Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Smashing Diamonds

There is a scene in Antonioni's Blowup (1966) in which the protagonist photographer walks down a dark alley and finds himself in the middle of a Yardbirds concert. This band featured Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck after Eric Clapton had left and before Led Zeppelin was formed. The audience is mostly subdued as they watch Beck get annoyed by a crackling amplifier. He whacks the amp a few times while continuing to play until his frustration gets the better of him and he begins to smash the guitar on the stage in a way that would later come to be associated with The Who.

Beck then throws the broken guitar neck into the crowd and it lands near the photographer. A scrum ensues as all the kids try to grab the offering. The photographer gets caught up in the melee and he manages to win the tug of war. He runs out of the concert clutching the broken guitar fragment and is chased by several young people who want to take it away from him. He successfully escapes onto a well-lit London boulevard and begins to walk away. He looks at the broken guitar neck in his hand and after all his effort to obtain it, he just tosses it onto the sidewalk. A young man immediately walks up to it, picks it up briefly and deciding it to be worthless, tosses back onto the sidewalk.

Within the world of rock and roll celebrity the guitar neck obtained an aura through its close proximity to the rock star. Everyone in that world sees a great worth in that piece of wood and metal and would fight to have it. Once the photographer has left that world and reentered his own on the sidewalk he realizes that it is just a piece of junk after all. He only wanted it because everyone around him wanted it. The young man who picks it up from the sidewalk would probably deem it to be of great value but without that connection to celebrity there is no aura to it and it comes to be seen simply as material and is discarded as such.

Celebrity is only one way of supplying aura to an otherwise worthless material and it explains why people will pay large sums of money for a piece of paper just because it was signed by someone considered famous. Economic value is determined by what someone is willing to pay for it. So one way to increase profit is to enhance the aura of your product in order to add value where there is otherwise little or no value at all. Consider the diamond industry. People have somehow been convinced to pay as much money as could buy a house for a string of shiny glassy rocks that adorn the wrist as a tennis bracelet. People seem to desire diamonds because everyone around them also does. But what if everyone stepped out onto that well-lit boulevard and realized that they're just rocks?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Lunch and the War on Open Source Terrorism

Each and every day in Mumbai India about 5,000 mostly illiterate men pick up and deliver about 200,000 lunches. They do so with such extreme precision that they make only 1 error in every 6,000,000 deliveries. What's also interesting about this organization is that there really is no documentation or management to speak of. Everyone is treated equally, gets paid more or less the same and doesn't answer to any lackey in middle-management. Compare this to an efficient Western corporation like FedEx. They've invested billions in developing information and logistics systems that could never dream of delivering the infinitesimally small error rates that the Dabbawala achieve every day.

Businesses like Fedex are said to be studying the Dabbawala to see if there is anything to be learned. I'm guessing they will be able to glean some useful bits but will find it difficult to apply these to their own business. This is because the two organizations are not really working towards the same ends. A western corporation works ultimately towards maximizing shareholder value and it tries to do this by maximizing profit and growth. The Dabbawala are not concerned with such goals. They are concerned with making a living to support their families. They are not trying to get rich through their work. The system is not designed to deliver quarterly numbers so that the markets will reward them with higher share prices. The system is not really designed at all. There is no command and control, it is just a platform for their work.

This is a serious challenge to capitalist theory which holds dearly the notion that the most efficient systems are those that are driven by personal greed. Open source software is another example that challenges this long-held notion. A collaborative effort to create a software program often results in a better more efficient product than those created by massively funded, profit-driven enterprises even though the people working together in the open source project are often not driven by personal profit motives. These people are brought together by a common desire to create a great piece of software and some of the others join in just to stick it to The Man, which in the realm of software for some time now has been Microsoft.

The American Military is another example of a highly structured organization that invests billions in maintaining a top-down hierarchical command and control system. They have been trained like the captains of industry to deal in measurable deliverables. The generals design the comprehensive plans that are carried out by the foot-soldiers and the practice of ranking participants makes it absolutely clear where one stands in the hierarchy and who one takes their orders from.

What happens when they are faced with an enemy like Al Qaeda? This terrorist organization is not really an organization at all. They don't have a command and control hierarchy, no ultimate commander is giving orders to be carried out and what semblance of organization and hierarchy that they appear to have has been bestowed upon them by western media and politicians that completely misinterprets them. By framing them in the same way as are western organizations the mighty American military lost the war on terror before it even began. These people are open source fanatics. They seem to be working in concert because they may share a common goal of creating a fundamentalist world or perhaps some of them just want to stick it to The Man, which geopolitically for some time now has been the US.

The cost of citizen global open communication drops ever closer to zero and as it does newer more efficient systems of delivering products to each other become more viable and if the captains of industry remain out to lunch on this, they will soon become lunch.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Carless and Carefree

3 years ago I asked myself if I could live without a car and decided that I wasn't ready to give it up. I did want to work towards breaking the habit so I decided to downsize my car. I looked into the Prius hybrid but the battery technology was still unproven, not to mention that it was a butt-ugly car. The Smart Car seemed pretty stupid when it came to storage space - it would be like having a motorcycle with a side-car. I ended up choosing the car that had the best combination of performance and prettiness that still qualified as an ultra-low emission vehicle. So this might seemed somewhat spoiled but I chose the BMW320i.

The lease runs out in 2 weeks and I find myself asking again if I can live without a car. I've been taking transit and walking a lot lately and really enjoying it, and I got my bike tuned-up and ready for summer. My lifestyle today is decidedly more relaxed and I just might be able to break the habit this time around. I'm going to experiment this summer living without a car in my life for the first time since I was 15 (I saved up and bought my first car before I even got my license). Sometime before it starts to snow again I will compare the ultra-small, ultra-efficient Toyota Yaris to the larger but even more efficient Toyota Camry Hybrid but hopefully by then I will learn to be carless and carefree.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Green Campaigns on the Horizon

It seems to me that most political parties are conservative by nature. Not because of their policies but by the way they run their own campiagns. The most common strategy seems to be to get and keep votes by preaching to the choir. Their's is a path of least resistance treaded mainly by avoiding offense. The federal issue of the environment is a case in point.

The Conservative Party cannot bring itself to offend the big corporate polluters lest it loses the support of their moneyed base. The NDP talks a good game but always backs away because it's afraid of offending the big industry unions like the Autoworkers even though these constituents create heavy rusting products that spew massive amounts of hazardous emissions. Meanwhile in the middle, the Liberal Party is content to appeal to everyone all at once and couldn't achieve anything of significance with regard to the environment even though they were given consecutive majority governments with which to work.

The Green Party seems to be the only party that takes this issue seriously enough beyond just using it as a vote-begging plank in their platform. They however have very little experience governing and some of their candidates may be too green (in a bad way) to step up and run an administration. I'm encouraged by Stephane Dion's posture on the environment and also his cooperation with Elizabeth May in not running opposing candidates in their respective ridings. The best case scenario could be a close cooperation between these two parties.

The New Democrats would have been the natural partner for the Green Party but they've let a great opportunity slip from their grasp. They are in danger of becoming irrelevant and altogether collapsing because they're still supported by an outdated ideological framework built on a rusty base.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Prolly Probably

I've noticed on more than a few occasions that some young people have begun to substitute the word prolly for probably. There are of course many examples of words that have been shortened to save on the number of characters required to send a text message but this one really bugs me. It only saves 2 characters so you gain very little but you lose a lot.

The word probably rests on mathematical and statistical underpinnings. It signifies that something has a better than 50% chance of being the case. So by using it and knowing the root of the word one displays an understanding of certain concepts of not only mathematics but also of logic and epistemology. By using probably one doesn't commit to a certainty, one claims that given the facts at hand the statement is not certain but only likely. By using prolly it only implies a vague likeliness not based on any rigorous consideration. It could be based on such nebulous folk concepts as intuition (see Malcolm Gladwell).

I'm convinced that some kids think that prolly is the proper spelling of the word and are already alienated from it's basis in inductive reasoning. I know that words alter in spelling and occasionally lose their original meaning. Terrific originally meant terrifying but hardly anyone today associates the word terror with terrific. Likewise, prolly is probably on it's way to becoming one of those words which will one day in the future be brought out by a stickler like me and shown to have had a much richer past than it would have been assumed.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Doc Soup

I just spent a couple of weeks working at the HotDocs Film Festival. I got to meet and hang out with some directors and producers, moderated presentations at high schools and even cut tickets, counted ballots and ushered at theatre screenings. It was very hectic and I've taken a couple of days to unwind. During the 10 days of screenings I watched about 20 documentaries. Some that I remember:

Girls Rock - A week spent in Oregon at a rock camp for girls 8-18. It goes beyond the music and touches on issues of gender and empowerment. A charming cast of quirky girls win you over as they learn to rock.

Super Amigos
- Directed by Arturo Perez Torres and probably my favourite film of the festival even before I realized that I knew the producer. Five guys in Mexico City dress in Lucha Libre costumes and fight for their respective social justice issues. It made me want to don a mask and suplex a cause of my own.

City Idol - This is the second film by Torres and Heather Haynes at this year's festival. Canadian Idol is for people who look at rock stars and say, "I wanna do that!" City Idol is the opposite. It's for people who look at politicians and say, "What the hell are they doing?". A candidate is chosen to run for office from a contestant pool of dedicated and committed citizens.

Manufacturing Dissent - I spent some time with Debbie Melnyk who made this film with Rick Caine. It exposes the liberties that Michael Moore takes with the truth in his documentaries. She affirms that she is a leftist who really admired Moore until she uncovered some of Moore's distasteful tactics.

Kike Like Me - Jamie Kastner walks around "civilized" European cities asking questions about Jews while coyly not answering whether or not he is himself Jewish. The merits of this film was hotly debated in the lobby by viewers from the Jewish community.

Lovable - Alan Zweig explores why it's so hard to find love in the middle years. He interviews several single women and commiserates with them.

King Corn - Two guys move to Iowa, rent an acre of land and farm corn for one season. They are left to mostly oversee an easy automated process and end up with corn that cannot even be eaten until it is processed in a factory and turned mostly into high fructose corn syrup.

Last Call at the Gladstone - An historic Toronto flophouse is transformed into a hipster artsy hangout displacing the long-time residents. This seemed to be the crowd favourite.