Sunday, December 21, 2003

The destruction of Christiania?

One of the most successful and well-organized of hippie-style
alternative communities is Christiania in the middle of Copenhagen.
Begun in the 1970s by a group of Danes who moved in as squatters
on an abandoned military base, the village is renown for its
eccentric architecture, its methods of self-government, its innovative
"Christiania" bicycles (now marketed around the world), its lovely bars
and restaurants, and, of course, the drugs - marijuana and hashish -
sold openly at kiosks on "Pusher Street." About one thousand people
now live in this community.

But, according to recent reports, it's all about to end. The conservative
government of Denmark, renown for its repressive, anti-immigrant policies
and promotion of individualism and bare knuckles capitalism, has
decided to turn its anger on this peaceful, thriving experiment. The
people of Christiania will be removed and its environment culturally
cleansed, replaced by modern amenities and luxury apartments.

Here's a story from The Guardian on this sad turn of events.

There are many good sources of information and photographs
about Christiania, its democracy, bicycles, houses, and history.

Anyone interested in imaginative alternatives to the plastic dreariness
of modern life, anyone interested in indigenous wellsprings of design
and the fostering of diversity in social and economic life, should tune in
and speak out against the small-minded decision to destroy Christiania.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Have a secure Christmas and police state New Year

As I waited in line at my local U.S. post office today, I read a notice
announcing the end of "Operation Dear Abby." Evidently, in happier
times the post office would send packages to soldiers overseas
without any specific person identified as the recipient; if one addressed
a gift to "Operation Dear Abby" or to "Any Servicemember," the
item would be paired with a soldier chosen at random. The flier on
the wall said that the program had been scrapped in response to
"security" concerns.

A recent story in an Illinois newspaper reports Pentagon fears that "terrorists
would use [Operation Dear Abby] dump chemical or biological toxins into
the military mail."

"It's not that we don't want things to go to our soldiers," said
Lt. Col. Alicia Tate-Nadeau.

"It's an issue of force protection, of keeping them out of harm."

.... This holiday season, Defense officials are discouraging the
shipment of any bulk mail items, even from family members or
loved ones.

"'America has had a strong tradition of sending cards and packages
to troops, but in this case, whenever we do that, it poses a security
risk and bogs down the shipping system, so that it takes longer
to send things like replacement pieces of equipment,' she said."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Soon to appear on the North Chatham post office bulletin board:

If you spot a bearded man in a red suit coming down your chimny,
notify authorities immediately! It's likely an "enemy combatant."

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Finally confirmed: PowerPoint makes you stupid

I've seen it countless times. Otherwise intelligent colleagues, students and
leaders of important organization stand up to give what turn out to be
remarkably silly presentations on topics that could be rich in substance.
A significant part of the problem has to do with the popularity of the beguiling
but vastly limited PowerPoint program that has become the norm for talks
everywhere, from middle schools to academic conference to corporate boardrooms.
Now a panel investigating the the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle
has determined that the focus and judgment of NASA managers may have
undermined by excessive reliance on PowerPoint. The New York Times

"In August, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board at NASA released
Volume 1 of its report on why the space shuttle crashed. As expected, the
ship's foam insulation was the main cause of the disaster. But the board also
fingered another unusual culprit: PowerPoint, Microsoft's well-known
''slideware'' program.

NASA, the board argued, had become too reliant on presenting complex
information via PowerPoint, instead of by means of traditional ink-and-paper
technical reports. When NASA engineers assessed possible wing damage
during the mission, they presented the findings in a confusing PowerPoint
slide -- so crammed with nested bullet points and irregular short forms that
it was nearly impossible to untangle. ''It is easy to understand how a senior
manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses
a life-threatening situation,'' the board sternly noted.

PowerPoint is the world's most popular tool for presenting information. There
are 400 million copies in circulation, and almost no corporate decision takes
place without it."

* * * * * *
The story goes on to cite Edward Tufte, expert on graphical presentations
of data and ideas, who criticizes an obvious feature of PowerPoint: its use of
skimpy, low resolution bullet points that actually contain very little information.
To this I would add the tendency speakers who use PowerPoint to repeat
the words on the screen, e.g., "Conclusions from our Strategic Planning Process,"
rather than say anything of substance.

This is additional evidence of a larger malady -- widespread deteroriation of
social intelligence caused by excessive reliance on computers. "New media

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Comparing responses to Sputnik and 9/11

Michael Halloran, professor of rhetoric and colleague at Renssealear,
offers a thoughful comparison of America's response to two shocking events.

Letter to editor:
Today's leaders can learn from how we responded to Sputnik

First published: Saturday, December 6, 2003

In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made
satellite to orbit Earth, and in the view of many the prototype of the
Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.

No one died as a direct result of Sputnik, but in other important ways
the blow to the United States signaled by the incessant beeping of
Sputnik was comparable to that signaled by the incessantly repeated
images of jets crashing into the World Trade Center towers that filled
our TV screens in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001.

In both cases, the economic, technological and military might that had
made us feel invulnerable was shown to be inadequate.

In both cases, we suddenly recognized an enemy capable of end-running
our defenses and threatening our existence.

In response to Sputnik, Congress declared an "educational emergency" and
passed the National Defense Education Act, providing federal assistance
to education and research in science, mathematics and the modern foreign
languages. The NDEA fueled a transformation of American education from
kindergarten through the university and created intellectual capital
that the United States and indeed the world continue to benefit from to
this day. A case might be made that the Cold War was ultimately won by
the decades of scientific and technological advances set in motion by
the National Defense Education Act.

So what has been the educational response to 9/11? Has any political or
educational leader had the vision to declare a new educational emergency
and propose a national response to it? Surely our intelligence failures
revealed by the event itself and our gross ignorance of Islamic cultures
that continues to be revealed are evidence of needs that ought to be
filled by a strengthened national educational and research infrastructure.

How often have we heard of the desperate need for fluent speakers of
Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and other relevant languages? How much of current
Arabic thought are we missing because books published in Arabic
countries are not being translated into English? (Hint: Go to the Web site, search under "books" for "translations from
Arabic," and note how few of the results are of recent vintage, and how
many of those that do come up are marked "out of print.")

The Puritan divines of Colonial New England used to preach about
"fetching good out of evil." In our own time, an enormously powerful
network of scientific research laboratories is a good that was fetched
out of the evil signaled by the launch of Sputnik. A similarly powerful
network of research and scholarship focused on such subjects as Middle
Eastern languages and cultures, techniques of intelligence gathering and
analysis, and the conduct of international diplomacy is a good we ought
to be trying to fetch out of the evil we experienced on 9/11. Where are
the political and educational leaders who will develop the plan?


Troy, New York

* * * * * * * * *
It's sad to realize that none of America's prominent political leaders have
explored the powerful comparison Halloran sketches here. Framing the
response to 9/11 as a "war" has rendered most politicians and much of
the U.S. populace brain dead when it comes to seeking creative reponses
to our present situation.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I was a beneficiary of
the National Defense Education Act which financed the first three
years of my education in graduate school. This scholarly work prepared
me to defend my country by resisting several unwise, unjust, costly,
socially calamitous wars. - Langdon]