Monday, April 30, 2007

A church sermon about "winners" and "losers"


I don’t often report on church sermons, but something interesting happened Sunday April 29 2007 at Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA.

Pastor David Ensign has often mentioned the sociology of the early Christians, who had a concept of holding property in common, living according to a very communal set of values. He has sometimes mentioned the contradiction with modern extreme capitalism, with its “winner take all” mentality that, he said yesterday, “effectively makes all but one of us losers.” You do see this all the time, where the Board Room on Donal Trump’s The Apprentice has become almost a caricature of this “attitude.” Princeton professor David Callahan has commented on this in his book “The Cheating Culture.”

Indeed, Christianity, despite its roots in what seems like a psychological socialism, is credited with leading to capitalism and freedom as we know it today. One can certainly say that about Judaism. This is said to contrast it to Islam, although one must consider historical reasons (back to 1000 years ago when that civilization was at its peak) as well as theology or ideology.

Toward the end of the sermon, Ensign said that at a typical African American church, they would chain the doors until getting another love offering. Here, he asked every person in attendance to approach another person whom he or she did not know and try to get to know the person.

In fact, I had a little success with this at coffee, with a discussion about substitute teaching and why math is so hard for many students to learn.

But I did feel a little put off by this exercise in “forced socialization.” Modern freedom has often meant, to many people, the ability to make one’s own may into the world and then pick one’s company, especially intimate partners or spouses, carefully. The idea of selectivity was very important at the Ninth Street Center in New York in the 1970s and 80s, although the Center tried to set up a sheltering community in the East Village and tended to discourage too much interaction with the outside world, hardly realistic in today’s Internet-wired world. Indeed, the GLBT community sometimes regards individual sovereignty as part of the moral justification for its progress – look at the activities of Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty since the 1990s.

Indeed, we have gotten used to personal autonomy, but autonomy depends upon a technological infrastructure that can break down or be attacked. Then we are thrown back into interdependence on others, which some of us have come to see as coercive. Indeed libertarian ideas of autonomy can backfire, as it can lead to existential questions about not only rejection of others but rejection of self.

We are seeing a fundamental debate emerge on what is “real life,” about balancing independence with connectivity with others, necessary perhaps for sharing the burdens of others and being one’s brothers keeper. The Gospels seem to make this a moral requirement.


See Annie Gowen: “Wedded Bliss for All or None: To Protest Ban on Gay Unions, Arlington Pastor Refuses to Conduct Marriages, Nov. 15, 2005, here.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Institutionalism -- notes from high school civics





I dragged out my Blue and Gray Washington-Lee High School yearbook from 1961, when I graduated, and looked over a number of the comments from students. One comment was even “Bill: Your first lesson in calculus” and it gives a formal derivation of the derivative (pun) of y = x**2 as y = 2x. All about limits and such. The comments are all positive except for one, a girl who was in my senior VA and U.S. Government class, where she writes, with some sarcasm, “I hope you feel that all your memorizing has paid off. If high marks is your goal in life, I wish you all success possible in attaining that goal. Best wishes at W&M.”

Picture: The new Washington-Lee High School, Arlington VA, under construction.
I was a kid of the Sputnik and Cold War age, and there were indeed some unusual pressures. In Enriched Chemistry class I once had made the wisecrack, “All learning is memorizing.” The class gasped. I had a certain context, and I rather regret that. Learning math and computer programming requires the development of mental agility and skill, not just factual retention. It requires application. The same is always true in science. In college, pre-med students (even Ashton Kutcher, lore goes, almost became pre-med) bemoan organic chemistry, and the “memorization” of reactions and nomenclature, which, however, fits predictable patterns. (Carbon is amazingly consistent in how it behaves.) Medicine itself requires enormous amount of “memory.” (Start with comparative anatomy.) Foreign language learning starts with memorization and becomes a skill (it’s harder with non Romance, non Germanic languages for most Americans – and that is becoming an issue today with the need to learn Arabic and Chinese.) (I made another famous aspie-like wisecrack in that chemistry class, "Don't kiss her on the lips!")

Her swipe at me was more a reaction to an incident in study hall before a government test. I asked her if she had notes on the definition of “institutionalism.” She did not. But “institutionalism” was on the test sixth period. She thought I had cheated and found out what was on the test. I did not. I’ve never cheated on a test. I had just found it mentioned in the classroom notes and did not understand what it meant. Somehow I wrote a paragraph about it and got credit for it on the test, but I really didn’t get what it meant even in twelfth grade.

I think today, however, we all have a pretty good concept of what it means in practice. Think about the debate over gay marriage. Most of the arguments for it are “rational” and seem to relate to individual rights, and balancing these rights with responsibilities, even to provide for others. Now you have the social conservatives whining that, as long as we are focused too much on equality and rights and responsibilities as a construct of individualism, marriage as an institution (for raising children and caring for people in a family structure) will deteriorate. I don’t agree with that, but I see what they are doing. They are trying to take some things off the table and put them back into the rubric of emotion and tradition. Authors like Maggie Gallagher and David Blankenhorn claim that same-sex marriage aims to “de-institutionalize” marriage, or literally letting gays redefine it out of existence. They are concerned particularly about preserving social hierarchies and institutions, as a anchor for the ability for most people to function..

Pictures: New Washington-Lee High School in Arlington VA under construction in 2007; Blue and Gray yearbooks from 1959 to 1961 (I graduated in 1961).

Thursday, April 26, 2007

I approach re-employment in I.T. as an asymptote -- what about my blogs?


Yes, I may be returning to the “conventional” information technology job market. I’ve discussed this on another blog.

Since I’ve had ten years of self-published writing, blogging and search engines connecting me to controversial issues, yes, I do wonder if this will cause conflicts.

Back in the 1990s, I had dealt with this possibility when writing my first book, dealing heavily with gays in the military (the military ban was a personal affront to me) when at the same time I was working for a life insurance company centered around selling to military officers. The company was acquired, and I went on to the acquiring company into another line of business (it’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s it in a nutshell).

In previous postings on this blog, I’ve noted the increasing employer concern over social networking site profiles and personal blogs as reported by the media in the past two years. Much of the concern seems to be focused on self-defamation, the posting of videos or accounts of illegal behavior (especially drug use or underage drinking), including sometimes unbeknownst postings by others.

But what seems more troubling is the idea of “implicit content,” a concept mentioned in the COPA trial. That notion refers to the meaning by the visitor given to (often self-published) content, particularly in light of what the visitor knows about the speaker or how the speaker perceives the speaker. This meaning goes beyond the literal content, which is more often the subject of legal attention; it is what we call “reading between the lines.” The visitor may question the motives of the speaker and in extreme cases feel enticed to act (conceivably an arcane and unexplored legal liability for the speaker), when the visitor finds certain materials with unusual personal candor. The same material, taken verbatim from an accepted “professional media” source would not create the same level of controversy.

This is a little bit analogous to the layered controversy over Don Imus. It was acceptable, according to the “rules” for rappers to use his language to describe themselves, but not for someone outside the community. Likewise, certain materials when created by an individual could create more concern than when distributed in conventional commercial channels.

I’ve wondered even if the “right to publish” as an individual could be contested and litigated as a separate area of free speech, but so far the courts (including the Supreme Court) have been quite reassuring in keeping global free-entry publication incorporated into the First Amendment as it is viewed today. However, employers are discovering that employee public-space speech (even done from home with their own resources) can affect them, even beyond the usual concerns of the past, and we could see new legal questions about intellectual property and "right of publicity" ownership no one can answer yet.

Employers naturally worry about two major negative potentialities. One is legal liability should the employee or new hire actually do something harmful. If an employer knew about underage drinking and then the employee had an accident at work, there could be a liability exposure. . Recent sensational tragic events around the world, sometimes perpetrated asymmetrically by unnoticed individuals, are not reassuring. The other is more like a conventional conflict of interest, or hostile workplace. If someone is responsible for making decisions that affect stakeholders and then displays hostility to certain groups of people in the public space, there could be legal claims. And employers may become concerned that seemingly innocuous statements on a blog could inadvertently (as “implicit content”) imply some confidential information in a company.

Already, there are companies offering to help individuals defend their “reputations” online (where reputation sometimes has a social context with respect to family or hierarchy, as well as a professional component). Other companies suggest that they can manage a professional’s “profile” on line. Some employers might come to insist that all of their associates permit monitoring or management of their online activities by these companies. That would sound like a logical development, and it is scary, as it could lead to policing social conformity.

I still believe that a major issue is what kind of job a person has. An individual contributor presents less “risk” than a manager or underwriter. An hourly worker may have a greater expectation of being left alone than a salaried person (although everyone must honor confidentiality, trade secrets and intellectual property as it used to be understood). That is one reason why, for the time being, I want to remain hourly and an individual contributor in most situations.

One obvious question: why not blog about only limited topics. People do this within their professions all the time, and may well be paid to do so. That may be OK within a certain context, but the writings on these blogs are about political and social issues that have shaped my own life. And all the issues are interrelated like neural circuits. What, may you ask, is the relationship between “gays in the military” (which started this) and COPA? Well, free speech and the Internet contradicts the idea that sexuality can remain covert. What about gay rights and health care? One obvious link is HIV. Another is eldercare – gays have fewer children but may bear a disproportionate burden of eldercare in the future. A more obvious connection can exist between "gay rights" and national security -- what happens to the "don't ask don't tell" policy if there is a draft or mandatory national service, and what happens to the foreign language talent that the military needs? A core concept linking all of these, well known in the insurance business and offensive to some people, is personal moral hazard. It's useful for someone to keep track of our progress on issues like pandemics, global warming, oil shortages, in connection with other social issues (personal mobility and expression) tied to these, giving the material and edge that may help pressure the system to solve these problems. Furthermore, as indicated in the previous blog entry, individual speech, given search engines, can sometimes compete with special interest speech from paid lobbyists, and encourage more objective approaches to policy problems. This is an important priority for me--to be able to speak for myself and not be beholden to organizations, who may expect me to become loyal to other people's objectives that I may find morally questionable. I feel rather put off by emails urging massive protests, boycotts, or letter campaigns over single issue incidents--even though that was the best ordinary people could do until the Internet came along.

There is, of course, unprecedented "psychological" candor in some of my postings (and in similar postings by others), and it seems that some people do find that candor in some matters can become crippling.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

More on knowledge management: normalized tables; blogging to fight neighborhood crime


I want to follow on earlier discussions of knowledge management and wiki-like databases.

Beyond the various wiki and compendium encyclopedias discussed earlier, along with all kinds of elaborate search engines, I do think there is a considerable social value in a free “political thought database” (hopefully attracting advertisers for revenue to pay for development). Such a database (well normalized to at least Third Normal Form) might consist of four or more tables.

Table 1: Entries coded by issue, detailed as to the various positions people take about each issue (with a key value for each position_.

Table 2: A quantity and specification table, where quantifiable results of studies are presented, with one quantity on each row, a description of the quantity, and a key back to table 1.

Table 3: An incident history table, detailing in memo fields particular incidents related to a specific issue.

Table 4: A footnote table giving bibliographic factual references for the positions taken in Table 1 (referencing the keys in the other tables as a foreign key here).

So, for example, if one is presenting “don’t ask don’t tell” Table 1 could present the various arguments for and against the policy (nuanced in various ways). Table 2 could present the numbers of discharges under DADT, totaled in different ways (by year, by service, by nature of complaint, by deployment). Table 3 could summarize the known individual discharges.

This approach is useful for many issues. LGBT issues would include gay adoption, and incidents related to the rights of gay couples. But it would branch out into many areas. For example, blogging by employees (jobs lost or employees fired, or employers checking social networking sites); filial responsibility issues; or health care (disparities in charges according to insurance status; waiting lists in countries with single payer). Obviously many consulting and data bank firms earn their profits and employ people collecting information like this, as do K-street consulting firms working for lobbyists; so it is not always easy to get one’s hands on quantitative information in many areas (like health care), where much of it is proprietary and paid for by specific clients (often for adversarial motives).

The earlier posting was in November 2006, here.

Supplement: Blogging as a crime-fighting tool

WJLA-TV 7 in Washington had a report on April 24, 2007 about blogging as a tool to warn residents of a neighborhood about possible crimes, and as a way to keep track of investigations on crimes. The report specifically covered the Shaw neighborhood in Washington DC, where Metropolitan Community Church is located, roughly between the Convention Center and North Capitol Street, NW.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Is social and emotional empathy and connectedness a "moral" issue?


With all of the recent media attention to autism, Asperger’s, and developmental disorders or simply patterns of psychological isolation in young people – a topic suddenly getting negative attention because of the tragedy in Virginia this week – we have to remember that people do grow up differently with respect to their needs for connectivity to others. (In fairness, it should be noted that the overwhelming majority of people with these "disorders" do not have an interest in weapons or perpetrating violence.)

There has developed a debate in the past few decades about how to “be one’s own person” with education, career, or expressive accomplishment before one commits to a long term romantic relationship. Some people see emotional connectedness as part of family responsibility, and as an experience that should not be questioned. Others find that it gets in the way. People who become “isolated” from family – for the sake if personal surplus and expression -- are seen as hostile or at least unsympathetic with others. Sometimes this gets to be seen as a mental health issue, and some people see it as a moral or religious issue. But mainstream political debate does not seem willing to regard this as a real “moral” issue the way it views more obvious “misbehaviors” or even “vices” (previous post). But it may contribute to anti-social behavior.

This certainly is relevant to LGBT people, especially as teens and young adults, and in different ways, as older adults as there are fewer children and eldercare becomes an issue. I certainly can relate, at various points in my life, to the expectation that I “pay my dues” and pay attention to others in circumstances that are certainly not on my own terms. Ultimately, this should be debated in a moral context. Some people (even citing the Gospels and the socialism and communitarianism of the early Christians) believe that all of life's expressive activities should be motivated by the needs of specific other people. I don't agree and could not live up to it, by I wonder what even a Dr. Phil would say about it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Private values and public consequences -- a battle over values: personal autonomy and public morality


A high school and college English teacher (Erica Jacobs) in northern Virginia wrote an interesting column “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde visit the classroom” on Monday April 16, 2007. The column is here. First, this has nothing to do with the tragedy at VPI (the column had already been published in The DC Examiner on p 28 on Monday) and the apparent metaphor appears as a total coincidence. Nor does my reaction have anything to do with that event. The column title of course a reference to the famous Robert Louis Stevenson novel, a staple of English literature and adapted to the movies at least twice (as mild genre “horror”) early in the history of motion pictures.

The column refers to another famous literary work, Dubliners, by James Joyce (published 1914). That is a collection of short stories set in Ireland around 1900. One of them, “The Dead”, appears to have been loosely adapted to make the recent movie “First Snow” (review) from Bob Yari Productions (with Guy Pearce as the protagonist -- there is also a 1987 independent film of "The Dead" directed by John Huston, not yet on DVD). I have not read the book, but the Wiki summary (of characters and plot situations) certainly supports the columnist’s content that the book provides a good example of how “neither literature nor government exist in a vacuum – private vices have societal consequences” (emphasis mine). A possible close paraphrase could say "public consequences." I thought, somewhat whimsically, that this statement belonged in The Washington Times, not The Examiner.

We often hear social critics commenting on the culture of our movies, television series, and video games, encouraging values ranging from excessive narcissism or “meritocracy” to advocacy of drugs and violence. This seems to have gotten worse, in the eyes of many people, during the age of the Internet with YouTube and social networking sites. To be frank, in the mid 1950s teachers were imploring “junior high school” students “read, don’t watch television.” TV was the enemy then. We survived.

But of course, the idea that private behaviors have public consequences is indeed loaded. The book would contain many examples relevant to Ireland more than a century ago – it’s always safer in school to study a society different from our own, where we can keep some protective distance from our own serious problems. But it’s all too easy to ponder what the statement means today. Back in the 1990s, Oliver North, on his talk show, would defend laws against mind-altering drugs – you have to stop the demand to get rid of incentive for supply. Political libertarians would disagree, of course, and maintain that making a “vice” illegal increases the profit from supplying it. You can certainly say that about prostitution – despite the frequent sweeps by DC police on 14th Street. Conservatives always talk about unwed mothers (in the context of abstinence) and welfare. With other problems, like c.p., it gets harder, because there are real, underage victims.

Gay people are particularly sensitive to notions of "vice". Back in the 1950s, and in some cities up to the 1980s, “vice squad” police (often dressed in coat and tie) would raid gay bars and randomly arrest patrons so that their names could be published in newspapers. (The religious right certainly tried to make HIV a societal consequence of private behavior.) Today, after a half-century of civil rights activism, diversity, and understanding of biological science, we can credibly debate equal rights and responsibilities for gays in areas like the military, marriage, and even parenting. Debate, that is. For some people still have a lot of problems with the intrusion into the institutional and emotional space of the family, which is the buffer between an individual (most of all children) and a most unequal and competitive world. Some people still want to look at this as “vice.”

But what seems to matter is not so much “vice,” but values. Private value systems – which can sometimes sound very judgmental about people--become more public because of open media, now including, of course, the Internet and global search engines.

For we are indeed in a cultural "low pressure system" perfect storm between notions of individual sovereignty (or personal autonomy, a synonym), and protective public morality—a paradigm which protects the mores of society “as a whole” but often seems to serve the interests of established privilege. It’s a complicated thing. Society is more diverse and accepting of different “groups” but harder on individual people in many cases, and it is often harder to raise children or take care of the elderly. The competitive culture has led to what Princeton professor David Callahan calls “The Cheating Culture (the name of his book),” which is a vice of a different kind.

Public morality is often tied to notions of individual shame, and that gets caught up in self-righteousness, and the need to protect some system of beliefs that remain in place no matter what happens beyond one’s own control. We see the most extreme case of this now with radical Islam, and the extremely punitive theories of “virtue” coming from cultures like the Taliban or the writings of Sayyid Qtub. What drives self-righteousness? Maybe it is the idea that you have to “give up” a lot to achieve “virtue” so you want to see others have to “give up” too.

But indeed, controlling vice, as some software engineers would say, probably involves implementing some pretty overloaded methods.

(See also post on utilitarianism on this blog April 2.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

VPI tragedy


There is still a lot of fact finding to be reported about the tragedy on the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (“Virginia Tech” or VPI) at Blacksburg, VA.

Yes, there are a lot of questions about the two hour delay in acting, and right now it’s not productive to second guess the administration here. Some of the difficulties were evident in the news conference broadcast live last night around 7:45 PM.

I graduated from high school in 1961 from Washington-Lee in Arlington, VA (then one of the top ten public high schools in the nation) and headed down for William and Mary, leading to a long story told on other pages of these blogs and websites. My best friend when I was a high school senior went to VPI, which he insisted would be the only place he would apply. In those days, everyone went for ROTC (and VPI and VMI – Virginia Military Institute in Lexington) were often spoken of in the same breath. This was the time of the Berlin crisis, Sputnik, and Cold War, when, despite a more “liberal” Kennedy Administration taking office, patriotism and military service were looked upon as moral requirements by many. It was also the time that student deferments from the draft would start to become a moral controversy. This was to be a time, however dangerous (with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 to come), when technology would advance quickly and lead to the kind of world we have today.

I also recall taking “Notehand” (a simplified shorthand – everyone in those pre-blackberry days was concerned about how to take college lecture notes) in summer school at Yorktown High School in that summer of 1961, and the teacher was a graduate of VPI. He would talk about the two contrasting history professors there at the time, one who emphasized learning facts (and lectured dressed in orange pants) and the other wanted students to learn long-term trends. I would find the same contrast between two professors at GW later. The school VPI, in the eyes of graduating high school seniors in Virginia, was a bit of a legend then. One of my parents’ best friends of that day (a life insurance agent) was a VPI graduate, and could tell stories of the hazing of the 1930s.

As some song from the 60s says, “so much has changed.” VPI now seems like a technology oriented university very much in the 21st Century business and academic cultural mainstream, it a bit conservative because of its Shenandoah Valley location, about 2000 feet above sea level, exposed to surprisingly cold winters despite its southerly location. Indeed, it was snowing during the news reports. I last visited the campus in on a cold windy December day in 1996, as I was returning from a trip doing a little research for my book.

One important part of the story is the way students used technology (sometimes with difficulties, as facilities were overwhelmed) to get in touch with families and parents. Facebook was used, as were special sites like Calling Care. This presents a new spin on the impact of social networking sites, a big controversy during the past two years.

One obvious question does occur with respect to the investigation. It is not absolutely clear as of this moment if the perpetrator was a student, and law enforcement is withholding its preliminary identification of the person. There are stories that the individual is a foreign national from Asia. But certainly some of the students are likely to have recognized him and to have considerable knowledge about, or at least impressions of him. The students would seem to be able to provide the clues as to what the person’s motives were. (That situation continues once the person is identified, as below.) The individual does sound, however, likely to be someone very alienated by the commercial and (sometimes sexually) competitive values of our society, which often get expressed at the expense of empathy. That observation may turn out to be more important than any political or religious ideology.

The latest CNN story is here. A press conference on April 17 identified the perpetrator of the mass event in the classroom as Korean resident alien Cho Seung-Hui.

I found the following blog quickly; it seems to be trying to connect the distant dots. Link. The Chicago Tribune has a detailed story by Aamer Madhani, here (4/17) that talks about a note that appears to show typical radical moralistic indignation about privilege, and mentions a temporary tattoo reading "Ismael Ax" (or "Ismail" -- the spelling "A Ishmael" was used as the sender of the "multimedia manifesto" to NBC) that could have religious connotations. The story mentions troubling writings turned in for an English "creative writing" class (apparently, from news reports, two screenplays (first mentioned by NBC "Dateline"); ABC Nightline showed some of the formatted text), both extremely violent and suggesting a history of past abuse. On previous blog posts, I have been especially concerned about "dreamcatching," a practice where the write "pretends" to have committed an illegal or antisocial act in order to prove a point; it remains to be seen if that is much of a factor here.

Late on Tuesday, AOL News bloggers posted copies (at least in part) of the screenplays ("Richard McBeef" and "Mr. Brownstone")here. They are graphic. There are also news reports about a novel and a "manifesto" (a pejorative since the days of Karl Marx).

The Washington Post Robert O'Harrow has an article (April 18 2007, p A10), "Gunman's Writings Out of a Nightmare; Classmates Feared Brooding Student," gives more here.

Picture: Meadow at 4500 feet below Mr. Rogers VA, in the southern VA Blue Ridge, the highest point in the state (at about 5700 feet).

Friday, April 13, 2007

Would Al Gore get to invent the Internet again?


The Associated Press released a story today by Anick Jesdanaun, “Researchers explore Scrapping Internet.” No, this isn’t a story on the Onion, and Al Gore won’t get to reinvent the Internet next time. Researchers claim that the Internet, dating back to DOD projects to get computers to talk to one another in the 60s, was designed under much different assumptions. These included much more fixed locations of computers, land lines, more number crunching, and a much more trustworthy and “professional” customer base. New protocols could address issues like mail and message security or spoofing, spam, misuse of the paradigms, notions of validation and notability guidelines for content. The National Science Foundation already wants to build an experimental network called GENI (Global Environment for Network Innovations). There are estimates suggesting that it could take ten to fifteen years to replace the existing infrastructure with a totally new one, involving new operation systems, browsers, and basic protocols.

The story is on Yahoo!.

Also, please see this post on mathematics education and critical thinking (4/15/2007).

Picture: The "Ice Palace" -- the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington DC, on Massachusetts Ave, not far from the DC Convention Center at Mt. Vernon Place. There are many discussion forums on issues held there.

Monday, April 09, 2007

FastCompany and New York Times report proposals by Jimmy Wales to improve search engines, web civility


FastCompany, April 2007, has an article (by Alan Deutchman) on p. 63, “Why Is This Man Smiling” and the plans of Jimmy Wales (“Jimbo”) for a new kind of search engine, with some unspecified kind of human-driven quality control in granting search engine rankings. On this periodical, link here you have to have a subscription code to see the content (or else buy the hardcopy in a book bar).

Wales, of course, is well known for his online encyclopedia Wikipedia, as well as a related content-enriched site with selected topics, Wikia.

According to the article, some search engines, among the most popular, base search engine rankings based on the number of links, resulting in the development of “link farms” and parked domains. Ten years ago books on HTML were telling webmasters to code keywords in metatags if they wanted search engines to pick them up. In practice this has not been necessary since maybe about 1998. Information rich content on less common items will usually result in a visible search engine placement. Engines like to see proper nouns, technical terms and buzzwords, and less common metaphors or combinations of words. They can catch some bad-faith practices, such as deliberately repeating a term excessively. I’ve wondered about misspellings, often from typos on unedited blogs, or with difficult-to-spell ethnic or foreign language names.

What I think this points to is something more like Web 3.0, but what I really think search products need to do is answer questions like, “give me all examples of persons fired for content on their own social networking sites, organized by date, and organized by company alternatively.” Efficient, accurate, and professionally formatted and easily readable summaries like these would help the public understand the magnitude of many unusual or novel problems.

Bard Stone has a story in the Monday, April 9, 2007 The New York Times, “A Call for Civility in the World of Nasty Blogs: High Profile Figures Propose Guidelines for Web Civility.” The link is here (this may become archived and require an online NY Times subscription or purchase). Wales, working with publisher Tim O'Reilly, is talking about proposing seals of good practice, with varying standards: whether to validate every item with at least one or even two sources, whether to allow anonymous comments, where the blogger will edit out inappropriate comments (especially those that might be libelous or obviously hostile). It’s worthy of note that according to Electronic Frontier Foundation, bloggers have some immunity from illegal content posted in comments by others, according to a provision called “Section 230”, a desirable portion of the 1997 “Communications Decency Act,” many objectionable provisions (from a First Amendment perspective) of which were struck down, as the subsequent derivative, the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 (COPA). Link is here.

The times article reports that women has sometimes become targets for their blogs. The article discusses well known blogs like Heather Armstrong (fired because of her blog, generating the new verb “dooce”) and technical journalist Kathu Sierra. Some political bloggers have attracted problems, such as Richard Silverstein, who has developed proposals for Israeli-Palestinian peace, on this site.
An anonymous party created an offensive website which was made to impersonate Mr. Silverstein. Attracting hecklers or “threats” could make potentially make it risky for others to do business with certain content providers, and in the Internet world this a potentially unprecedented legal issue.

Along those lines, let us hope that Mr. Wales turns some attention to the controversy over employers scanning personal websites and social networking sites, sometimes being misled by random comments made by others about job applicants on the web.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Web 3.0 is getting attention


PC Magazine (link) has an interesting overview of Web 3.0 on page 74 of the April 10, 2007 issue. The article, by Cade Metz, is “Web 3.0: The Internet is changing … again.” The buzzword is “semantic web,” which W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium) characterizes as a “web of data”, link here: A closely related concept is the Resource Descriptor Framework (RDF).

The idea is to navigate the web through the data itself, with a kind of human or mammalian intelligence. One weakness of the way we work now is that, while we can link all we like (and use embedded images or links, sometimes transparent to users – with some legal risks) and we can search for keywords in any combination we like, we really can’t link up “meaning” very well yet. One problem that is bothering employers, for example, is that they can find the names of associates on the web in combinations with derogatory words, but the results may not mean anything. There is nothing that tells you what a file means, or what the publisher’s intention was in putting it up. Other problems are linguistic. English and Chinese are “analytic” languages with lots of little words; other languages use endings (conjugations and declensions) to achieve meaning.

The PC article gives a detailed example of a patient scheduling all of the services associated with a medical appointment. But really, a really semantic web would help us understand different patterns in the way people think, in contrasts, an idea I have discussed before.

A related posting today on content labeling is here.

A related posting on intellectual property education in the schools is here.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

New York Times story on substitute teacher


Substitute Teaching got a lift from a New York Times article by Paul Vitello, “Why Listen to the Substitute? At 81, He Tells History First Hand.” The story is about Arbold Blume, 81, who teaches several days a week in Long Island public schools. The link is here. (This link may require login or NYT membership or online subscription to see content.)

Mr. Blume is a retired English teacher, and according to a group in Utah, about 10% of subs on any given day are retired teachers. As noted in an earlier article (Dec. 13, blogger link here), in many states subs do not have to be licensed. (NEA link on this here.) In New York, it appears that the situation varies considerably from one school to the next, based on need. On any given school day, there are about 274000 subs across the country. There have even been contestants on Jeopardy identified as “a substitute teacher.”

Mr. Blume can relate real history to students from personal observation, as noted in the article. Particularly interesting would be his personal contact with segregation, with rationing during WWII, the Cold War, the 50s, all kinds of history.

I try to do that myself in various assignments, and it does work in upper level courses. Some students do appreciate a heads up on what the “real workplace” is likely to resemble, and indeed I often tell them that a 90-minute classwork assignment in the lesson plan, often allowing group work, is a preview of the real workplace some day, where deadlines and quality standards are real. (There is a great passage in the recent film The Lookout where actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, portraying a young man disabled in an accident, describes the work of a bank teller, as someone who can balance the register every day for years without ever making a mistake.)

Some students, especially those struggling in school, will “take of advantage” of a substitute who does not know them by skipping. Sometimes school administrators see this as a reflection on the substitute’s classroom management or role model image. This is a serious ethical flaw, to take advantage of a situation in a superficial manner when one knows one is not being watches as closely. This says that getting things done depends not on a person’s doing what is right, but on who is in charge in some sort of social or political hierarchy. Such behavior undermines freedom itself. Related are the problems of cheating and plagiarism. When I was in school, these issues had an even more urgent ethical spin, because there was a draft, and one’s performance in school could affect the likelihood of one’s being drafted or of being sent into combat if one was. In the world of today, if one looks around, one does see teenagers and young adults who have become successful in some spectacular way (including the media). Such people did not get there by “taking advantage” of others to skip when not being watched as closely. (Ask Donald Trump this about his “apprentices”.) In an individualistic world, right and wrong takes on a new meaning.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Utilitarianism and family values


William Saletan wrote an interesting essay, “Morality: All In Your Mind”, published in the Outlook Section, B2, of The Washington Post on April 1, 2007. He starts his discussion with mention of the VMPC – the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in the brain, and with research showing that damage to this area affects what we normally perceive as moral constraint. He mentions a couple of scenarios where a human life could be sacrificed to save others, and that persons with injury in this area might have less resistance to doing what is “utilitarian”.

I remember in 12th grade government class being taught the origins of utilitarianism with Jeremy Bentham (following Greek philosopher Epicurus), and it would be developed by John Mill, son John Stuart Mill, from hedonistic to aesthetic and intellectual satisfaction, and eventually into a related virtue called consequentialism. This is all discussed in the wiki article here: and some readers found this an important concept in my first book, as in this review: Over the years, a concept that would have once been something I had to know for a test became personally important to me.

Saletan offers this super-condensed one-sentence summary: “As our ancestors adapted from small, kin-based groups to elaborate nation-states, the brain evolved from reflexive emotions toward abstract reasoning power that gave birth to utilitarianism.”

One of the key concepts in both mental health and morality seems to be empathy for other people. This varies a lot within our own culture. But extreme lack of empathy seems associated with psychopathology. And some people will develop and affinity for ideology but a dislike of connecting to people, sometimes with disastrous results (was with Eric Rudolf, subject of Maryanne Vollers ‘s book Lone Wolf). Empathy for other people’s emotions may indeed be influenced by brain growth and wiring.

Utilitarianism certainly feeds into the discussion of the culture wars, even gay issues. Saletan missions acceptance of homosexuality as a utilitarian change in society, which he welcomes. It could be a bit more complicated. The complementarity of heterosexual marriage would have been “utilitarian” in earlier societies, where women bore the inordinate risk of death in childbirth, so men fought the battles, and the division of labor between the sexes was appropriate and could become attached to sexual attraction – and marriage would take hold as a compelling socializing institution. Perhaps the gender roles of the pioneers on the frontier were not as sharply divided as we think. But modern technological society has certainly offered more personal choice to persons of each gender. For some people, a single life without kids, or separation of sexuality from procreation seems utilitarian today. We have come to debate morality in terms of individual responsibility going with individual freedom, demanding some consistency in a concept that we call personal integrity. But that concept is still a property of the individual, not the family. An important corollary of modern utilitarian moral integrity is the way it affects emotional empathy for others. In a world of individual expressive freedom, persons feel free to withhold emotion from others except on terms of their own choosing – intimacy between consenting adults. This right is bidirectional.

All of this becomes a rub in debating socially progressive proposals like gay marriage. Statistically (and from a utilitarian perspective), why would this affect the marriages of heterosexuals? It seems like one argument is, well, because it would hurt their feelings. It would make their socializing sexuality seem disposable, make them less interested in parenting, and therefore hurt (statistically) many people – most of all kids with their “birthright” of two parents – and other people dependent on solid family structure for support. In the end, this “argument” (advanced by Gallagher, Morse, and Blanhenhorn), calling for institutionalism winds up having a utilitarian aspect (raising kids well). But the heart of their concern is leaving impenetrable the emotional appeal of marriage and ownership of sexuality.

In the past I, like other “rationalists” have fought this by “going to the root” and trying to turn the debates into analytics – cause and effect, and practical consequences. Modern individualism, as a form of utilitarianism, has been effective in addressing older institutionalized prejudices – especially racism – that could corrupt the moral foundations of family life. But there is a new problem – people get left out on the cold, judged strictly on their own efforts, when they honestly feel entitled to count on the emotional moral support of kin, family and community. I have argued that to get around this problem that we need a new debate how we as individuals share burdens and commitments – but people like Gallagher are going to say that this is all too “utilitarian”. It’s easy for calls for “personal responsibility” to get out of hand and sound just plain cruel, or lead to new kinds of threats and oppression. But I think one can live outside of this rubric of unwanted pampering emotions, if one accepts certain rules.

Saletan writes, “But utility unchecked can become a monster.” Indeed. That is what social conservatives like Maggie Gallagher are properly concerned about. Kids grow up with video games and computers and may or may not be interested in face-to-face people skills learned at the television-free family dinner table. (Remember in the 50s teachers said, “Read, don’t just watch television!”) The Internet and search engines (and especially Myspace.com) invite anyone to make himself or herself a global celebrity – and the employers discover that they can use Google as a test of social conformity.

As for the lifeboat situation that Saletan mentions early in his essay, I recall a short story that I wrote in tenth grade English. It concerned a lifeguard who had to debate with himself whether to save a drowning person when a nuclear attack was starting. This was a story from the Cold War, Sputnik, Strangelove, “duck and cover” paranoia. The last words were “ … and the bomb.” The teacher didn’t particularly like the story but gave me a B on it.