Notes about society

March 22, 2013 permalink

Chinua Achebe on History

That was the way I was introduced to the danger of not having your own stories. There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.

Chinua Achebe, RIP. Quote from a 1994 interview with him in the Paris Review. Things Fall Apart was one of the novels we read in middle school that really changed my understanding of the workings of the world, and remains one of the books that I hope to always have on my bookshelf. (hat tip to @hawkt)

July 3, 2010 permalink

Open Data Literacy

It is worth remembering: We didn’t build libraries for an already literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate. Today we build open data portals not because we have a data or public policy literate citizenry, we build them so that citizens may become literate in data, visualization, coding and public policy.

David Eaves argues that the best way to foster a data-literate society is to open the floodgates on open data, creating niches for discussion and analysis to engage the citizenry in much the same semi-guided way that public libraries provided in the 19th Century.

(Via Radar)

June 16, 2010 permalink

The ‘Learning Knights’ of Bell Telephone

FIFTY-SIX years ago today, a Bell System manager sent postcards to 16 of the most capable and promising young executives at the company. What was written on the postcards was surprising, especially coming from a corporate ladder-climber at a time when the nation was just beginning to lurch out of a recession: “Happy Bloom’s Day.”

And so began a novel executive education program at Bell that brought a rapid-pace liberal arts education to many of their top engineers who previously had rarely cracked open a novel. They read heavier texts than the average grad student, attended cultural events, heard dozens of lectures from luminaries in the field, perused works as diverse as the Bhagavad-Gita and Babbitt, and the capstone was tackling the most challenging novel of the day, Ulysses. It was a success, and early reports indicated that it changed the workers’ lives. So how’d that turn out?

The institute was judged a success by Morris S. Viteles, one of the pioneers of industrial psychology, who evaluated its graduates. But Bell gradually withdrew its support after yet another positive assessment found that while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities. By 1960, the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives was finished.


December 7, 2009 permalink

This Creative Destruction Began in the 60s As

This “creative destruction” began in the ’60s, as did many things that we now both love and regret, and it was initially a spinoff of a project funded by US military agencies. […] Mephistopheles came to Faust in the form of a poodle. After all…in some versions of the story, he cannot enter your house unbidden — you have to invite him in, like a vampire.

From Internet Antichrist, a thoughtful piece by David Byrne on the the development of the ARPANET, psychoacoustics research at Bell Labs leading to vocoders and Kraftwerk, the rise of digital recording and transmission, and the possibility of the near-future demise of physical media and risks to personal privacy. The market forces of creative destruction.

June 22, 2009 permalink

“Create more value than you capture”

From an interview of Tim O’Reilly conducted by Forbes magazine, posted on his blog in longer form as “The Benefits of a Classical Education”:

“When Alexander the Great came to see Diogenes in his barrel, he was so impressed by the philosopher that he offered him money. Diogenes scornfully pointed out that he had no need of money, to which Alexander replied, ‘Have you no friends?’ I’ve always thought that Alexander had the better of this encounter. His awareness that even when your own needs have been met you can work for the betterment of others has helped me to understand that being a successful businessman can be a powerful way to contribute to society. In building a business, it’s important to remember that you aren’t just acquiring wealth for yourself, but creating value for your employees, your customers, and others whom you may never even meet. This is the principle behind one of the mottos we use at O’Reilly: ‘Create more value than you capture.’”

Good advice, and ties in nicely with today’s announcement of the United We Serve initiative.

June 10, 2009 permalink

Above All Anonymity That Shield of All

[A]bove all, anonymity, that shield of all literary rascality, would have to disappear. It was introduced under the pretext of protecting the honest critic, who warned the public, against the resentment of the author and his friends. But where there is one case of this sort, there will be a hundred where it merely serves to take all responsibility from the man who cannot stand by what he has said […]. Often enough it is only a cloak for covering the obscurity, incompetence and insignificance of the critic. It is incredible what impudence these fellows will show, and what literary trickery they will venture to commit, as soon as they know they are safe under the shadow of anonymity. Let me recommend a general Anti-criticism, a universal medicine or panacea, to put a stop to all anonymous reviewing, whether it praises the bad or blames the good: Rascal! your name! For a man to wrap himself up and draw his hat over his face, and then fall upon people who are walking about without any disguise—this is not the part of a gentleman, it is the part of a scoundrel and a knave.

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga und Paralipomena, chapter 23. Quote entirely lifted from a good discussion about online anonymity and accountability on Brian Leiter’s law school blog after the outing of a psuedononymous critic by a National Review blogger. (Note: I personally lean towards anonymity and privacy as fundamentally good things, but Schopenhauer’s quote seems remarkably prescient in these days of message board trolling)