The Rabbis of the Talmud were troubled by the evil and cruelty they saw in the world. So they tracked down the Evil Inclination, and locked it in a cage. And the world was peaceful for a while.

After a few months, people started to come to the Rabbis with complaints. Hens had stopped laying eggs. No children were being conceived. No new houses were built. No new fields were planted. So the Rabbis opened the cage, blinded the Evil Inclination in one eye, and let it free.

People really are “bowling alone”

New research provides stronger evidence that social capital in the US is in decline.
In 1995, sociologist Robert Putnam published an article showing that Americans are less social then they used to be. The research was later published in a book, Bowling Alone.
Putnam analyzed attendance at men’s clubs (Elks, Lions), parent-teacher associations, and rural 4H clubs, and showed that these signs of social ties had been declining since about 1960.
The trouble with this analysis is that some of the longstanding organizations he studied had gone out of style like poodle skirts. It’s likely that there are fewer kids in 4H clubs because there are fewer kids on farms.
But in a somewhat more recent article, Putnam analyzes a wider range of data, including informal activities like going on picnics and eating with friends and family. The trend is still the same — a uniform decline in social engagement.
As people have become less socially engaged, the level of charity-giving has gone down, as measured by the percentage of income given to charity, and the level of trust in others has gone down, as measured in surveys.
Several thoughts on this, in contrasting directions.
A few data points that could show that things are as bad as they seem:
* if the “eating with family and friends” survey questions asked about eating at home, not eating out, then the questions are still missing the point. A strong study would include data about social meals at home and in restaurants.
* Time for Life is an excellent if rather dry book reporting a study on American’s use of time since the 1930s. The study shows that television watching has steadily crowded out most other hobbies and social activities since the 1950s. It would be interesting to measure the level of social engagement among demographic groups who have given up couch-potato TV for human-interactive internet communication.
On the other hand, take a look at new housing developments. Apartment complexes and subdivisions are built with walls and fences around them, even in low-crime areas. People are too afraid to have streets. After all, anyone could walk down the street, without any security checks at all.
Putnam’s numbers help explain the popularity of the prison-like architectural style, and the low level of protest at restrictions of freedom in the wake of 9/11.
via Clay Shirky on Corante’s Many to Many blog.

Seder “happening”

Thinking about Marc Canter’s blog post a few days ago about a online haggadah”.
It would be interesting to use the happening infrastructure for a distributed seder.
People could call in and participate, by phone, chat, and hypertext haggada.
As in the “electronic democracy” event, a moderator could use the “hand-raise” convention in the chat space to call on people to participate on the phone, making it easier to moderate a group phone call.
The interleaving of chat threads would be an online version of the interleaving of conversational threads at a same-place seder. If the happening had a wiki back end, people could add commentary as they read the haggadah, and could transcribe and edit the chat into future haggadah material. These are contemporary instantiations of the techniques the Rabbis used to put the original Haggadah together.
Following up on Marc’s site, he’s been talking with Philippe Scheimann who seems to have thought of the idea too.
I also have some sympathy to Tom Shugart’s comment — there are advantages to the traditional, “unplugged” seder. The food and wine, and seder plate wouldn’t be the same, with individuals holding a plate of food and a glass of wine next to their laptop (and the traditional spills would be more dangerous!)
“Everyone who contributes to the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt is to be well-praised.” Or [green-card] and [thumbs up], as the case may be.

Ants and Jane Jacobs

To continue the “ants” discussion…
When people talk about the how bottom-up, emergent systems are superior to top-down planned systems, they often quote Jane Jacobs.
In “Death and Life of American Cities“, Jacobs writes about the lively, crowded, haphazard streets of her Greenwich Village neighborhood, and compares them to the planned high-rise developments and efficient elevated highways of her nemesis, developer Robert Moses.
In the 50s and 60s, developers like Moses swept into run-down urban neighborhoods bearing a vision of “cities of the future,” demolished the houses and stores, and replaced them with sterile projects that turned into slums worse than the neighborhoods they replaced.
Jacobs explains why the organically-grown neighborhoods are better than the planned developments. The variety of newer and older structures help the neighborhood support a diverse population — elderly folks on pensions, young folks starting out, families with children. The mix of commercial and residential properties helps keep the neighborhood safe, since the neighborhood is populated day and night, weekdays and weekends. The sidewalks and front-porches enable people to stroll, chat, and look out for each other. By contrast, the un-inviting plazas and parking lots surrounding high-rise buildings are often deserts where the ill-intentioned can prey on the unwary without being observed.
Simply by observing local norms, people extend the neighborhood by inviting their elderly parents to move in, buying and upgrading a ramshackle storefront, and sweeping their walk. These activites aren’t centrally planned, individuals don’t get permission to do them, and, in sum, they add up to pleasant and safe neighborhoods.
But looking at Greenwich Village as an example of ant-like emergent behavior misses a lot of the story.
There is a large substrate of of social and cultural structures that enable these unplanned activities to create a pleasing and diverse order. The neighborhood has sewers and clean running water. Without these, the city neighborhood would harbor endemic infectious diseases. There is a fire department which protects the block if a single house catches fire. There are people with the technical and project-management skills required to design and repair plumbing, heating, and electrical systems.
A colony of ants couldn’t create Greenwich Village. Neither could a tribe of hunter-gatherers. There are underlying levels of infrastructure — some of which require planning — in order to enable the higher-level decentralized behavior.
In order to facilitate decentralized, unplanned human systems that work, it’s important to think about the ordered infrastructure patterns — like sewer systems, and ordered nodal activities — like designing an electrical system — that are needed enable the larger unplanned pattern to emerge.

Haggadah online

Marc Canter writes that for the last three years, he’s been composing and using an online haggadah for his family’s seder.

I vowed that no more trees were going to get cut down for Passover. You see I was raised a secular Jew and Passover was the only holiday we really celebrated… So despite the assimilation the rest of the year – Springtime was always the time to be Jewish. This meant that the first night we ate as an extended family and the second night we always attended our community seder – put on by the South Side School of Jewish studies in Chicago – our ‘religous
Since it was the 60’s – we added she with the he’s, talked about Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement along with the Warsaw Ghetto and in general celebrtated revolutionaries throughout the ages. The tradition of adding to and changing the seder was predominant.
So when it came to my own seder 20 years later – here’s what I realized: I helped give birth to the multimedia world and I was gonna put my Matzah where my mouth is……but when we assembled all these PCs around the table, guess what? Nobody could keep in sync with each other! So we had to devise a way for us all to stay together and enable remote access to the seder. This evolved into a truly on-line version……

Collaborative, hyperlinked media are contemporary instantiations of the traditional genres, which are based on conversation and the interpretation of referenced texts. Discussion groups and hyperlinks, in other words.

Anti Alpha Male

Level 5 Leadership
We were suprprised, shocked really, to discover the type of leadership required for turning a good company into a great one. Compared to high profile leaders with big personalities who make headlines and become celebrities, the good-to-great leaders seem to have come from Mars.
Self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy — these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They are more like Lincoln and Socrates than Patton or Caesar.
From Good to Great by Jim Collins.