Thursday, October 30, 2008

Jay McGraw's Life Strategies for Dealing with Bullies

Author: Jay McGraw
Title: Jay McGraw's Life Strategies for Dealing with Bullies.
Publication: New York: Aladdin, 2008.
Description: Includes an Introduction by Dr. Phil McGraw. Illustrations by Steve Bjorkman; 172 pages, hardcover.

This book was introduced Tuesday Oct. 28 on the Dr. Phil show on cyberbullying. The book, by Dr. Phil’s son, is written in middle school language to help kids deal with being bullied, be able to communicate to their parents or teachers, and also addresses kids who feel the lack of self-control associated with bullying.

Actually, only one of the eleven chapters deals with cyberbullying. It does go into the bad things that happen. The most common is the placing of malicious gossip about other students on one’s profile or website, but it has also included creating fake websites, impersonating others, stealing passwords and spreading viruses. All of these activities can carry criminal penalties. But the law does not always make it easy for parents to go after kids who bully their kids online; school districts may believe they cannot act if it happens off campus. As I noted on my television reviews blog on Oct. 29, there is some effort in a few states to tighten the law. Eventually, there could be serious restrictions on who can have an account (minors at least), more downstream liability, and, I personally think, the requirement for insurance. This is a very serious problem.

But most of Jay’s book deals with the “real world” problem. He tries to explain the motives of the bully and mentions the examples set by parents at home. Boys are often taught that they have an obligation to prove that they are “stronger” than other boys and more capable than others in (given a presumably dangerous or unstable external world) potentially protecting other family members, and that kind of thinking can, in an immature mind, rationalize the practice. (It can also rationalize totalitarian ideologies, especially fascism. This sort of residue was very much impressed upon me when I was growing up in the 1950s.) In retrospect, I would add that when I was growing up neither I nor the school officials completely understood that this kind of behavior was morally wrong if, for no other reason, it represented unprovoked aggression, in the sense that a modern libertarian understands the concept. McGraw, however, talks about the desire to feel “special” or “important” (by striking at those who are “different” – actually ironic).

McGraw provides some model conduct codes and also some quiz exercises and encourages students to write private journals on their experience with this problem. Handwritten journals (not blogs) are common in many English classes.

It is important that all schools deal with perpetrators of this problem promptly and decisively with discipline. Their failure to act on incidents in many parts of the country indicates cultural bias that does not excuse inaction. Schools do need some leeway in the law to interpret malicious (and especially false) online posts by students (about students or even teachers) as potentially disruptive to security on campus, so that they have the authority to discipline students for online abuse, too.

Update: Dec. 8, 2008

The "Sunday Read" Magazine (essentially a "family section") of the Sunday Dec 8 Washington Times has an article by Barry Brown, "Attracting bullies: 'Aggressive behavior' and oversensitivity linked to victimization," link here. Brown feels that children who become targets of bullies are often hyper-sensitive and even in subtle ways aggressive themselves, making themselves unpopular even with some adults and teachers who see them as whiny or non-competitive. There are behavioral factors in the home that set up this feedback loop, but there is a bit of a moralistic tone to it.

Roland Warren has a column on the same page (15) of the magazine, "Dad must help deal with bullies," link here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

George Soros: The New Paradign for Financial Markets -- his take on the 2008 financial crisis ("reflexivity" v. "market fundamentalism")

Author:George Soros:
Title and Subtitle: "The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It Means."
Publication: New York: Public Affairs, 2008, ISBN 1586486837, 162 pages, hardcover.

Hungarian born George Soros has been connected with Barack Obama’s campaign. He has for years argued for a pragmatic approach to world finance, including his idea of an “open society.” Earlier works had included “The Crisis of Global Capitalism” and “The Alchemy of Wealth.”

This short book is divided into two sections. Part One is “Perspective” and Part Two is “The Current Crisis and Beyond.”

The first part is a treatise in philosophy and epistemology. Soros talks about “knowledge” and “manipulation” (or “participation”) as psychological opposites. These are like yang in yin, or the polarities of Paul Rosenfels (in the April 2006 archive for this blog) and seem to relate to basic human personality. He also mentions “objectivity” and “subjectivity” with almost the same intent as Rosenfels. His purpose here is to show how human behaviors additively lead to the way markets behave. The connecting component is “reflexivity” which bears some relation Einstein’s “relativity” and to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. People make decisions based on moving targets. Truth is never absolute (he gets into the relationship between facts and truth) and knowledge is never certain, and manipulation (that is, the “masculine”) changes the way it looks to the observer. Hence, the concludes, economic markets can never reach equilibrium. They will always tend to stumble in various ways and need to be regulated in a reasonable fashion. He considers the “market fundamentalism” that started in the Reagan years and that was seemingly inspired by Ayn Rand as simply an incorrect characterization of how markets really work, and as unreliable as carrying “moral hazard” to the extremes that some libertarians view it in areas of “personal responsibility.”

For example, a writer like me may analyze my own life (manipulation) and say that this leads to certain articulable principles (knowledge). A politician will go in the other direction, and take these principles and turn them back to policy that affects other people’s activity. I think the notion is important because moral values themselves seem to have a pragmatic component. A great problem for society is how to get people to transcend immediate “self-interest” and provide for others, especially in situations that transcend choice or “personal responsibility” in the modern sense. Communism and fascism (both of which Soros has personal experience with, as he relates in his narrative) attempted to use inflexible ideology to rationalize the rules that would apply to people. (So does radical Islam.) Democracy (or “democratic capitalism”) must be more flexible. This means accepting some uncertainty or relativism (which Soros calls “reflexivity”).

The second half of the book restarts the ground he covers in his prologue, and gives a deep account of how the “bubble of bubbles” developed (building on the housing bubble) much as does the previously reviewed book by Smick (but more briefly). He wrote most of this after the mini-crash of August 2007, after which the stock market recovered and gave a false sense of security. He gives a detailed diary of his financial activities starting in January 2008, including the collapse of Bear Stearns. Curiously, he does not anticipate the sudden runup of commodities and oil in the summer of 2008, which would be the last part of the bubble.

He makes no bones about it: we need a Democratic president and Congress, and major regulatory reforms at all levels, including transparency of instruments, and various kinds of help for homeowners.

Friday, October 17, 2008

David Smick: "The World Is Curved", not Flat

Author: David M. Smick.
Title: The World Is Curved: Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy.
Publication: New York, Portfolio, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59184-218-7. Hardcover, 303 pages, indexed, Prologue and nine chapters.

We know from the title of the book that it sounds like the antithesis or answer to Thomas Friedman’s “The World Is Flat” and “Hot, Flat and Crowded” (this blog, Sept. 15, 2008). The white cover has a tempting tagline “The mortgage crisis was only the beginning.”

The author, according to the dust jacket, keeps a “lower profile” than many other financial world personalities (like Jim Cramer) but he published “International Economy” and is a partner and chairman of Johnson Smick International (his bio for that company is here). The book contains many accounts of dinners and meetings in cities all over the world, as if he were an observer of all of the world's financial dealings but was just barely off the radar screen of the media himself.

In fact, it seems, from the course of the book, that the mortgage crisis (as it started to unfold in 2007) is near the end of the process. That’s because Smick gives us detailed discussion of another of financial shocks in the past: the whole collectivist 1970s, the 1982 recession, the decade long deflation of Japan’s economy, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 1992 crisis in the British pound and the whole set of controversies the preceded the birth of the euro, the accounting crises in companies like Enron and WorldCom (about the time of 9/11) that led to Sarbanes-Oxley, and finally the current crisis.

Amazon says that this book was published on Sept. 4, 2008. The narrative does summarize the Bear Stearns collapse on St. Patrick’s Day this year, but what’s amazing is that the book was on the streets even before the government “nationalized” (if that’s an apt verb) Fannie and Freddie, almost two weeks before the Lehman Brothers and AIG collapse, based on the credit default swaps market being shorted and then called in. Yet the book seamlessly explains how it was about to happen. He explains the motive (based on Japan's 1990 collapse) for the Fed to lower interest rates after 9/11, and how that policy could lead to a housing bubble, and then other bubbles. He traces the process of securitization of loans, of the concept of "riskless risk" that could only implode, and the disconnect between lenders and borrowers inherent in the new financial instruments. Anyone who read this book right after it came out probably could have just waited for the next collapse at any time. In fact, Smick explains that the credit markets were contracting seriously in 2007, and in August 2007 the “financial 9/11” that finally unraveled on Sept. 15 really almost happened thirteen months earlier.

Of course, the “flat world” concept (not exactly “flatland” of science fiction) refers to globalization, and Smick promotes the idea that globalization (if not always equivalent to greed) is good. In fact, the “Reagan-Clinton” revolution that took us out of the 70s gas lines was a studied approach to free trade. At the same time, we gradually rewarded entrepreneurialship and even asymmetry (most of all with the Internet). Along these lines, Smick discusses China’s resistance to full political freedom – particularly online – as potentially keeping it stuck in some sort of Confucian (and post-Communist) social and political value system that could still undo all of China’s economic gains some day. Smick also discusses “class warfare,” as favored by politicians, especially on the Left (Smick says he started out as a Democrat but, well …) . The rich really don’t carry the economies of the world, and it’s important to reward initiative and hard work for the individual person in the middle. He sees class struggles and perhaps the way “family values” are debated as a retreat from a faith in personal initiative.

But this gets us back to why the world (like the planet itself) is curved, into a kind of non-Euclidean geometry. On p. 214 he writes “Today the world is curved precisely because the political and financial market worlds don’t understand each other.”

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Cory Doctorow: "Content": a disturbing view of the Internet-digital-world's future (copyright infringement phobia could ruin it for everybody)

Author: Cory Doctorow.
Title: "Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future". The “C” in Content is printed as a copyright symbol (©).
Publication: San Francisco, Tachyon, 2008. ISBN 1-892391-81-3. 212 pages, paper, 25 essays. There is a Foreword by John Perry Barlow.

Well, the first character of the title tells you something about the book, which is a collection of about thirty short essays (not numbered as chapters). Each essay is like a blog entry, and some were speeches. This Canadian author is quite an expert on US intellectual property law. And he practices what he preaches, walks his own walk. He offers the book, inexpensive in paperback, for free with a Creative Commons license here. He believes that artists fare best if the price their work flexibly, according to what their audience is willing to pay, and that offering free content is a perfectly legitimate strategy for being found and read, without necessarily giving up rights later.

Most of the essays deal in one way or another (often with humorous satirical analogies, some set up with pseudo-poetry) with all the convolutions and contradictions inherent in the way copyright law is applied to and enforced with respect to digital media (DRM or “digital rights management”) and the Internet. The general impression is that the draconian steps inconsistently applied by copyright owners (or usually their representative associations like the RIAA and MPAA) are more about protecting turf (often as laid out by unions and guilds) than actual financial profitability. There is the repeated problem that new technology upends the business model upon which older technology is based. Older companies will first try to protect their old-fashioned practices and markets with the legal system, often to their own financial detriment, before jumping on the bandwagon.

He discusses some of the problems that occurred a few centuries ago with the printing press and Bibles, and mentions the interesting dilemma posed by the invention of the piano roll. Music publishers and concert halls feared that piano roll “recordings” would destroy their businesses; in fact the opposite was true. (Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the most prolific users of the piano roll.)

He also makes an effective argument that many of the convolutions of DRM defeat a generally accepted principle of copyright: first sale. Generally, when someone buys a copy (an “instance”) of a work (think of a work as a “class” in the object-oriented world) he or she is free to use that instance anywhere with any device capable of rendering it. (There are well-known limitations, such as charging admission for playing to others.) But DVD’s are often unplayable on machines outside the country of purchase, and it is often illegal to circumvent the technology that makes them unplayable.

But the most serious issue arises in the essays in the middle part of the book, such as one called “How Do You Protect Artists?” That is, downstream liability for copyright infringement of users of a site or service. The Safe Harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is controversial enough, leading ISPs or other publishing services to yank material upon frivolous complaints (although the volume of such incidents is surely small compared to the “amateur” content on the Internet as a whole). Congress had intended the “Safe Harbor” (in 1998) to be an important compromise between legitimate interests of amateurs and the “establishment” as Doctorow’s discussion shows. But now we have the Viacom v. Youtube lawsuit, launched in March 2007, which claims that Youtube’s business model is predicated on encouraging copyright infringement (following the Supreme Court’s logic in MGM v. Grokster in 2005). Doctorow summarizes the situation by maintaining that Viacom wants Youtube to pre-screen all videos before posting. I do recall that Viacom has claimed in court papers that somehow YouTube is not eligible for Safe Harbor. There are also questions about why “private” or whitelisted videos were subject to the litigation. I’m not sure how slippery the slope is (that sounds like a “real physics”-calculus problem for AP high school kids, doesn’t it!) but the implication of an unfavorable outcome to Viacom could be that ISP’s and publishing services (Blogger included) would have to pre-approve everything that is published with legal due diligence. That would shut down not only free blogging services and social networking sites (unthinkable!) but even “conventional” shared hosting, as has been available to amateurs since about 1996, as well. The danger is that a jury, particularly, might have trouble grasping this – just the way the public had trouble seeing the Wall Street financial crisis coming and understanding the difference between the credit markets and the stock market. Presumably Congress understood this, sort of, in 1998 (but they perhaps didn’t understand it when they passed COPA, which has been struck down but is still on appeal). It’s possible to imagine some workouts. Maybe corporate filmmakers put digital watermarks on their videos that Youtube could check for during the upload as an unobtrusive and efficient pre-check. Maybe text content could be pre-checked with a “” like technique known for term papers – but his would lead to false positives well known with the spam blog problem. It seems to me, at least, that there is reason to wonder if the current Internet business models, predicated on advertising, can last forever given the current economic shocks and a number of other “existential” traps lurking in the woodwork. So far, the Viacom case (complaint seems to be “progressing” only very slowly (18 months after its filing). I wrote about this on July 4, 2008 on my main blog here, about a court order to turn over visitor activity logs about YouTube.

Doctorow offers other interesting perspectives on the attempts to control bad behavior on the Internet. AOL, he says, could easily contain spam email if it didn’t open up email to non-members, which it had to as a business practicality very early in its life. He compares the world of social networking (especially Facebook) to earlier paradigms for AOL (and perhaps its clownish competitor in the early 90s, Prodigy) and suggests that it tries to establish a kind of Machiavellian control on how people relate online and even in the real world. Far from opening up the Internet, social networking sites seem to be trying to control it. There are even sites that try to get employers to sign on to monitor and control the “online reputations”, professionally at least, of their associates.

Doctorow’s anecdote about Napster is interesting. He traces how the packaging of music has changed with technology, from old 78’s to 2-sided LP’s with designed cover jackets, to CD’s and finally to digital downloads, and that companies repeatedly have trouble producing what consumers, especially younger ones, really want and would pay a fair market price for.

He also discusses the issue of copyright and photos, and notes that some museums (especially in Britain and in Europe) do not allow photography out of fear that photographs would deter paying visitors, which he thinks is a silly idea.