29 June 2007

The Evil Power of Wikiality

Stephen Colbert is a scary guy. He introduced the concept of Wikiality as "truth by consensus":
You see, any user can change any entry, and if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true. ... If only the entire body of human knowledge worked this way. And it can, thanks to tonight's word: Wikiality. Now, folks, I'm no fan of reality, and I'm no fan of encyclopedias. I've said it before. Who is Britannica to tell me that George Washington had slaves? If I want to say he didn't, that's my right. And now, thanks to Wikipedia, it's also a fact.

We should apply these principles to all information. All we need to do is convince a majority of people that some factoid is true. ... What we're doing is bringing democracy to knowledge.
Indeed. And, it has just come to light that Wikiality is the 21st century version of voodoo. Sympathetic magic 2.0, if you will. Complete with tagging. The problem is, that when you're tagged, bad things can happen.

Major media outlets are reporting that "Investigators had not yet discovered the bodies of pro wrestler Chris Benoit, his wife and their 7-year-old son when someone altered Benoit's Wikipedia entry to mention his wife's death, authorities said." Now this news, by itself, is possibly suspicious. Who knew about the death? Had Benoit contacted anyone? Perhaps there was some sort of conspiracy? All sorts of police story skulduggery is possible. But when you chase the links a little, something far more sinister emerges:
Hey everyone. I am here to talk about the wikipedia comment that was left by myself. I just want to say that it was an incredible coincidence. Last weekend, I had heard about Chris Benoit no showing Vengeance because of a family emergency, and I had heard rumors about why that was. I was reading rumors and speculation about this matter online, and one of them included that his wife may have passed away, and I did the wrong thing by posting it on wikipedia to spite there being no evidence. I posted my speculation on the situation at the time and I am deeply sorry about this, and I was just as shocked as everyone when I heard that this actually would happen in real life. It is one of those things that just turned into a huge coincidence. That night I found out that what I posted, ended up actually happening, a 1 in 10,000 chance of happening, or so I thought. I was beyond wrong for posting wrongful information, and I am sorry to everyone for this. I just want everyone to know it was stupid of me, and I will never do anything like this again. I just posted something that was at that time a piece of wrong unsourced information that is typical on wikipedia, as it is done all the time.
Thanks alot, Colbert! Encouraging people to post a piece of wrong, unsourced information - in order to make it true! Do you now understand the potential power - evil power - of wikiality? Wikipedia is so powerful, and has become so pervasive and intertwined with the fabric of normal reality, that it now has the power... to create... reality - even if that reality results in a murder-suicide tragedy.

Beware of Wikipedia and the evil forces that lurk deep within its servers.

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25 June 2007

Another Gem From danah: Class Divisions Between Facebook and MySpace

Although she would categorize her latest contribution more as a diamond in the rough rather than a gem, danah boyd's latest thinking-out-loud casts her critical eye to the class divisions defined by MySpace and Facebook users among American youth.
In sociology, Nalini Kotamraju has argued that constructing arguments around "class" is extremely difficult in the United States. Terms like "working class" and "middle class" and "upper class" get all muddled quickly. She argues that class divisions in the United States have more to do with lifestyle and social stratification than with income. In other words, all of my anti-capitalist college friends who work in cafes and read Engels are not working class just because they make $14K a year and have no benefits. Class divisions in the United States have more to do with social networks (the real ones, not FB/MS), social capital, cultural capital, and attitudes than income. Not surprisingly, other demographics typically discussed in class terms are also a part of this lifestyle division. Social networks are strongly connected to geography, race, and religion; these are also huge factors in lifestyle divisions and thus "class."

I'm not doing justice to her arguments but it makes complete sense. My friends who are making $14K in cafes are not of the same class as the immigrant janitor in Oakland. Their lives are quite divided. Unfortunately, with this framing, there aren't really good labels to demarcate the class divisions that do exist. For this reason, I will attempt to delineate what we see on social network sites in stereotypical, descriptive terms meant to evoke an image.

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other "good" kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we'd call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, "burnouts," "alternative kids," "art fags," punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn't play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn't go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. Teens who are really into music or in a band are on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.
The commentary thread on her site is also worth following. The majority of the commenters find that the piece resonates with their experiences, which is not surprising to me given the nature of danah's work in general, and those that might tend to follow her writing. However, what also fascinates me is the presence of those who demonstrate the emerging classism in the academy that I describe in How Do We Know: The emerging culture of knowledge. My comment on danah's site captures the flavour of my fascination:
I'm also fascinated by the classism being demonstrated in the methodological critiques. 90 interviews in a qualitative, ethnographic study is a huge sample (let alone the volume of your profile analyses). The domination of the positivist paradigm, and the infiltration of deterministic methods into social sciences (what a colleague of mine calls "physics envy") has created yet another hegemonic discourse in the academy. Consequently, researchers like you (among many others) see their work and methods trivialized and marginalized. Ironically, it is positivism that has become less able to adequately describe and account for the complexities of a massively interconnected world.
For a commentary that goes far beyond the more trivial issues of exposing oneself online, and what future employers may think, danah's insights are hard to beat.

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23 June 2007

Michael Moore's SiCKO

I saw an advance release version of Michael Moore's latest film, SiCKO, today. Even more so than other of Moore's films, this one is clearly a polemic, a propaganda piece, an outrageous, one-sided depiction of the worst of American health care, held up to ridicule in comparison with the health systems of countries such as Britain, Canada, and those two countries that Americans-in-power love to hate, France and Cuba.

And, if even one-quarter of what Moore portrays is true, it is a stinging indictment of how one of the mightiest, richest, and most privileged countries in history can go so terribly wrong with health care for its citizens.

As Moore points out at the beginning of the film, SiCKO is not primarily about those who do not have health insurance, although many of the stories that he relates involve those that do not (Heavens! Moore lies!). Moore relates the stories of people who supposedly have health insurance whose treatments are denied, whose treatments that are granted are inadequate, whose appeals are denied without proper medical diagnoses. He follows people with all types of ailments - many who do not survive their struggles with American HMOs - and those whose lives are ruined by the burden of health care costs.

In his inimitable fashion, he answers all the standard objections of publicly funded, single-payer systems by visiting Britain, France, Canada and Cuba, and painting them each as health care utopias. Living in Canada, I know that we have problems and issues with our health care system. None of Britain, France or Cuba are necessarily the ideal places to live as Moore glibly portrays (although France does sound pretty sweet. Say a villa somewhere in Provence...)

But, when it comes to health care, the system that was originally cooked up between Richard Nixon and Edgar Kaiser (as in Kaiser Permanente) has been a colossal failure, at least when it comes to the health needs of the populace. For private enterprise, it has worked remarkably well. As Nixon counsel, John Erlichman explains to the then-President,
Edgar Kaiser is running this Permanente deal for profit. And the reason he can do it ... is all the incentives are toward less medical care, because the less care they give 'em, the more money they make. ... The incentives run the right way.

Nixon: Not bad.

The next day, Nixon announces the establishment of HMOs, saying, "I want America to have the finest health care in the world. And I want every American to have that care when he needs it."

Moore's SiCKO strongly suggests that Nixon's espoused goals for the health care of his fellow citizens have fallen somewhat short (to say the least) in the intervening years. It is a call for a clear, non-partisan conversation about the realities of health care in America. And, for those of us fortunate enough to live in a country with universal health care, it is a warning for those policy makers and politicians who take their guidance from south of the border.

Go see SiCKO with someone who is on the opposite side of the health care debate from you. And then, go have a conversation.

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22 June 2007

Eric McLuhan on Ancient Egyptian Animation

My friend, Eric McLuhan (yes, that McLuhan) is working on a book about Egyptian silhouette style and its further possibilities, including its remarkable form of three-dimensional representation and what it holds for our contemporary arts. He recently presented a remarkable paper based on the first chapter of that book [pdf], demonstrating that the Ancient Egyptians discovered and used animation.
The Egyptians of the earliest Dynasties could produce prodigies of civil engineering and breathtaking feats of architectural accomplishment; they had no difficulty making sculptures that faithfully reproduced the originals. But one glance at their drawings and paintings and we conclude that, whatever else, they just couldn’t draw very well. They couldn’t seem to get it right. They had all the elements but somehow misconstrued them. They almost “got it,” but stopped at an early stage and held there … for thousands of years. Now it appears that they did “get it right” after all, in a manner that has some surprising consequences. The odd quirks that distinguish the classic Egyptian pictorial style serve as the vehicle for a completely novel, and completely unexpected, effect. In the following pages, you can see how the ancient Egyptians managed their quirky style to produce lively moving images. By following the four Steps you can soon become adept at bringing the animations to life once again.
It's a fascinating read and fun to try, with step by step instructions on how to bring the familiar images to life.

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21 June 2007

Peer Review and Various Manuscripts by Goose, M.

"Several of the reviewers felt that the word ‘diddle’ was inappropriate, and should have been replaced by the more scientifically correct, ‘Hey fornicate fornicate.” Because of these, and other problems, we are sorry to inform you that your manuscript has not been accepted for publication."

And other responses from scientific peer review.

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20 June 2007

Principal Teaches the Wrong Lesson In Saskatchewan

A student hears a lesson in class and something doesn't quite sit right with him. He does independent research and discovers that the lesson he heard (and from the cagey wording in the article, it sounds like it was an outside instructor with a canned, politically-motivated presentation) was not entirely correct. He constructs the correct information that he shares with his classmates, one of whom reports him to the principal. This results in him being ordered to be silent on the issue, that is, not to share the factual information he uncovered that contradicted the official presentation. He plans a peaceful demonstration to make his point, that results in him being suspended, the RCMP being called to a locked-down school, and being denied permission to write his final exams, which drops his final marks from an A standing to a bare-pass C. The story is in today's Globe.

Does it matter that the information had to do with the relative harm aspects of tobacco, alcohol and marijuana (and you get one guess as to which one he found to be less harmful than the others)? Note that the student neither consumes, provides, nor advocates the use of any of these substances. He just wanted to have the facts presented accurately in his school.

Presenting accurate, factual information is apparently a new concept for principal Susan Wilson, supported in her actions by the division's Director of Education, Don Rempel. This incident is yet another shameful over-reaction by school authorities who seem to believe that their primary responsibility is to indoctrinate uncritical conformity behaviour in their students. When otherwise good students appear to be "acting out," it should be taken as a sign that the principal has systemic problems on her hands, and should be looking at the context, not the content of the acting out itself. But then again, most teachers and principals in the system are themselves products of school system designed to produce citizens for the 19th century.

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19 June 2007

Odd Affinity Suggestions

This occurrence struck me as just plain weird. I watched the Colbert Report's interview with video blogger, Josh Wolf, on iFilm. Colbert's "attack" on Wolf was predictably Colbertesque, and Wolf did a great job of answering the right-wing-ish talking points. But the interview itself wasn't particularly worth blogging about; it was the "You might also like" recommendations that came up after the Colbert clip. I had a choice of "Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Erection" or "I Heart Boobs." Something for all tastes at iFilm, I guess...

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16 June 2007

How Do We Know?

I was in Edmonton yesterday, having been invited to give the keynote address to the biennial conference of SEARCH Canada.
SEARCH Canada is a not-for-profit, member-funded organization that helps health organizations create, choose and use research evidence in innovative practice settings to enhance decision-making capacity. SEARCH Canada facilitates partnerships with academic institutions to advance applied learning and research. SEARCH invests in the health system by supporting faculty and health professionals, and a knowledge infrastructure. System engagement at the academic, health service, and government levels – organizations and individuals – has also created a strong SEARCH network. SEARCH Canada and its programs are funded by its founding member organizations: the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research (AHFMR), Alberta’s nine health regions, and the University of Calgary.
I was asked specifically to address the idea that our current conception of evidence-based research is limited in its scope of what can be discovered. To that end, I created a talk entitled, How Do We Know: The changing culture of knowledge. In it, I ask what the audience thought are some interesting questions:
How did we as a culture come to decide that certain things are to be considered as knowledge and others are not? How did those that decide such things acquire that very privileged position of knowledge authority? The fact of the matter is that our dominant knowledge paradigm has existed for a very long time – since the 17th century. But the world has changed considerably since then, so I’d like to suggest to you this morning that perhaps it is time to consider some changes to what we consider as knowledge, and who gets to decide, in a way that is consistent with today’s reality.
I briefly trace the history of knowledge and knowledge authority (from "Johnny and Janey"), and suggest that the the contextual foundation upon which evidence-based research is currently constructed - positivism - is a 17th century worldview, that is, a mechanistic world that functions according to deterministic causality, in which both human systems and inanimate, non-sentient, physical systems behave in precisely the same ways. In contrast, if the objective of research is to discover what exists in the world and to make sense of what happens, it is crucial that the contextual framing of that research is consistent with the contextual framing of the world, and that means the application of principles of complexity. I go on to demonstrate how constructivist (and even critical) research approaches are more appropriate, and more consistent with the reality of a UCaPP world.

Based on the wonderful feedback I received during the conference, the keynote seemed to be very well accepted and appreciated by a group of people who have all been well trained in the positivist, evidence-based paradigm. Many thanks to SEARCH Canada for the invitation, and for their open-mindedness and willingness to truly search for knowledge.

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13 June 2007

Jeff Adams Speaks Out

This is so unusual for me. I rarely, if ever, follow sports of any type. But I do follow injustice and corporate stupidity, especially when the former is caused by the latter, and both are caused by Bureaucratic, Administrative, and Hierarchical (BAH) conditioned responses. Such is the case with the decision yesterday from Athletics Canada to ban Jeff Adams from competition, and to remove his funding. I posted some of the details of the case, and Jeff responded with considerably more information from the ruling itself.

Every reporter who is covering this story should read Jeff's comment. Every person who self-righteously casts Jeff into the midden heap of ignominy that characterizes those who actually cheat by doping in sports, should read Jeff's comment. Most important, the officials at Athletics Canada should re-read the arbitrator's findings of fact that are quoted in Jeff's comment, and reinstate Jeff Adams!

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12 June 2007

BAH Sports

The unthinking, machine-like drones otherwise known as bureaucrats are at it again, this time from the ivory towers of Athletics Canada. As reported by all the usual suspects, champion paralympian, Jeff Adams, was banned from competition for two years, and has lost his eligibility for funding for the rest of his life. All this because of an erroneous, positive test for cocaine metabolites in his system due to contaminated testing equipment, despite the fact that an arbitrator found as fact that he did not have the drug in his system at the time of competition, and acknowledged that the positive test was indeed the result of an assault and contamination.
Adams claimed that an unknown woman inserted cocaine into his mouth at the nightclub. Two witnesses testified on his behalf that there was an immediate commotion at the Vatikan Club, but neither saw the alleged offence.

Adams, who needs to self-catheterize, testified that the only catheter he had at the Ottawa race was the one used immediately after the club incident. Scientific experts testified on the likelihood that a catheter contaminated with dried urine from a previous use could lead to the offence. Adams had said that the cost of the catheters meant that he didn't dispose of them after a single use, and admitted they weren't always thoroughly cleaned.
So he was assaulted by an unknown woman in a club - an incident that was witnessed by two other people - and that was the source of the cocaine. He is not a cocaine user; his status as a role-model and an exemplar of sportsmanship and perseverance in the face of adversity is unshaken.

That the bureaucrats from Athletics Canada can make statements like,
"At any time, when there's a positive test, it impacts athletics," Joanne Mortimore, the CEO of Athletics Canada, said on Tuesday. "As far as the implications for athletes with a disability, I think it's the same as a high performance athlete that's tested positive."
is positively shameful - an automatic, programmed response without any acknowledgement of the facts of the case. This is a sad day for athletics in Canada, and yet another triumph of BAH - Bureaucracy, Administrative control, and Hierarchy - over thoughtfulness and insight.

For shame, Athletics Canada. For shame!

And kudos to Jeff Adams, who maintained his composure and civility during his interview on As It Happens this evening. You are still a hero and an exemplar of perseverance in the face of adversity - particularly when the adversity is caused by those on whom you count for support.

A couple of media notes: The Globe and Mail report conveniently neglects to provide the full facts of the case, namely any mention of the contamination incident. This leads the braying pack animals in its comments section to jump to conclusions about fallen heroes with comparisons to Ben Johnson. Shame on the Globe for such shoddy reportage. The CBC and The Star get it right. And, Athletics Canada has already distanced themselves from association with Jeff Adams. The Google hit now points to a "We're sorry, not found" page. Thank goodness for the Google cache.

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11 June 2007

Bada Bing

Sopranos finale SPOILERS ahead

It has been compared to Shakespearean tragedy. It has been hailed as the greatest television program of all time. And, to quote Agatha Christie, then there were none.

Tony Soprano and his family live on, of that there is no doubt. The grisly countdown of major characters being offed during this last season continued into last night's finale. The conflict between the New Jersey boys and New York was neatly, if messily, resolved with the crunch of an SUV over Phil Leotardo's bullet-ridden head. The episode was almost a sentimental retrospective, with almost all the major characters being commemorated in one way or another during the hour. There was even Tony's visit to a senile Uncle Junior: "You and my dad, you two ran North Jersey," says Tony. "We did?" replies Uncle Junior. "That's nice." And then Tony's sad realization. "You don't know who I am, do you?"

Many never did know who Tony was throughout the run of the show. Even his psychiatrist came to that realization in the penultimate episode. At the end, he is a family man - albeit with two, very distinct but intertwined families - no more and no less complicated than any other person dealing with the uncertainties of a complex world.

And the ending? The unexpected cut to black with no sound under the stark final credits? Pure genius on David Chase's part: Tony Soprano lives on. It was the audience that got whacked.

Through the lengthy story arc, and multiple subplots and intersecting story lines, there is much for future scholars of pop culture, psychology, media theory, television historians, sociology, criminology, and, well, you name it to mull over in papers, theses, and symposia. For me, the twists, turns and complications made for great entertainment. But more than that, The Sopranos seemed to be a remarkably clear mirror held up to contemporary society, and the place of one, essentially solitary individual attempting to survive and make sense of an incomprehensible world.

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09 June 2007

CASAE Conference

I've been at the annual conference of the Canadian Association for Studies in Adult Education, joined with the Adult Education Research Network. What I like about these sorts of things is not so much the formal sessions - although most were pretty good - but rather, the conversations with the interesting people who attend. Two sessions, however, really impressed me. One was Peter Jarvis's session on the political and economic forces behind the discourse of so-called lifelong learning. Jarvis pointed out how LLL is promoted extensively by the OECD - in other words, the developed countries - and supported by global corporations. He critically questions the influence of western, consumerist values, especially when applied in the context of emerging countries under the auspices of global institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Jarvis has an impish and wry style about him as he delves into a critical analysis of global economic forces. The room was packed, and Jarvis's controversial stand prompted a lively discussion.

The second session I loved was Jenny Sandlin's paper on the Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. "Billy" is a performance artist who creates popular theatre to bring his anti-consumerist message to retail stores, mall parking lots, and even to the putative shrine of consumerism, New York's Times Square. Jenny's presentation focused on the Shopocalypse Tour, in which Reverend Billy invades Disney stores, Wal-Marts, and even Disneyland with his revival meeting, gospel-singing style. Here's a sample of his activist performance:

By the way, my roundtable on cyber-education in the wiki environment (which I unexpectedly had a chance to do twice) went over pretty well.

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03 June 2007

Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers

What happens when six drummers invade a small apartment while the owners are out walking the dog? Four amazing jazz cuts with found objects, that's what! A tight, beautifully done, little piece.

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01 June 2007

Favourite T-Shirt at mesh

Without a doubt, my favourite t-shirt at the mesh conference was this one sported by the women from Women 2.0: "well behaved women rarely make history." Ain't it the truth!
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Mesh-y Reflections

I really enjoyed myself at the mesh conference over the last two days. I found the sessions themselves to be a little on the light side compared to the world in which I’m used to playing, especially on the first day. On the other hand, the overwhelmingly positive feedback that I received for the session I did with Nora Young and Mark Schneider suggested that the audience is craving some sessions that are a little more deep and thought-provoking. The second day opening keynote conversations with Richard Edelman (Edelman) and Jim Buckmaster (Craigslist) demonstrated that people who offer a different and thoughtful perspective on what’s going on (that is, other than the typical and obvious-to-all Web 2.0 hype) will command this audience’s attention. (And, much to my delight, I found out that Craigslist is very much a valence organization).

I wish I had a recording of the session in which I participated. The theme was about media consumption, essentially asking the question about whether people today “graze” rather than dive deeply into the various media, and what this means for all sorts of different aspects of society. But we quickly moved on to the history of knowledge, authority and societal shifts (after all, I was on the panel :), collaborative production of media and culture, immersive, participatory entertainment (of which NBC’s Heroes is a great example of how a traditional consumptive medium is attempting to break out of its conventional hypnotic, hot medium, mode), and a bunch of other stuff that kept the packed room engaged for over the allotted hour.

The best part of the conference for me was undoubtedly the conversations – the “meshing” – that took place. Not only did I have the opportunity to catch up with friends that I hadn’t seen for quite a while. I also had many engaging encounters with all sorts of interesting people across a wide array of topics. Particularly gratifying was the interest in my research and thesis work. Among new, would-be entrepreneurs and long-experienced and successful business people, A Valence Theory of Organization seemed to resonate well and just make sense, especially to those who are embodying and experiencing the importance of human networks to successful businesses today. For those with whom I did not have the opportunity to engage, and for others who might want a quick recap of my thesis pitch, here it is:
I make the observation that almost all organizations that we have in our world – be they business corporations, non-profits, volunteer organizations, sewing circles, soccer clubs, schools, religious organizations – they all look like factories. By this I mean that they are Bureaucratic, Administratively controlled and Hierarchical – in other words, BAH! I suggest that this is not because it is human nature to be BAH, but rather this is an artefact of the Industrial Age that was mechanistic (with roots in the Gutenberg Press), industrial, fragmented, and functionally oriented. Now, as I look around, I observe that we are no longer in the Industrial Age. Rather, we are living in a world in which everyone is, or soon will be, connected to everyone else – an age of ubiquitous connectivity. This brings about the effect of being immediately next to, or proximate to, everyone else – in other words, pervasive proximity. I therefore ask the question, what form of organization is consistent with the ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate world of today, rather than with the 19th century?

My answer draws from a metaphor of the Bohr model of the atom, and especially the valence or connection level of electrons that are shared by a molecule when two or more atoms come together. I identify several specific forms of valence relationships that are enacted by two or more people when they come together to do almost anything; these are economic, social-psychological, identity, knowledge, and ecological. An organization is thus defined as that complex, emergent entity which occurs when two or more people, or two or more organizations, or both, share multiple valences at various strengths, with various pervasiveness, among the component elements. Using this as a definition of organization has profoundly disruptive implications for every aspect of management, governance, and engagement that we have come to know over the last hundred or so years. This vocabulary of Valence Theory (and its associated Theory of Effects) has the elegant appeal (among others) of being able to explain and account for all of our traditional organizations, as well as all the funky sorts of organizations that have appeared over the past decade.
To Rob, who invited me to participate, and to Stewart, Matthew, Mark, and Mike – thanks for a great time!

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