Monthly Archives: July 2009

info overload

Sheez! How does one deal with information overload on the net? Information overload period. I honestly don’t think I’m getting a valid picture of a subject online if I only consult one or two sources, so I might “Google” something (or as Microsoft would have you do, “Bing” it), which multiplies that by 25 discreet pages per screen.

At that, the gazillions of web pages aren’t all created equal, so one has to be discriminating. If you have a television, and if you read (print) newspapers, and then magazines, and then you go online – that’s total information overload (notwithstanding the hard fact that most news is not good and it’s not only overload, it’s overdose.

So powerful Web concerns push various solutions:

1) Dumping “information and entertainment” on the same page you use to access your email, or

2) And less successfully, bombarding your inbox with:
a. SPAM, or
b. Crap you don’t want to hear about, but having originated tangentially in a distantly related matter that at one time you showed some interest in by filling out an online registration form or made a purchase online.

3) “Feeds” where web site material is pushed on you through what is termed “web syndication”; i.e., one night you clicked on a catchy-looking icon to “Subcribe to this!” and now you get it all the time, even when you don’t care to look.

4.) Browser-based apps that organize your feeds onto a UI or menu, like Google Reader or iGoogle or MyMSN, which seek to personalize content to your tastes, based upon some CADIE-derived formula, or based upon your own subscriptions, feeds, or otherwise “bookmarked” web pages.

5.) Physically pushing certain web content at you through factory-bookmarked web pages that come ready-installed in your browser or otherwise physically through technologies installed on your computer (or, until a couple years ago, by CD-ROM sent by snail mail).

…And a thousand other minutiae of methods for “selling” whatever to you on the World Wide Web.

Of course, Web concerns seek to constrict what comes up on a computer screen, by browser or otherwise, to their preferred content, whatever that may be and for whatever reason, though the bulk of it is for the purposes of making a sale of one sort or another.

I sometimes wonder what the Web will look like in 20 years. Computers are one technology whose growth is measured not linearly but exponentially. This is reflected in how we get information over the web. There are ways to describe the phenomenon – Web 2.0, Web 3.0 – but how to do justice to what “version” of the Web we’ll have two decades hence?

I’m guessing that if political trends regarding the Internet continue at their present trajectory that we’ll see a narrowing; a constriction of the information portal. It makes sense from a logical, evolutionary perspective too, that the Web, from its onset to rapid flowering that the progression would be from flatly democratic access and distribution (thanks in no small part to the vision of programmers who kept the original software platforms open source – Apache HTTP comes to mind) to a consolidation of control. Some have commented on the biological, life-like nature of the development of computer technology; it’s exponential growth and its tendency toward negative entropy. But humans are still in charge, for the time being anyway, and much of the Internet that was not ten years ago is now subject to human or political controls.

I think it’s fair to say that the above five ways of pushing stuff onto you is a sampling of what this “constriction” will look like. When political leaders realize what a force the Web can be in elections – the ’08 U.S. one a case in point – they will (and already have) be looking to exert control over the information that ultimately reaches the human user on the other end.

And it could be that such strictures will come out a very practical desire to control the often overwhelming flow of info onto our computer screens and hard drives!

– d.g.w.

For more information on keeping the Web free and clear, check out the web site of Richard Stallman, the originator of the GNU Project, at Stallman.org.

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The idea of provincia – then and now

I was reading The Ancient Mediterranean World: From the Stone Age to A.D. 600 (Oxford 2004), and came across an interesting passage attributed to contemporaneous historian Polybius, that Rome had accomplished the feat of “conquering the world” by 168 B.C. – the year they defeated the Macedonian king who ruled much of the Greek world until that time. What is noteworthy is the text’s description of the ancient world’s conception of “the world” as a “sphere of influence”, as opposed to only geography. For example, the Roman term provincia (the root of our modern “province”, as in territory) originally meant “a magistrate’s assigned sphere of action”, and only took on its territorial meaning later in history.

It’s a point that goes to our modern conception, a comparatively recent one, of nations. Particularly in a globalized age, Polybius’s definition of geopolitical power fits. The decline of the nation-state and the rise of networks and channels of capital flow are where lie true power. Consider the Jews – a nation in ideas and in culture, if not in territory – in a shared, imagined “homeland” on which most Jews who ever lived never set foot. What would Polybius say about our modern world? Would he grant the United States the feat that he assigned Rome? Or do we now, as then, require a classical, more nuanced conception of the global power projection through “sphere”[s] of influence”?

Polybius was a Greek historian deported to Rome from Achaea, the Greek mainland with a thousand fellow-members of the Achaean League, on suspicions of opposing Roman influence in Greece. His life then took Odyssean turn, though unlike Odysseus in Homer’s story Polybius didn’t make a heroic return homeward. He was kept with the Romans as a scribe and eventually wrote lengthy histories of the great events of the day. He purportedly managed to witness firsthand the 2nd-century Roman world’s pivotal events: the sack of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War, and the Greeks’ defeat at Corinth (both 146 B.C.).

How Rome dealt with Enemy Entreaties During the Punic Wars

Polybius was an expansive, eloquent writer who commented on the political and military affairs of the day and perhaps because he was a foreigner, a “learned Greek”, living among the subjects of his study, he did so sharply and thoroughly, providing a fascinating picture of Rome at its pinnacle. He bore witness to the height of Roman power in the 2nd century B.C. and gives us his candid outsider’s account of a people who had triumphed over virtually the entire known world. Toward the end of a section titled “Rome and Carthage Compared” is a revealing paragraph relating a story of Rome’s negotiations with their enemy Hannibal:

(The following is an excerpt (by way of Fordham University’s Internet Ancient History Sourcebook and published online at Fordham.edu by Paul Halsall, May 1998), from Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 166-193.

Polybius (c.200-after 118 BCE): Rome at the End of the Punic Wars, [History, Book 6]:

[I]nto this digression and making a short recital of one single action, [I] shall endeavor to demonstrate by fact as well as words what was the strength, and how great the vigor, which at that time were displayed by this republic.

When Hannibal, after the battle of Cannae, had taken prisoners eight thousand of the Romans, who were left to guard the camp; he permitted them to send a deputation to Rome, to treat of their ransom and redemption. Ten persons, the most illustrious that were among them, were appointed for this purpose: and the general, having first commanded them to swear that they would return to him again, suffered them to depart. But one of the number, as soon as they had passed the entrenchment, having said that he had forgotten something, went back into camp, took what he had left, and then continued his journey with the rest; persuading himself that by his return he had discharged his promise, and satisfied the obligation of the oath. When they arrived at Rome, they earnestly entreated the senate not to envy them the safety that was offered, but to suffer them to be restored to their families, at the price of three minae for each prisoner, which was the sum that Hannibal demanded; that they were not unworthy of this favor; that they neither had through cowardice deserted their post in battle, nor done anything that had brought dishonor upon the Roman name; but that having been left to guard the camp, they had been thrown by unavoidable necessity, after the destruction of the rest of the army, into the power of the enemy.

The Romans were at this time weakened by repeated losses; were deserted by almost every one of their allies; and seemed even to expect that Rome itself would instantly be attacked; yet when they had heard the deputies, they neither were deterred by adverse fortune from attending to what was fit and right, nor neglected any of those measures that were necessary to the public safety. But perceiving that the design of Hannibal in this proceeding was both to acquire a large supply of money and at the same time to check the ardor of his enemies in battle, by opening to their view the means of safety, even though they should be conquered, they were so far from yielding to this request, that they showed no regard either to the distressed condition of their fellow citizens, or to the services that might be expected from the prisoners: but resolved to disappoint the hopes and frustrate the intentions of this general, by rejecting all terms of ransom. They made a law also, by which it was declared that the soldiers that were left must either conquer or must die; and that no other hope of safety was reserved for them, in case that they were conquered. After this determination they dismissed the nine deputies, who, on account of their oath were, willing to return, and taking the other, who had endeavored to elude by sophistry what he had sworn, they sent him bound back to the enemy; so that Hannibal was much less filled with joy from having vanquished the Romans in the field, than he was struck with terror and astonishment at the firmness and magnanimity what appeared in their deliberations.

– d.g.w.

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The Pope on the economy

screen cap from WSJ blog

from WSJ blog

Pope Benedict XVI issued his third “encyclical”, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, was aimed “mainly” at the G-8 leaders gathered in Italy this week. I thought it rang very true. Plus in the end he gives a shout-out to credit unions – which are a way better alternative to banks.

Here’s the transcript [from http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2009/07/07/pope-weighs-in-on-financial-crisis/tab/print/]:

The Church has always held that economic action is not to be regarded as something opposed to society. In and of itself, the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak. Society does not have to protect itself from the market, as if the development of the latter were ipso facto to entail the death of authentically human relations. Admittedly, the market can be a negative force, not because it is so by nature, but because a certain ideology can make it so. It must be remembered that the market does not exist in the pure state. It is shaped by the cultural configurations which define it and give it direction. Economy and finance, as instruments, can be used badly when those at the helm are motivated by purely selfish ends. Instruments that are good in themselves can thereby be transformed into harmful ones. But it is man’s darkened reason that produces these consequences, not the instrument per se. Therefore it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.

The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly — not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centered. Today we hear much talk of ethics in the world of economy, finance and business.

When we consider the issues involved in the relationship between business and ethics, as well as the evolution currently taking place in methods of production, it would appear that the traditionally valid distinction between profit-based companies and non-profit organizations can no longer do full justice to reality, or offer practical direction for the future. In recent decades a broad intermediate area has emerged between the two types of enterprise. It is made up of traditional companies which nonetheless subscribe to social aid agreements in support of underdeveloped countries, charitable foundations associated with individual companies, groups of companies oriented towards social welfare, and the diversified world of the so-called “civil economy” and the “economy of communion”. This is not merely a matter of a “third sector”, but of a broad new composite reality embracing the private and public spheres, one which does not exclude profit, but instead considers it a means for achieving human and social ends. Whether such companies distribute dividends or not, whether their juridical structure corresponds to one or other of the established forms, becomes secondary in relation to their willingness to view profit as a means of achieving the goal of a more humane market and society. It is to be hoped that these new kinds of enterprise will succeed in finding a suitable juridical and fiscal structure in every country. Without prejudice to the importance and the economic and social benefits of the more traditional forms of business, they steer the system towards a clearer and more complete assumption of duties on the part of economic subjects. And not only that. The very plurality of institutional forms of business gives rise to a market which is not only more civilized but also more competitive.

Finance, therefore — through the renewed structures and operating methods that have to be designed after its misuse, which wreaked such havoc on the real economy — now needs to go back to being an instrument directed towards improved wealth creation and development. Insofar as they are instruments, the entire economy and finance, not just certain sectors, must be used in an ethical way so as to create suitable conditions for human development and for the development of peoples. It is certainly useful, and in some circumstances imperative, to launch financial initiatives in which the humanitarian dimension predominates. However, this must not obscure the fact that the entire financial system has to be aimed at sustaining true development. Above all, the intention to do good must not be considered incompatible with the effective capacity to produce goods. Financiers must rediscover the genuinely ethical foundation of their activity, so as not to abuse the sophisticated instruments which can serve to betray the interests of savers. Right intention, transparency, and the search for positive results are mutually compatible and must never be detached from one another. If love is wise, it can find ways of working in accordance with provident and just expediency, as is illustrated in a significant way by much of the experience of credit unions.

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