Monthly Archives: August 2006

Katrina and the Rising Tide

Thousands still cling to their homes where the upper floors are yet dry, but thousands more have need to be removed in boats and established in great camps on the higher ground. Other thousands are camped upon broken levees. This is the pitiable plight of a lost battle.

27,000 square miles were inundated….An estimated 330,000 were rescued from rooftops, trees, isolated patches of high ground, and levees. The Red Cross ran 154… tent cities. A total of 325,554 people, a majority of them African American, lived in these camps for as long as 4 months. An additional 300,000 people outside the camps were fed and clothed by the Red Cross. Most of these were white. Of the remaining 300,000 people most fled. A few cared for themselves surviving on their own food and on their own property.

The first quote above is from the U.S. Commerce Secretary and the second from a New York Times report. The commerce secretary was Herbert Hoover and the flood occurred in 1927.

Continue reading Katrina and the Rising Tide

Us vs. Them: The Politics of Direct Causation

I often find myself asking why, if so much of what is happening in the political arena seems to go against some of my most basic human values, does it coincide with what seem to be other people’s most basic human values? Everyone I would expect to disagree with the current administration’s policies is eerily quiet and even the media, whom I have come to rely upon to dramatize even the least little issue in the name of selling advertising, appears to be preternaturally tongue-tied.

George Lakoff has addressed this issue in a way that is clear and understandable. In his 2006 book, Whose Freedom?, Lakoff gives a detailed look at what are essentially two separate world views. One is framed by direct causation and the other by systemic causation. Lakoff uses a family to differentiate these views and describes direct causation as akin to “strict father morality”. Systemic causation, on the other hand, more closely fits the framework of “nurturant parent morality”.

“Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea” (George Lakoff)

Continue reading Us vs. Them: The Politics of Direct Causation

Second-Hand Intellectuals

Authors: Ormerod, Paul
Source: Economic Affairs; Mar2006, Vol. 26 Issue 1, p41-47, 7p

How do ideas spread across, or disappear in, a social network of individuals?

Paul Ormerod suggests that one important way that individuals form their opinions on individual topics “is by noting the opinion of others who the individual considers to be significant in the particular context”. Networks in which most people are potentially influenced by a small number of people have the properties of a scale free network. Continue reading Second-Hand Intellectuals

1984 and Essentially Contested Concepts

Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology. Where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death and we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!

So reads the text of Apple Computer Corporation’s seminal Macintosh ad which was shown during the Superbowl in January of 1984. In an ad that, according to Apple Confidential 2.0 author Owen Linzmayer wasn’t created specifically for the Mac and almost never ran, Apple has staked its claim to one of the most ingrained concepts in the collective consciousness of the American baby boomer. The ads ends with the tag “On January 24th Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984”.
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Real Men Don’t Ask Directions

A good illustration of alternative modes of ‘direction-seeking behavior’ comes courtesy of Douglas Adams’ private investigator Dirk Gently who, in

“Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul” (Douglas Adams)

explains the method he uses to find his way when he gets lost. His technique involves finding a car that looks like it knows where it’s going and following it. Gently says “I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but I often end up somewhere that I needed to be”. I sometimes employ this same technique. I also find that, when there are a number of cars on the road, I will decide in favor of the direction in which a majority of them are headed.

This behavior can be observed well outside the realm of automobile travel. In research I often find myself following the research trail of scholars who seem to have a much better idea of where they are going than I do. In fact, like Dirk Gently who believes in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, I often find that I end up somewhere I needed to be.

One downside to this approach is the very real danger that you might end up more lost than you were to begin with. Another downside is that interesting and distracting things will lure you, Siren-like, to the rocks. I find that a trail of breadcrumbs, a ball of yarn, or any other method of finding your way back to the last place you actually recognized is essential. And I suppose, in a worst case scenario, I might even consider asking directions.

Essentially Contested Concepts

I first heard mention of George Lakoff at a presentation on Map Analysis at the Science, Industry, and Business Library of the New York Library so when I saw his recent book Whose Freedom in the bookstore I was intrigued enough to buy it. Lakoff presents the concept of “Essentially Contested Concepts” which was originally proposed in 1957 by W.B. Gallie.

According to Gallie, as summarized by Lakoff, “such concepts as freedom, democracy, and art are inherently subject to multiple interpretations, depending upon your values, concerns, experiences, goals and beliefs”. The essential components of an essentially contested concept are as follows;

    1. There is an uncontested core
    2. The concept must be evaluative
    3. The concept must have a complex structure (allow for variations)
    4. Has parts that are subject to variation

Lakoff goes on to explain how this accounts for very different interpretations of what “freedom” is. I started thinking about ‘essentially contested concepts’ as they relate to my current research on the Mac/Windows controversy. While computers themselves aren’t essentially contested concepts, the schism between Mac and Windows users would seem to indicate that there are basic concepts at work that have become intertwined with the Mac/Windows debate.

Looking at the various websites that answer to my google query of ‘Mac versus PC’ emotions are running high, accusations are being flung, and elements of good and evil are being raised. What essentially contested concept might engender such acrimony? Is it ‘individuality’? the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? freedom of expression?

I will explore this in greater detail as I develop this line of thought.