Archive for February, 2007|Monthly archive page

On Craigslist

This isn’t an argument for or against Craigslist itself, just a note on Craig Newmark’s interview on “The Daily Show” tonight (Monday Feb 26, video here). He mentioned the idea of “leaderless organizations” but didn’t cite his reference – a book of which he was a major subject (him personally, as well as Craigslist itself) and which elaborates on this idea. I read it in the context of Wikipedia (and founder Jimmy Wales) but it also covers Apache warrior cells and peer-to-peer networking, and highly recommend it:

Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider: the Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations (Portfolio, 2006).

And apparently it has its own website, mostly designed for CEOs looking to implement its ideas.

Basically, the argument is thus: while they look similar, the starfish is a “decentralized” organism (metaphorically speaking), while a spider is a “centralized” organism. If the “head” is cut off, the starfish can regenerate (i.e. make new starfish) while the spider just dies. Another analogy is the success of independently-operating Apache warrior cells vs. the Spanish army. While the hierarchical organization can be stopped when its leader is killed/incapacitated, groups with a common goal but with no center can be regenerated. The book itself goes on to explore this metaphor in Wikipedia (why I read it in the first place), Craigslist, peer-to-peer networking, etc. The authors seem really interested in the power of charisma in the organization’s original leaders/founders, but argue that it is the lack of actual unified control of these leaders which drive the projects forward – they don’t rely on a “personality cult” but on decentralized production, decision-making, etc.

Anyway, just wanted to throw this out there on the off chance someone is interested in the concept Newmark threw out there but didn’t really follow up on in the interview. He also mentioned that the US military is interested in studying this concept further for its potential application to Al Qaeda’s cell structure (like the Apache warriors analogy) and how to fight a “group” which you can’t stop by simply isolating a central leader. It should be pointed out to them, however, that this is the basic big army vs. insurgency/guerrilla/rebel faction set-up. Not sure if there’s really any answer to how to defeat an “army” which won’t follow the formal rules of battle. Whatever those might be.

In conclusion, check out the book, and if possible read past some of the apparent hero-worship about the “leaders” of starfish themselves.

Oscar Results

So apparently Forrest Whitaker, Helen Mirren, and “The Departed” (twice, if you count Scorsese’s for directing) won the big categories.

Eh.  I – or rather the excessive advertising and hype surrounding Hollywood production today, which was my source – could have told you that.

Still, it beats hearing ANYTHING about Anna Nicole Smith.  I think I might be developing an unhealthy fixation on that.  Or rather, on how annoyed I am by all of that.  An unhealthy fixation on the state and cause of being annoyed.

Reflection on Non-Academia

So I heard today from L that she ran into another Denison alum, one whom I associate with D(enison) R(eligious) U(nderstanding).  It set me on a mini-tangent, and a nostalgic one at that, about missing the people and the time in DRU.  I realized that one thing I liked about it was that although I knew (for the most part) enough about the regular members to know roughly what they studied (major, senior thesis topic, etc.), that wasn’t why we were there.  Sometimes the academic stuff would come up (especially if someone in discussion said, “In a class we talked about…” or naturally the religion majors’ areas of study) but as far as DRU was concerned, we were focused on the goals and activities of that group, and I’d like to think that it was more than just free food, but a respite from academic work to remind us that yes, there are other things.

That there are other things is something I’ve been having trouble remembering lately – maybe that’s why I make a point to watch Scrubs every evening, and was so excited to be able to drive my car today (well, that and the fact that there was no longer a pile of snow blocking it in.  Stupid plow.)  And I don’t think it’s just a peculiarity of Chicago (university not city) that I can blame for focusing only on academic work.  It’s definitely a big part my own doing – and while it’s somewhat too late to alter my schedule now, seeing as how two huge papers need to get done (well, a draft of one and a completed other) more or less by next Friday, the plan for next quarter is to get work done, yes, but also to get free time done.  And I imagine the weather will be much more conducive to that.  Maybe I could even make it as far out as the walking/bike trail along the lake.  That would be nice.

Anyway,  I guess my point is, don’t make one thing, everything.  It wears on you.  And I know that in undergrad that’s all I wanted to do – focus on the academic, make that the principal pursuit.  But I think the only reason why I thought I could focus on academics only was because I already had built in bits of “non-academia” – roommates, visits to friends, the occasional weekend at home, and of course DRU and Alpha Chi.  That’s what I miss.   And that’s what I need to work on – starting with a really, truly, genuine break next month.  Atlanta will be great.

Application, Supplication…

Wikipedia informs me that “supplication” is a petitioning or prayer, usually to a deity. That sounds about right, as I’m thinkin’ it’s a good time to appeal to the Employment Gods for their thoughtful consideration of my application.

Then it occurred to me that not only will I need to spend a few months of this year searching for a position for next year, but I will also (theoretically) need to apply to graduate school more or less a couple months after I start whatever position I end up in. Then theoretically, if I do indeed get accepted to and start a PhD program, even in that time (before I even get to the job market) it will be a steady stream of grant proposals, funding applications, and probably some summer research or other work to fill the class gaps.

Then I thought about the whole Man in the Gray Flannel Suit organization mentality … man that’s looking really good right now. And by “that” I mean 1950s job stability and security.

And actually, although the movie (1956) is boring as all get-out (even with Gregory Peck), the book (Sloan Wilson, 1955) was pretty good.

Also, I was hoping it was on YouTube, and it was!!!

Family Guy – Gregory Peck’s kids

hee hee hee hee hee hee hee I love it.


So I decided (possibly against my better judgment) to watch Jarhead again.  I haven’t seen it since it was in theatres back in Nov 2005.  I ordered it from Amazon as soon as it came out on DVD (and got the soundtrack), but I guess I’ve been avoiding watching it again since then.  It’s definitely not much of a “background movie” (although I am writing this as I watch), so it doesn’t usually make the Sunday morning “paper and a movie” schedule.  And I guess I’ve built it up in my mind as being something I get ready to deal with before watching, like Behind the Lines (British movie about Siegfried Sassoon recovering from shell shock in WW1).

Maybe I’m able to watch it with a little more distance because I’ve seen it before, or because I have the option of looking away (unlike in a movie theatre).  But even the second time, it’s no less beautiful and thought-provoking.  Sure, Swofford’s character might be a little self-indulgently intellectual, but war memoirs are told by the literate, the reflective, and above all those who can’t stop thinking about their war.

Swofford’s own narrative (his novel/memoir of the same name) aside, though, the music and visual aspects of the film are really what make it beautiful.  I can’t speak from experience in the desert, but all I can say is:   Desert sunset.  Heat-wave mirage as the soldiers appear over the horizon.  Burning oil fields.

And I can’t help but think of the always-present landscape in soldiers’ narratives:  the desert, literal or manmade through heavy artillery.  Soldiers described the ruined villages of northern France as like Pompeii, the wastelands of No Man’s Land and the trench systems as Hell.  Swofford’s desert, like his war, is a barren one – sand and sky, no enemy, no civilization, nothing but the outposts of the army itself and the constant awareness that the actual war is being fought by aerial bombing.  But both are surreal, so far removed from “ordinary” civilian experience that they are both horrifying and fascinating.

And speaking of fascination, I have to admit – that alone, that indescribable experience of the surreal, might in itself be enough to convince me to go to war.

“Every war is different.  Every war is the same.”

I could go on and on about this movie, but since it’s over, so is this post.

Pandemic, Personal Production

Two quick thoughts:

1) Is it unethical to believe that the world is in fact due, in cyclical growth-and-collapse terms, for a major population wipe-out?  Or are we already on the cusp of one?  (Influenza, I’m thinking of the 1918-19 pandemic and looking in your direction)

2) I looked at my last post, and my away messages, and the 5+ Emails I wrote today, and 80 pages (so far) of notes for my thesis, and 10 pages (so far) of notes for another paper, and thought, “Damn.   Is my whole life just the consuming, processing, and production of text?”

Yeah.  Yeah it kinda is.

Reminders of the Ordinary

“Going into my billet [temporary officers’ quarters, usually a farmhouse] I almost fell over a goat which was tethered among some currant bushes in the garden.”
~ Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

I meant to write earlier about my experiences with the joys of plumbing in sub-zero weather, but this fits in too.  So the drain of my kitchen sink froze – or more accurately, the drain outside to which the pipes which drain the water from my and my upstairs neighbors’ kitchen sinks leads.  This meant not only that all the water I or my neighbors drained down their sink (yes, dish water) came back up my sink and got all over the kitchen, but that the sinks are basically unusable until they can unfreeze the drain, a tough job in this sub-freezing (with windchill, subzero) weather.  Luckily the water has been turned off and the building super is working on it, but we’re looking at no sooner that Tuesday, unfortunately.

As I was carrying buckets of water from my sink out to the storm drains on the street, I reflected on how such inconveniences are reminders of the ordinary, kind of like how when you have a cold you think “How did I take being able to breath for granted?!  This sucks.”  And really, carrying those buckets out (and Mr. Cleaning the crap out of the counters, floor, sink, cabinets afterwards) wasn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, inconvenient though it was.  (Having just read about a woman’s life during the Soviet occupation of Berlin 1945, and also reading a great deal about the reconstruction of northern France after the First World War, really put that into sharper perspective).  One of the most striking parts of the woman’s diary, to me anyway, was the description of the water from the radiators, broken, running out onto the floor, down the stairs, and all the way through the building and to the street, in little rivulets.

Then I started thinking about how important the infrastructures of a city really are – if my water had been completely turned off, what would I have done?  Or electricity or heat?  Clearly human beings, as survivalists, can make do without these “modern conveniences” like heat brought to us and running water, but in a modern city, can we really?  We really are dependent on the systems which we’ve built up, and life gets substantially disrupted when those systems are.  All the plumbers in the city are overwhelmed with unfreezing people’s pipes, especially where they are city property and thus cutting off water to several outlets; think of how quickly snow and ice need to be cleared from busy highways, city streets, and train tracks so other areas can function; even having to clear trees from the roads and sidewalks after a big storm (like that which happened here in October).

Anyway, I guess my point is that although I definitely went through stages of annoyance and frustration about this pipe problem, I’m not writing about it here to complain – just to reflect on those ordinary things, the infrastructures of modern conveniences that we cease to really think about, until we have to somehow go out of our way to meet a need when some part of that infrastructure has a problem.   And, taken to an extreme, how much more focused you can become when meeting your basic needs (here I don’t mean electriciy per se, but water/food/heat/shelter) becomes more or less your own responsibility, as happened to the woman and many others in Berlin and other war-damaged cities.  And the problem becomes even more pronounced for those in places which suffered almost complete devastation, to the extent that the few who remained basically had to get as far out as possible to rejoin civilization.  Tokyo 1944(?) comes to mind.  Apart from the moral and more abstract considerations – bombing as wrong or necessary, the huge human and material cost, bombing as a military strategy, the ethics of total warfare, etc. – there is also that of the “ordinary” … Where do I get food and water?  If I or someone I know gets injured, where do I go?  How do I leave the city or go to another area, other than on foot?  What, if anything, can I save of my possessions?  Are they worth taking with me?  Does anything still belong to me if I can’t physically carry it around with me?

Anyway now this really is a ramble, but it’s interesting to think about what happens when so many assumptions, patterns, conventions, etc. are suddenly gone or compromised or re-configured, and how people deal with that, individually and in groups.  I guess that’s what interests me about those stories of someone foraging around and trying to pull an existence together.

Anyway.  Oh, I forgot to link to that quote in the beginning.  I hadn’t read (or noticed) that line before in the memoir, but it struck me as really funny, as a little mention of something very ordinary in an otherwise very extraordinary, bizarre, and at times horrible experience of living in war.  That’s what reminded me about the other thoughts on the ordinary.  Plus, the image of one of the First World War’s most famous British poets (probably only trumped by Wilfred Owen in common conception of war poets) tripping over a goat was brilliant in itself.

Another note – unfortunately I can’t elaborate on this observation in my thesis, but a lot of the writing about the war (First World War, of course!) suggests that they, the soldiers who wrote memoirs later, described their experiences as a combination of a travel diary and a coming-of-age, “my education in school and in life” kind of story. Which makes sense. I’m sure someone has written on the coming-of-age stuff but the travel part is the really interesting one to me. Especially compared with Swofford’s descriptions of the desert (the alien landscape) in Jarhead, and the relative absence of people other than soldiers… the symbolic and literal occupation of a foreign territory during war?

I should look into this sometime eventually. Maybe a Fulbright committee will buy into this and sponsor me to go back to Oxford.

Oh and one more war-related thought:

Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon were good friends during the war, both serving in the Welch Fusiliers. Sassoon got to know Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart Mental Hospital in 1917 (Owen was killed in 1918). Graves also knew Edward Thomas, who was killed in 1916 or something. And they must have at least known of Edmund Blunden, who shows up in one of their memoirs. And they all ended up (especially Blunden) editing everything ever that was published in fiction/memoir form after the war, e.g. Richards’ Old Soldiers Never Die. And Blunden and Sassoon pretty vigorously responded (in marginalia form) to some of the nonsense in Graves’ Good-Bye to All That pretty soon after it was published in 1929. Basically, these 3 (forget Thomas and Owen, they were killed during the war) ended up writing the First World War. Okay, British soldiers’ memories of the First World War.

And this seems to have stuck – every lit crit, literary history (I’m glaring at you, Fussell), and study of soldiers on the Western Front (including mine) relies in varying degrees on these guys.

On Irony

“You said that irony was the shackles of youth.”

~ R.E.M., “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”

I’ll come back to this.  Think on it a while.

On Global Responsibility

 I wanted to say a few things about the importance (to me) of irony, but this seemed easier to jot down at the moment.  Hopefully I’ll remember to come back to the irony thing.

The University of Chicago has decided to uphold precedent in its official decision not to divest investments from companies which fund (directly or indirectly) those carrying out atrocities and genocide in Darfur (Sudan).  Given the little I know about the University’s policy, as well as the stance they have taken on political events in the past, this did not surprise me.  Then, as I was watching CNN today, while talking about the Pelosi plane “controversy” there passed by on the headline news ticker a brief statement, more or less as follows:

“More than 430,000 people have been displaced, and at least 38 dead, from flooding in Jakarta [Indonesia]”

That, among other things, made me think more about the point I had laid out earlier, the disparity between the amount of information available (due in part to sophisticated and efficient communication networks) and our inability (individually and collectively) to meaningfully process and understand it all at a comparable rate.  Say this had happened 200, possibly even 100 years ago.  Would information about these events been readily available to the average person in America?  And more importantly, would they have felt the need to respond?

This is not an endorsement of action or apathy – just a thought.  We suddenly have a much greater awareness of simultaneous events around the world, and also a greater interconnection between places through telecommunications, digital networks, and rapid transit by air, land, and sea.  With this seems to come a growing conviction that along with this information comes greater moral/ethical responsibilities, that because we know about a natural disaster, political and/or ethnic conflict, etc., we should also be moved to do something about it.

Cliches about the “global village” and “citizens of the world” aside, it seems that we might soon need to play catch-up in defining our responsibilities in the world, which means sorting out what the nation’s (for example) role should be in relation to other nations and peoples, not to mention the earth itself.  Clearly this could turn into an even more abstract meditation on the twilight of nationalism or something, but it does make one wonder.  The paradigm of the United Nations, US foreign policy, the problems of sorting out the sovereignty of the EU, etc. etc. still seems characterized by the nation as the functional unit of group “international” relations.  Should we move beyond boundaries of nationalism?  Can we?  Are there more effective organizational units for meeting the needs and preserving liberties of individuals, preserving stability (if not harmony) among diverse groups, managing resources efficiently, and providing a collective identity and narrative with which to understand ourselves?  And who cleans up the messes?

American runs on Dunkin…?

An observation about the Dunkin Donuts marketing strategy:

So, is Dunkin Donuts really become the Everyman’s (common man’s, people’s) Starbucks?

… Or are they just telling us they are?