August 2006

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Well, isn’t this interesting? Makes me wish I still lived in nearby Louisville.

Synthetic Worlds Initiative at Indiana University
“The Synthetic Worlds Initiative is a research center at Indiana University whose aim is to promote innovative thinking on synthetic worlds. Synthetic worlds are immersive digital spaces that can host many online users on a persistent basis. The most popular applications of this technology today are massive video games. Our goal is to learn about this technology and deploy it for research and education. The Initiative holds a bi-annual series of conferences, the Ludium, and is building Arden: The World of William Shakespeare, a massive synthetic world.”

Music and Brains

I often wondered what sorts of brain chemicals were involved in music enjoyment — I’ve definitely noticed similar emotional effects between songs I enjoy (especially cranked up while driving) and other things like caffeine. Nice quick interview at Wired News about it.

WN: What are we learning about the link between music and emotion in the brain?

Levitin: Music activates the same parts of the brain and causes the same neurochemical cocktail as a lot of other pleasurable activities like orgasms or eating chocolate — or if you’re a gambler winning a bet or using drugs if you’re a drug user. Serotonin and dopamine are both involved.

Another interesting point he makes:

Levitin: (Research has shown that) if women could choose who they’d like to be impregnated by, they’d choose a rock star. There’s something about the rock star’s genes that is signaling creativity, flexibility of thinking, flexibility of mind and body, an ability to express and process emotions — not to mention that (musical talent) signals that if you can waste your time on something that has no immediate impact on food-gathering and shelter, you’ve got your food-gathering and shelter taken care of.

We Live Here

The article I wrote for the August/September 2006 ASIS&T Bulletin is up. Thanks to Stacy Surla and the gang at the Bulletin for helping me get it into shape. I’m pleased to say it’s sharing space with a lot of really excellent writing.

It’s weird to read it now, in a way. It’s a snapshot of where my head was 2-3 months ago, and now I my thoughts about the topic have changed somewhat. Not drastically, but just natural drift (hopefully some evolution?). If I can get my wits about me I’ll write about it here.

In my last post, I opined at excruciating length about how so much of what makes one’s message in corporate life effective is the context and how one plays that context. It has to do with much more than appearance, which is just one factor; it’s about presence. That self-assurance that in some people seems arrogant or cocky but in others makes you want to defer to their judgment automatically.

Con artists use this very well. It’s a ‘confidence’ game, after all, and the con artist understands intuitively that confidence in oneself is necessary in order for others to have confidence in you.

Ann Coulter is one such con artist. She’s peddled her (relatively speaking, when compared to other political pundits) photogenic looks, rapier tongue and unapologetic attitude into a lucrative, powerful career as one of the most televised dilettantes alive. Oh, and she writes books too.

I have a hard time imagining Coulter sitting at a laptop surrounded by piles of meticulously perused research. I have an easier time imagining her spewing vitriol into a tape recorder and paying some hack(s) to edit it into something coherent, and run out and find anything in print that might be used as evidence. At least, that’s how her prose reads to me.

There’s a big difference between thoughtful, reasoned prose based on thorough research and crude polemic dressed up as respectable political opinion. That’s why I doubt Coulter would’ve gotten far in her career if she’d just written books. Like a trashy pop singer, it’s her TV appearances that make her career.

And it’s in those appearances where she performs brilliantly. Not that I think she’s brilliant. She’s a brilliant performer. She’s smart, certainly, but I think she actually believes she’s making intelligent, logical arguments, which signals to me that she’s not really as smart as she thinks.

That said, the lack of logical argumentation in her rantings doesn’t seem to be a problem. She knows she can get away with so much because she’s amazing at manipulating conversations. For example, on the rare occasion that someone argues with her or contradicts something she’s said, she weasels out of it by one of several strategems: 1. impugn the honor of the other person by making some outrageous, straw-man assertion about them because they would even think of contradicting her; 2. impugn the intelligence of the other person by quoting from “facts” that the other person doesn’t know, pointing to her book and squawking “I have XX pages of footnotes on this,” leaving the other person stammering and wondering if maybe they haven’t really done their homework; 3. making some other outrageous claim about someone not even in the room in order to derail the conversation. (This last one was evidenced most recently when she asserted that Clinton was a latent homosexual.)

Why does she get away with it? I think it’s in her delivery. In her utter and complete confidence. Couple that with a very quick mind (again, brilliant and quick are two different things) that can pop a comeback at an interviewer faster than the Williams sisters can nail a poorly lobbed serve, and time and time again you see people stumble over themselves trying to get around her. And she thrives on it; you can see it in her face. The television interview is her favorite element, and she plays it like a virtuoso.

This combination for an honest person would be admirable. But in someone who twists others’ words in order to fuel her unfounded pronouncements and allegations, it’s insidious.

The second trick works especially well. Claiming that you have numbers and research to back up your claims is a great way to shut other people up, especially if it’s during a TV taping or live interview when they can’t go and check your facts. She does it a lot, according to Media Matters.

This was hardly the first time Coulter and her defenders have offered the large number of footnotes contained in her book as “evidence” of the quality of her scholarship. Also on July 7, Terence Jeffrey, editor of conservative weekly Human Events, defended Coulter’s book on CNN’s The Situation Room by citing her “19 pages of footnotes.” And when similar questions were raised about her 2002 book, Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right (Crown, June 2002), Coulter repeatedly cited her “35 pages of footnotes” as evidence that her claims were accurate.

The same Media Matters article goes on to check these oft-cited footnotes, and finds them lacking.

Media Matters’ analysis of the endnotes in Godless revealed that Coulter routinely misrepresented the information of her sources, as well as omitted inconvenient information within those same sources that refuted her claims. Coulter relied upon secondary sources to support many of her claims, as well as unreliable or outdated information.

In addition to demonstrating her poor scholarship, this analysis also made clear Coulter’s lack of respect for her readers, who she clearly assumed would believe anything she wrote, as long as there was a citation attached to it.

That last bit is awfully accurate. People really do swallow a lot if it has the appearance of authority, and they rarely bother to look beneath the veneer. I’m guilty of it frequently. Who has the time? And if you’re predisposed to believe the points they’re making anyway, why not roll with it? We all walk around assuming that big publishing houses would never publish something that wasn’t well-documented.

I’m sure there’s plenty of left-leaning stuff published with similar weaknesses. What steams me about Coulter, though, is that she’s so hateful. She delights in polarizing people, and in objectifying and criminalizing her opposition. What she does is only a couple of tiny steps away from the sort of hate speech people use for minorities when they call them “vermin.” Calling ‘liberals’ things like “Godless” and “Traitors” is the sort of talk that one uses to start wars or pogroms.

What really disturbs me is that this woman is paraded as a real expert, as someone we should listen to, along with the other professional windblowers from both sides of the political spectrum, just because her antics grab viewers.

Obviously, the woman shovels a lot of crap; she’s got a real problem with that shovel. But nobody’s going to talk about it. I’d love to see the networks and news shows jumping on her about this stuff, but they didn’t do it about the last books so why this one?

It makes me nostalgic for the days when we had no 24-hour news channels that had to fill their hours no matter what. Back when the nightly news was 30 minutes, and that was it, there was at least some vetting of sources. Can you imagine CBS circa 1975 wasting even 15 seconds getting an opinion from a hack like Coulter? Not that things were perfect in 1975, by a long shot.

I don’t have a pithy wrapup for this post… just a pleading hope that, in the same way people get sick of so many other things and then move on, maybe we’ll all get sick of this and leave people like Coulter to the dust heap of “what were we thinking?”

For a year or so now, “innovation” has been bobbing around at the very top of the memepool. Everybody wants to bottle the stuff and mix it into their corporate water supplies.

I’ve been on the bandwagon too, I confess. It fascinates me — where do ideas come from and how do they end up seeing the light of day? How does an idea become relevant and actionable?

There’s a recent commercial for Fedex where a group of pensive executives are sitting around a conference table, their salt-and-pepper haired and square-jawed CEO (I assume) sitting at the head of the group and a weak-chinned, rumpled and dorky underling sitting next to him. The CEO asks how they can cut costs (I’m paraphrasing) and the little younger dorky guy recommends one of Fedex’s new services. He’s ignored. But then the CEO says exactly the same thing, and everybody nods in agreement and congratulates him on his genius.

The whole setup is a big cliche. We’ve seen it time and again in sitcoms and elsewhere. But what makes this rendition different is how it points out the difference in delivery and context.

In looking for a transcript of this thing, I found another blog that summarizes it nicely, so I’ll point to it and quote here.

The group loudly concurs as the camera moves to the face of the worker who proposed the idea in the first place. Perplexed, he declares, “You just said what I just said only you did this,” as he mimics his boss’s hand motions.
The boss looks not at him, but straight ahead, and says, “No, I did this,” as he repeats his hand motion. The group of sycophants proclaims, “Bingo, Got it, Great.” The camera captures the contributor, who has a sour grimace on his face.

(Thanks Joanne Cini for the handy recap.)

What it also captures is the reaction of an older colleague sitting next to the grimacing dorky guy who gives a little nod to him that shows a mixture of pity, complicity in what just happened, and a sort of weariness that seems to say, “yeah, see? that’s how it works young fella.”

It’s a particularly insightful bit of comedy. It lampoons the fact that so much of how ideas happen in a group environment depends on context, delivery, and perception (and here I’m going to pick on business, but it happens everywhere in slightly different flavors). Dork-guy not only doesn’t get the language that’s being used (physical and tonal), but doesn’t “see” it well enough to even be able to imitate it correctly. He doesn’t have the literacy in that language that the others in the room do, and feels suddenly as if he’s surrounded by aliens. Of course, they all perceive him as alien (or just clueless) as well.

I know I’m reading a lot into this slight character, but I can’t help it. By the way, I’m not trying to insult him by calling him dork-guy — it’s just the way he’s set up in the commercial; I think the dork in all of us identify with him. I definitely do.

In fact, I know from personal experience that, in dork-guy’s internal value matrix, none of the posturing means a hill of beans. He and his friends probably make fun of people who put so much weight on external signals — they think of it as a shallow veneer. Like most nerdy people, the assumption is that your gestures, haircut or tone of voice doesn’t affect whether you win the chess match or not. But in the corporate game of social capital, “presence” is an essential part of winning.

Ok, so back to innovation. There’s a tension among those who talk and think about innovation between Collective Intelligence (CI) and Individual Genius (IG). To some degree there are those who favor one over the other, but I think most people who think seriously about innovation and try to do anything about it struggle with the tension within themselves. How do we create the right conditions for CI and IG to work in synergy?

The Collective Intelligence side has lots of things in its favor, especially lately. With so many collective, emergent activities happening on the Web, people now have the tools to tap into CI like never before — when else in history did we have the ability for people all over the world to collaborate almost instantaneously in rapid conversation, discussion and idea-vetting? Open Source philosophy and the “Wisdom of Crowds” have really found their moment in our culture.

I’m a big believer too, frankly. I’m not an especially rabid social constructivist, but I’m certainly a convert. Innovation (outside of the occasional bit that’s just for an individual privately) derives its value from communal context. And most innovations that we encounter daily were, in one way or another, vetted, refined and amplified by collaboration.

Still, I also realize that the Eureka Moments don’t happen in multiple minds all at once. There’s usually someone who blurts out the Eureka thought that catalyzes a whole new conversation from that “so perfect it should’ve been obvious” insight. Sometimes, of course, an individual can’t find anyone who hears and understands the Eureka thought, and their Individual Genius goes on its lonely course until either they do find the right context that “gets” their idea or it just never goes anywhere.

This tension betwen IG and CI is rich for discussion and theorizing, but I’m not going to do much of that here. It’s all just a very long setup for me to write down something that was on my mind today.

In order for individuals to care enough to have their Eureka thoughts, they have to be in a fertile, receptive environment that encourages that mindset. People new to a company often have a lot of that passion, but it can be drained away long before their 401k matching is vested. But is what these people are after personal glory? Well, yeah, that’s part of it. But they also want to be the person who thought of the thing that changed everybody’s lives for the better. They want to be able to walk around and see the results of that idea. Both of these incentives are crucial, and they’re both important ingredients in the feed and care of the delicate balance that brings forth innovation.

Take the Fedex commercial from above. The guy had the idea and he’ll see it executed. Why wouldn’t he be gratified to see the savings in the company’s bottom line and to see people happier? Because that’s only part of his incentive. The other part is for his boss, at the quarterly budget meeting, to look over and say “X over there had a great idea to use this service, and look what it saved us; everybody give a round of applause to X!” A bonus or promotion wouldn’t hurt either, but public acknowledgement of an idea’s origins goes a very very long way.

I’ve worked in a number of different business and academic environments, and they vary widely in how they handle this bit of etiquette. And it is a kind of etiquette. It’s not much different from what I did above, where I thanked the source of the text I quoted. Maybe it’s my academic experience that drilled this into me, but it’s just the right thing to do to acknowledge your sources.

In some of my employment situations, I’ve been in meetings where an idea I’ve been evangelizing for months finally emerges from the lips of one of my superiors, and it’s stated as if it just came to them out of the blue. Maybe I’m naive, but I usually assume the person just didn’t remember they’d heard it first from me. But even if that’s the case, it’s a failure of leadership. (I’ve heard it done not just to my ideas but to others’ too. I also fully acknowledge I could be just as guilty of this as anyone, because I’m relatively absent-minded, but I consciously work to be sure I point out how anything I do was supported or enhanced by others.) It’s a well-known strategy to subliminally get a boss to think something is his or her own idea in order to make sure it happens, but if that strategy is the rule rather than the exception, it’s a strong indicator of an unhealthy place for ideas and innovation (not to mention people).

But the Fedex commercial does bring a harsh lesson to bear — a lesson I still struggle with learning. No matter how good an idea is, it’s only as effective as the manner in which it’s communicated. Sometimes you have no control over this; it’s just built into the wiring. In the (admittedly exaggerated, but not very much) situation in the Fedex commercial, it’s obvious that most of the dork-guy’s problem is he works in a codependent culture full of sycophants who mollycoddle a narcissistic boss.

But perhaps as much as half of dork-guy’s problem is that he’s dork-guy. It’s possible that there are some idyllic work environments where everyone respects and celebrates the contributions of everyone else, no matter what their personal quirks. But chances are it’s either a Kindergarten classroom or a non-profit organization. And I happen to be a big fan of both! I’m just saying, I’m learning that if you want to play in certain environments, you have to play by their rules, both written and unwritten. And I think we all know that the ratio of unwritten-to-written is something like ten-to-one.

In dork-guy’s company, sitting up straight, having a good haircut and a pressed shirt mean a lot. But what means even more is saying what you have to say with confidence, and an air of calm inevitability. Granted, his boss probably would still steal the idea, but his colleagues will start thinking of him as a leader and, over time, maybe he’ll manage to claw his way higher up the ladder. I’m not celebrating this worldview, by the way. But I’m not condemning it either. It just is. (There is much written hither and yon about how gender and ethnicity complicate things even further; speaking with confidence as a woman can come off negatively in some environments, and for some cultural and ethnic backgrounds, it would be very rude. Whole books cover this better than I can here, but it’s worth mentioning.)

Well, it may be a common reality, but it certainly isn’t the best way to get innovation out of a community of coworkers. In environments like that, great ideas flower in spite of where they are, not because of it. The sad thing is, too many workplaces assume that “oh we had four great ideas happen last year, so we must have an excellent environment for innovation,” not realizing that they’re killing off hundreds of possibly better seedlings in the process.

I’ve managed smaller teams on occasion, sometimes officially and sometimes not, but I haven’t been responsible for whole departments or large teams. Managing people isn’t easy. It’s damn hard. It’s easy for me to sit at my laptop and second-guess other people with responsibilities I’ve never shared. That said, sometimes I’m amazed at how ignorant and self-destructive as a group some management teams can be. They can talk about innovation or quality or whatever buzzword du jour, and they can institute all sorts of new activities, pronouncements and processes to further said buzzword, but not do anything about the major rifts in their own ranks that painfully hinder their workers from collaborating or sharing knowledge; they reinforce (either on purpose or unwittingly) cultural norms that alienate the eccentric-but-talented and give comfort to the bland-but-mediocre. They crow about thinking outside the box, while perpetuating a hierarchical corporate system that’s one of the most primitive boxes around.

Ok, that last bit was a rant. Mea Culpa.

My personal take-away from all this hand-wringing? I can’t blame the ‘system’ or ‘the man’ for anything until I’ve done an honest job of playing by the un/written rules of my environment. It’s either that, or play a new game. To me, it’s an interesting challenge if I look at it that way; otherwise it’s just disheartening. I figure either I’ll succeed or I’ll get so tired of beating myself against the cubicle partitions, I’ll give up and find a new game to play.

Still, eventually? It’d be great to change the environment itself. Maybe I should go stand in front of my bathroom mirror and practice saying that with authority? First, I have to starch my shirts.

This is unbelievably creepy …

David Byrne Journal: 8.2.06: American Madrassas

Saw a screening of a documentary called Jesus Camp. It focuses on a woman preacher (Becky Fischer) who indoctrinates children in a summer camp in North Dakota. Right wing political agendas and slogans are mixed with born again rituals that end with most of the kids in tears. Jesus CampTears of release and joy, they would claim — the children are not physically abused. The kids are around 9 or 10 years old, recruited from various churches, and are pliant willing receptacles. They are instructed that evolution is being forced upon us by evil Godless secular humanists, that abortion must be stopped at all costs, that we must form an “army” to defeat the Godless influences, that we must band together to insure that the right judges and politicians get into the courts and office and that global warming is a lie.

Oz-IA 2006

If there’s any chance you can make it to a terrific IA conference in Australia, definitely check out Oz-IA 2006. Dates: Saturday, September 30th & Sunday, October 1st

The industrious Eric Scheid tells me that “We’ve now announced the conference program, and it’s quite exciting – lots of practical sessions, by practitioners, for practitioners. Over the next few weeks we’ll be expanding the detail on each session.”

Just in case anyone has forgotten, the dream of the neocons was quite different from what has actually transpired in Iraq.

They honestly thought their twisted ideology was going to result in the perfect case study for their beliefs (and line their wallets in the process). Far from the privatized utopia they were expecting, their experiment on the flesh and blood residents of Iraq has instead resulted in an ever escalating death toll.

Here’s a bit from the article by Naomi Klein in Harper’s way back in 2004.

In only a few months, the postwar plan to turn Iraq into a laboratory for the neocons had been realized. Leo Strauss may have provided the intellectual framework for invading Iraq preemptively, but it was that other University of Chicago professor, Milton Friedman, author of the anti-government manifesto Capitalism and Freedom, who supplied the manual for what to do once the country was safely in America’s hands. This represented an enormous victory for the most ideological wing of the Bush Administration. But it was also something more: the culmination of two interlinked power struggles, one among Iraqi exiles advising the White House on its postwar strategy, the other within the White House itself.