Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Killing Off Real Life


To anyone paying attention these days, it's clear that social media — whether Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or any of the countless other modern-day water coolers — are changing the way we live.

Indeed, we might feel as if we are suddenly awash in friends. Yet right before our eyes, we're also changing the way we conduct relationships. Face-to-face chatting is giving way to texting and messaging; people even prefer these electronic exchanges to, for instance, simply talking on a phone.Smaller circles of friends are being partially eclipsed by Facebook acquaintances routinely numbered in the hundreds. Amid these smaller trends, growing research suggests we could be entering a period of crisis for the entire concept of friendship. Where is all this leading modern-day society? Perhaps to a dark place, one where electronic stimuli slowly replace the joys of human contact.

Awareness of a possible problem took off just as the online world was emerging. Sociologist Robert Putnam published the book Bowling Alone, a survey of the depleting levels of "social capital" in communities, from churches to bowling allies. The pattern has been replicated elsewhere in the Western world. In the United Kingdom, the Mental Health Foundation just published The Lonely Society, which notes that about half of Brits believe they're living in, well, a lonelier society. One in three would like to live closer to their families, though social trends are forcing them to live farther apart.

Typically, the pressures of urban life are blamed: In London, another poll had two-fifths of respondents reporting that they face a prevailing drift away from their closest friends. Witness crowded bars and restaurants after work: We have plenty of acquaintances, though perhaps few individuals we can turn to and share deep intimacies. American sociologists have tracked related trends on a broader scale, well beyond the urban jungle. According to work published in the American Sociological Review, the average American has only two close friends, and a quarter don't have any.

Shallow friendships

It should be noted that other social scientists contest these conclusions. Hua Wang and Barry Wellman, of the universities of Southern California and Toronto respectively, refer to "some panic in the United States about a possible decline in social connectivity." But notice their language: "social connectivity." That is not the same as intimate friendship. While social networking sites and the like have grown exponentially, the element that is crucial, and harder to investigate, is the quality of the connections they nurture.

Yet we know that less is more when it comes to deeper relationships. It is lonely in the crowd. A connection may only be a click away, but cultivating a good friendship takes more. It seems common sense to conclude that "friending" online nurtures shallow relationships — as the neologism "friending" itself implies.

It is striking that loneliness should be regarded as a mental health issue, and that seems right. At least since the ancient Greeks, it has been recognized in our political philosophies that we are social animals. Aristotle was just one thinker to remark that an individual could have everything that life can offer — career, family and money — but if a person didn't have a good friend, his or her life would be fundamentally lacking. A society that thwarts opportunities for deeper sociality, therefore, stymies well-being.

No single person is at fault, of course. The pressures on friendship today are broad. They arise from the demands of work, say, or a general busyness that means we have less quality time for others. How many individuals would say that friendship is the most important thing in their lives, only to move thousands of miles across the continent to take up a better-paid job?

It starts with childhood

Of course, we learn how to make friends — or not — in our most formative years, as children. Recent studies on childhood, and how the contemporary life of the child affects friendships, are illuminating. Again, the general mood is one of concern, and a central conclusion often reached relates to a lack of what is called "unstructured time."

Structured time results from the way an average day is parceled up for our kids — time for school, time for homework, time for music practice, even time for play. Yet too often today, no period is left unstructured. After all, who these days lets his child just wander off down the street? But that is precisely the kind of fallow time so vital for deeper friendships. It's then that we simply "hang out," with no tasks, no deadlines and no pressures. It is in those moments that children and adults alike can get to know others for who they are in themselves.

If there is a secret to close friendship, that's it. Put down the device; engage the person.

Aristotle had an attractive expression to capture the thought: close friends, he observed, "share salt together." It's not just that they sit together, passing the salt across the meal table. It's that they sit with one another across the course of their lives, sharing its savor — its moments, bitter and sweet. "The desire for friendship comes quickly; friendship does not," Aristotle also remarked. It's a key insight for an age of instant social connectivity, though one in which we paradoxically have an apparently growing need to be more deeply connected.

Mark Vernon is a writer and honorary research fellow at Birkbeck College in London. He is the author of the new book The Meaning of Friendship.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ideology From Birth


We tend to believe our political views have evolved by a process of rational thought, as we consider arguments, weigh evidence, and draw conclusions. But the truth is more complicated. Our political preferences are equally the result of factors we're not aware of—such as how educated we are, how scary the world seems at a given moment, and personality traits that are first apparent in early childhood. Among the most potent motivators, it turns out, is fear. How the United States should confront the threat of terrorism remains a subject of endless political debate. But Americans' response to threats of attack is now more clear-cut than ever. The fear of death alone is surprisingly effective in shaping our political decisions—more powerful, often, than thought itself.

I'm STUNNED That The US Intelligence System Is Broken!



"Washington (CNN) -- The September 11, 2001, attacks have created an intelligence community so large and unwieldy that it's unmanageable and inefficient -- and no one knows how much it costs, according to a two-year-long investigation by the Washington Post. "

Sunday, July 18, 2010

We Still Like Libraries


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Not So Smart After 35 Million Years


How can a smart species be so dumb?
By Richard Galant, CNN
July 16, 2010 3:39 a.m. EDT

Oxford, England (CNN) -- Was last year's financial crisis a chance event? Or was it the product of 35 million years of evolution?

Laurie Santos' research suggests that some of the bad choices made on Wall Street and in the mortgage business may have been deeply rooted in the basic nature of the human species.

Santos, a professor at Yale University, has been investigating the workings of a dangerous inconsistency in people's attitudes to risk. She spoke about it Wednesday at the TED Global conference in Oxford, a four-day event ending Friday where experts passionate about their work got the chance to give contrasting views of the future we all face.

Which would you do: Accept a guaranteed gift of $500 or gamble by taking a risk on a coin toss that would give you $1,000 for heads -- and nothing for tails?

Most people would play it safe and take the sure $500, Santos said.

What if, instead of a gain, you faced a potential loss? Your choice would be to give up $500 for sure or take a risk on a coin toss that could cost you $1,000 if you lost -- or nothing if you won? Most people opt for taking the risk rather than playing it safe.

Using tokens as a form of money and grapes as prized products to be exchanged for the tokens, Santos has shown that capuchin monkeys make the same set of irrational choices -- taking more risk when they have something to lose than when they have something to gain.

"The errors we make are predictable, we make them again and again," said Santos, explaining that she wants to learn "how a species as smart as we are" can make such persistent mistakes. We can overcome our biological limitations, she said, but first we have to recognize what they are.

Adding to the pressure on the human species is the future we're staring down. Tim Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey, imagined the world in 2050. To keep greenhouse gases from reaching an unsustainably damaging level, the needed improvements in energy efficiency would have to occur at a pace 10 times faster than at any time in history. And, Jackson said Thursday, the only times the world has made substantial improvements in reducing carbon emissions have been during recessions.

He views the world economy as built on an engine of growth that feeds the appetite of people in Western countries for novelty, for ever more consumer goods that impress others but that can only be purchased by creating more debt. Even if we don't want the products, we have to buy them -- or the economy crashes.

In what has probably been the most cited quote of the conference on Twitter, Jackson said, "We spend money we don't have on things we don't need to create impressions that won't last on people we don't care about."

Does that mean our choice boils down to this: Crash the economic system or trash the planet? Not exactly, according to Jackson.

"We spend money we don't have on things we don't need to create impressions that won't last on people we don't care about."
--Tim Jackson

The answer, he said, lies in creating socially responsible businesses and nonprofits that plow money back into "protecting and nurturing" the environment on which our future depends. As an example, he cited ecosia.org, a search engine that says it allocates 80 percent of its search-related revenues to a rainforest protection project in the Amazon.

Santos and Jackson were by no means the only speakers at TED Global to suggest people make dumb choices but can overcome them by taking the right measures. TED is a nonprofit that distributes "Ideas Worth Spreading" through its conferences and through more than 700 talks freely available at its web site. [CNN partners with TED to present one talk every Tuesday, along with added content.]

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bridging The Digital Divide Not Working Out As Planned

Give out free computers and this is what happens:


Hubris Never Dies


Technology's disasters share trail of hubris

By Seth Borenstein, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — It's all so familiar. A technological disaster, then a presidential commission examining what went wrong. And ultimately a discovery that while technology marches on, concern for safety lags. Technology isn't as foolproof as it seemed.

Space shuttles shatter. Bridges buckle. Hotel walkways collapse. Levees fail. An offshore oil rig explodes, creating the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The common thread — which the new presidential oil spill commission will be looking for — often is technological arrogance and hubris.

It's the belief by those in charge that they're the experts, that they know what they're doing is safe. Add to that the human weaknesses of avoidance, greed and sloppiness, say academics who study disasters.

Even before the oil spill commission holds its first meeting Monday in New Orleans, panel co-chairman William Reilly couldn't help but point out something he's already noticed.

The technology to clean up after an oil spill "is primitive," Reilly said. "It's wholly disproportionate to the tremendous technological advances that have allowed deepwater drilling to go forward. It just hasn't kept pace."

Then he added that government regulation also hasn't kept pace. And something else hasn't kept up either, Reilly said: how the oil industry assesses and works with the risk of catastrophic damage from spills.

Cutting-edge technology often works flawlessly. People are amazed. At first, everyone worries about risk. Then people get lulled into complacency by success and they forget that they are operating on the edge, say experts who study disasters. Corners get cut, problems ignored. Then boom.

Technological disasters, like the BP oil spill, follow a well-worn "trail of tears," said Bob Bea, a University of California Berkeley engineering professor who has studied 630 disasters of all types. Bea is also an expert on offshore drilling and is consulting with the presidential commission.

Bea categorizes disasters into four groups. One such group is when an organization simply ignores warning signs through overconfidence and incompetence.

He thinks the BP spill falls into that category. Bea pointed to congressional testimony that BP ignored problems with a dead battery, leaky cement job and loose hydraulic fittings.

It's that type of root cause — not the equipment failure alone — that the oil spill commission will focus on, including looking at the corporate and regulatory "culture" that led to bad decisions, Reilly said.

Disasters don't happen because of "an evil empire," Bea said. "It's hubris, arrogance and indolence."

And disasters will keep on happening.

In the future, watch out for problems with the U.S. power grid, Sacramento levee failures, flood protection problems along coastal cities and even some of the newest high-tech airplanes, said Rutgers University professor Lee Clarke, author of the book Worst Cases.

"There's nothing safe out there," said Yale University professor Charles Perrow, author of the book Normal Accidents. "We like to pretend there is and argue afterward, 'That's why we took the risks because it hadn't failed before.'"

Technological improvements have gradually led to more daring offshore drilling attempts.

"It kind of creeps up on you," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in an interview with The Associated Press. Then suddenly you realize that now only robots can do what people used to do because the drilling is so deep, he said.

Clarke put it this way: "We've been doing this every day, every year, week in, week out, so next week when we go to 5,000 feet, it will be like last week when we went to 300 feet."

"It's just the arrogant presumption that you have got the thing under control, whatever the thing is. In this case, it's drilling beyond your depth," Clarke said.

Paul Fischbeck, a professor of decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, said the existence of a blowout preventer — a final backup system which in this case didn't work — often encourages people to take extra risks.

But the oil industry was so confident in its safety that it used to brag when compared to another high-tech gold standard: NASA.

"They looked more successful than NASA," said Rice University oil industry scholar Amy Myers Jaffe. "They had less mechanical failures."

The oil rig explosion "reminds me an awful lot of the NASA accidents," said Stanford physics professor Douglas Osheroff, who was on the commission that examined the causes of the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

"Obviously none of these systems are fail-safe," Osheroff said. "People don't spend enough time thinking about what could go wrong."

And because people are so sure of themselves, when they see something go wrong that they can't fix, they accept it, Osheroff said.

The Columbia accident investigation board called it "normalization of deviance."

Pieces of foam insulation had broken off the shuttle's external fuel tank six previous times before that problem proved fatal with Columbia when a piece of foam knocked a deadly hole in a shuttle wing.

Hot gas had singed "O" rings in space shuttle boosters well before the problem led Challenger to explode at launch in 1986.

Yale's Perrow pointed to NASA's shuttles and another BP disaster — the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 people — as cases of simply ignoring "heavy warnings" from experts.

When the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazards Investigation Board looked into the 2005 refinery fire it noted that BP had the same problems with "safety culture" that NASA had before Columbia.

"The Texas City disaster was caused by organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation," the board's final report said. "Warning signs of a possible disaster were present for several years, but company officials did not intervene effectively to prevent it."

There have been times when warnings of disaster are heeded. The Y2K computer bug is noteworthy for prevention, Clarke said.

Many people scoffed and criticized the government for making such a big deal of something that turned out to be a fizzle. But that's because of all the effort to prevent the disaster, Clarke said. It worked.

Unfortunately, safety costs money, so it's usually not a priority, Clarke said. Most of the time "you can't get anybody to listen," he said. "We're very reactive about disasters in the United States."

People don't think about them until afterward, he said, and then they say: "You should have seen that coming."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Facts Vs. Flamewars


"Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I Would Never Have Predicted This

All Hail The New Era Of Social Media!
(or, the more gadgets there are recording you, all the time, the worse it is when you f*** up)


The year of 'no comment'

Nevada Republican Sharron Angle was in no mood for conversation last month as she darted to her car at the end of a campaign event. When a Las Vegas reporter tried to ask the Senate candidate a question anyway, an Angle supporter called him an “idiot.”

In Illinois, another Senate candidate, GOP Rep. Mark Kirk, also has been getting aerobic workouts by trying to stay a step ahead of the press. He virtually sprinted out the back of a Chicago hotel last month to avoid reporters who wanted to ask him about exaggerated resume claims.

And in Kentucky, Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul told local reporters who approached him after an event that they ought to submit their questions in writing.

These are snapshots of scenes playing out among skittish politicians across the land this election cycle: 2010 has become the year of “no comment.”

It’s a surprising twist in the revolution in media.

Not long ago, optimists thought the convergence of YouTube, blogs and all manner of other democratizing social-media technologies would lead to a renaissance of authenticity in politics. Liberated from the filter of mainstream news reporters, armed with new tools to reach voters, candidates could shed artifice and bring back spontaneity to the campaign trail.

The actual result, however, is something like the opposite: A proliferation of cameras and microphones — and the knowledge that an indelible blunder can occur in virtually any setting — has caused politicians in both parties to button up and hunker down.

“The irony is that in an political environment in which voters are demanding authenticity, candidates find themselves in a technological environment that exploits authenticity,” lamented Mark McKinnon, a longtime political strategist and top adviser to George W. Bush and John McCain. “So rather than show more of themselves as voters want, candidates are showing less of themselves for fear of revealing too much.”

In fact, 2010 has yielded some gems when it comes to unscripted politics. But most of them have been moments the politicians dearly wish they could take back.

There was Carly Fiorina’s hot mic incident, in which she was cattily critiquing the media strategy of fellow Republican Meg Whitman and the hair of Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Democrat she is trying to defeat in this year’s race. And there was North Carolina Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge’s physical clash with young men wielding a flip cam, which also became a YouTube sensation.

And for an unvarnished glimpse at what a politician really thinks, it’s hard to improve on California Democrat Jerry Brown’s famous comparison of his Republican opponent in the governor’s race to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

Brown made the comment — which dominated the California race for days — when he ran into a reporter after finishing a jog and uttered words he never intended for public circulation.

“I got the message,” Brown, who is relearning the game while seeking a job he first won 36 years ago, recently told a radio interviewer. That message: “I can’t really ever say anything just musing in my mind. But it really does mean that politicians are always very controlled and not very spontaneous in their communications.”

In fact, most politicians are getting the same message in one form or another.

After the Etheridge incident, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent a memo to GOP Senate campaigns reminding them to be cautious when any camera is on them. Don’t insult or threaten or physically touch a videographer, the memo read, because “your interaction is likely being recorded.”

Experience shows there is good reason to be cautious — the opposition is on the prowl for another "macaca moment."

In an attempt to capture a clip such as the devastating 2006 video of then-Sen. George Allen disparaging an Indian-American Democratic tracker by calling him “macaca,” the DNC has launched a website called the "Accountability Project" to solicit and display embarrassing clips of GOP candidates from anybody who wishes to post.

“Everybody in politics looks at the news media, bloggers and ‘confrontation activists’ as a problem to be handled, and best handled by minimizing contact,” said University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, who has written for decades about how the media covers politicians. “Nothing is really off-limits anymore, nothing guaranteed off the record in the short or long term. The safest route for a candidate or officeholder is to live in a parallel universe, separated entirely from potential troublemakers.”

Members of Congress are trying to fight technology with technology. Increasingly, town halls — at which angry, trash-talking constituents last summer put lawmakers on the spot and provided ripe fodder for cable TV and YouTube — are out. Instead, many legislators are holding “tele-town halls,” at which they can pick and choose questions from constituents over the phone.

Embattled Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.), for example, explained with a strong dose of candor why he wouldn’t hold any town hall meetings this summer but would instead talk to residents of his district over the phone.

"We're going to do everything we can to get opinons from people, to meet with people, but I'm not going to set myself up for, you know, nuts to hit me with a camera and ask stupid questions," Kanjorski told a local radio station.

Other 2010 hopefuls who previously were regulars on the talk-show circuit have also taken a low profile.

Rep. Roy Blunt, for example, is running for the Senate in Missouri and trying to fend off accusations that he’s a creature of Washington. Doing national television shows, particularly with the image of the Capitol in the background, won’t help his effort.

Even as he keeps his distance from Beltway green rooms, though, Blunt is still experiencing the danger that now looms for pols with the new media.

After he was captured on video attending the opening of Georgetown’s “Social Safeway” last month, the Missouri Democratic Party compiled a YouTube video in which Blunt noted that the store was in his neighborhood.

"The nonchalant behavior at a Washington elite social function serves as yet another reminder of how Congressman Blunt has come a long way from Springfield to become the very worst of Washington during his last 13 years there," blared the state party in a press release.

Jennifer Palmieri, a longtime Democratic communications strategist, said what's new is not politicians being afraid of "gotcha" moments but todays' technology.

"There are so many new ways to capture and disseminate those moments," Palmieri said.

Politicians’ instinct for caution and control extends to the White House. Last July, when President Barack Obama held a news conference intended to promote health care reform, the event got defined by his decision to weigh in on the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., Obama said police “acted stupidly,” stepping on his own message and setting off a weeklong tempest that only subsided after a “beer summit” at the White House with Gates and the arresting officer.

Obama didn’t hold another full-dress news conference for nearly a year, longer than his two predecessors ever went without a formal question-and-answer session with the White House press corps. He favors one-on-one interviews that can more easily be controlled and which leave less chance for a slip-up that will make headlines.

The most vivid example of how candidates are adjusting to the new media forces can be found in the difference between McCain’s 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns.

The first time he mounted a White House bid, McCain offered nonstop, on-the-record access to reporters and rewarded them with candid, ironic and at times off-color material on his “Straight Talk Express.”

But eight years, and a technological century, later, McCain put up a literal and symbolic curtain on his plane to keep out a press corps that by then carried camcorders, had blogs to fill and were nearly all writing for sites with a boundless appetite for as-it-happens material.

“We’ve put them back into the bunker,” said Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who said he sympathized with McCain’s plight in 2008. “And then we complain when they hunker down.”

My Old Viper. And, My Ugly Current Self

My old bird at Bentwaters in 1982.

Yes, I'm still ugly.

Note that my hair and mustache have turned grey since Mom died.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

I Love Bill Gross


I Love The Telegraph


Just as in the Bush Administration, you have to go overseas for a straight view of what's happening. Even the Tory-Graph is facing the music.

It's Different This Time. Really.


We've Seen This Movie Before


Gee, Reading A Book On A Screen Takes Longer!


Monday, July 5, 2010

The End For KFUO


Watch KWMU 90.1 (STL NPR) as its numbers double.

Jury Duty Just Got Worse In Missouri


I've served on five juries. Nothing like being a resident of the St. Louis Metro area.