullet, the public would be better served and better protected. And, Mr. Smith's protests notwithstanding, serving and protecting is the business of the police, and therefore, the business of the public.

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18 November 2007

Managing Without Managers; Leading Without Leaders

I had a minor epiphany recently regarding the BAH-ness of action items (or if you like your jargon just a little more obfuscated, “actionable”). One of the key characteristics of the BAH organization is that it is primarily and predominantly focused on functions, outcomes, responsibilities and accountability. Essentially, bureaucracies are defined to accomplish the instrumentality of the system for which it is formed, that instrumental purpose being of paramount importance. Administrative procedures are installed to ensure that the system accomplishes that purpose. The people become interchangeable parts in the machinery of the system, with a hierarchy instituted so that communication can be both efficiently disseminated (going down), and efficiently concentrated (going up). Hierarchies are also good for establishing responsibility and accountability – in other words, who gets blamed when something goes wrong, since, in a well designed system, the system itself is never to blame. It is only when people deviate from the established administrative procedures that things go wrong - ideally, speaking, of course.

What this means is that when a group of people come together to analyze a situation and come up with new and potentially more effective approaches, that session must always end with a set of action(able) items for which somebody, or bodies, must take responsibility. After all, without someone responsible, who will ensure that the items “get actioned?” There’s also the little matter of who to blame when little happens. Or something goes wrong. Or both.

Last spring, our department had a strategy retreat. All faculty, staff and a representative contingent of students were invited off-site for a full day session to reconsider our department’s vision. This day was a culmination of an extensive amount of research undertaken by our then-new Department Chair, with a student research assistant. Our new Chair had interviewed every member of the faculty and staff, and (together with the department student association) conducted a series of focus groups with students. The data was collated and compiled, and provided a number of themes for our department that were hashed through using a World Café format.

By the end of the day, a large number of recommendations and undertakings were created for each of six overarching themes, ranging from the way we see ourselves, through environmental issues in our physical surroundings, to communication, and internal bridging of our two programs. The Chair asked for each group to appoint a person who would take responsibility for following up on the various recommended undertakings. The answer was a resounding NO! Everyone had quite enough to do, thank you very much. Although the day was unanimously hailed as a success, and everyone was keen for another similar event, no one wanted to take on the additional workload of being responsible for yet more items added to their personal to-do lists. Thanks for the conversations, but no thanks for the increased workload. Somewhat chagrined, the Chair reluctantly but wisely deferred to the wisdom of the crowd.

Fast forward six months. At the beginning of the second World Café session, this time in our large lounge area, the student facilitator asked for those who had attended the prior session to report on anything that might have happened to be accomplished in their thematic area. She expected this to take perhaps 10 minutes or so for the six groups. Forty-five minutes later, the list of initiatives that had been accomplished or at least started was startling for its breadth and depth. This was truly remarkable, if not somewhat confusing. No one apparently had time to be willing to take responsibility for any of the action items six months prior. Yet most people had, in some smaller or larger way, contributed to an extensive list of successful undertakings.

Startled by this result, I asked myself the obvious question: Would the accomplishments had been the same if certain people actually had responsibility for project managing the various thematic groups? Of course, it’s impossible to say what might have happened, but I think not. Since no one person had responsibility, everyone became responsible. The nature of the day’s conversation was sufficient to create a common contextual awareness and gain an agreement on some fundamental aspects of the department’s culture. This allowed people to align their priorities with a common awareness of what was important, thereby enabling them to direct their non-instrumental efforts (i.e., activities that were not necessarily part of their official job requirements) to accomplish those things that contributed to the common culture, those items that were identified during the retreat day.

How did this happen? I'm guessing that in a UCaPP organization, the cultural ground becomes what is commonly shared because of the emphasis on creating relationship in the ground, rather than superficially as figure. Contrast this with a more conventional BAH organization that has a shared mission, vision and purpose – all figure items that pay little heed to the context that gives them meaning to individuals. In a UCaPP organization, people can manage themselves for the effects that they create in the total environment; in a BAH organization, people must be managed to accomplish the organization’s objectives that might not align well with the valence relationships that are supposed to tie people together in a cohesive organization.

A common ground of valence relationships may well be the secret to managing without managers, and leading without leaders.

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17 November 2007

For Whom the Bell Tolls... or Doesn't , As the Case May Be

Leigh relates her tale of woe concerning her last hurrah with Bell Mobility. Very short version: Leigh is a long-term, high-spending Bell Mobility customer. She dropped her phone. Phone broke. Goes to Bell Store, but is not ready to make a long-term decision about her next phone. "Will you do something to retain me as a customer (i.e., with a temporary phone) until I decide on my next permanent phone?" "No, because if we do we'll lose money (potentially $70 in the short term, ignoring the fact that Leigh typically spends about $300 a month)." Upshot: Goodbye Bell, hello Telus.

Leigh spends some time on her blog talking about "co-investment" - the idea that companies and customers "co-invest" in each other over time, thereby solidifying a long-term relationship. She quite reasonably asks,
If companies are not willing to invest in me then why should I be willing to invest in them? It’s not short term thinking. It’s not the old world of command control and creation…..but a new model of symbiotic marketing (or what I call Green Man marketing) that sees customers as part of the ecosystem. Similar to James Locklock's Gaia Theory blowing the philosophical door open on the way we viewed ourselves as controllers of the planet, new approaches that view our relationships in terms of our mutual contribution, our mutual roles and our mutual investments and gains, becomes a new basis for an changing business, management and marketing landscape.
In relationship marketing terms, they speak about customer loyalty that suggests trust, that leads to advocacy, the holy grail of RM.

I see Leigh's point, and I think she's taking a slice through one aspect of what I would call Valence Marketing, that derives from the foundation of my Valence Theory of Organization. Traditional marketing practice, even all gussied up with relationship talk, and vocabulary like "co-investment" and "symbiosis," still has a predominant focus on manipulating consumers to spend money for goods and services. In critical marketing discourse, such as that suggested in Gee, Hull, and Lankshear's 1996 book, The New Work Order: Behind the language of the new capitalism, companies sell a lifestyle, and then provide the goods and services to create that lifestyle. It's all about the manipulation, and control of the customer, whether it is expressed in terms of "mind-share," "share of wallet," or "owning the living room." In my conversations with organizations, there seems to be the sinking feeling among some executives that this sort of mentality is becoming less effective when implemented in campaigns.

In Valence terms, customers become part of the organizations with which they do business not only through economic relationships, but equally important, through relationships of identity, knowledge, socio-psychology, and ecology. In the case of Leigh and the Bouncing Bell, Leigh had a strong(-ish) identity relationship with Bell as a Bell customer, particularly through the economic (i.e., value) exchange that she enjoys every month (and Bell probably enjoys even more). Had Bell realized the importance of both the knowledge valence (their mutual knowledge of Leigh's spending and long-term Bell experience), and the socio-psychological valence (bad word-of-mouth is a bitch; bad word-of-mouse is a persistent bitch), not to mention Bell happily rending asunder her identity relationship as a Bell customer, the potential loss of $70 is a pretty darn cheap bet.

To me, this isn't just a simple matter of how decisions are made. Rather it is a question of how the organization self-conceives, and on that basis, how decisions are able to be made, all the way down to the retail clerk.

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16 November 2007

The Agenda on Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur

Yes, I'm behind. Way behind. I was on TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin last week, on a panel that followed a feature interview with author Andrew Keen talking about his controversial book, The Cult of the Amateur: How today's Internet is killing our culture. I was reminded of it when a friend asked me if I support, or not, the premise of Keen's book.

I responded by telling her that I unequivocally reject Andrew Keen's premise. Essentially, he sets up a strawman (strawperson?) argument that talent is scarce and must be appropriately nurtured through a series of sanctioned and authorized gatekeepers that comprise the various, interlinked hierarchies of knowledge (and culture) authority. Thus, publishers, boards of university regents, music companies, producers and the like serve to identify so-called raw talent, provide the resources to nurture that talent and expose it to appropriate opportunities, and develop that talent into those who ultimately contribute to the compendium of wisdom that we call knowledge, and to the larger culture in general. The entire enterprise is, and should be, governed by market forces that are so effective in determining merit, worth and value, dontcha know.

Among many other claims, Keen's primary claim is that the Internet, in its non-discriminating, supposedly egalitarian access-for-all that does away with traditional market forces, eliminates the ability to relatively assess what is of value to the culture and what is dross to be shucked off. What we are left with, according to Keen, is a morass of user-produced artefacts without any way of determining what is of value, so that base populism rules the day, creating the titular Cult of the Amateur.

This argument is problematic twenty-five ways to Sunday. I'll touch on three aspects, without getting deep into the critical (ie. power, voice, marginalization, control, resistance, exclusion) considerations that are probably the most troubling. Suffice it to say that whenever one has gatekeepers who get to decide what comprises knowledge and who has the opportunity to contribute, critical considerations allow us to readily identify the relations of power, from which one can assess the intrinsic values of the society in question.

First, Keen's argument is based on the assumption that the Internet eliminating authority is a new phenomenon. It's not. The generational rebellion against authority goes back 3000 years, and continues to replay regularly throughout the ages.

Second, his argument supposes that modernity (i.e., late 19th and 20th century) got this whole business of creating culture and knowledge right, and that we are at the pinnacle of our ability to produce cultural and knowledge artefacts. That is a type of arrogance that we have also seen over the past 3000 years - at every age, the privileged have assumed that they are at the zenith of advancement and enlightenment. And every time, they are wrong (and if you watch the Keen interview, you'll see precisely what I mean about privilege and arrogance).

Third, what Keen decries about the Internet has infested the traditional mass media, and arguably academic publishing. It is causing far more damage to the level of discourse, democratic participation, the evolution of the culture and the enlightenment of the masses (to be entirely arch about it) than the Internet is able to do, at least now and for the next decade or so. Although I half-facetiously claim that American Idol is indicative of the most profound cultural change to occur to Western society in nearly 150 years (since it flips mass media from being media FOR the masses to media BY the masses), it also extends and enhances populism to an extreme (which forces the reversal in mass media), obsolescing the very gatekeepers to which Keen would otherwise appeal. It also retrieves the old fashioned talent show - we used to have a TV show in Southern Ontario the '50s and '60s (which apparently ran through the 90s, too - who knew?) called Tiny Talent Time.

Finally, (and this is point four of three :) Keen ignores the entire issue of epochal break boundaries that is the foundation of McLuhan's work, and the Toronto School of Communication. In doing so, he ignores history and the (perhaps not so) simple realization that whenever we changed the dominant mode of communication in Western culture, all of its structural and founding institutions have gone into reversal, obsolescing (among other things) the former institutions that defined knowledge and knowledge authority. As we are now traversing the third cultural break boundary (a process that I claim takes about 300 years), we should expect to experience what appears to be a breakdown in knowledge and culture authority. But then again, as McLuhan observed, "breakdown is breakthrough."

The video with the panel I did about Keen's book is posted on TVO's site for The Agenda with Steve Paikin. Keen is interviewed for about 30 minutes - you'll get a good sense of the man from the interview - and then the panel starts.

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09 November 2007

Justice, American Style

This article from the Globe and Mail speaks for itself.
A never-before-disclosed American eyewitness to the furious battle in Afghanistan where Omar Khadr allegedly tossed a grenade has cast doubt on whether the teenager was an “unlawful” combatant, his defence team said Thursday...

“It is totally outrageous that the prosecution would try to push ahead with a hearing on whether or not Khadr was an unlawful enemy combatant, while all the time withholding from the defence potentially exculpatory information,” said Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch. “Anyone who has ever gone to law school knows the fundamental legal and ethical rule: The prosecution cannot withhold exculpatory information from the defence.”

If he is acquitted, senior Bush administration officials have said he might remain detained indefinitely at Guantanamo anyway.

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04 November 2007

On BAH and Counter-BAH

An associate from my department wrote and asked me:
I am speaking to the way education seems to be veering more rapidly from the path that society is taking. I have singled out BAH as one of two issues that need addressing.

Do you feel that a person working within a strong BAH can actually develop structures that are counter-BAH? Is it within their thinking to see how they cannot be in control? Is BAH not a manifestation of a left brain dominated world? How do you see BAH and "the other" co-existing?
Here's my response:

You ask some very good, and very large questions. There is a lot of background that I can share with you that might help frame and contextualize your thinking. Much of it is contained in my paper, Why Johnny and Janey Can’t Read, and Why Mr. and Ms. Smith Can’t Teach (and echoed in How Do We Know: The changing culture of knowledge).

I see the change in education as inevitable, because historically, change has move through society as inexorably as a glacier, and left a corresponding reshaping of the cultural terrain. Societies take a very long time to recognize that change is occurring, and to adapt: Most people are vested in the world to which they have been born, and the unique reality that such a world constructs for them. As I describe in Johnny and Janey, each subsequent generation is born into a world that is ever more foreign to the progenitor generation – especially now, in our time, that we have passed what I call the break boundary of the current cultural epoch. As my children become educators, managers, politicians, policy makers, and even butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, and their children replace them, and so on, each subsequent generation will have an increasing number among them that see the inadequacies of older structures and norms. The relative rate of change will appear to increase as Western society moves toward the completion of its systemic reversal, a reversal for which structural evidence is historically clear.

In the same way that Antonio Gramsci (inspired by Lenin) describes “organic intellectuals” from whom a counter-hegemony emerges that reshapes a culture, so too do a different sort of organic intellectuals emerge from among the BAH-ness to achieve what McLuhan describes as integral awareness of the total environment – simply put, what is occurring right now that is unnoticed and effectively invisible to the majority of society. I do not think that it is a matter of left-brain thinking, primarily because both left- and right-brain thinking in the modern age were structured by the lineal effects stemming from the Gutenberg era (at least according to the discourse of the Toronto School of Communication). On the other hand, there is an awful lot of both left- and right-brain stuff that emerges from the UCaPP world that we would consider to be truly innovative, wondrous and amazing. And, of course, because we have only just passed the break boundary, we really ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

When you mention control, you have hit the nail on the head. Whereas BAH is all about control, the UCaPP world recognizes the dominance of complexity principles; in the words of a good friend of mine, “you might be in charge, but you’re never in control.” It is supremely difficult for anyone who is ensconced in a BAH organization to effect the types of changes that would truly reflect and inculcate a UCaPP culture. But, surprisingly, there are some who are effecting it naturally, as one might expect from an organic, but perhaps unwitting, intellectual. I have found several organizations, some of which might be participating in my research, that are precisely making that transition from the BAH world into becoming an organization that is more consistent with the UCaPP world. They may express themselves using different vocabulary than I have chosen, but that does not diminish my observation that they do indeed seem to be quite consistent with a Valence Theory orientation.

As the language we choose defines the world we experience, I hope that some of my vocabulary will find its way into management, education, and political psyches. With an increasing number of people beginning to learn, and use, a new vocabulary, perhaps those of us who become somewhat fluent in the new language can contribute to creating a new way of being, learning, and playing joyously in the world. If history is indeed a teacher, the period of co-existence of BAH and UCaPP will indeed continue to be uncomfortable for both generations, until a future generation looks at their fully-formed UCaPP world and proclaims, “it’s always been this way; it’s just human nature.”

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Calling a Spade a Spade

Much debate in the land of the declining dollar about the confirmation of GWB's next nominee for the role of Euphemizer General. Apparently the confirmation hearings are held up over the issue of whether Michael B. Mukasey considers the practice of waterboarding as torture. Torture, of course, is illegal in the United States and when performed by Americans against those in American custody. Today's L.A. Times has an article (behind a paywall, but shared with me by a friend) that criticizes the mass newsmedia for its euphemistic treatment of the dubious practice. It also has an explicit description of what happens during a waterboarding session, provided by "Malcolm W. Nance, a veteran special operations consultant to various U.S. intelligence agencies and a master instructor in the U.S. Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program in San Diego. Nance also is an experienced Arabic-speaking interrogator."

Upstanding journals like the New York Times reported that Mukasey's confirmation is "in doubt over his refusal to state a clear legal position on a classified Central Intelligence Agency program to interrogate terrorism suspects." Nance, on the other hand, is far more explicit. Here's Nance's description of the euphemistic, sanitized and quite digestible-with-your-cornflakes "classified Central Intelligence Agency program to interrogate terrorism suspects," courtesy of the L.A. Times:
Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word. Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim's face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.

"Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration -- usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right, it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with its use again and again.
The question about whether torture should be used is not a question: torture is illegal in the U.S. Period. The question for both the Administration and Mr. Mukasey to answer is, does the above description constitute torture?

And the question for me: How has the mass newsmedia become so complicit, and therefore chosen to obsolesce itself?

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30 October 2007

Seeking One More Organization

The response to my first call for participants has been great. I have one organization officially signed up with interviews to begin this week, and one other that (according to little whispers) has the organization approval form winging its way to me via post as we, err..., blog. And two others are in the final stages of organizational approval. Among these four, I have a government organization, a large multinational corporation, a web-based start-up company, and a medium-size enterprise that is in the process of transitioning from having been a truly BAH organization to a more valence-y, collaborative organization.

I'm looking for one more organization, and the type is pretty specific. I am seeking an organization that is in the realm of primarily volunteer, not-for-profit, or charitable, and arts-, religious-, or spiritual-based. Something that doesn't obviously look or feel like a corporation, noting that many not-for-profit, charitable organizations look very much like corporations. I would want it to have a sufficient number of involved people so that it's large enough to experience some semblance of what might be called organizational dynamics. Of course, some of these involved people (three or four) would have to be willing to participate in interviews, although strict anonymity will be maintained, unless both the organization and the participants agree to have their identities revealed.

Do you belong to such an organization? Do you know someone who does that might be interested in participating in my exploration of the future of organization? If so, please contact me and I'll be happy to provide more information, with no obligation.

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25 October 2007

Getting Juiced this Weekend

As many of you know, much of what I do involves making what is invisible - unnoticed, and generally unperceived - visible. "Creating environments and experiences that enable awareness" is how I'm characterizing it lately. This weekend, I've been invited to participate in an event that has that particular idea - making the invisible visible - as its theme. The Ontario College of Art and Design is hosting Juice 2: A forum for ideas this Thursday and Friday evening, and all day Saturday. I'm speaking on Saturday morning, just before noon, and I plan to talk about my Valence Theory of Organization. I expect that I'll also be facilitating at least one of the dialogues through the day as well. So, if you're in town and want some smörgåsbord for thought, drop by OCAD and say hello.

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23 October 2007

Mayor Miller: "Le Cité, C'est Moi!"

David Miller's controversial tax proposal passed Toronto City Council yesterday by a wide margin. Yes, the city needs more revenue, and yes, Toronto is, unavoidably, an expensive place to live and do business. But perhaps more important, Toronto needs some transparency and accountability for its spending and contracting. Miller's so-called strong mayoralty is changing him from the new-broom man of the people to an image more congruent with an arrogant monarch. Sort of a Mel Lastman with better hair. And taller. Royson James of The Star observes:
Citizens have said repeatedly over the past three months that they want city councillors to cut perks and office budgets and impose some in-house belt-tightening before imposing new and higher taxes.

But yesterday, all motions recommending this were consistently ruled out of order, preventing them from getting to a vote. Stunningly, the mayor's most passionate moment came in defending the perks, calling attempts to cut them "offensive. To call the things like their office budget, which allows them to communicate with people, (a perk) is really unworthy of any member of council," he said.
Attempts to cut perks are offensive, Mr. Mayor? What is offensive is the lack of independent accountability.

What we need is an arm's-length officer to serve the role of an Auditor General, much like Sylvia Fraser in Ottawa. At the federal level, the Auditor General is an officer of Parliament. That model doesn't quite work at the municipal level, I think. The strong mayor model means that, effectively, having an officer reporting to council means having said officer report to the Mayor and his cabinet. Amending the City of Toronto Act, an act of the provincial legislature, to appoint an Auditor General as a provincial officer might attract cries of partisan politics. It is, I think, the only way to ensure sufficient transparency on Le Roi de Balai (King Broom) and his reign.

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10 October 2007

This is Fucking Brilliant

Notably, it is not brilliant fucking:
The first is the bone of contention in the Bono brouhaha: the syntactic classification of curse words. Ose's grammatically illiterate bill not only misspelled cocksucker, motherfucker, and asshole, and misidentified them as "phrases," it didn't even close the loophole that it had targeted. The Clean Airwaves Act assumed that fucking is a participial adjective. But this is not correct. With a true adjective like lazy, you can alternate between Drown the lazy cat and Drown the cat which is lazy. But Drown the fucking cat is certainly not interchangeable with Drown the cat which is fucking.

If the fucking in fucking brilliant is to be assigned a traditional part of speech, it would be adverb, because it modifies an adjective and only adverbs can do that, as in truly bad, very nice, and really big. Yet "adverb" is the one grammatical category that Ose forgot to include in his list! As it happens, most expletives aren't genuine adverbs, either. One study notes that, while you can say That's too fucking bad, you can't say That's too very bad. Also, as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg pointed out, while you can imagine the dialogue How brilliant was it? Very, you would never hear the dialogue How brilliant was it? Fucking.
Here is the generative... no. Fornicating... not quite. Making love... nope. Frakking! link. (And the use of "frak" in Battlestar Galactica is a fascinating example of that unique brand of puritanism that is the Excited States of America.

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The Tao of Thesis

I am giving a graduate seminar today at noon, on behalf of the Graduate Students Association here at OISE. The topic is nominally on graduate supervision - the whys and wherefores of being a thesis student and working with a supervisor. As I contemplated the topic, I quickly realized that being a so-called supervisee is entirely about how one locates oneself in the thesis process in its entirety. Considered as a state of being, rather than an instrumental relationship, casts the supervisor-supervisee interaction in a new, and I think somewhat more holistic light. This led me to conceive the theme for the lunchtime seminar, and to create a short piece entitled "The Tao of Thesis" that reflects on Knowing Yourself, Knowing Your Mentor, and Knowing Your Committee.

If you find it useful, either as a thesis candidate or a supervising professor, please help yourself.

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06 October 2007

Investigative Journalism Retrieved

Sidney Blumenthal has an article in openDemocracy concerning the wrongful dismissal lawsuit that Dan Rather has just launched against CBS. As Blumenthal astutely points out, the message of this lawsuit is less about Rather's personal vindication (and any monetary vengeance he might ultimately exact from his former employer), and more about discovering the truth of historical details that are at the centre of Rather's firing. Moreover, the facts of the case reveal the unhealthily close ties between the Bush White House and the major mass media outlets. Indeed, even a search of Google News for "rather wrongful dismissal cbs" returns only 6 hits - most of the major outlets are notably ignoring this story (but the bloggers are not). It must be big! As Blumenthal points out,
If the court accepts his suit, however, launching the adjudication of legal issues such as breach of fiduciary duty and tortious interference with contract, it will set in motion an inexorable mechanism that will grind out answers to other questions as well. Then Rather's suit will become an extraordinary commission of inquiry into a major news organisation's intimidation, complicity and corruption under the Bush administration. No congressional committee would be able to penetrate into the sanctum of any news organisation to divulge its inner workings. But intent on vindicating his reputation, capable of financing an expensive legal challenge, and armed with the power of subpoena, Rather will charge his attorneys to interrogate news executives and perhaps administration officials under oath on a secret and sordid chapter of the Bush presidency.
After relating the history of the case, including the allegations that Dan Rather broadcast about Bush's military record, his behaviour in the Texas Air National Guard, and the extreme lengths that CBS executives went to in order to kill the story, Blumenthal observes how the newsmedia - that putative fourth estate of government that is supposed to watch the other three - has instead become the handmaiden of the Administration - not quite a Ministry of Propaganda, but most certainly a Ministry of Propagating the Government's Agenda.
Rather stood for the remnants of CBS's tradition of speaking truth to power, as Edward R Murrow did finally about Senator Joseph McCarthy and Walter Cronkite did finally about the Vietnam war and Watergate. The corporate unease with Murrow's outspokenness, leading to the cancellation of his weekly programme, See It Now (depicted in the recent film Good Night, and Good Luck), was little different from the unease with Rather a half-century later. At last, the corporation's necessity for demonising Rather coincided with the long-standing conservative demonising.

When CBS replaced the edgy Rather with the sugary Katie Couric as anchor of the Evening News, it imagined it had solved its problem, its "errors". The news would get softer, the Republicans in control of the White House and Congress would be nicer, Viacom would grab more media, and ratings would climb. Thus, dismissing Rather would yield untold dividends. Unfortunately for CBS's visionaries, none of that has worked out as planned. Couric simply lacks basic journalistic instincts and skills, and the CBS Evening News is at rock-bottom in ratings and sinking farther.
In launching the lawsuit, Dan Rather returns to his roots as an investigative journalist, in the proud tradition of his forebears, Murrow and Cronkite. For Rather, the challenge that lies ahead is itself a reversal of what has been the news tradition: instead of shedding light on important issues, contemporary mass newsmedia often promote ignorance - literally ignore-ance, hoping that the easily distracted public will look away and ignore what actually affects their way of life.

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05 October 2007

CAAPN, and How Do We Know?

Yesterday I had the privilege of opening the 2007 conference of the Canadian Association of Advanced Practice Nurses. I offered my talk, How Do We Know: The changing culture of knowledge, as the keynote, which met with a wonderful reception among the attendees. I also enjoyed a number of interesting conversations with many of the participants, so if you were one of the people who took the time to share your experiences with me, many thanks!

The references in which people were most interested are contained in the paper version of my talk, which is, of course, downloadable. (A somewhat longer, slightly more in-depth history of knowledge and its implications for contemporary education is Why Johnny and Janey Can't Read, and Why Mr. and Ms. Smith Can't Teach.) For those who do want a quick reference to the references, here they are:
  • Charmaz, K. (2000). Grounded theory: Objectivist and constructivist methods. In Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y.S. (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 509-35). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Charmaz, K. (2004). Premises, principles, and practices in qualitative research: Revisiting the foundations. Qualitative Health Research, 14(7), 976-993.
  • Crum, A., & Langer, E. (2007). Mindset matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science, 18(2), 165-171.
  • Foster, A. (2004). A non-linear model of information-seeking behavior. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 55(3), 228-237.
  • Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2005). Why most published research findings are false. Public Library of Science - Medicine, 2(8).
  • Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2005). Contradicted and initially stronger effects in highly cited clinical research. Journal of the American Medical Association, 294(2), 218-228.
And, of course, Kathy Charmaz has an extensive bibliography covering both her primary subject matter, those with chronic pain and disability, as well as qualitative ethnographic inquiry. Many thanks to the organizers of CAAPN 2007 for the invitation.

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27 September 2007

Geek Chic

I'll admit it. With all sorts of people sporting MacBooks lately, I've been suffering from a distinct lack of cool - call it Mac envy. Not that I particularly want to use a Mac, mind you - I don't think I would switch unless Windows Vista is forced on me. I simply prefer to avoid learning curves when I have a working and playing environment that is effective, efficient, and has been finely tuned over many years. Besides that, I love my sleek ThinkPad - the best engineered computer I have ever owned.

But the look of OSX is cool. What I really think I have is a case of dock envy. (That's dock envy, with an "o.") So I decided to trick out my Windows XP desktop and program launch capabilities.

Two great products, both free, and a bit of taskbar tweaking was all it took. For ease of launching, I took Lifehacker's advice and installed Launchy. It's a keyboard launcher that allows you to type the first few characters of a program or file path and, as if by magic, it figures out what you want. Any ambiguity is resolvable via a dynamically constructed drop-down menu. Hit enter and away you go.

For the cool dock effect, I installed Rocketdock, which I absolutely love. Rocketdock not only provides a Mac-like dock, it also supports small dockable applications known as docklets that are written for the non-free ObjectDock. I then picked up a bunch of cool icons and a couple of docklets from Wincustomize, and I have all the cool functionality that I want.

To complete the aesthetic, I chose the "hide the taskbar" option on Taskbar Properties, and used a great photo of fireworks over Tokyo, taken by my son, David, during his trip to Japan this summer. Here's the result:
(Click image for a larger view)

All the cool without the learning curve! Perfect.

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26 September 2007

Mr. Ahmadinejad Goes to New York

I have been trying to make sense of the circus at Columbia University yesterday, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to speak, after previously having been uninvited from the same forum. I think the nominal arguments about so-called academic freedom in this case are more cliché than justified: academic freedom – which only exists for tenured professors – represents the freedom to pursue knowledge, no matter how unpalatable that knowledge may be to mainstream thought. Since the academic in question is nominally protected against reprisal through tenure (although there are many, many subtle and excruciating forms of reprisal that can be levelled against an academic aside from firing), s/he has the freedom to be on the fringe. But Mr. Ahmadinejad is not a professor. Nor is anyone who is interested in studying him or his ideas prevented from doing so by obtaining other of his very public pronouncements or writings, or by even attending one of his shindigs in Tehran.

Was the purpose to put him through the wringer, to embarrass the man, as Columbia University’s president did? This seems like a cheap publicity trick, unworthy of a major university, although university presidents are not above cheap publicity tricks (that occasionally backfire). You can see my problem in making sense of it all.

A recent acquaintance who has been reading McLuhan wrote to me and said,
In my view the President of the of University Mr. Bollinger was focusing in 'content' (such as the fact that Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust) and lost the opportunity to let the guy free for us to grasp his 'message'. Iran and Ahmadinejad are the media. Anyway his message is to challenge the western.
And that got me thinking.

The message or effect of a medium is not singular, and is always relative to some ground. According to the Laws of Media, there are four effects that are common to all media – including the medium that is the construction of Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, in New York. The four effects are arranged in four quadrants of the Laws of Media tetrad (beginning at the upper right and moving clockwise) as Extension (enhancement, acceleration, intensification or enablement); Reversal; Obsolescence; and Retrieval. Here’s what I came up with, beginning with my correspondent’s suggestion, and adding some of what is known:

  • Challenge to western hegemony (I’m presuming that the challenge is to the hegemony)
  • Huntington’s (Clash of Civilizations) thesis
  • Front man who extends the fundamental, radical ideology of a non-public “Supreme Leader”Influence and power among those of essentially (or potentially) like mind
  • Reinforced hegemony, rather than the rise of a counter-hegemony via organic intellectuals, à la Gramsci
  • Multi-culturalism, pluralism
  • Front pushed to the rear; behind-the-scenes leader has no voice, losing influence
  • Apparent power becomes marginalized by those who it originally sought to influence
  • ???
  • (note: he does not retrieve Hitler as many people irrationally suggest, Godwin’s Law notwithstanding. Hitler spoke for himself, and didn’t challenge a hegemony – his was a material and territorial ambition, not the clash of cultures or ideology.)
  • Progressive agenda
  • Fukuyama’s (End of History) thesis of the universality of liberal democracy

I wasn’t able to come up with a good Retrieval at first. However, I applied my notion of the Principle of Media Equivalency – an extension of McLuhan’s “tetrad cluster.” The Principle says that any two media that can be shown to have the same quadrant elements relative to a common ground can be considered to be equivalent, and therefore may share other elements relative to other grounds.

If we consider the neo-liberal political economic ideology that is clearly dominant in many western nations – and especially powerful in the U.S. today, then it can be argued that the current administration is merely the “front man” for a neo-liberal “Supreme Leader,” whose influence is especially felt with respect to current middle east policy – and in particular, the policies that have sent 130,000 young men and women into harm’s way. Indeed, all of the quadrants can equally apply to the current administration, right down to the power and influence becoming relatively marginalized, given the dwindling support of most countries for the war, and the greenback’s nosedive.

What is the Retrieval in this case? I would say the Robber Barons of the early 20th century, those relatively few men who accumulated vast wealth and power. This is not dissimilar to those who accumulate and concentrate wealth and power among Ahmadinejad’s supporters in other mid-east countries.

The media equivalency of the respective leaders of Iran and the U.S. points to an interesting dynamic that is often characteristic of conceptual polarities: they can be considered as essentially two sides of the same coin, or one as the “evil twin” of the other, viewed from each other’s perspective. But this is not really surprising. Throughout its history, America has always defined itself (although not exclusively) in ideological opposition to its “evil twin.” The founding myth of the country was a result of religious opposition in England. Its War of Independence was waged against one of the world’s superpowers of the day. Its 20th century history and emergence as a modern superpower was shaped by its opposition to the Soviet Union. But with the fall of the USSR, America lost its governing mirror (a theme that I have explored extensively in my Reversal of America posts). Amadinejad’s visit to New York, with all the hyperbolic media coverage of his Columbia University coming out party, allowed America to once again look in the reversal mirror and stare its evil twin right in the face, thereby reinforcing its own sense of identity.

Which brings us to Huntington and Fukuyama for a closing thought. The universality of liberal democracy – Fukuyama’s contention for the so-called end of history – is problematic, since liberal democracy as it has been constructed by the western hegemony ignores the realities of marginalization, the massive influence of neo-liberal political economy, the realpolitik of corporate interests in contemporary politics, and many other similar concerns. Huntington’s clash of cultures, on the other hand – despite the seemingly overwhelming empirical evidence in support of his thesis – is, I think, temporary. It is a retrieval of the religious wars in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries that were characteristic of the break boundary disruption of epochal change. This is precisely the circumstance in which we are now living, and, as the saying goes, this too shall pass. Neither countries nor civilizations can define themselves in opposition – keeping a distance or separation – in a ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate world. Those that insist on doing so, and cannot realize that we are now on the other side of a historic break boundary, are destined to the obsolescence quadrant. Something to think about while looking in the mirror.

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23 September 2007

Z L'v: Marcel Marceau, 1923-2007

(Yes, he was Jewish.)
Perhaps a moment of cheering and laughter would be appropriate to celebrate the life of the world's greatest mime, Marcel Marceau, who passed yesterday. A holocaust survivor, "Marceau worked with the French Resistance to protect Jewish children, and later used the memories of his own life to feed his art." He was inspired by Charlie Chaplin, and in turn, inspired countless performers, from those who perform on the world stage, to those who busk on street corners.

It is said that a Jew who dies on one of the major holidays is very special - dying on Yom Kippur, as Marceau did, is a sign of a tzaddik - a truly righteous man - manifest through his contribution to the world.

Here, via YouTube, is a commemoration:

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And Speaking About Being in the News

It sure seemed like I've been giving a bunch of interviews lately, so I decided to have a bit of a look around. Yup. I have been.

There was the Globe piece about online TV. And the CTV interview on the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana's death about public displays of grief. Then, Canada.com wondering about why Toronto has such a large Facebook network. And finally, the Kingston Whig-Standard asked me about university students connecting via Facebook to coordinate their annual "Night of Mayhem." And there's probably something that will appear in The Ryersonian within the next couple of days about privacy, revelation and consequences on Facebook.

And, in response to the most frequently asked question during these sorts of interview ("what's your title?"), here's how I see my identity being constructed lately: I am a PhD researcher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Generally speaking, I explore the complexity of changes in society that are emerging in an environment of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity.

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21 September 2007

And in Other Legal News...

A mother defends her daughter's right to free speech on her blog in New Haven, Connecticut.
Avery Doninger, who returned to enter her senior year Tuesday, criticized administrators including Superintendent Paula Schwartz and High School Principal Karissa Niehoff for a perceived effort to cancel a scheduled battle of bands contest on campus in the spring. She attributed problems as "due to the douchebags at central office."
The school administrators were clearly unimpressed with the criticism. They prohibited Ms. Doninger from running for Class Secretary, a position she had held for several years. Although there is a widely accepted, school-imposed restriction on making threatening statements against people in a school, and a restriction on inappropriate speech in school newsletters and yearbooks, this comment was clearly off school property, and a protest, not a threat. However,
The school assumed a parent's right to discipline it doesn't have, she [the girl's mother] said. In one of several interviews given in the wake of Friday's preliminary ruling at U.S. District Court in New Haven, Doninger was praised by a radio commentator as the mother who told her daughter "you're grounded, and we're going to federal court to file a civil suit."
I'm reminded of the famous Lenny Bruce quip: "Take away the right to say fuck, and you take away the right to say fuck the government." Ditto for the over-reaching "douchebags" in the school's central office.

But many school administrators miss a key point about protests, complaints, and yes, even disrespect posted on weblogs, Facebook, and similar venues. Such negative commentary surface underlying problems in the dynamics of the learning environments that they are attempting to create. Rather than attempting to stifle criticism in the name of discipline (and after all, according to Foucault, there is little difference between incarceration in a prison and incarceration in a classroom), school administrators should welcome the opportunity to open conversation and dialogue among themselves, faculty and students in order to create a healthy, open, and viable educational experience for all.

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Warning to Business: Read the Fine Print on CC Licenses

Today's Star has a story about a lawsuit launched by a Texas family against Virgin Mobile Australia, for their use of a photo of their daughter in a billboard advertising campaign. The photo in question was taken by the girl's friend, and uploaded to Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution licence. Essentially, this licence says that anyone may use the otherwise copyrighted work for any purpose, so long as they give attribution to the photographer, provide a link back to the original source of the photograph and to the licence itself. There are other, more restrictive Creative Commons licenses, including those that specify no commercial use, no derivative works, and a requirement for sharing any derivative works under the same license as the original work.

The family's lawsuit expresses many of their concerns, including an odd one (although we should remember that this is Texas): the tag line on the ad reads, "Free text virgin to virgin." The family claims that this line, "damaged Alison's reputation and exposed her to ridicule from her peers and scrutiny from people who can now Google her." I can't really see what's wrong with declaring that this 16-year-old is a virgin, unless she is attempting to establish a reputation as something else.

But that is not really the point of the conversation around the 'net on this issue. Creative Commons Australia weighs in with their opinion on the legality of the usage. They suggest that Virgin Mobile violated the Attribution licence by not providing appropriate link-backs. Much of the conversation suggests that a model release would be required (although technically speaking, not under Australian law), and that the photographer's moral rights in his work have been violated by the inclusion of the tagline (although technically speaking, moral rights only exist under British Commonwealth jurisprudence, so yes in Australia, no in the U.S.). They also point out that other images in the same campaign are clearly licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence (like this weblog), so Virgin is clearly in violation in those cases.

The message to businesses is clear: CC doesn't mean free-for-all. It means that you have to follow the rules of the licence, even though those rules are less restrictive than normal copyright. As well, when it comes to identifiable use of individuals in advertising, or other commercial uses, it's a good idea to get a model release. CC refers to the copyright in the photograph. It is the responsibility of the final user to ensure that they comply with all the other legal requirements for their specific use (most of which could not possibly be anticipated by the casual photographer at the time). And, just because you're in Australia, doesn't mean that your violations won't get noticed elsewhere in a UCaPP world.

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