Thursday, November 27, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell: "Outliers: The Story of Success"

Author: Malcolm Gladwell.
Title: Outliers: The Story of Success.
Publication and description: New York: Little Brown, 2008. ISBN 978-0-316-01792-3. 309 pages, hardcover, indexed. The book has two parts, nine chapters, and Introduction and an Epilogue. The pages are small, the print relatively large, and there are some charts.

The author is a well known social journalist and author who writes for the New Yorker. His own mixed background (which includes mixed nationalities of Canada, Britain and the U.S., and mixed race, even if that’s not very obvious at a glance) come into discussion at the “end” of his book, with some climactic effect. I’ll add here, right now, that mixed international background seems, by itself, to confer opportunity. Look at our president-elect. I know young men with dual Canadian-US and British-US citizenships (and even of a background including Pakistan, Germany, Spain and the U.S.) and all have benefited enormously.

An individualistic society tends to look at personal merit as an absolute attribute, as if it could be measured and compared to that of others. At least, such a style of thinking can come from taking “personal responsibility” to its ultimate “logical” conclusion. I’ve even indulged in that before, drawing analogies from the use of FICO scores.

But here, Gladwell argues convincingly that station in life and, particularly, spectacular success often come from a combination of circumstances that reach a tipping point, giving the person some decisive advantage over others in pursuing some goal. One can think of it as like the point in a chess game when accumulated small positional advantages suddenly lead to a tactically won game.

The word “outlier” in his book title has some personal history for me. Back in 1989 I worked for a health care consulting company (the predecessor of Lewin, which is a big player in today’s health care debate). There was a step in a simulation model that identified and reported “outliers” in Medicare reimbursement. It was the longest running and most complicated program in the model, and I found a way to simplify it and make it run more quickly and at lower cost. That turned out to be critical in a few months when he had to do massive reruns to keep a particular critical client. So the word sticks. The book cover has some marbles, with one marble off to the side as the “outlier”. It sounds like we are talking about stars or planets. The Earth may or may not be an “outlier” in Gladwell’s sense in being a home for socialized intelligent life.

Gladwell’s Part I is called “Opportunity” (like the Martian rover), and his first chapter is called “The Matthew Effect” with a reference to the Parable of the Talents. While religious meaning would take us afar from the book, the parable is well known in presenting the paradox that God, it seems, give some people more ability than it gives others. It seems God takes from the poor and gives to the rich! But in reality, it is the circumstances around the person that make him “better”. Part II is called “Legacy” (like a legacy system in information technology) and puts more emphasis on how broad cultural circumstances affect the accomplishments of peoples in whole nations.

Gladwell starts out with one of the clearest examples of imbalance: in many sports, tryout deadlines favor people born almost a year before the deadline. Older kids tend to have an advantage over younger kids because the developmental curve (especially for boys) is so steep. So, in almost any professional sport, there are clusters of people born at certain times of the year. The same idea tracks into school as a whole. Boys born in the late fall or early winter and held back (chronologically) from entering school for six or eight months often do better than their classmates born in July or August, because they are biologically more mature when in the same grade. (Six months at grade school age makes a big difference.)

Gladwell then moves on to talk about the extraordinary achievements of people in computers and music. Several well known icons like Bill Joy, Bill Gates and Steven Jobs had the good fortune to have computer access as kids in the early days of big-scale computing, including terminal access (with “time sharing”, a novelty in the early 70s) where they could get really good at coding. Musicians often have the same effect. Gladwell says it takes about 10000 hours of practice to get really good at anything (good enough to go professional and become an international celebrity at it). One could challenge some observations. Mozart, he says, didn’t write any real masterpieces until his 20s. He had practiced composing for 15 years until he was really good. One could question this: Eugene D’Albert’s first piano concerto is an obscure masterpiece that seems to have been completed (with all its innovations) before the age of 20. Domink Maican has become well known as a composer before age 20, but, to be sure, has been around music in his home (and in several countries) since birth.

I’ve noted on my information technology blog that the “10000 hours” issue does affect learning curves that employers need to pay more attention to as technology changes so quickly, leaving older employees marginalized. The observation also applies to recession-driven career changes at mid-life, as to nursing, for example. Also, the “practice” effect seems to be more beneficial during youth, while the teenage brain grows and then “prunes” itself to specific skill sets of rarified expertise that seem like “gifts” to the outsider. The WB series “Everwood” presented the life of a teenage piano prodigy Ephram (Gregory Smith) and the enormous investment his father would make in his talents, for it all to crash because of a tragedy. The trouble was, Ephram was a “normal teenager” in all other ways, a fact that his supercilious surgeon father overlooked.


Gladwell offers an interesting analysis of academic intelligence and how (when stratified) it applies to affirmative action. Once students are “good enough” to get in (say, to law school) their performance later in life is pretty much independent of grades or even “IQ”. Hence, it may be morally acceptable that affirmative action programs, for a while at least, allow a result where consideration of race results in lower-scored applicants.

Gladwell also correctly notes that people are sometimes taken out of opportunity because of compulsory demands made by others, such as military service and the draft (in the past). Of course, compulsory demands sometimes can create hidden opportunity, too.

In the second part of the book, Gladwell gets into problems that are more deeply rooted in the various cultures of people. He traces the history of “honor culture” among southern families back to shepherds back in rural Ireland and Scotland, leading to a major subtle cultural problem today in the US, one which probably prolonged segregation and racism. That is, the idea that a man’s “reputation” is defined by his ability to defend his family from outsiders rather than by complying to right and wrong as usually expressed in an impartial system of law. One could imagine that the same thinking style affects crime families, and forms the plot basis of more than one soap opera. Imagine how such an issue leads to other social tensions. For example, this may explain why President Clinton’s attempt to lift the ban on gays in the military led to so much resistance (and the policy “don’t ask don’t tell” which reflects a hypocritical and pretectionist attitude about many things in the wider society).

He also gives interesting observations on how Asian cultural values affect their competitiveness in both negative and positive ways. On the negative side, Asian languages (particularly Korean) place (in their grammar) emphasis on the “social” relationship between the speaker and listener. This has a serious impact on the way directions are perceived in safety-sensitive areas like airlines cockpits. The listener is held to more level of responsibility than the speaker, as in the West. (This sounds a bit like the new “implicit content” issue on the Internet.) On the other hand, Asian languages represent numbers in a straightforward way, which makes mathematics much easier for Asian kids to grasp very early in life. Is it any wonder that so many kids of Asian descent are in all the AP math classes in American high schools?

Furthermore, Asian geography encouraged decentralization of agriculture, as with the rice paddy. As a result, Asian culture developed a more dependable work ethic, than European and then American systems so dependent on both irregular rest or hibernation periods and on a feudal, political or capitalist business hierarchy. Asian culture translates into better success in school. Innovative school systems like the KIPP system work by increasing the length of time in school and changing the sense of work ethic among kids to more like that of Asian culture.

I found all of this interesting when substitute teaching. I got feedback that I was not an effective “authority figure.” Well, why did I need to be one, and why was that expected on a short term assignment? I found that in many classes students accomplished even more when I was there than when a regular teacher was; when students are “self-starters” then a laid-back approach works really well. But younger kids from certain cultures seem to need to find the same authority structure reproduced for them at school than they know at home before they can apply themselves.

Gladwell goes light on the “moral” side of all this, saying that we need to provide more opportunity for everyone. Indeed, I grew up in a time when non-performers at school were more likely to be drafted and sent into harms way (in Vietnam). I developed a certain “moral rationalization” for all this that has stayed with me somewhat to this day. We do need to do much more to share the opportunity, and that has a bearing on what should be expected of the rest of us (including those among us who did not have our own children). “Equality of opportunity” but not necessarily of results was one of the biggest moral issues of my day.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Daniel J. Solove: Understanding Privacy (review)

Author: Daniel J. Solove (an Associate Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School in Washington DC).
Title: Understanding Privacy.
Publication: Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Description: ISBN 0-674-02772-8, 258 pages, hardcover. Good Amazon link.

I recall back in 1996 at the Libertarian Party Convention in Washington that we had a Sunday afternoon hotel room discussion on the face that the “right of privacy” is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution anywhere. Potential presidential candidate Douglas Ohmen said something like, “It’s simple. Just word it, ‘The right to privacy shall not be infringed!’”

My gut reaction at that summer moment was that privacy is surely too complicated for such a simple phrase to cover it. In fact, in my first book, I proposed a “28th Amendment” to be called a Right to Privacy, Intimate Association, Life, and Pursuit of Happiness Amendment", which, for the record, is easily found here.

I look back into my mind, to the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, when a notorious group called the “Dallas Doctors Against AIDS” was attacking the gay community; I remember a forum at some evangelical church where a right wing attorney got up and said “There is no such thing as a right to privacy.” I thought, this is ridiculous, how can that be?

In fact, I go back to my own William and Mary expulsion in the fall of 1961 for admitting “latent homosexuality” to the Dean of Men under pressure, followed by the long episode of “psychiatric treatment” that plays out in my mind today like a Clint Eastwood-directed movie. And then those questions on Civil Service job application forms. “Sexual perversion” was a specific offense for which you could be fired (until 1973).

What was the big deal, I wondered, with my rational, post-teen brain? You’re talking about thoughtcrimes, and about things that are supposed to happen in private, between consenting adults. Isn’t this protected by a “right to privacy”? It seemed that the government, colleges, and employers would be very concerned about my supposed “private life” then. As late as 1965, Secretary of State Dean Rusk announced belligerently, “if we find homosexuals in our department, we discharge them.”

Then, fast forward ahead to the debate over gays in the military in 1993, right after Bill Clinton tried to lift the ban. Senator Sam Nunn screamed in Congress that soldiers “have no privacy” like you and I have. They don’t go home at night. That may be getting warm as to the formulation Dr. Solove is concerned about. Of course, those of us who wanted to lift the ban asserted that even soldiers have private lives off base and the military was interfering with it in a potentially unconstitutional manner, and setting a potentially bad example for everyone else. (Remember Barney Frank’s compromise, before Bill Clinton’s?)

After Stonewall in 1969, in fact, “privacy” and sometimes anonymity (definitely related) formed the main paradigm that justified “gay rights” and as the movement would develop in the 1970s. AIDS brought it out into the open, but it was in the 1990s that the whole paradigm shifted. Not just because of the military ban and gay marriage issues, but because now there was a searchable Internet, and people could promote themselves. “Privacy” became a more decision-control concept. People wanted to have their cake and eat it too. There was this new problem with the thermodynamics and entropy of privacy. Equality (aka the trade dress of the Human Rights Campaign) became the new mantra – and I suspect that law professors (perhaps Dr. Solove himself) are crafting new “university press” books on “equal protection” because it is, like privacy, a shape-shifting concept. But, coming back to privacy, we have to reiterate what Dr. Solove says on p. 1, "Nobody can articulate what it means."

Having traced through all my personal reactions to this book, I now have to get back to Dr. Solove’s basic thesis. Note that the title of his book "Understanding Privacy" is itself terse; there is no subtitle to "explain further" to the casual human browser. The book is relatively short, and (coming from Harvard) expensive. Much of it is written in the passive voice, very impersonally. I love the black-and-white cover picture from the Very Large Array in New Mexico (from the Carl Sagan film "Contact"). Privacy is not a concept that can be decomposed into simple factors, like a polynomial on an algebra test. It is rather a network of related public goods that share common elements, but in a networked rather than hierarchal model, somewhat following the model of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Privacy needs to be developed in a “bottom up” fashion, not in the “top down testing” model so familiar to systems analysts in the information technology world (like me).

The book is divided into six chapters: “A Concept in Disarray”, “Theories of Privacy…” “Reconstructing Privacy”, “The Value of Privacy”, “A Taxonomy of Privacy” and “A New Understanding.” Solove points out that, over centuries, philosophers or ethicists have tended to consider privacy as antithetical to public or community good. Even today there is real tension between personal “privacy” and “free speech” (and probably free entry and free distribution). Sometimes there is a real ethical controversy between the public's need to know how some important historical event happened, and the sensitive and subjective reputational exposures of the parties involved in the event, which those parties might have considered "private" in nature. But Solove takes this further, by describing living conditions in Europe a couple centuries ago and in colonial America, where families could not afford the idea of “privacy” as modern people expect it. Intimate relations and bodily functions took place within the sight of others, especially within the extended family or community. There was no concept that sexual acts could really be “private.”

Solove also explains how the family was at one time an instrument of socialization, not of expressing “love” even in a committed marriage. The head of the family was privileged to control the moral compass of the lives of other family members, even adults. That was intrinsically within the scope of the family and marriage as an institution. In fact, I think the loss of this influence (from the family) actually drives a lot of the gay marriage debate today. The individual was responsible to his family even if her or she did not have his or her own children. In fact, you had to get married and have your own children to have full rights as an adult. (This point seems very relevant to our growing eldercare problem.) But it is not so much a matter of privacy or equality as an idea that the “family” was supposed to be the major source of social identity for everyone, removing the need to be judged by a global scale. You "lived" for and through your family, not just for yourself or your own "identity" (all the more so if you didn't marry and procreate yourself). That has all changed, but not for everyone.

At this point, it’s important to note that the journalism and publishing law world is familiar with “invasion of privacy” from a somewhat compressed viewpoint as expressed in the Restatement of Torts, here with specific focus on concepts like unreasonable intrusion, misappropriate, or false light.

As the book progresses, Solove, particularly in his “taxonomy” chapter, gets into the various instantiations of what we think of as “privacy” in the modern world. These can expand greatly upon the usual concept defined from the “Restatement” in legal handbooks. There is an enormous panoply of issues and problems, ranging from “online reputation” associated with postings made by others on social networking sites and blogs, to the risk of identity theft from data loss by major companies, to home security threats that exist for some people because data brokerage companies sell reports cheaply helping others find out where someone lives. A person may publish facts about himself (as in a searchable blog or social networking profile) in order to support a political argument (particularly in areas like gay rights) and cause other family members to feel (indirectly) intruded upon or perhaps even endangered. All of these problems involve weighing various public goods, responsibilities, and downstream liabilities. They could lead to the rewriting of some of the common torts manuals, like the Restatement, some day. Indeed, in other countries (which Solove often details) the concept privacy protection is often more expansive.

In the taxonomy, Solove does cover a number of the problems that occur. For example, “aggregation” (the “non Euclidean” triangle inequality, perhaps in reverse: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”) is a concept where pieces of information about someone accumulate (often with the help of search engines) and potentially could produce a misleading picture of the person. The problem (when you combine it with Solove’s concept of “disclosure”) is exacerbated by the fact that now, others can publish seemingly innocuous information about the person that stays searchable forever. (This gets us to the “reputation defense” problem of Solove’s earlier book; but we have to add that “reputation” is such a subjective concept and lives in the eyes of the beholder.) The archetypal issue in gay rights regarding privacy – sodomy laws, finally overturned in 2003 with Lawrence v. Texas (but not in 1986 with Bowers v. Hardwick) – is a prime example of what Solove terms “decisional interference,” the last term in his taxonomy.

Whenever I watch CWTV's "Smallville" program and see the young adult Clark Kent agonize over protecting his "identity" and protecting others from the hazards of learning his "identity" (as an extraterrestrial), I think, law professors will have real fun with the ethical dilemmas in the show. It reminds me of "don't ask don't tell". There's plenty of "privacy invasion" in the mobile blogs of CW's "Gossip Girl", too.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Naomi Wolf: "Give Me Liberty": The Philosophy, then the Handbook

Author: Naomi Wolf.
Other contributors: Cutis Ellis, Lisa Witter, Elizabeth Curtis, Will Coghlan, Marjorie Cohn, Heidi Boghosian, Trevor “Oyate”, Raymond D. Powell, Wende Jager-Hyman, Mary Jacksteit, Stephanie Burger, Mark Crispin Miller, Annette Warden Dickerson, Lauren Melodia, Diane Keefe, Curtis Ellis, Steven C. Bennett
Title: "Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries".
Publication: New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
Description: ISBN 1-4165-9056-0. 368 pages, paper, in 3 parts, the last comprising 8 sections.

There is a 27-minute video of Naomi discussing her book here. Wolf also has a detailed discussion on The Huffington Post, called “The Battle Plan”, Sept. 16, 2008, link here.

This book strikes me as a statement about the “layering” of liberty, and of the techniques we use to establish and secure it. I must confess, I haven’t ret her previous books like “The End of America” and “The Beauty Myth” but I can certainly see where she is coming from. Two of the chapters are called “Fake Patriotism” and “Fake Democracy”.

The book architecture consists of three “floors” or “stories”. Part I is titled “What Is America: Not a Country: A State of Mind”. (Compare that to John McCain’s “Country First”.) Part II is called “Core Values”, which develops seven Principles, of which the first is maybe the most important: “We are required to speak freely.” Part III is called “America: The User’s Guide” and has a large number of individual contributions on how to participate in various forms of activism.

A core historical event that generates this whole book is Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, made in Richmond (not Williamsburg) at St. John’s Church in 1775. She starts the last chapter in Part II (before the Handbook) with a discussion of this speech, in a short chapter called “A New American Revolution.”

It’s useful to think back to what British and, by and large, European society had been like. There was the notion of “the divine right of Kings” and a landed aristocracy. There was a belief that people fit into a hierarchy, and somehow the people above were “better” but that, as a kind of moral rationalization, they had the responsibility to take care of those under them and give their lives meaning. Arguments had been invented to track this belief system back to Biblical scriptures. Today, we see the same kind of thinking in the patriarchal family, creating a lot of social controversy.

The American Revolution (as would then the French Revolution, somewhat differently) challenged the idea that moral governance was a top-down process. People would have the right to govern themselves, set their own taxes. They would make, enforce and interpret their own laws. We would have governing principles called republicanism and, related to it in time, federalism. But self-government was, in its time, a radical boost to a sense of self-empowerment.

At the same time, the American revolution did not try to settle focused social controversies, particularly those dealing with individual rights, the way they understand them today. It could not settle the issue of race, or the nuances of free speech law as we see it today, or the subtle problems of family relationships that overflow into today’s debate over gay rights. But at least the Revolution provided a (constitutional) framework by which these deeper problems would eventually be addressed. The Revolution provided us with a democratic framework that would facilitate what she calls "self-correction."

But Naomi Watt’s concern is that the whole experience of democracy is under threat, particularly given the past eight years under the Bush administration, following 9/11. That’s nothing new, because we’ve always seen evidence of corruption in our democratic institutions. We had them during the 50s (McCarthyism), and the 60s, with the scandals underneath the Vietnam war and eventually Watergate. We’ve always had them.

It seems that the author (and her contributors) throw the kitchen sink at the problems, discussing almost every mechanism in democracy, especially (toward the end) the threats to the electoral process. Early in the book, in fact, Wolf gives an interesting discussion (in the context of what happens when an “amateur” runs for public office) of how representative democracy has gotten corrupted by the way special interests and “political consultants” (the K Street crowd) make money off the system. Getting elected is supposed to be the way to get things done, but you need a “political resume” first. (Look at Barack Obama’s.) Along the way, she describes how middlemen are supposed to get "leads" in almost any consultancy or agency: you tap on absolutely everyone you know, even your used car salesman. Political consulting is made to look schmoozy and parasitic.

On the free speech issue, Wolf has a real cafeteria plan. She is critical of the old media and its attitude that it “owns” the news and the circulation of opinion, and she correctly notes that the old media feels rightly threatened by the “democratization” offered by the Internet. So, yes, she advocates personal blogs and websites ("Becoming the Media Yourself"), but, cautions, don’t expect too much of them. They work in conjunction with other efforts requiring more coordination with other people. The book gives some good advice on how to get op-eds published in newspapers (apparently many newspaper would actually like to expand beyond their list of syndicated columnists), and it lays out the expected procedures for contacting investigative reporters and getting onto television (interacting with “bookers”, for example) with the established corporate media outlets. There is a lot of valuable material here.

She puts individual speech in perspective with assembly and petition. There is a lot of material in the book on how the ability to demonstrate has been chipped away by the requirement for permits and following various rules. She takes the position that the capability to demonstrate in large numbers (and risk arrest and even violence, as well as organize boycotts) has been very critical to the success of most movements in our history (including the civil rights movement in the 1960s most of all). Now, it actually takes money to be able to demonstrate, which is certainly antithetical to democracy. (Imagine what could happen if the same constraints could be applied to individual Internet speech. It's been tried: look at the CDA and COPA.) Later in the book one of the contributors talks about demonstrating and getting arrested and how to handle the police. Even today, with all the power of the Internet, collective action is as important as individual action.

She also advocates an interesting proposal: "deliberative debate". Rather than talking at each other or past each others, speakers, on controversial issues, need to encounter one another in person and learn to walk in each other's shoes. But that begs a concept I have mentioned before, "The privilege of being listened to", where before someone speaks to a controversy, they ought to experience the same level of personal responsibility for others as those whom they criticize.

She also gets into areas like "conflict of interest" problems with speech. She cites one case of a VA nurse who was threatened with sedition charges for criticizing the American military. She fought it successfully, but she was told not to identify herself publicly as associated with the government.

Public employees do have legal rights in this area, and that is a subject on its own. But I had the experience in the 1990s of becoming public in opposing the military gay ban (“don’t ask don’t tell”) while I was working for a company that sold life insurance to military officers. I felt that this was an ethical conflict, and, after a corporate merger, relocated and transferred to a different section of the new company to avoid the conflict. What is the ethics of this sort of situation? We see this in the obscure debate about corporate blogging policies, which is spilling over into the even (legally and ethically) murkier area of “online reputation.”

The book makes its case for direct democracy (with a discussion of Switzerland) and the use of initiative and referendum. She doesn’t mention “ballot-ician” Bill Sizemore, who has become controversial by being hired (mostly by conservative and sometimes by libertarian interests) to introduce ballot initiatives in Oregon. But those of us who have been active in the gay rights area know how dangerous referendum can be. (Look at the battle over Proposition 8 in California, the “gay marriage” amendment, and this has happened in a number of other states, including Virginia in 2006. But also, remember the Briggs Initiative in California in 1978 which, had it carried, would have banned gay teachers; even governor Reagan opposed it.)

If one connects all the dots, one can imagine (right now, as a “thought experiment”, dangerous perhaps) a vigilante-type initiative in some state to force bloggers to carry insurance, because of the recent media stories about damaged “reputations” and a few horrific tragedies around the country because of cyberabuse. Imagine the consternation such a proposal would cause if on a referendum (let alone in a legislature or Congress). Just as with the automobile a century or so ago, new technology typically empowers the individual and ultimately can challenge old patterns of authority. There will always be those who seek to regulate the new freedoms, sometimes out of existence. Referendums can actually turn on democracy and freedom, and sometimes so can direct democracy. You need the checks and balances.

There is a technical section on amending the Constitution (expanded on how it is covered in high school government classes) near the end. A related book is by John Vile, "Contemporary Questions Surrounding the Constitutional Amending Process", (Praeger, 1993).