Monday, September 26, 2005

More pattern recognition

Maybe there's a pattern here. I'm reading William Gibson's Pattern Recognition. He references "apophenia" (see the 8/30/05 post below), a term which, I like to think, I came across on my own, by as much accident as web crawling and googling can be. Not that it matters -- inspired by, learning from, borrowing, building on the borrowed, cross pollination. A quote from Marshall McLuhan in "Media and Cultural Change" (in Essential McLuhan, edited by Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, 1995, BasicBooks): "If the business of the teacher is to save the student's time..." How development is done.

For example, Gibson (publish date 2/03): "Homo sapiens are about pattern recognition, [Parkaboy, one of the characters] says." Ray Kurzweil, quoted in Steven Gibson's Emergence (publish date 8/02): "Humans are far more skilled at recognizing patterns than in thinking through logical combinations... Indeed, pattern recognition comprises the bulk of our neural circuitry."

No surprise -- themes? memes? circulating. Cultural echoes. Resonance. The "quality of the time" expressing itself.

On a separate track (but really, how separate can it be?) I am also reading David Abram's remarkable The Spell of the Sensuous (more on this in a future post I hope). In one section he discusses the impact of the phonetic alphabet on consciousness -- references to McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy among others. So me digging out the book referenced above, and then coming across this (bear with me through the extended quote):

[Harold Innis] changed his procedure from working with a 'point of view' to that of generating insights by the method of 'interface,' as it is named in chemistry. 'Interface' refers to the interaction of substances in a kind of mutual irritation. In art and poetry this is precisely the technique of 'symbolism' (Greek 'symballein' -- to throw together) with its paratactic procedure of juxtaposing without connectives. This interplay of aspects [as is likelier to happen in conversation or dialogue -- jd] can generate insights or discovery. By contrast, a point of view is merely a way of looking at something. But an insight is the sudden awareness of a complex process of interaction.

Following an interesting observation that the process of transferring data, information, knowledge to computer tape -- he was writing this in the early 1960s -- required people to look at the knowledge structurally -- to understand the form of the knowledge: "This has led to the discovery of the basic difference between classified knowledge and pattern recognition."

And then McLuhan quotes from Kenneth Sayre's 1963 Modelling the Mind:

Classification is a process, something that takes up one's time, which one might do reluctantly, unwillingly or enthusiastically, which can be done with more or less success, done very well or very poorly. Recognition, in sharp contrast, is not time-consuming. A person may spend a long while looking before recognition occurs, but when it occurs, it is "instantaneous." When recognition occurs, it is not an act which would be said to be performed either reluctantly or enthusiastically, compliantly or under protest. Moreover, the notion of recognition being unsuccessful, or having been done very poorly, seems to make no sense at all.



Thursday, September 15, 2005

Après Le Déluge

Political power is exercised through social networks. Yes individuals make history, and yes under specific conditions, but never alone. History, inasmuch as it is made by humans, is always made by humans organized -- networked -- with others.

The contest over the re-building of New Orleans is underway. As always the question is, in whose interests? Not whose individual interests, but whose class interests? And the contending forces will be represented or expressed by networks of individuals, sharing common values and goals. In most cases the contest will play out within a broader arena of class interests -- the contestants share a common interest in the supremacy of private property, the extraction of maximum profit, the maintenance of basic existing class relations -- but the how being up for grabs.

How a real class contest might be fought is a much more interesting question. The hurricane and flood are providing a real opportunity. The shock at the stark display of absolute disregard of the country's ruling class for the poor; and the profound disillusionment with the government -- its tax-breaks for the rich, its oil war, its abandonment of responsibility to provide for the general welfare -- creates an opportunity for a new politic. But without the networks in place, networks with a coherence around goals and vision, the opportunity will recede as suredly as the flood waters.

It is not unfair, or exaggerated, to call the ruling class a "ruling class". They are networked (perhaps better to say there are many networks, at different layers, regions, sectors, etc, inter-networked), and generally are conscious of their goals and vision. A telling article in the September 8, 2005 Wall Street Journal (see the Common Dreams repost), titled "Old-Line Families Escape Worst of Flood And Plot the Future", describes a representative of one such network.

Despite the disaster that has overwhelmed New Orleans, the city's monied, mostly white elite is hanging on and maneuvering to play a role in the recovery when the floodwaters of Katrina are gone. "New Orleans is ready to be rebuilt. Let's start right here," says Mr. O'Dwyer, standing in his expansive kitchen, next to a counter covered with a jumble of weaponry and electric wires.

The owners and regional managers of the New Orleans economy live in the same neighborhoods, vacation at the same resorts, and interact in the same social circles. They run the city. And this network is moving to implement its vision of New Orleans after the flood. "[Anton O'Dwyer] says he has been in contact with about 40 other New Orleans business leaders since the storm. Tomorrow, he says, he and some of those leaders plan to be in Dallas, meeting with Mr. Nagin [the Mayor of New Orleans] to begin mapping out a future for the city."

One of the sub-texts in the talk of the future is if it is possible to re-make the city without its poor. "The new city must be something very different, Mr. Reiss [a wealthy local businessman] says, with better services and fewer poor people. 'Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically,' he says. 'I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out.'"

There are other forces competing to steer the future of the region. An article in today's (9/15/05) WSJ reports "with as much as $200 billion beginning to gush out of Washington for the Hurricane Katrina disaster zone, the fight already has begun over who will control the spending and make critical decisions about the future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast." The future funds may be controlled by a federal body a la the Tennessee Valley Authority, usurping the state and local governments. This of course does not mean that the local networks are necessarily out of the picture -- their means of exerting control over the situation may more easily be accomplished via a Republican Party-controlled federal agency than a Democratic Party-controlled state or local authority. Which of course doesn't mean that the Democrats would re-build the city with democracy in mind, only that they are answering to a different network of capital.

It appears, as has been the case historically, that the poor are a political pawn in the maneuvering, with no clear organization or network articulating their class interests. Class cuts across race, albeit not evenly, and there is no reason to expect that the black owning class will represent the class interests of the poor, whether black or white, except in as much as they can rely on the votes of the un-propertied to maintain their political position. For example, from today's article:

On Monday night, nearly 30 black business leaders from New Orleans and Baton Rouge met at a church in the capital city to discuss ways to make sure that all New Orleans citizens are included in conversations about how to rebuild the city.
"What makes this city so great is the gumbo mix of people," says Alden J. McDonald Jr., chief executive of Liberty Bank & Trust Co., one of the nation's largest black-controlled banks, and chairman of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce. "Everyone has to be at the table."

The rhetoric of inclusion implies that all classes need to be represented, but this is unlikely, no? Simply because the poor, by-and-large, while loosely "networked" through churches, gangs (who stepped up to provide some semblance order at the Convention Center), neighborhood social circles, etc., are not organized for political power, and so the political leadership can so easily be usurped. This is not because of any inherent failings among the property-less, but because the ruling class deliberately works to undermine independent expressions of class power that emerge in spite of the poverty of resources, education, etc.

This raises an interesting dimension of networks. What about the space between the nodes and links, the negative space or anti-matter of networks? In this case, these would be the dis-connected. The people-without-value (in the Marxist sense of the term that is -- no use-value as worker, and no opportunity to realize the exchange value of their labor power). Of course un-connected in one sense, but connected in other dimensions -- economically as consumer without real choice or politically as voter without real choice. Or culturally as spring of innovation and desires. Or historically, as agent of mayhem, rebellion or revolution.


Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Tech workers / stepping up

Technology workers -- programmers, sysadmins, database developers, site designers, data entry folks, cable-layers, etc. etc. -- have stepped up in different ways to bring some network structure to the chaos of information swirling around in the vacuum of leadership following Katrina. Some notable examples:

The Katrina Help Wiki, based on a model developed for the tsunami aftermath, and based on wikipedia technology.

The Katrina PeopleFinder Project. For some background on this, see the Network-centric Advocacy press release on same.

The Public Web Stations project that provides an elegantly simple way of quickly setting up Internet kiosks to help evacuees connect to the online world to use the resources above. See the discussion on the Linux Desktop Forums for posts on where and how these webstations are being used.


Sunday, September 11, 2005

Hurricane Katrina and networks

The Gulf of Mexico area, or which New Orleans is the de facto center, is a major node in energy extraction, refining and distribution. Per Daniel Yergin in an opinion piece in the September 2 Wall Street Journal:

The full extent of the Gulf of Mexico energy infrastructure is hard to grasp. Altogether, about 800 manned platforms, plus several thousand smaller unmanned platforms, feed their oil and gas into 33,000 miles of underwater pipelines, a good part of which eventually reaches shore at Port Fourchon at the mouth of the Mississippi. That adds up to 35% of domestic oil production (including oil from state as well as federal waters) and over 20% of our natural gas coming from off-shore. Add to that the 10% of U.S. oil imports that flow in through the same corridor, plus the string of refineries and pipeline networks that sprawl along the Gulf Coast, and you have a complex that constitutes our single most important energy asset.

In addition, New Orleans is the major transfer point for North American grain floating on barges down the Mississippi River. The Wall Street Journal reported on September 2 that Cargill alone had 300 barges holding grain, salt and fertilizer stranded on the lower Mississippi. Each barge is capable of holding 55,000 bushels of grain, as much as 60 semis.

"By closing the New Orleans ports, Katrina effectively eliminated the cheapest way for American industries in the nation's heartland to do business overseas. Some economists figure that the competition of the river-barge industry with the railroads and trucking companies saves companies roughly $1 billion annually.

Agriculture-industry officials say other U.S. ports simply don't have the capacity to absorb the two billion bushels of grain that move annually through New Orleans. "The ports in the rest of country are already at capacity," said one federal official.

Other damaged ports in the area compound problems. According to an article in the September 1 New York Times, Chiquita Brand's facilities in Gulfport, Mississippi, which last year handled about 25% of its banana imports to the United States from Central America, were too damaged to receive shipments.

The distribution problems in particular highlight the interconnectedness of the global economy, and vulnerabilities that loom large in very specific areas. The port of New Orleans, like that of Los Angeles and elsewhere, is a super-connector in the global economy. (See an earlier blog item for more on the L.A. port; also, "Networks and Globalization"). The global transportation system is not a particularly robust network. The cost (both financial and political) of adding new ports (i.e. nodes) capable of handling today's super-tankers and super-container ships means that the failure of any one node (whether by hurricane, dirty bomb or strike) can have a powerful impact, as options for re-routing traffic are limited.

In the energy distribution system, the Straits of Hormuz represents the biggest chokepoint (15 million barrels of crude pass through it every day, 10 times the daily production of the Gulf of Mexico platforms). The scramble to build redundant and/or politically secure pipelines and tanker ports in the Middle East, Caucasus and Balkans explains much about global politics.

Daniel Yergin points out in the article cited above that since 1973, U.S. strategy for energy security has been securing sources of oil, and policy from support for Israel and the Saudi royals to the 1991 Gulf War and the takeover of Iraq relate to this goal. A new security model is needed, Yergin argues:

But a host of developments -- from terrorism to the California power crisis to the East Coast blackout to Katrina -- have emphasized a return to what might be called the World War II model of energy security, assuring the security and integrity of the whole supply chain and infrastructure, from production to the consumer. (The gravest energy threats during World War II were when Nazi U-boats came close to cutting the tanker pipeline across the Atlantic that supplied U.S. military forces). This more expansive concept of energy security requires broader coordination between government and the private sector; more emphasis on redundancy, alternatives, distributed energy and back-up systems; planning and pre-positioning of vital supplies ("strategic transformer reserves" for electric substations); and methods that can quickly be applied to promote swift market adjustment. As with the August 2003 blackout, this crisis underlines the need for modernization and new investment in the energy infrastructure that supports our $12.4 trillion economy.

That is, expanding the energy network in various ways to provide robustness. The same could be said for other transportation systems. An interesting challenge will be that, while historically the government has provided the coordination and funds to ensure that infrastructure is modern, adequate and maintained, in the era of neo-liberalism that support is withdrawn. Just as the levees of New Orleans were left to sink or wear out or whatever exactly happened to them, because the money disappeared in tax cuts to the rich or went to pay for the war in Iraq, so the general infrastructure of distribution is more or less ignored. This provides a crisis not just for the worker/consumer/unpropertied, but also a crisis for sectors of Capital that require the infrastructure for the extraction of surplus value and profit. In the absence of a broad class-based movement for change, the differences within the capitalist class provide the engine for politics. So it will be interesting to see what comes of Katrina in the halls of Congress.


Thursday, September 01, 2005

New Orleans ranting

New Orleans after the deluge ranting:

-- The black faces on the rooftops, on the streets, in the Superdome. Looks like race, but really it's the hard reality of class in America.

-- The totally inept response of city, state and federal government to the disaster. (a) why do I bother to pay taxes? (b) doesn't the Navy or the Marines have landing craft, boats, etc to pick up people from rooftops? Or to deliver food and water? (c) the U.S. seems to get its armed forces to places quickly with no trouble (d) why a "Federal Emergency Management Agency" if they can't manage an emergency? (e) remind me again what "homeland security" is?

-- Aaron Brown on CNN (and Kyra Phillips too) going on about "looting" in the wake of the disaster. With no food or water, and no prospect of food or water from the inept State, what would any sane person do? Worship the sanctity of private property and die in three or four days? Or...

-- The helicopters flying over the city should have been waving signs saying "Sorry, your relief effort is in Iraq". Some 35% of Louisiana national guard troops and 40% of Mississippi national guard troops are in Iraq.

-- How far the privatization of social caring has gone -- the president and governors and mayors telling people to not look to the government for help, instead go to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army. And send money to those organizations. Because your tax money went to Iraq; which leads to...

-- It's not like no one imagined this could happen. The New Orleans Times-Picayune had repeatedly run stories about the tenuous state of the aging levee system and what might happen if a major storm struck the city. See, e.g., Did New Orleans Catastrophe Have to Happen?. Following 1995 flooding, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA, to address the problems. But, per the story just cited:

Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps [Army Corps of Engineers - jd] never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security -- coming at the same time as federal tax cuts -- was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.

-- The communist impulse among most people to help their neighbors, to pull together, to share and support, to violate property rights to ensure human rights; vs. the capitalist impulse to "stop looting", protect property, and either abandon the people-without-value outright, or shove the police state stick farther up the collective ass of those who survive.

-- And don't forget those who make money off of this: the credit card processors are scraping their 1 or 2 or 4 percent off of the top of every donation. Good news for the shareholders of donation processor Kintera: stock is up 17% since Monday!

-- So when do we start talking about the destruction of the environment? The loss of wetlands to mindless development? Global warming resulting in rising sea levels and extreme weather? Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

One could go on. And on. And on.

In network terms? New Orleans as transportation node. As energy production node. As cultural node. Seriously disrupted, the consequences will slosh through the economy.

Or 1.3 million human nodes in the greater New Orleans area disrupted, thousands lost. A disturbance in the Force.


(Thanks Jon for additional bullets).