COB-17: honoring Petrov

This month at the Carnival of the Bureaucrats we honor a true bureaucratic hero, Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov. The comically rational blog Overcoming Bias described well what Mr. Petrov did:

On September 26th, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was the officer on duty when the warning system reported a US missile launch. Petrov kept calm, suspecting a computer error.

Then the system reported another US missile launch.

And another, and another, and another.

What had actually happened, investigators later determined, was sunlight on high-altitude clouds aligning with the satellite view on a US missile base.

In the command post there were beeping signals, flashing lights, and officers screaming at people to remain calm. According to several accounts I’ve read, there was a large flashing screen from the automated computer system saying simply “START” (presumably in Russian). Afterward, when investigators asked Petrov why he hadn’t written everything down in the logbook, Petrov replied,”Because I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don’t have a third hand.”

The policy of the Soviet Union called for launch on warning. The Soviet Union’s land radar could not detect missiles over the horizon, and waiting for positive identification would limit the response time to minutes. Petrov’s report would be relayed to his military superiors, who would decide whether to start a nuclear war.

Petrov decided that, all else being equal, he would prefer not to destroy the world. He sent messages declaring the launch detection a false alarm, based solely on his personal belief that the US did not seem likely to start an attack using only five missiles.

In words that epitomize bureaucratic greatness, Petrov later stated:

I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. I did nothing.

eternal blessing for bureaucratic hero Petrov

Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was not a political leader. He was not a general. He was a low-level military administrative functionary. In short, he was an ordinary bureaucrat. Every person who lives on planet earth should be grateful to this bureaucrat. He saved the world from nuclear war.

Unquestionably the strongest bureaucracies in the world of those of military departments such as those of the Soviet Union and the United States. Military bureaucracies date to the beginning of modern nations and are likely to sustain themselves cooperatively forever. Military bureaucracies typically have an exquisitely articulated command hierarchy, large collections of acronyms, and enormously powerful capabilities to produce and revise documents. Military bureaucracies, like most bureaucracies, perform functions that persons outside the organization seldom appreciate except in extraordinary circumstances.

In all ranks of bureaucracies, from the largest and most powerful to the smallest and most fleeting, the world needs a huge number of bureaucrats like Petrov. All bureaucrats should honor and emulate Petrov. A person who meets a bureaucrat should meet a Petrov.

Dr. Helen has attempted to educate officialdom at the Tennessee Department of Health. A commenter assessed the chances that the Department of Health will recognize actual facts:

They’ll probably ask Slim Pickens and former Senator Sam Nunn to advise them. And those are the chances, Slim and Nunn.

Read Dr. Helen’s post and then check out the “Scope of the Problem” on page 6 of this “educational material” on the Tennessee Department of Health website. An army of Petrov’s is needed to stop this anti-male bigotry from causing major human harm.

Anna Farmery at the Engaging Brand Blog offers “A thought on life….and branding.” She observes, “There is no perfection in humans….” The obvious implication of this submission to the Carnival of Bureaucrats is that perfection can be found only in bureaucracy. We fully agree.

Charles H. Green at Trust Matters discusses terrorists and convenience stores. He insightfully analyzes why everyone is treated like a terrorist. But he suggests, “the biggest reason of all may be a tendency to rely on systems rather than people.” We disagree. A good bureaucratic system would treat everyone as a number, not as a terrorist. If you had a good number, you wouldn’t be treated like a terrorist.

The Topiary Cow discusses how to excel in interior decorating. She applauds piles of paperwork and observes, “When Topiary walks into a home, if there are no books, no writing, no computers, no projects, nothing to indicate any mental activity, she has a sinking feeling.” Topiary appreciates a bureaucratic environment. So should everyone.

Phil for Humanity discusses the dangers of scheduling with your boss. He observes, “I’ve discovered that the best schedule is not the best case scenario, but rather a realistic guess how long the task should take with an extra padding of time to work out any issues that may arise.” But a better way to address scheduling questions is to set up a meeting to discuss them.

Blake Williams at “What I hear you saying…” discusses branding the river of conversation. He recalls a small local news site reporting, “Every time a contentious local issue was covered on the site, the station received nasty-grams and phone calls from half the town to remove the comments they were hosting.” Perhaps this site could get a job consulting to Mashables about how to improve its Troll Week.

That concludes this month’s Carnival of the Bureaucrats. Submit your blog article to the next edition using our Carnival submission form. Submissions should conform to the Carnival regulations. Past posts and future hosts can be found on the Carnival index page.

concern about superficiality and stagnation in academia

An accounting professor has recently produced an insightful paper entitled “Constituting the Academic Performer: The Spectre of Superficiality and Stagnation in Academia.” While the paper focuses on academic research in accounting from a North American perspective, it suggests that its argument can be extended geographically and to other social science disciplines:

The present paper should therefore not be conceived of as an idiosyncratic problematization of a single area of research [accounting]; it has broader implications as institutionalized logics and practices in a given area do not develop in a vacuum (Foucault, 1966).[Gendron, p. 2]

The paper identifies the fundamental problem to be pressure to perform:

Various writers have argued that we live in an era in which expectations of self and others to perform, and provide public demonstrations of performance, are considerable (e.g., Lyotard, 1979; Porter, 1995). In particular, Lyotard (1979) develops the notion of performativity and notes its growing influence on society. Performativity can be defined as a set of ideas and practices which stress the search for technological optimality via the most efficient input/output ratio.[id. p. 3-4]

Academic literature indicates that pressure to perform is particularly acute in academia because of declines in public funding, increased corporate funding, and increased use of performance measures in promoting academics.[id. p. 11] An ordinary person can easily recognize, through considering even just style, diction, characteristic invocations of authority, that disciplinary processes in academia can enforce superficiality and conformity:

Foucaultian studies, which are now commonly used in the qualitative paradigm of accounting research (Gendron and Baker, 2005), make us aware that representations of identity can gain in influence and spread in a community via disciplinary and self-disciplinary processes as deployed on individuals. …Through normalization and the detection of “deviants,” individuals may be pressured to alter their self in a way that is consistent with a given representation of identity, as conveyed via some discourse(s) in their surrounding environment. [id. pp. 9, 10]

The pressure on deviants in academia does not occur only through pressure to publish in prestigious journals that deeply entrenched academic interests control. Obsession with using knowledge as an instrument of power is pervasive in academic. Academics feel it in their bones. In other words, power-knowledge obsession creates a discursive system of surveillance and real citation gaze that disciplines bodies just like mamma did:

Lyon (2001) argues that surveillance practices have significantly developed throughout society and now pervade all spheres of social life; these practices are not operated by some central watchtower but instead by a heterogeneous and unstable network of agencies. Academia is no exception as the spread of performance measurement, in particular, renders researchers subject to the gaze of a variety of surveillance systems (Wilmott, 1995). ….Operating across a variety of ways which often may seem innocuous or trivial in the context of day-to-day life, performance measurement as a discursive technology has colonized vast segments of academia and increasingly regulates the conduct of researchers. [id. pp. 28, 29]

The result is stagnation in academia and astonishingly superficial work:

While [academic] research articles undeniably have content (which, as noted above, may have decreased to some extent over time in terms of originality), the key point is that they are often considered superficial by audiences which are increasingly stimulated and provided with means to bypass the reading of articles. [id. p. 31]

According to this academic researcher, Internet-based mechanism for sharing intellectual work and discussing ideas and applications offers no escape from pressure to produce boring, worthless, and intellectually pathetic work:

It is worth noting that the logic of performance measurements even extends to the world of non-published papers. … SSRN [a large, open database of intellectual work] therefore contributes to the construction of researchers and institutions as performers — but a construction which is close to the domain of hyper-reality (Baudrillard, 1981) in that most of the papers displayed on SSRN are unpublished, working papers. An author can therefore develop a reputation as a high-performer even though the key traditional feature upon which is predicated knowledge production systems (i.e., publication) is not met. [id. pp. 24-5]

The author suggests that association journals should support more “epistemological and methodological diversity” and should publish more articles with even less obvious impact than articles currently being published. The author also advocates that academic researchers spend more time discussing journal publication standards and processes. [id. p. 33] To me, these proposals point to a weak, unimaginative reform agenda. Much more radical change is necessary to save the world from tedium and intellectual collapse.


Gendron, Yves, “Constituting the Academic Performer: The Spectre of Superficiality and Stagnation in Academia“. European Accounting Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

familiarity is a resource for making sense of presence

Most person-to-person communication occurs between persons who know each other well (family and close friends). A recent study of a large number of mobile phone voice calls found that in an 18-week period, about two-thirds of mobile phone users engaged in mutual calling with only two other persons. The mean number of partners for mutual calling in that period was three.[1] Mutual calling partners with more mutual calling partners in common spent on average more time in calls with each other.[2] Mutual calling appears to have increasing returns in personal familiarity.

Recent neuroscience research points to neural functioning that supports this macro-behavioral pattern. The suppression of a certain brain wave pattern (mu activity) is associated with sub-conscious processing of the present activity of another person. Premotor neurons that perform such sub-conscious processing have been called mirror neurons. Mu activity, and by implication mirror neuron activity, depends on familiarity with the other person:

mu activity was suppressed most when subjects watched videos of themselves, indicating the greatest mirror neuron activity. For both groups [autistic and non-autistic children], the measurements showed a slightly lower level of suppression when subjects watched familiar people in the video and the least when watching strangers.[3]

Recognition of another is typically considered to be a high-level neural function. Familiarity with another, however, appears to associated with (downloaded) resources for sub-conscious processing of another’s actions.

Persons highly value in communication making sense of presence. The relation of mu activity to personal familiarity is consistent with personal familiarity being a resource for making sense of presence. Presence as a value, and familiarity as a resource, provide a structure for increasing returns in mutual calling.

[1] See Analysis of a large-scale weighted network of one-to-one human communication, Jukka-Pekka Onnela et al 2007 New J. Phys. 9 179 doi:10.1088/1367-2630/9/6/179, Fig. 4 and Table 1.

[2] See Structure and tie strengths in mobile communication networks, J.-P. Onnela, J. Saramäki, J. Hyvönen, G. Szabó, D. Lazer, K. Kaski, J. Kertész, and A.-L. Barabási, PNAS 104, 7332-7336 (2007), preprint, pp. 4-5. Overview of this paper here.

[3] From “Mirror, Mirror In The Brain: Decoding Patterns Reflecting Understanding Of Self, Others May Further Autism Therapies,” Society for Neuroscience News Release, 11/04/07, summarizing L. M. Oberman, V. S. Ramachandran, J. A. Pineda, “Mirror Neuron Activity Modulated by Actor Familiarity in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: an EEG Study,” 2007 Neuroscience Meeting Planner. San Diego, CA: Society for Neuroscience, 2007, abstract on EBDblog. The sentence following the above quoted excerpt states, “This indicates that normal mirror neuron activity was evoked when children with autism watched family members, but not strangers.” The abstract states, “Both neurotypical participants and those with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] showed greater suppression to familiar individuals compared to the stranger.” These and the above descriptions appear to be inconsistent, but that is not relevant to the point here.