COB-55: hanging on

squirrel hiding in tree

If you want to achieve a twenty-five-year service pin from your bureaucratic organization, you’ve got to learn to hang on.  When you sense danger, get down low in your branch and cling to your position.  Occasionally, cautiously, raise you head and scan your surroundings for signs of activity.  If you see any, quickly get prone and motionless.  Hope that no one detects signs of life.

Beware of innovative, entrepreneurial tree-shakers.  Wrap your tail around a sturdy part of the organization so that if you’re temporarily dislodged from your position, you can pull yourself back to where you were.  Realize that they may try to starve you out.  If you have to eat your nuts to keep your position, do it without regret.  In the normal operation of a bureaucracy, having nuts just creates problems.

In other bureaucratic issues this month, Brad Stone reports in Bloomberg Businessweek that Larry Page and his senior associate divisional deputies are trying to root out bureaucracy at Google.  We trust that Googlers will be able to search out and find this page so that they will know how to respond.

In the past, few have recognize the importance of bureaucracy for the Internet.  But this sad situation is rapidly changing.  W3C (the World Wide Wide Consortium) is a first-rank bureaucracy that plays a critical role in the development of the Internet.  Tremendous controversy has recently emerged around the W3C’s HTML5 logo.  In GigaOM, Bobbie Johnson reports:

the HTML5 [logo] fiasco is a reflection of the W3C’s own feelings of inadequacy. It has always struggled with its image as a huge, sprawling bureaucracy that can’t make decisions.

Of course, discussing logos is more important than making decisions.  The root problem here is that W3C is being made to feel inadequate because it is a bureaucracy.  Bureaucrats and bureaucracy are subject to continual disrespect, insults, and vituperation.   We suggest that the W3C establish a new DNS standard such that HTTP 404’s are automatically redirected to the Carnival of Bureaucrats.   This new standard would help to educate Internet users about the importance of bureaucracy.

Bureaucrats often use a professional language known as bureaucratese.   Utilization of bureaucratese has a characterization of specialization in its administration by bureaucratic organizational functionaries.   Contemporary scientifically oriented research scholarship has documented that word-length extensiveness is correlated with informativeness, thus providing justification for the professionalization of bureaucratese in efficiency-oriented bureaucratic organizations.[*]

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats.  Enjoy previous bureaucratic carnivals here.  Nominations of posts to be considered for inclusion in next month’s carnival should be submitted using Form 376: Application for Bureaucratic Recognition.

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[*] See Piantadosi, Steven T., Harry Tily, and Edward Gibson. “Word lengths are optimized for efficient communication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.1012551108 (2011).  Here’s some discussion of this article.

the value of college in the Internet era

Students, families, and societies are making large investments in college education.  In the U.S., about 41% of persons ages 25 to 34 years old have completed a two-year or four-year college degree.  Another 19% of persons in those age groups have taken some college courses but have not received a degree.[1]  These statistics indicate that a majority of young adults today have spent at least some time in college courses.  Probably more than half have spent more than a year in college.  While younger persons have a lower work-income opportunity cost of college years than do older persons, they have a greater opportunity cost of future returns from foregone learning and experiences that are more valuable than college.   The investment of young persons’ years in college is a significant investment both individually and socially.

The direct financial investment in college is also substantial.  The sticker price of some elite private colleges in the U.S. now exceeds $50,000 per year, and the state-resident sticker price for some state universities exceeds $20,000 per year.  Colleges, however, engage in person-specific price discrimination through high sticker prices and individualized financial aid.  Financial aid packages include both direct price reductions (scholarship grants) and student loans (which have a significant default rate).  Good statistics apparently aren’t available on the net average paid cost per year of college.  It’s probably above $10,000 per year.

College is a good institution for young persons.  Many colleges offer students the opportunity to get away from their families and hang out with other young persons.  College cafeterias usually offer unlimited quantities of food.  Being at college tends to improve opportunities for sex.   College also offers the opportunity to gain a life-long tribal affiliation similar to that of dedicated sports fans.  Most significantly, young persons cannot get parental, institutional, or governmental funding for non-collegiate activities such as living in a different culture, working on starting a new company, or dedicating oneself to excelling in an activity or sport.  A young person’s alternative to college is usually a paying job.  College easily is more appealing to a young person than is getting a job.

But college courses have relatively little value as sources of knowledge in the Internet era.  College courses typically are organized around a subject designation and classes where the professor stands in front and professes knowledge to the students.  Students, however, have ready access on demand to a vast repository of knowledge via the Internet.   Except for highly specialized cases, the professor’s knowledge surely is less comprehensive, less readily accessible, and less current than knowledge freely available on the Internet.

Students’ motivations to learn have little effect on the shape of the college courses that they take.  A college course is set in a syllabus before students start out on it.   The course typically responds relatively little to students’ interests and questions while traversing it.  Students usually foresee applying their college-gained course knowledge in far distance years and uncertain circumstances.   In contrast, adults seeking to solve new and pressing problems are strongly motivated to follow promising learning wherever it leads.  This personal, problem-driven learning implies a more propitious learning course than do college courses.

The classes that make up courses usually don’t have good learning mechanics.  Some highly motivated students vigorously and diligently attempt to write down everything that the professor says.  Other students take notes more desultorily.  The exercise of note-taking tends to detract from active listening and thinking.  Students are subject to uniform exercises and tests.  That uniformity penalizes diversity in ways of learning and types of intellectual mastery.   Course credits and grades signal that students have finished the course and have been sorted into an authoritative order of success.[2]   Because knowledge and skills of students are not measured at the beginning of courses, course grades typically have little relation to learning.

Academic institutions traditionally have claimed to offer valuable meta-knowledge: courses of whatever subject teach students how to learn.  But since most learning outside of college will take place with Internet tools that involve experiences much different from taking college courses, colleges’ claims to teach students how to learn aren’t credible.  That’s particularly true in courses with professors suspicious of Internet tools such as Google, Wikipedia, and various online fora.[3]

Colleges can have enduring intellectual value by inspiring in students love of learning and joy in learning.  Motivation to learn is not just a matter of internal spark or external pressure.  It’s also an acquired pattern of life.  Professors who radiate interest and joy in study of their subjects testify to this pattern of life.  An institutional environment that celebrates achievements in learning orients persons to learning.  Having peers available for sharing knowledge encourages learning.  For colleges to have intellectual value, academics must be fun.

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[1] See U.S. 2011 Statistical Abstract, Table 227.  These data are for the year 2009.

[2] Some students spend most class time flirting, playing with gadgets, talking, or sleeping.  Since by reading books and borrowing notes students can do well on tests without paying attention in classes, some professors base some share of the final grade on class participation.

[3] For recent empirical work evaluating college students’ acquisition of general intellectual skills, see Arum, Richard, and Josipa Roksa. 2011. Academically adrift: limited learning on college campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  This study does not consider the changing technological circumstances of learning.

what makes a book

What makes a book is its binding.  The binding implies a linear order of text and turning pages.[1]  A book is a slow, regular, rhythm of new textual images that plays out a story.   A book is a filmic projection of text, run in slow motion.

Turning pages isn’t the same as scrolling.  Scrolling is an undressing.  Scrolling is a gradual revelation of a form behind the text.

Book paging is likely to remain an important form in electronic works.  Web pages usually are not book pages, because web pages do not have a fixed frame.  They often have different sizes and require scrolling.   The movement from web page to web page is typically ad hoc.  E-readers for electronic books, in contrast, support book paging.  This paging will give books enduring meaning in electronic media.

A bound order of book pages is likely to remain an important form in electronic works.  A beginning and an end characterizes human lifetime.  A narrative arc makes a story memorable and shareable.  Electronic works make possible forms that incorporate user choices and random effects, e.g. virtual worlds and games.  Such works, while popular, will not replace within electronic media a bound order of book pages.[2]

Reference books will cease to exist in electronic media.  Codices allowed more efficient random access than did scrolls.  Electronic databases allow more efficient random access than do codices.  Where random access is the primary attribute of use, books have no meaningful electronic future.

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[1]  In an unpublished MLA presentation in December, 2006, Peter Stallybrass asserted that the book binder makes a book.  For discussion and related thoughts, see Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2007), “CommentPress: New (Social) Structures for New (Networked) Texts,” Journal of Electronic Publishing, v. 10, n. 3, DOI: 10.3998/3336451.0010.305

[2] While the electronic future of a bound order of book pages seems secure, traditional book publishers face a difficult future.

the bigger project in social networks

pedal-powered plane

Like the propensity to truck and barter, the propensity to compete for status is common to all humans.  The latter propensity can be found in many other animals as well.  Twitter succeeded as least in part by providing humans with all the status-jockeying opportunities of blogging while requiring much less ancillary work.

But apart from status seeking, humans also naturally respond to opportunities to participate in a bigger project.  Wikipedia is a wonderful example of this human propensity.  A key issue for new social networks like Quora is the bigger project.  Quora attempts to offer a bigger project, but whether it will succeeded in doing so is still an open question.  If answering questions becomes just a game of status seeking, then services that provide such opportunities more efficiently are likely to prevail.  If answering a question is structured well as a bigger project, it can elicit a greater range of human behavior than just status-seeking.  The same fundamental issue is relevant to all other social networks.

Update: political effects of Wikipedia’s bigger project

sex differences in reviews and citations of Brizendine's The Male Brain

Humans and other animals are keenly interested in sex.  Louann Brizendine’s new book, The Male Brain, complements her 2006 book, The Female Brain.  These books explore the biology of sex differences and their implications for a typical male and female life-courses.  Both are clearly written for mass-market readers in contemporary, high-income countries.

To understand better sex differences in communications, I collected from a newspaper database articles referring to Brizendine and “Male Brain.”  I then tabulated these articles by the author’s sex and the author’s evaluation of the substance of Brizendine’s book.   These data show large sex differences:  female-authored articles (14) numbered more than twice as many as male-authored articles (6).   Female-authored articles had a lower share of articles with a positive evaluation of Brizendine’s book (21%) than did male-authored articles (33%).

Sex differences in reading appear to be broader than well-documented sex differences in fiction reading.  Like newspaper articles, Brizendine’s books are in the genre of non-fiction.  Nonetheless, both The Female Brain and The Male Brain seem to be predominately oriented toward female readers.  Careful, literary-critical reading of both books will convince most readers of this orientation.  Here’s a simple example.  The introduction to The Female Brain is entitled “What Makes Us Women.”  The introduction to The Male Brain is entitled “What Makes a Man.”   With respect to The Male Brain, Brizendine has explicitly stated, “I wrote the book for women about men.”[1]

Newspaper articles citing The Male Brain give reason for concern about sexist stereotyping.  One article citing Brizendine’s The Male Brain states that it “amounts to conclusive physiological justification for the male practice of staring at female breasts. … male ogling must henceforth be considered genetic destiny rather than anti-social creepiness.”[2]   But the misandristic demonization of male heterosexual desire is a social construction that should not be beyond social questioning.  Another article states, “On one level the book reads like one big get-out-of-jail-free card for men. But Brizendine insists it is not.”  Given that the U.S. incarcerates about two million men, about ten times as many men as women, get-out-of-jail-free cards for men seems like an idea worth discussing, particularly for men who are incarcerated for crimes like staring at female breasts.  The articles indicate that women assaulting men is of a little social concern: “So men have machines for minds do they? That go on the blink? In which case the best thing is to turn them off and on again. And if this fails, bash them a bit.”  Another article citing Brizendine quotes a male comedian: “If you women knew what we were really thinking, you’d never stop slapping us.”  Brizendine herself is more respectful than most toward men:

When I came up with the idea of writing my book The Male Brain, nearly everyone made the same joke: ‘That will be a short book!’  But while culturally females may consider men to be rather simple creatures, nothing could be further from the truth.

Men’s lack of success in securing true paternity knowledge, despite fundamental interests and readily available technology, suggests that, at least in social negotiations, men in general are much simpler than women.

For an example of sophistication in the true classical sense, consider a review of The Male Brain that an elite journalist and fellow at Yale Law School had published in the New York Times.  The review concluded:

But isn’t it time to acknowledge that any rigid insistence that men and women are exactly the same has long since given way to common sense?  Brizendine’s trick, after all, is to give a scientific veneer to ”Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.”  Which dates to 1992. At this point, it’s hardly daring to say that there are momentous innate sex differences in the brain. It’s just dubious.[3]

This intricate rhetoric makes an appeal to common sense using a tendentious, extraordinary case (“rigid insistence that men and women are exactly the same”).  It then associates Brizendine with rhetorical tricks by using the trick of linking her science to a literally absurd title of a much less scientifically oriented book.  “Momentous innate sex differences in the brain” would be an extraordinarily daring claim for anyone to propose for serious consideration in the pages of today’s New York Times or any other elite publication.  Much less daring claims have been sufficient to help get a Harvard University president fired.  Nonetheless, the review concludes that “momentous innate sex differences in the brain” isn’t a daring claim, but a claim that only dupes believe.  That’s remarkably sophisticated work.

The International Herald Tribune duly reprinted this New York Times review of The Male Brain.  But, perhaps judging that its readers lack sufficient appreciation for highly sophisticated work, it edited the review so that it concluded thus:

But isn’t it time to acknowledge that any rigid insistence that men and women are exactly the same has long since given way to common sense?[4]

Thus our leading thinkers counsel appreciation for the folk wisdom of the current status quo.

Important aspects of sex differences are not currently a matter of common sense.  What’s the common sense of only men being required to register for selective service?  What’s the common sense of black men in the U.S. having a life expectancy fully 11 years less than that of white women, of U.S. soldiers dying in Iraq at a ratio of 42 men per woman, and men dying from occupational accidents at rate more than ten times that of women?  What’s the common sense of women in the U.S. receiving in the 2008-2009 academic year 42% more college degrees than men did?  What’s the common sense of men lacking reproductive rights and of men being subject to unplanned parenthood and government-determined parental payments?  That such differences figure relatively little in discussions of sex differences is an interesting sex difference.

charcoal drawing of a black man

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Data: tabulation of newspaper articles citing Brizendine’s The Male Brain (Excel version)


[1] See Siri Agrell & Dave McGinn, “That’s just how I’m wired, baby” (interview with Brizendine) Globe and Mail (Canada), Mar. 26, 2010.

[2] The quotations in this paragraph are from articles numbered 3, 7, 8, 21, and 22 in the tabulation.  See the tabulation for the articles’ bibliographic details.

[3] Emily Bazelon, “A Mind of His Own,” The New York Times, Mar. 28, 2010.

[4] Emily Bazelon, “Boys will be boys: A breezy look at how the male brain works; Review,” The International Herald Tribune, Mar. 29, 2010.

communicating with photos

art erection

Photosharing is growing rapidly.   It’s a highly popular activity on social networks like Facebook.  Pursuing photosharing makes sense as a “thin edge of the wedge” strategy for web startups attempting to build a social platform.

But why is social photosharing so popular?  Some reasons:

  • Sharing photos is an easier way to communicate than sharing written texts.   Humans invented written languages only about 5000 years ago.  Humans and other animals have been pointing at interesting scenes much, much longer.  Photosharing is more easily executed on well-established biological wetware.
  • Photos readily communicate personal context and experience.  That’s common substance of personal communication.
  • Photos typically have less specific meaning than written texts.  Sharing gestures on social networks are one-to-many.  Photos give different persons better opportunities to find engaging communication within the same message.

All these reasons also apply to video sharing.  Video sharing, however, is more difficult for devices and networks to implement.  Video communication also imposes greater time demands on recipients.   Imposing tight constraints on the length of video messages and developing better video browsing tools would contribute to making video a bigger component of social communication.

Hebrew scripture in Greek: sharing communications media

For believers, no communications media is more important than that connecting God with humans.  Jews and Christians for more than 1500 years read the same sacred scripture, the Tanakh/the Old Testament, in the same language, Greek.  Jews and Christians lived in close geographic proximity while interpreting the sacred text rather differently.  They both engaged in bitter polemics.  The more numerous and powerful Christians often viciously persecuted the Jews.  Nonetheless, the Jews continued to use their sacred scripture in Greek translation.  That use testifies to the great value of common communications media.

Jewish sacred scripture has been primarily transmitted in Hebrew.  However, by the 3rd century BGC, most Jews spoke Aramaic, while the shared, spoken language of urban Hellenistic culture was Greek.  Between the 3rd and 1st centuries BGC, Jews translated Jewish scripture into Greek to form the bible version known as the Septuagint.[1]  In the second century GC, the Jewish scholars Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion (the Three) translated Jewish scripture into Greek.  Scripture in Hebrew remained the fundamental Jewish sacred text.  However, translating Jewish scripture into Greek made Jewish scripture more accessible to Jews and non-Jews.

In the first century GC, a rapidly growing heretical Jewish/universalized sect called Christians recognized God’s words in Jewish scripture written in Greek.   Christians interpreted Jewish scripture in light of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  The life stories of Jesus, the Gospels, quote Greek translations of Jewish scripture.  Christians almost surely predominately discussed Jewish scripture in the more accessible Greek.  As the Gospels amply indicate, Jesus created a bitter split within the Jewish community.  Until recently, Jews were thought to have turned away from Greek translations of Jewish scripture as the increasing number of Christians actively used (mis-used) these translations.

New scholarship indicates that Jews and Christians shared Greek as a scriptural language for more than 1500 years.  Texts from the Cairo Genizah indicate that Jews were carrying forward Greek translations of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion about a millennium after they were made.[2]  Moreover, Greek glosses probably dating from the ninth century in an early Christian manuscript correspond to Greek texts found in the Cairo Genizah.  Both in turn correspond to Greek text in a Jewish Greek translation, written in Hebrew letters, that was published in Constantinople in 1547.[3]  Hence Jews did not reject the Greek scriptural language that Christians embraced.[4]

Christians responded directly to Jewish uses of Jewish sacred scripture.  Under Louis IX, Christian church officials in France confiscated Jewish texts ostensibly to check them for errors.   Many volumes of Jewish writings were burned in Paris in 1242.  About the same time, in creating the Morgan Bible for Louis IX, Christian court officials seem to have struggled with what their criticisms of Jews meant for the production of that picture bible.[5]

Sharing communications media tends to encourage conflict.  But establishing and maintaining separate communications media is quite costly.  Jews’ continuing use of the Greek Bible suggests that net benefits of common sacred communication in Greek outweighed those of insisting on sacred communication exclusively in Hebrew.

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[1] The Greek biblical translation called the Septuagint is also known as the LXX.  Greek as used in this post refers to popularly spoken Greek. For the Hellenistic period, that Greek is called Koine Greek.  The Greek of fifth-century Athens (classical or Attic Greek) differed significantly from Koine Greek.

[2] See de Lange (2007).

[3] The glosses are from the Codex Ambrosianus.  See Boyd-Taylor (2007).  The Greek Bible in Byzantine Judaism website makes a huge body of relevant evidence available to everyone around the world.  It is a masterpiece of modern scholarship.

[4] The history of research section in the Greek Bible in Byzantine Judaism website discusses this shift in scholarly consensus.  While the scholars whose research prompted the shift wrote this history, the Greek Bible in Byzantine Judaism website itself testifies to the universal force of the evidence.

[5] See Galbi (2003), Section III.C.


Boyd-Taylor, Cameron (2007).  “The Greek Bible among Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages: The Evidence of Codex Ambrosianus,” in International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, and Melvin K. H. Peters. 2008. XIII Congress of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Ljubljana, 2007. Atlanta, Ga: Society of Biblical Literature.

de Lange, Nicholas (2007). “Jewish Transmission of Greek Bible Versions,” in Peters (2008), XIII Congress, cited above.

Galbi, Douglas (2003).  Sense in Communication.