Friday, December 31, 2010

Weekend Reading: End of the Year Edition!

2010 is almost at a close, with 2011 anxiously waiting to burst onto the scene and bring who-knows-what to all of our lives in the coming dozen months.  I won't bore you with predictions or wishes or anything else that harkens nostalgia of the passing year.  Instead, I will provide some thoughtful reading pieces you can ponder over while nursing your inevitable hangover on New Years Day.  (I have my large bottle of Excedrin ready to go!)   As I do study Russian history, most of the selections today deal with the rather large nation and its historic or contemporary role in world affairs.

via Wikimedia Commons
The first two selections come from the New York Book Review website, one a book review of "The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB" by Amy Knight, the other a remembrance of Andrei Sakharov and his weighty accomplishments by Adam Michnik.  (I read Michnik's work 'The Church and the Left' in a graduate course on Eastern European history- definitely an important intellectual who helped shape the 'civil society' movement in Communist Eastern Europe.)

Dmitry Medvedev @
World Economic Forum
Few partnerships in this world are more scrutinized than that of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.  While they appear, in public, to largely support one another, there is plenty of back room talk about the potential rivalry between the two men, both of whom cast large shadows on the Russian political scene.  As 2012 looms closer with its promise of a new presidential election in Russia, both men are seen as currying favor among the populace and elites in power in a preemptive move to build support for an election run.  Of course, the successor to the infamous KGB, the Federal Security Bureau or FSB, maintains strong links to the political process and their ability to influence the upcoming presidential election is the subject "The New Nobility" tackles.  Here is a quote from Amy Knights's review on the background of the duo who wrote the book:
The authors, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, who wrote the book in English, are a husband-and-wife team in their mid-thirties, with a well-established reputation as Russian investigative journalists, specializing in security and intelligence, a dangerous subject in Russia. (They told me when I met them in Moscow in 2008 that they had been summoned to the FSB on more than one occasion and threatened with reprisals because of their reporting.) They also have a website,, which they founded in 2000, to report on and analyze these issues on a regular basis. Using anonymous sources from within the security services and the Kremlin, along with on-the-spot reporting, Soldatov and Borogan have uncovered new and significant information on the FSB and its relations with the Russian leadership.
Obviously, journalistic work in Russia is a touchy, dangerous affair.  Amy Knight does a superb job of reviewing the books main points, bringing to light the background of Russian political maneuvering, a subject largely inscrutable to most Americans.  Excellent read, and definitely makes me want to read "The New Nobility".

The second work is a reflection on the life of Russian nuclear physicist (creator of the Hydrogen Bomb) and dissident Andrei Sakharov by likewise former Polish dissident Adam Michnik.  The New York Book Review article is actually a statement made by Michnik on the 20th anniversary of Sakharov's death.

via zackstern
Sakharov for us in Poland was a source of strength and hope during the Communist years, but he was also a challenge. Many of us changed our lives when we saw what he was doing. Unlike many of those who wanted to reform Bolshevism he was not bound by dogma, and he was free from other “isms.” For example, he never believed in nationalist-religious mysticism; he was the heir of the rationalist and liberal tradition. He was not a fanatic devotee of any doctrine—for him, living people were more important than any abstract scheme of ideas.
Having returned from exile in Gorky, he chose the path of compromise and selective support for perestroika, unlike many emigrants and dissidents. He was not a man who was perpetually dissatisfied or obsessed with revenge. He did not believe “the worse—the better.” He understood that “worse is worse,” and “better is better.” And he did all he could to make it better. He wanted a democratic and normal Russia in a democratic and normal world. His speeches in the Soviet parliament promoted this idea.
Andrei Sakharov was a true Russian patriot in that he saw potential for his country beyond that of the Communist past.  Michnik's words above demonstrate the impact Sakharov created by his personal beliefs, a legacy that still rings today with clarity for many in Russia and Eastern Europe.  If you don't know who he is, or what he accomplished, check out his Wikipedia page, linked above, and take some time to read his writings, or take a minute and watch the short news clip below.

American's could learn a lot about our own situation by reading former Soviet dissident works- ohh, sounds like I have an inspiration for a New Year's reading post.  

Stay safe, have fun, and ring in the New Year!    

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Flow of Money Is The Other Root Of All Kinds Of Evil

Today's post title is a derivation from an original quote found in that boundless wellspring of literary inspiration- the Bible.  This is not a religious post, but the quote does center the argument presented.
For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith,  and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. 
1 Timothy 6:10
Another source of inspiration for this post came from the news headlines of today; consumer spending for the Holidays beat expected forecasts and that consumer confidence in the economy fell in December.  The reports, as many in the media world highlighted on morning talk shows, paint a contradictory picture of the economic situation.  Why would consumer spending expand during the holidays when most people's confidence fell in the economy over the past month?  Some pointed out that the increased spending represented 'pent-up' demand, as consumers have deferred purchase of goods over the past months or years and used the holiday season to release tension denial of want often produces.  I am not an economist, so I have no authority in pronouncing which view is correct or incorrect with regards to the outlook of the American economy in light of the above reports.  However, I do believe the consumer spending and confidence reports (detailing, prima facie, two contradictory elements) reveal a disturbing trend in American conceptions of wealth creation and production of goods, with implications for, among other areas, higher education.

Here is another quote, this time from a Frank Rich editorial from the 25 December in the New York Times entitled, "Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?":
How many middle-class Americans now believe that the sky is the limit if they work hard enough? How many trust capitalism to give them a fair shake? Middle-class income started to flatten in the 1970s and has stagnated ever since. While 3M has continued to prosper, many other companies that actually make things (and at times innovative things) have been devalued, looted or destroyed by a financial industry whose biggest innovation in 20 years, in the verdict of the former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, has been the cash machine.
It’s a measure of how rapidly our economic order has shifted that nearly a quarter of the 400 wealthiest people in America on this year’s Forbes list make their fortunes from financial services, more than three times as many as in the first Forbes 400 in 1982. Many of America’s best young minds now invent derivatives, not Disneylands, because that’s where the action has been, and still is, two years after the crash. In 2010, our system incentivizes high-stakes gambling — “this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place,” as Calvin Trillin memorably wrote last year — rather than the rebooting and rebuilding of America.
The thrust of the argument displayed above is that America no longer produces real goods, we simply create wealth out of new financing models that produce value where there once was none.  The result is that while our wealthiest generate, what many would term, ridiculous sums of money, they do so at the cost of growth based upon a solid foundation of an actual, tangible good.  Of course, this is nothing new to the American financial scene.  John Galbraith, noted economist who wrote two seminal works on the American perception of wealth, The Affluent Society and The Great Crash: 1929, observed in the latter of the two books that pursuit of ever higher returns of money, brought in by interest on loans made to fund the excess of stock purchases on margin, begat its own demise.
People were swarming to buy stocks on margin- in other words, to have the increase in price without the costs of ownership.  This cost was being assumed, in the first instance, by the New York banks, but they, in turn, were rapidly becoming agents for lenders the country over and even the world around.  There is no mystery as to why so many wished to lend so much to New York.  One of the paradoxes of speculation in securities is that the loans that underwrite it are among the safest of investments.  They are protected by stocks which under all ordinary circumstances are instantly salable, and by a cash margin as well.  The money, as noted, can be retrieved on demand.  At the beginning of 1928 this admirably liquid and exceptionally secure outlet for non-risk capital was paying around 5 percent.  While 5 percent is an excellent gilt-edged return, the rate rose steadily through 1928, and during the last week of the year it reached 12 percent.  This was still with complete safety.
In Montreal, London, Shanghai and Hong-Kong there was talk of these rates.  Everywhere men of means told themselves that 12 percent was 12 percent.  A great river of gold began to converge on Wall Street, all of it to help Americans hold common stock on margin.  Corporations also found these rates attractive.  At 12 percent Wall Street might even provide a more profitable use for the working capital of a company than additional production.  A few firms made this decision: instead of trying to produce goods with its manifold headaches and inconveniences, they confined themselves to financing speculation.  Many more companies started lending their surplus funds on Wall Street. (21-22, emphasis is mine)    
He goes on to say, "it wasn't that 1928 was too good to last; it was only that it didn't last."  We might very well say the same for our current situation in that it isn't too good to last, it just won't last, a sentiment echoed by the respondents to the consumer confidence survey.  One only has to look at the financial sector and its dealings with collateralized debt obligations (the dreaded CDO's) to realize that the supposed growth these new instruments created was nothing more than smoke and mirrors.  ProPublica has a wonderful series of articles tackling Wall Streets involvement in the 'Great Recession', and while I do not wish to review their entire argument here I feel it would be prudent if I brought one point of their findings to bear.

The black circles below represent the number of deals in which banks' CDOs held a significant portion of their own prior CDOs (more than one-third of the overall CDO slices in the deal) while the colored circles represent the total number of deals completed by that bank in that half year. via ProPublica.
Around one-third of all CDO's displayed above were created by banks to buy their own product, thus raising the value of such CDO's to a point at which their existence fueled the creation of more and more CDO's.  The very 'flow' of money increased a CDO's worth, in some cases many times over.  Seeing ever higher rates of return, several men and women of means before the financial crisis told themselves, no doubt, that, "12 percent was 12 percent."  As the above graphic demonstrates, a great river of gold did indeed flood Wall Street, the consequence of which is well known to a great many men and women of this nation who found themselves in the aftermath possessing little of any means at all.  If we take Frank Rich's comment above to heart, realizing that those with capable skills are still  utilizing their talents to create ever more complex debt instruments instead of groundbreaking discoveries, then the lessons given during 1929 might be repeated again and again.

Yet Wall Street is an easy avenue to peruse if one wants to finds signs of  avarice.  One might be less inclined to look towards the realms of higher education to find similar motivations, yet there, too, exists an inclination towards excessive profit margins.  It exists in the practices of emerging and established for-profit colleges and universities.

Frontline produced an expose entitled 'College, Inc.', that delved into the world of for-profit colleges, best exemplified by the ubiquitous University of Phoenix.  One issue many congressmen and watchdogs have with the for-profit education industry is their increasing use of Federal Aid funds.  Whereas community college bills can often be paid for by small loans or grants, many for-profit schools charge very high rates per hour for classes, forcing students to take out large sums in order to pay tuition.  As of the Frontline report of April 2010, while for-profit schools student populations comprise only 10% of the total college enrollment they account for almost 25% of Federal Aid funds distributed.  Students leave these schools with a debt-load double that of traditional students.  When you combine these figures with the fact that many for-profit schools spend up to a quarter of their revenue on advertising to attract new students, compared to the 10%-15% spent on faculty, it becomes clear that providing a quality education is not the paramount priority of these institutions; that goal is trumped by profit motive.

Even now as the for-profits face scrutiny for their recruitment practices and high loan-default rates among former students, they have found a new source of federal money; the new G.I. Bill.  Here is a quote from a ProPublica story entitled, 'For Profit Colleges Rake in Millions from Post-9/11 G.I. Bill', one of several stories in the series focused on for-profit schools:
The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill provides funds to soldiers and veterans to pay for education or vocational training, and came into effect on Aug. 1, 2009. As of September 2010, the V.A. had issued nearly $5 billion in benefits to over 350,000 recipients, according to spokesman Drew Brookie.
More than 36 percent of Post-9/11 G.I. Bill tuition funding was spent at for-profit schools during that time, even though fewer than a quarter of G.I. Bill students attended those schools, according to the report.
Public universities and colleges received a similar amount from the program -- $697 million -- but the money went to more than twice as many students, the report says.

So over one-third of the total monies distributed to for-profit schools through the bill served less than half of the soldiers public institutions educated for just under 14% of the same funds.  To put it another way, public institutions served twice the students at less than half the cost as compared to their for-profit counterparts.  In a time when public universities and colleges are facing severe shortfalls in budgets and endowments, this fact should be a powerful reminder of the good these institutions bring to our general populace.  Yet as for-profits continue to post profits, major universities like Albany face daunting cuts that already have claimed several humanities programs.  It is as if, to borrow from Galbraith above, for-profit schools 'might even provide a more profitable use for the working capital' of a university, 'than additional production.'  Students, like so much else in this world, are mere commodities whose educational value is no longer tied to aptitude or desire, but instead to profits and the maximum generation thereof.  Much like the financiers of CDO's, administrators of for-profit schools seek to create value out of nothing, or at least create value out of as little as possible as evidenced by their lack of faculty funding and increasing criticism that they produce low-value students whose education credentials fail to secure better jobs.  

If the Great Depression has taught us anything, it is that excessive flows of money often precipitate speculative crises.  With the river of gold now flowing towards for-profit schools, one wonders if the same spectacular failure produced by 1929 and 2008 will find home in a future date for higher education, pierced through, as the Timothy quote says, with many sorrows.   

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wednesday Videos 22 December

The holidays will soon be upon us, and in order to get really into the mood here are a few videos to get you into the warm, giving spirit.

The first video features a creative, secondary, use for one's Christmas tree after the gifts have all been unwrapped; rocket to the Moon! (or just into the air, which is still cool)

The second video reminds us that, when playing with your nice new electronic toy, try not to let seething anger bubble over into silence inspiring rage on poor flatscreen tv's that never did anything to you!

Whatever you celebrate, I hope you enjoy your time spent with friends and loved ones this Winter season.  

Friday, December 17, 2010

Weekend Reading 17 December 2010

Another Friday, another round of Weekend Reading.  Where to begin?

via Megnut  
How about with a joke?  Or, more specifically, how about a joke I stole from a friend the other day?  How many hipsters does it take to screw in a lightbulb?  It's probably an obscure number you've never heard of.

Now telling that joke, actually typing that joke for this blog post, might be considered stealing were it not for the fact that jokes are not copyrightable.  A recent post on the Media Law Prof Blog dealing with the issue of copyright with regards to jokes is my first selection for Weekend Reading, as there are several links to pdf's and arguments dealing with the issue.  Very interesting stuff dealing with an area of law and comedy I never really thought about before.  

The second selection for Weekend Reading is the Berkman Reading Group dealing with Wikipedia Research.  Here is a quote from their wiki page as to the larger purpose of the group:
This group is a small, user-driven forum for discussing topics of interest to those interested in Wikipedia. We will discuss recent research, current practice in different fields, engagement of universities in Wikipedia and other broad collaborations, and historical parallels in large-scale synthesis and sharing of knowledge. Participants are welcome to report on their own work and experiences and contribute to the reading list.
On the wiki page you can find links to papers the group has already read, (they just finished the Fall term and are beginning to focus on the Winter/Spring readings) covering topics like territoriality in collaborative authoring, governance of online communities, and a look at the Chinese Wikipedia.  Collaborative online tools, such as the various wiki sites, are allowing not just wired Americans to work together in knowledge building activities but also the relatively less affluent citizens of so-called third world nations, or nations possessing an authoritarian government, the potential to participate in the global debate of ideas and contribute their viewpoint and expertise.  Great stuff.  

Plenty of stuff to read at the above mentioned sites- take some time to check them out and expand your worldview.  

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Oh the Humanities....or why Wikileaks isn't Bad for Scholars

Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education posted an essay on their blog by Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University, entitled, 'Why Wikileaks is Bad for Scholars'.  Within the essay, which will be described in further detail below, Drezner argues that the Wikileaks release, far from making the American government more transparent, will instead promote an ill-defined balkanization among agencies, while agents clandestinely report to their secret overmasters via telephone, too afraid of disgruntled officers or pesky leakers to risk dispatching their thoughts to paper or email.

Oh the Humanities!
Okay, so I took some extended liberties with the above statement.  But it's really not that far from what Drezner  argues in his essay.  Obviously, I feel that Drezner is wrong and I want to examine his argument in detail to determine what exactly about the Wikileaks release is so feared.  Beyond the Chronicle post, I also want to analyze a movement that is gaining steam and perhaps points towards a future, not envisioned by Drezner, in which government data is more open, mitigating the damage 'secret' knowledge revelations bring. 

To begin, Drezner invokes the 'nightmare' scenario of giving a paper in front of an audience, only to discover that one participant, a grizzled old who-ever with their crumpled paper, refutes the papers thesis, producing as proof the before-mentioned crumpled paper.  (Drezner uses the adjective wadded, but crumpled possessed more texture for my taste.)  Of course this apocryphal tale only highlights the very danger international relations scholars face in their line of duty.  They use contemporary, yet non-/de-classified, sources of varied scope, read like so many tea leaves in an attempt to produce a corpus of knowledge paralleled, perhaps, only by those devoted kremlinologists of old, when 'secret' sources often exist in government 'classified' files that could make or break the scholars varied arguments.    

Thus Wikileaks produces, according to Drezner, a short term boon for political scientists and diplomatic historians in terms of source base access.  The long term look, however, is less rosy, as Drezner believes the 'leaked' cables will produce a compartmentalized effect of government agency information sharing, among other things: 
American foreign-policy bureaucracies have and will continue to respond to WikiLeaks by clamping down on the dissemination of information.
That means more compartmentalization, to make sure that someone like Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst suspected of disclosing documents to WikiLeaks, can't download classified files from multiple agencies. It means that more cables will be classified, reducing the number of people who can access them and delaying their release to the public. Most important, a lot less will be written down. State Department officials will opt for telephones over e-mail. As a result, future data dumps from WikiLeaks or its imitators are less likely. The cumulative effect of these measures will make it much harder for political scientists and diplomatic historians to piece together how decisions were made.
As if the caption didn't already
give it away. via Molotalk
While I agree that the government will probably bring about tighter security measures when it comes to data access or transport (see this Mashable article on the US military decision to ban the use of USB drives), does that really mean that less will be written down?  Highly doubtful.  There are so many reports, memos, notes, briefings, emails, presentations, etc., needed every day just to make a small section of the government to work, how could one envision implementing a system that essentially draws a clearance line and says, 'beyond this you shall not write'?  I could envision a system where sensitive documents have a decay period, to prevent long term exposure, or where access is simply tightened up to a more select group, but less written down?  Skeptical.

Get me Putin! via toastforbrekkie
And the 'phone over email' point is really just ridiculous.  Perhaps, yes, in the wake of the Wikileaks release, officials will be more cautious in their dictations and instead prefer to conduct reports and decision making over the phone, but that situation is limited by the importance of the event and the availability of the proper parties to be available for phone contact.  In short, it requires extreme rigidity and little tolerance for variation in terms of one party being delayed or another party is busy with other matters and cannot come to the phone, that is the process of government would be woefully more inefficient than before Wikileaks.  The phone argument also discounts one of the main purposes of the diplomatic cables, or other government reports for that matter, in that they are created once so that they may be read by many parties many times over vast temporal spaces.  

Ultimately Drezner concludes that the Wikileaks release will hurt the future scholarship of political scientists and diplomatic historians, as the sources once used to assemble the mosaic of decision making will simply dry up.  While this sounds drastic and dour to the extreme, the zinger of an ending line provided by Drezner fails to take into account the argument presented in the first half of the essay, namely that good scholarship requires diversity in source base.  Here is a quote:
We can and do rely on other sources to "process-trace" decisions on foreign policy, including news reporting, interviews with policy makers, memoirs, and the occasional Bob Woodward book. After 25 years or so, most of the key documents are declassified and published in Foreign Relations of the United States, a many-volume compendium of primary-source documents. Until then, however, scholars wonder if there are top-secret memos somewhere that vindicate or vitiate our hypotheses.
Last time I checked, the Wikileaks brew ha ha did little to stop the creation of news reports or foreign policy decisions, sources Drezner admits his profession uses everyday to carry out their research.  If his argument is correct, that the 'inevitable' clamping down on 'secret' documents will occur and future scholars will be frozen out of viewing them, then yes, political scientists and diplomatic historians will be out of one potentially powerful source, but it is only one source.  The amount of document creation needed to assemble even one of the leaked cables demonstrates that, with enough persistence and dedication, future scholars should have no problem compensating for the 'smoking gun' of 'secret documents' when the shell casings and target practice mats of the transitory material are all around!  

Drezner ends his essay with the following warning:
Julian Assange and other true believers in transparency argue that they have discovered the very crowbar to pry open the U.S. government. Unfortunately for them, WikiLeaks will be more like a boomerang—and the next generation of scholars are the ones who will be hit on the head.
Yet I believe there is a new movement forming around the concept of Open Government Data that will make the claims of Drezner appear shortsighted.  Last month the Open Government Data Camp 2010 met in London to discuss new ideas and projects centered around the promotion and use of open government data sets in order to facilitate easy online access and sharing.  Representing several members of the European Union, presenters discussed topics such as Open Data in Greece and the apps/social changes it has brought about, how open data could help in firefighting, and even linking civil servants to developers so that data sets and their innumerable acronyms/codes can be deciphered.  As the presenter in the video on Open Data in Canada mentioned when looking at analysis of housing rent costs, the real potential of open data is not to enrich the lives of middle class or affluent citizens with smartphones but instead to promote the advancement of social policies that benefit all members of society.  Here is the presentation by the Open Data in Canada group.

I would posit that these open data projects, albeit divorced from the world of scholarly sources, could nonetheless point towards a new direction for future political scientists and diplomatic historians in that they will make transparent a great many details as to the workings of government, or arenas that the government decides is worthy of intervention.  As we become accustomed to taking and interacting with the large data sets presented by the government, developing tools to unlock their quantitative secrets, we can apply those same tools and techniques to other large data sets.  Drezner somewhat hits on this potential when he calls the Wikileaks release a 'potential gold mine' for foreign relations scholars, but the greater potential lies in analyzing even larger data sets, ones that can be created by scholars based on the numerous sources they use in the formulation of their arguments.

Jonathan Stray posted on his blog an overview of a project he and others submitted to the Knight News Challenge competition called 'Overview'.  Stray discussed how data dumps like the Iraq War Logs presented unique challenges to journalists, in that the sheer quantity of documents precluded any detailed analysis in a timely manner.  The initial tool they developed, 'Overview', helps journalists visualize the War Logs by displaying clusters of grouped events.  It is not without limitations however- the data displayed is done so according to specific algorithms that cannot be used to establish relationships between documents based on a specific word order, and the grouping of dots on the map do not necessarily correlate to temporal proximity.  Yet even the rudimentary results displayed below of the December 2006 reports demonstrates the exciting potential this new tool brings to what many would term a herculean task.

Hi-Res Image courtesy of Jonathan Stray at his blog,

'Overview', if funded and developed, will be released for open use, the same for many of the tools and data sets discussed by the participants of the Open Government Data Camp 2010.  With some help from our computer science friends, scholars of the humanities could develop or use similar tools to assist their inquiry into various fields of study.  This, largely, is the what 'Digital Humanities' brings to the table, so long as scholars possess the cognizance to recognize the potential benefits to be accrued.  

That is why I find Drezner's argument to be less convincing; instead of facing a deficit of sources, future scholars will find the opposite is true.  Wikileaks may produce a more secretive government.  Yet the growing trend of open data and the possible efficiencies gained in government and everyday life through their use suggest that any reduction of source base from 'government' documents due to the recent leak will clearly be offset by the knowledge gained through 'transparent' operations.  Wikileaks isn't bad for scholars- it merely demonstrates the possibility of large data set analysis to render moot the all hallowed importance attributed to 'secret' documents in developing scholarly arguments.    

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wednesday Videos 15 December 2010

So, it has been a bit since I've posted some Wednesday videos and all I can say is.....sorry.  I've been working on papers, getting together gifts for Christmas,  and occasionally playing Labyrinth, so, the posting has gotten away from me a bit.  But no worries dear readers- even though it is late on Wednesday, I have video picks to share for education and enjoyment.

The first selection is SNL and their take on Julian Assange.  Once again, comedy proves that it might be the only force capable of dealing with topics deemed too sensitive by others in a manner that brings the essential element to light while also rendering the subject non-hostile.  Well, that and SNL is just really funny sometimes.  (Non-US viewers can see this clip on YouTube here.)

The second video comes from the Open Knowledge Foundation, who recently held the Open Government Data Camp 2010 Conference over 18-19 November.  Here is one of the keynotes of that conference by Rufus Pollock, co-founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation.

If you are interested, more information about the Open Government Data Camp 2010 can be found here

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wikileaks, Gramsci, and American Hegemony

(Editors note: I began writing this post over the weekend- as of 7 Dec , Julian Assange has been arrested in London)

Oh, Wikileaks.  You really caused a stir didn't you?  Releasing all those diplomatic cables, frank discussions on topics juicy and banal, caused considerable consternation among top policy makers in Washington, but then again that was the point right?  Why else would Joe Liberman engage Amazon so that their hosting of the Wikileaks would be discontinued?  Or that the White House is now instructing all Federal Agencies to essentially forbid their employees from accessing the Wikileaks website and the Library of Congress, that hallowed information institution, actively censors Wikileaks from their terminals or wireless connections?  In a sense, the reason the leaked cables caused such a frenetic outpouring of action from the Federal Government, who, it must be remembered, did little more than complain about previous document dumps on both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, is something Antonio Gramsci certainly knew about well; hegemony. 

Antonio Gramsci
For those not familiar with Antonio, or Mr. Gramsci as I like to call him, essentially the quick and dirty of his life is this; Italian communist who, upon being sentenced to a lengthy jail term in the 1920's, took to elaborating his philosophical positions in several 'Prison Notebooks' in an attempt to help explain why Italian workers turned on Communism in favor of Fascism as a governing model to follow.  He is credited with coining the term 'hegemony' to explain the 'pull' certain ideas or individuals have upon sections of the population both great and small.  When looking for guidance on who or what to follow or believe, Gramsci stated that people look towards the 'organic intellectuals'- essentially anyone who possesses the respect of others to a degree that their opinion carries weight in decision making- when formulating a stance with regards to almost any position.  Hegemony in the political sphere today is largely regarded as the capacity of a nation to affect the change it desires, hence the recent brew ha ha over the leaked US diplomatic cables as many policy makers claim the revelations derived seriously jeopardize not only American hegemony, but also, if you believe Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, constitute an attack on the international order itself.  

While I respect the frustration the federal government must feel over having their secret communiques aired like so much dirty laundry, the recent fervor over censorship of the Wikileaks website and calls, by some, for violent action to be taken against Julian Assange obviously point towards a different wellspring of feeling than the one expressed by governing powers when Wikileaks released the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs.  The reason for the varied expression can be found, I believe, in the writings of Gramsci regarding what he termed the 'war of maneuver' versus the 'war of position' in the political arena.     

For Gramsci, concerns of civil society were of paramount importance as this force acted like a 'superstructure', allowing modern democracies of the 20th century to endure shocks and strains of a much greater degree than previous monarchical or constitutional powers could during the 19th century.  This capacity of nations to carry on in the face of horrendous sacrifices, evidenced for Gramsci and many others in the brutality and longevity of the First World War, only affirmed the notion that modern governments could marshal tremendous power so long as it possessed the backing of the people, represented by civil society.  Yet while he appreciated the grandeur of modern power, Gramsci also understood that the exercise of hegemony could be fickle, wherein one day the people provide support and the next they withdraw and become indifferent or, worse, revolutionary.

In his writings on 'State and Civil Society', concepts of the war of position and the war of maneuver exemplified for Gramsci the different manifestations of hegemony modern states could muster.  Let's examine a quote from the Prison Notebooks first, then dive into figuring out how this applies to the current Wikileaks situation:
The war of position demands enormous sacrifices by infinite masses of people.  So an unprecedented concentration of hegemony is necessary, and hence a more 'interventionist' government...since in politics the "war of position", once won, is decisive definitively.  In politics, in other words, the war of maneuver subsists so long as it is a question of winning positions which are not decisive, so that all the resources of the State's hegemony cannot be mobilised.  But when, for one reason or another, these positions have lost their value and only the decisive positions are at state, then one passes over to siege warfare; this is concentrated, difficult, and requires exceptional qualities of patience and inventiveness.  In politics, the siege is a reciprocal one, despite all appearances, and the mere fact that the ruler has to muster all his resources demonstrates how seriously he takes his adversary. (238-239)        
For Gramsci, the question of mobilising the full force of hegemony for a state requires being engaged in a war of position, that is the conflict that occurs after the non-decisive positions typified in the war of maneuver are exhausted.  The remaining positions bring the state into a siege mentality that, while allowing the full force of hegemony to be brought to bear, also reveals the adversary to be, at least for the moment, equally capable of winning and thus shifting the power of hegemony to its side.  This helps explain not only the evolution of political power in modern democracies, but the capacity of these modern societies to fall and lose their hegemonic grip as well.

How does this connect to America and Cablegate?  Using the terminology above, the war of position for America for almost the entire past decade has been the Global War on Terror (GWOT).  Looking back on the evolution of this war, we see that the initial stages demonstrated what Gramsci termed the 'war of maneuver' as US policy makers came to grips with a new threat unlike previous challenges found in the Cold War.  What would be the role of the US in this new global front?  What adjustments to foreign policy must be made to accommodate this new paradigm?  While the observer today might see continuity in the objectives and aims of the US GWOT (and some would definitely argue the opposite) the same could not be said for the first few years following the September 11th attacks.  That initial period of policy formulation- a movement that came to embrace preemptive war and increasingly thin lines between interrogation and torture- could be said to exemplify the 'battles over non-decisive positions' in the war of maneuver characterized by Gramsci.

Colin Powell's speech at the UN, justifying the case for increased action against Iraq in the lead up to eventual war, could arguably be seen as the beginning shift from the war of maneuver to the war of position.  Here now is an excerpt from a CNN documentary about the UN speech:

By using our top ranked diplomat to make the case for intervention in the affairs of Iraq at the United Nations, to me, typifies the significant amount of hegemony a state can only muster once it has engaged in the war of position.  The war in Iraq came to define the American role in the GWOT, with many of our continuing foreign and domestic policy goals centered on the developments spurred by that war.  While these efforts have certainly had their proponents and detractors, there has been little evidence for serious resistance by the global regime to resist the American efforts in the realm of the GWOT.  With the Wikileaks diplomatic cables release, all of that has changed.

Now private dealings and personal musings on the character of foreign notables is revealed to anyone with an internet connection, and, unlike the previous document releases related to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, this release provoked serious reaction by the US government.  Why were the 'war docs' less irritating?  Again, looking to Gramsci, we could say that this particular release was not capable of producing a hegemonic siege, as the war in both countries has largely been sanctioned by the world governing body for some time now. While the documents may reveal unpleasantness about the situation, few opponents to the action will find new revelations among the reports indicating behavior they did not already know about, or largely suspect.  Therefore there was little chance the document dump would provide the impetus for a hegemonic crisis.  

The leaked cables, however, have now thrown the once decisive war of position the US enjoyed in the GWOT into a, now, siege mentality that might yet produce conditions suitable for a return to a global hegemonic war of maneuver.  While I seriously doubt that the damage done by the leaked cables will result in a complete realignment of American GWOT principles, it does nonetheless indicate that the position of the US as a global leader in this arena has the potential to erode away.  In an article on the NY Review of Books website, Christian Caryl debates the purpose of Wikileaks release:
Among the cables released so far are revelations that have prompted headlines around the world, but there are also dispatches on Bavarian election results and Argentine maritime law. If the aim is to strike a blow against American imperial designs—as Assange has suggested in some of his writings—I don’t see how these particular cables support it... In practical terms it seems to boil down to a policy of disclosure for disclosure’s sake. This is what the technology allows, and Assange has merely followed its lead. I don’t see morality, or even immorality, at work here at all; what I see is an amoral, technocratic void.
Caryl clearly isn't considering the impact on the hegemonic force underlying the American dedication to the GWOT.  He is correct in stating that the medium and the method are amoral- they are, after all, bits and bytes and no more.  But the intent and the change rendered by their release may indeed do much to reshape the 'American imperial designs', more so than Caryl gives them credit.  While the event continues to unfold and the impacts remain unclear, we could all take a cue from Gramsci and look towards Hegemony for help in understanding the long-term implications. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Debut of the Digital Russian Peasant Project

So I have gone and done it- I created a wiki.  In my post on Russian Imperial Maps, I proposed the creation of the Digital Peasant Project to act as a central point for the collection and documentation of primary sources related to Russian peasant life.  The greater goal is to create a robust database upon which online interactive tools could be built.  

Well I actually went from discussion to action and created the Digital Russian Peasant Project page on Wikiversity.  It is still very, very much in its infancy and I have a lot to learn myself before serious headway can be made- however, it is a starting point and anyone can contribute to the Background Reading and Bibliography sections and I would appreciate any recommendations or ideas on how to properly sort the data received.  There is a discuss tab on the wiki page, so post your ideas there or jump in and edit the page with appropriate content.

Let the peasant inspired peer-production experiment begin!

Weekend Reading 3 December 2010

TGIF!  Not only is an action-packed weekend up ahead, but now all of you have access to some quality selections for those moments when you can't stay idle and you need to read.

courtesy of Espenmoe 
To begin, an interview with the highly wanted and elusive Julian Assange from Time Magazine.  Here is an excerpt from the interview:
RS: But you do clearly have a hierarchy of societies that are more closed than open, and you mentioned China and Russia as two of them. I mean, in that hierarchy, the U.S. is probably the most open society on the planet.
JA: It's becoming more closed. But you know, the U.S. [as] a superpower. Let's just imagine that Russia had the same resources, the same temperate climate and the same number of people as the United States — would it be a better-behaved or worse-behaved superpower? The answer is, it would be, based upon its current [inaudible] it would be a much worse-behaved superpower. And what has kept the United States in check, to the degree that it has been kept in check from abusing its powers, is this federalism, this strength of the states. And a relative degree of openness, which probably peaked in about 1978, and has been on the way down, unfortunately, since.
In case you didn't hear, Wikileaks domain registration in America was revoked, so now the site resides on a domain in the possession of the Swedish Pirate Party.  

Next, Robert Darnton of Harvard Library fame on Google and the idea of a Digital Public Library.  An excerpt:
Would a Digital Public Library of America solve all the other problems—the inflation of journal prices, the economics of scholarly publishing, the unbalanced budgets of libraries, and the barriers to the careers of young scholars? No. Instead, it would open the way to a general transformation of the landscape in what we now call the information society. Rather than better business plans (not that they don’t matter), we need a new ecology, one based on the public good instead of private gain. This may not be a satisfactory conclusion. It’s not an answer to the problem of sustainability. It’s an appeal to change the system.
 Lastly, from Gabriella Coleman, a paper on Ethnographic Approaches to Digital Media.  The Abstract:
This review surveys and divides the ethnographic corpus on digital media into three broad but overlapping categories: the cultural politics of digital media, the vernacular cultures of digital media, and the prosaics of digital media. Engaging these three categories of scholarship on digital media, I consider how ethnographers are exploring the complex relationships between the local practices and global implications of digital media, their materiality and politics, and their banal, as well as profound, presence in cultural life and modes of communication. I consider the way these media have become central to the articulation of cherished beliefs, ritual practices, and modes of being in the world; the fact that digital media culturally matters is undeniable but showing how, where, and why it matters is necessary to push against peculiarly narrow presumptions about the universality of digital experience.
Enjoy the weekend!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Economy of the Commons II Conference Summary

(Editors note: here is the link to some videos of the conference described below.)

If you read this blog, then you know I have a passion for the current issues surrounding intellectual property and the relationship this configures between the user and the production of culture.  Recently a conference entitled 'Economies of the Commons II' held in Amsterdam a few weeks ago tackled various subjects relating to the newly emerging digitization of culture and the impacts this change has on our consumption and production of cultural artifacts.  Here is a trailer for the conference: 

While there were several presenters (all of whom were covered on the website linked above) I have chosen a few that were of particular interest to me for summary and coverage.  If you are interested in what you see, I highly recommend checking out the Economies of the Commons website and exploring from there.  

Notable Presentations

Collaborative Tools for videos on Wikipedia by Michael Dale.  An excerpt from the page:
The Video on Wikipedia project aims for HTML players embedded on the Wikipedia pages to enhance the information with the moving image. In order to achieve this the Wikimedia foundation is working on tools which support users to collaborate on video editing, transcribing content in multiple languages, and to allow for more complex search queries by connecting related videos and metadata. As an example he uses, of which he is a co-founder, that contains a database of US Congress videos, which are searchable by the speaker’s name, the spoken text, the date, and metadata from outside sources.
Many times I have wished for such a robust online editing tool just so I could create a nice 'clip' dvd for lectures or presentations.  Collaborative tools such as this is one exciting development in the increasing digitization of culture.

Active Archives by Michael Murtaugh.  Here is an excerpt from the Active Archives Video Wiki:

Constant started the Active Archives project in 2006 with the observation that most digital archives fall into the traditional model of "we" (the institution) transmitting information to "you" (the visitor). They recreate the physical archivists' box, prioritizing preservation and integrity of the single object over the link-ability and potential for multiplication through sharing that digital collections could thrive on. They are certainly not presented as a means for creating derivative works.
If we understand the web not simply as a means of distribution, but a space for (collaborative) writing, prototyping, and development of ideas, how can archives take part in this active net-nature? How can archives be active beyond preservation and access? What would it take to give material away and receive it transformed? How would files be enriched by different connections, contexts and contradictions?
The Active Archives Video Wiki inverts the paradigm of uploading resources into a centralized server and instead allows resources to remain "active", in-place and online. Caching and proxy functionality allow (light-weight) copies of resources to be manipulated and preserved even as the original sources change or become (temporarily) unavailable. Strategically, the project aims to clarify some of the "cloudy" aspects of Web 2.0 regarding issues of licensing, sharing, ownership, access, and longevity of online material. Designed to break open the "black box" of online video, users are encouraged to write with video, creating new compositions made from collages of disparate (online) elements.

Very interesting stuff on the wiki and in the presentation.

Public Debate: The Future of the Public Domain in Europe a panel of Paul Keller, James Boyle, Bas Savenije, Lucie Guibault, and Simona Levi with responses from Charlotte Hess and Marieitje Schaake.  This is really a good read- wort a minute to just look over the various speakers positions.  Here is a bit from the James Boyle presentation:
Meanwhile, with e-culture rapidly growing and researchers looking less and less at off-line sources, the pyramid of knowledge seems to have been inversed: books have become the realm of the inaccessible. While spatial distance rendered inaccessibility before, actors such as Google now redefined access as immediate and disconnected from spatial fixation of cultural expressions.
This is similar to the idea I expressed in my post on the Geocities Archive, namely that digital archives and sources threaten the 'certified' legitimacy professional access to archives in the past entailed due mostly to their increased online accessibility.  Archives are no longer isolated islands- they can now be opened to all.   

Peter Kaufman on Appreciating Audiovisual Value by, you guessed it, Peter Kaufman on the need to integrate big business in the process of making content like Video accessible, re-mixable, and easily searchable for future viewing/use.  

This was just a few of the sessions held at the conference.  Very cool ideas circulating here, with lots of impact for the study of History, particularly in the increasing presence of Digital Humanities work.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wednesday Videos: Creative Friends Edition

Recently over the Thanksgiving holiday break, I had the chance to catch up with an old undergraduate friend of mine, Angela.  She and her boyfriend, Dave, were on their way to Vancouver, BC and stopped in Portland to meet up with people they knew and rest a bit.  Angela and Dave both attended the Vancouver Film School where they learned all types of animation styles.  The night they came by to chill out we watched several cool animation videos on Vimeo and YouTube by artists I never knew before, yet appreciate now.  They also showed me some of their work from projects assigned at the Vancouver Film School, a few of which I would like to share now.

The first is a short flash animation created by Angela on the epic nature of Pong.

The second animation is by Dave, entitled Fish-Net Stalkings.

They both are heading back to Vancouver to seek their fortunes in the animation industry.  If you like their stuff and would like to see more, you can contact Angela at and Dave at