Women and power

Years ago, I helped edit the manuscript of a friendly acquaintance, who was writing a book about Rockwell Kent, a once-famous, now-obscure American illustrator, best-remembered now for his leftist politics. (/alevin edits friends’ manuscripts for love and free food.)
The illustrator’s producer and collaborator for many years was a woman who was a leading impresaria of American art in the 20s and 30s. She organized gallery showings, nurtured artists, cultivated patrons and critics, and grew a scene around contemporary American art. She’s remembered less well than he is, and I’m not remembering her name. (if you remember the details, let me know).
The manuscript paraphrased the impresaria’s journals at the time. “Despite the lack of formal education, and mediocre skills, the impresaria was fortunate enough to meet a few talented painters, and, despite her mistake-ridden management, was lucky enough to bring a showing or two together.”
“You fell for it”, I told the manuscript author. The impresaria used a self-deprecating style to describe her position as the result of happenstance and the skills of others. Given the facts of her biography, she was clearly a powerhouse. She organized a school, a community, a market, as a result of initiative and hard work, diplomacy and management skills.
For various cultural reasons, some women find it hard to take credit for their own achievements. It doesn’t mean that their self-deprecation should be taken at face value.

Are women less competitive

Some reflections on a blog post at Misbehaving, where Gina reports on a story that women may be less competitive then men.

..women may be less effective than men in competitive environments, even if they are able to perform similarly in noncompetitive environments. In a laboratory experiment we observe, as we increase the competitiveness of the environment, a significant increase in performance for men, but not for women. This results in a significant gender gap in performance in tournaments, while there is no gap when participants are paid accornding to piece rate. This effect is strong when women have to compete against men than in single-sex competitive environments.

On the one hand, I feel plenty competitive with respect to real external goals and opponents. Last year, when EFF-Austin was fighting the motion picture and cable industries on the SDMCA, I was dedicated to defeating a terrible plan to restrict the rights of technology users. I sympathize with the cable and content company’s desire to stop wholesale theft. But no sympathy for the harmful tactics our opponents were pursuing.
Objective goals and deadlines are incentives. Excellence and recognition are incentives. I also like to do a good job, and don’t mind if others notice. (not perfectly noble, but true).
On the other hand, internal competition is a de-motivator. In my job, I participate in a sales team and development team. In contests where one person wins at the expense of teammates, everyone loses.
I’ve worked in companies where the managers came up in a “star system” that rewarded talented players for outshining their peers. This system rewarded players who were good at their job — and at sabotaging others. The result harmed the organization overall. The whole would always be less than the sum of the parts.
The study finds that women do as well as men in a piece-rate performance on tasks, but worse then men when the task is set up as a tournament, where one person wins and the rest loses. I wonder whether the study is based the biased assumption that intra-group zero-sum competition is a good thing, and therefore, men are superior to women if they are better at it.
On the one hand, many organizations in the real world work that way. If women are less interested in defeating their peers, they may be less successful in those organizations.
On the other hand, perhaps organizations that don’t work that way are at a competitive advantage. Organizations where team members co-operate to achieve external goals might succeed as well or better than organizations where team members are at each others’ throats.
That would be an interesting topic for further research.

Censorship != Politeness

Shelley Powers equates community norms with self-censorship. I think Shelley’s right in the extreme case, and wrong for the ordinary case.
Shelly writes: “I guess we’re accountable to each other, and that’s the most dangerous censorship of all — it’s the censorship of the commons.”
As I’ve said in comments to Joi Ito’s post on the topic, there’s a distinction between groupthink — when someone silences an unpopular opinion in the face of social norms — and basic politeness.
I don’t think it’s a bad idea to use a moderate tone when you’re critizing someone’s idea, when you’re speaking directly to that person in front of others. (Assuming the idea you’re critizicing is within the realm of civilized discourse).
Nothing useful is gained by hurting the person’s feelings, or embarrassing them in public.
Here’s what I said in my blog about Don Park’s proposed relationship UI. The post on my blog uses a rant tone to project the idea in a noisy blogosphere.
And here’s the more diplomatic version in the comments to Don Park’s blog. I had never really spoken to Don before this conversation. I certainly didn’t want to insult or alienate Don, though I disagree with his point.
Now that we’ve chatted a bit in comments here and there, I’d feel comfortable being a bit more blunt, though not yet rude.
In social life, there’s a range of ways to say true things, depending on social context. Except at the outer reaches of diplomatic obfuscation, politeness isn’t the same as lying or censorship. Being brutally blunt at all times just yields flamewars with no socially redeeming value.

Intellectual Property is the Inquisition of our time

Before modernity, the Church held exclusive rights to authorized representation of the life and beliefs of Jesus. Ecclesiastical prosecutors searched far and wide for unauthorized representations. They issued cease and desist orders to heretics when they found them, and conducted criminal prosecutions when the heretics persisted.
Cory Doctorow reports that Marvel and DC Comics successfully dissuaded GeekPunks comic books from using the term “Superhero” in their titles, claiming they own the trademark on “Superhero”.
In our era, we are free to invent stories and interpretations about Jesus or the Kabbalah in the public doman. If an existing religion doesn’t approve of the ideas, we are free to tell our non-standard stories in public, and gather like-minded folk to start our own sect, without fear of criminal prosecution.
But in our era, some of the most powerful mythical ideas are owned by corporations, not the Church. Disney, Marvel and DC Comics have the right to search out those who transform their message in an unauthorized manner, and criminally prosecute those who refuse.
We the people have given up ownership of our culture’s myths to powerful copyright-holders. And we accept the state of affairs, as most people in medieval times must have thought the Church was right to search out and prosecute heretics.
Future civilizations will consider the corporate monopoly on our cultures myths as absurd and barbaric as we think of the Inquisition.

Sopranos, Season 1

In one of the episodes of the Soprano’s first season, baby mobster Christopher Moltisanti, who’s trying to write his life into a screenplay, comments that a movie script is about 120 pages. David Chase takes advantage of the story-telling space in a 13-hour season to pull together a form more like a novel: developing characters, unfolding themes, interlocking plots, arcs, and pointed social commentary.
I’ve been watching the Sopranos for the first time on DVD this past week; it’s as good as its reputation.

Continue reading “Sopranos, Season 1”

The trouble with the review form..

is that it turns the (book, movie, recording) into a commodity and the experience of (reading, watching, listening) into social conformity. The punchline is a thumbs-up/thumbs-down rating. The book is good/bad, and you’d like/hate it too.

This leaves out the subjectivity of the observer. My experience of a work of culture is partly evaluation against definable criteria (the book’s plot is predictable), and partly the interaction between the book’s content and my emotional and intellectual experience. When I read a book, I evaluate these things somewhat separately. Is it a “good book” — well-researched, well-plotted, etc. And did I learn something new, did I have an emotional and esthetic experience.

Because the experience is subjective, a recommendation can’t be general-purpose. There’s a genre of folk ballad that can usually make me cry. Not sure whether it’s “good music” or “bad music” — just that it flips some switches and buttons to trigger a strong emotional experience.

Also, the “book review” format emphasizes the dialog between reviewer and reader, rather than the dialog between writer and reader (this point makes more sense for books than other forms). I experience reading not as an act of consumption but as a conversation, separated in time and space from the writing. (That’s why it’s so darn cool when weblog trackbacks invoke comments from authors; it becomes a live conversation).

So, the essays about books here aren’t really book reviews — they’re essays with esthetic evaluation, and personal emotional/intellectual reaction, and response to the author’s ideas.

p.s. This isn’t as solipsistic as it sounds. The act of recommendation is an intimate act, not a public one. A recommendation is based on empathy; experiencing a work of culture through the filter of another’s intellectual and emotional preferences, and assessing whether the other person might enjoy the work. A generic thumbs-up/thumbs-down public recommendation is a much more pallid thing.

Learning from friends

Halley talks about learning about air traffic control from a friend.

To rely on personal contact to spur your learning or curiosity seems a haphazard way to increase your knowledge, but it happens all the time in our lives once we are out of school. These days however, blogs are doing just that — making a wide range of subjects interesting, engaging, accessible and fascinating simply by the fact that you sense an intimate connection and a personal voice at the other end of the information.

This only seems unusual because we’ve been introctrinated with the weird idea that learning is something kids acquire in a school building from professional teachers. Humans have learned from peers and mentors, throughout the human lifespan, for as long as primates have been able to transmit ideas about tools, culture, history, and behavior.
In addition to Halley’s good point about blogs, I have a weird theory that wikis will help this renaissance in grownup learning. I know several book club wikis already. Wikis are gaining interest among “communities of practice” — groups of grownups who want to share learning outside academia. Wikis are great for individuals building a vocabulary in a subject, and wonderful for groups building shared understanding.
Blogs help to discover and browse new ideas, through the lens of another passionate human. Wikis help to build personal and shared memory as people learn.

Matt and Ben

On Saturday night, I saw “Matt & Ben”, the off-broadway play, about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in their pizza, beer, and rehearsal days. The screenplay for Good Will Hunting falls from the ceiling, testing testing the friendship of the aspiring actors, who’d been buddies since Cambridge Rindge and Latin. The play is written and performed by two women, Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, who carry off the drag pretty well, showing the loyalty and rivalry between the buddies, til a fight scene at the end which overstretches their abilities.
My favorite parts of the play were the cameos of eccentric sage JD Salinger, who discourages the guys from adapting Catcher in the Rye, their previous project, while nibbling on a pudding cup, and Gwyneth Paltrow, who encourages them to use the supernaturally acquired script, while making secret love to a cupcake.
The show’s set in a grungy Somerville apartment in 1995. The details of the set were mostly spot-on, with period phone and boombox, a plaid couch they must have gotten from the house of some grad student friends of mine, and Papa Ginos pizza. The only flaws in detail were a mismatched Mac monitor and PC chassis, an out-the-window outdoor skyline that was the Village, or maybe Brooklyn, and an issue of Wired that you could tell was later from the thickness of ad pages (it was the 12/96 issue with the brilliant Neal Stephenson Hacker Tourism article).
Went with my host Judith, who is the worlds best date for cultural fun. (Don’t get me wrong guys, I’m hetero). Off to more New York tourism.

What is peer media

Scott Jensen has an interesting paper on the impact of peer-to-peer networks on the entertainment business. Key conclusion: movies will be funded by merchandising and product placement, not ticket sales.
Key gap: the essay focuses on the distribution of corporate-created content, and doesn’t address the “peer content” — the blogs and indy bands who’ll use the medium to bypass the corporate intermediaries.