An intellectual freedom blog with an emphasis on libraries and technology

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

No Decision Points in Decision Points

In Bush Meets Foucault, Eliot Weinberger gives us a critique of Decision Points as a post-modernist work. The entire review of Bush's new autobiography in the London Review of Books is well worth reading in its entirety. Weinberger makes reference to Michel Foucault's approach to literary criticism which focuses on questions such as 'who is the author?' and 'Is it really he and not someone else?' In the case of a book "by" George W. Bush, the answers to such questions, to paraphrase Colin Powell, are blindingly obvious inasmuch as the answer can not be "George W. Bush." Most amusingly, decision points "is business-speak for a list of factors, usually marked by a bullet in PowerPoint presentations, that should be considered before making a decision. There are no decision points in Decision Points."

My favorite passage follows, in which Weinberger lists much of what's missing from the book, 'points' far more significant than anything in the book:

This is a chronicle of the Bush Era with no colour-coded Terror Alerts; no Freedom Fries; no Halliburton; no Healthy Forests Initiative (which opened up wilderness areas to logging); no Clear Skies Act (which reduced air pollution standards); no New Freedom Initiative (which proposed testing all Americans, beginning with schoolchildren, for mental illness); no pamphlets sold by the National Parks Service explaining that the Grand Canyon was created by the Flood; no research by the National Institutes of Health on whether prayer can cure cancer (‘imperative’, because poor people have limited access to healthcare); no cover-up of the death of football star Pat Tillman by ‘friendly fire’ in Afghanistan; no ‘Total Information Awareness’ from the Information Awareness Office; no Project for the New American Century; no invented heroic rescue of Private Jessica Lynch; no Fox News; no hundreds of millions spent on ‘abstinence education’. It does not deal with the Cheney theory of the ‘unitary executive’ – essentially that neither the Congress nor the courts can tell the president what to do – or Bush’s frequent use of ‘signing statements’ to indicate that he would completely ignore a bill that the Congress had just passed.

I also really enjoyed reading the passage that starts with "Decision Points flaunts its postmodernity by blurring the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. That is to say, the parts that are not outright lies – particularly the accounts of Hurricane Katrina and the lead-up to the Iraq War – are the sunnier halves of half-truths."

Then follows a comparison/constrast between the confirmed facts of the Bush Administration, on the one hand, and the restatement of the biggest lies printed in Decision Points on the other. The review contains too much detail to quote here. Most of it is just stuff you already know. I find breathtaking the degree to which the ghost writers and Bush insult our intelligence.

The more important insight, one which I realized from the start back in 2001, but still bears repeating, comes when Weinberger analyzes the bizarre statement in Decision Points that Bush considered the worst moment of his presidency the time that Kayne West said Bush did not care about black people. Weinberger does not consider Bush to be at all racist. No, racism does not explain Bush's behavior. "It wasn’t that he didn’t care about black people. Outside of his family, he didn’t care about people."

Monday, December 20, 2010

Pale Blue Dot

AR recently sent me the following e-mail:


I find myself feeling a bit nostalgic and slightly sad at the news that Voyager 1 is leaving our solar system. I guess its because we were both in high school when it lifted off and began its journey, so the thought of it brought me back to my 17 year old self who loved NASA and sci-fi and all things other worldly. I remember watching Carl Sagan talk about Voyager 1 on the Johnny Carson show and remember the record (a gold plated phonograph record- how retro?) of sound and images that it carried out into the vastness, as well as its message saying hello to the cosmos. What a very optimistic thing to add to a tool, a machine? I think it embodied a wonderful zeitgeist of the late 70s. I'll leave you with Carl Sagan talking about a picture that Voyager 1 took of the earth from millions of miles away, the "pale blue dot" picture.

Bobby Jindahl: Nero 2.0

Rachel Maddow has done the most wonderful take-down of a political failure: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindahl's boondoggle "idea" to use sand berms to contain the BP oil spill.

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This illustrates the rot at the top we have now: it's not about disagreeing over the best course of action, it's not about who has the better ideas about how to govern, it's not about who has the better administrative skills. It's about winning. From George Bush Sr. enthroning his idiot son to President Obama continuing to build the wall of secrecy the idiot son started we can see example after example of politicians from both parties behaving as if the country and its government belong to them as the spoils of some sort of victory. This idiotic behavior, again and again, proves enormously destructive.

Lies, lies, lies.

Contradictions indicate that the speaker is lying. Note to government-hating right-wing nuts: call yourselves anarchists already. You claim to hate the waste of money. But then someone like Jindahl comes along and wastes tons of money for no good purpose in order to impress you - and succeeds?! This impresses you?! Are you going to try to tell me that Jindahl is your hero for standing up to the big, bad, wasteful federal government, that he was right? Don't spit on my cupcake and call it frosting.

This is about the federal government "wasting" money on social spending. But you can't go into any detail about what exactly you find wasteful without sounding like one of the townspeople from Blazing Saddles. So you lie. You and Jindahl deserve each other. But sadly, the rest of us don't deserve either one of you.

Thanks go to AR for finding this one. And of course to Rachel Maddow.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Must... Resist ... Schadenfreude

That sulfur dioxide from coal fired power plants kills pecan trees has already been established. That this takes place in Texas is the great irony here. The place that attacks science and modern liberalism. Here's your libertarian mechanism at work: only after the damage is done can something happen as a reaction, and then as in all court cases a lot depends on other factors than the facts. But go ahead and wait until the damage is done, then sue.

Too bad this approach won't work for global warming.

(Note: I have no idea whether any of the unfortunate pecan growers are the short-sighted, liberal-hating, anti-regulation, anti-science, lynch-the-environmentalists type of Texans. That's why I have to fight off the feeling of Schadenfruede that comes over me whenever respect for science, evidence and rationality would have saved someone who's going under).

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Electronic Plantation

AR sent me this link to an interview with a Facebook employee. It's well worth a read through. But here's what truly horrified me:

I think the coolest thing about the work environment is the trust. They don’t care what, where, how, when, as long as you get your shit done. If you want to work at a bar, the ball game, a park, the roof, they don’t give a fuck. Just get your shit done. Hence I was able to ditch work, come have two pitchers with you, and I will literally be able to go back and get my work done. And it goes a long way. Because I know I can get these things done. I know I’m going to have to go back. And I may be there until ten or eleven tonight.
[Emphasis added]
I e-mailed the following to AR:

I find myself very uncomfortable with the separation of time clocked-in with completion of tasks. At this stage I see it "sold" to employees as empowering but I'm waiting for the electronic plantation to rear its ugly head. This amounts to a kind of 21st century piece-work.

A management scientist named Frederick Taylor in the 19th century wondered why workers in a steel factory so vehemently opposed his changes. After all, they were paid piece-work so the more they produced, the more money they made, right?

No. When productivity increased management reduced the piece-work rate. The game was rigged, and the workers knew it.

There was also some resistance by management to the creation of clothing factories because they negotiated different piece-work rates for different women who did the sewing by hand at home. Eventually the greater productivity of sewing machines won out.

Back to the present, if the tasks accomplished become too separated from the 8-hour day, then how does one determine a reasonable amount of productivity? As usual the arrogant know-nothings populating the tech industry are screwing themselves and will no doubt act very suprised when the consequences hit them. They complained bitterly after the boom went bust then the tech jobs went to India. Wait until they have to work 12 hour days for peanuts just to keep their jobs.

Sorry about the tone. Rough morning.

AR Responds:

Your tone seemed perfectly appropriate to me. I just saw a CNBC "documentary" on Google, where they showed how Google did laundry, made gourmet food, provided massages, etc so that their employees never had to leave the Googleplex and never had stop working. I'm thinking of a B.F.Skinner box with gourmet California cuisine replacing the mice food pellets. For many of the type-A personalities and for most of the functional autistics who make up the employees at Google, staying there and being "productive" is what they most dearly want and need (especially the autistics). For the rest of the US population work is merely one aspect of our lives and that separation is just fine and was hard fought for.

Where Google's ethos becomes a problem is that your very average middle manager at whatever generic office/business gets delusions of grandeur and thinks that his/her office/business should emulate Google's work ethos. Of course they don't have the money of Google and are nowhere near as bright as Google's founders and the work is nowhere near as innovative, useful and creative as Google's, yet "If it worked for Google, it can work for us." becomes the mantra of the generic middle manager. Look at any Dilbert cartoon drawn in the 90s for a deeper understanding of this process/lifestyle. I've seen a similar ridiculous belief in working 16 hours a day for 6 days a week in my friends who drank the Wall Street Kool-Aid in the early 90's. They were used, then spit out once they burned out. A very similar fate befell my associates in the late 90s who were all about their Internet Start-ups. After looking down on my work in old media academia, some even had the amnesiac nerve to ask me if there were any openings once every single one of these dot coms went belly up and smelled like bad fish.

This is just the latest iteration of the Protestant Work Ethic in America. The French have it partially right when they call it an Anglo-Saxon model. They simplistically leave out the Protestant roots of this Anglo-Saxon model. What most media in the US refuse to look at is how prosperous Germany is without most of its people working more than 40 hours per week and with most of its people having at least a month off every summer for holiday. The same with both Denmark & Sweden, the subjects of a new book on their apparently baffling creativity and wealth. All three of these Protestant nations have intense productivity, which I'm perfectly willing to label as Protestant. What they seem to lack is the Anglo-Saxon obsession with work and with staying at work for ridiculous amounts of time. I cannot see how people can possibly stay focused and productive for all those hours per day, unless they are a Google autistic. The business press is the major generator of these productivity myths, which is why they are and always will be redoubtable. Academia has plenty of problems, as we both know from direct experience, but I'll gladly take its myths over those of the business world and take 4 weeks off every summer too. Deutschland uber alles during summer holidays.

Monday, December 06, 2010

New commenting software

I realize that we have very few comments here and most of those come from a mentally ill Canadian.

Well, due to the slight annoyance of the spammer I have implemented a free comment system from disqus. To comment you must have a free account at disqus (single sign-on with multiple registration services, such as WorldPress and typepad may follow someday if this blog ever takes off with lots of comments - I can dream, can't I?). After I installed the new commenting system I deleted all the crazy Canadian's junk.

BTW, this is the person who coined the now (in)famous bit of word salad: GOATS ON FIRE! Yes, in all caps followed by an exclamation point without any context whatsoever - entertaining, but not for very long.

Blogger does not offer any way to block or ban commenters. Sadly, the realities of life on the internet make this necessary. At this point, only spam and the overtly mentally ill will be banned. If we ever actually do have discussions which attract trolls, I will use the PZ Myers POO test.

For the moment, we can list this one under problems we wish we had.