Sunday, July 29, 2007

*** Are We Rome? By Cullen Murphy

Everything old is new again! For Romanophiles like me you'll love this comparison and contrast between the worlds largest and most dominant empires of the past 2000 years. Does history repeat itself? Doesn't it?

The Roman road system was immense – more than 370 separate highways stretching some 53,000 miles in all told, about the length of the US interstate system. pI

Most people are aware that the Roman Empire was eventually split into western and eastern halves, the Latin-speaking and centered on Rome, the other Greek speaking and centered on Constantinople. It’s probably only a matter of time before someone sees in this the foreshadowing of the emergence of Red and Blue America. P11

Vomitorium is a myth; the Latin word refers to passageways that quickly ‘disgorged’ crowds into the streets. P11

The sack of Rome in 410 by Alaric was both a physical and psychic blow. By arrangement the sack was an orderly and not especially bloody affair, its terms spelled out in advance. Alaric demanded all portable wealth, and when a member of the Roman legation asked what the Romans could keep, he replied, “Your lives.” P33

Well before its collapse, as skills declined and building materials became harder to get (from outside of the capital), Rome began to plunder itself for spoils in a way that would seem edgily postmodern if it had been driven by academic theory rather bitter necessity… Blocks of marble and statues by the 1000s were burned for lime… The process of reversion will not mystify anyone who has visited Detroit and noticed trees sprouting on roofs of abandoned buildings, or seen how vacant downtown lots are being reclaimed by a hardscrabble urban agriculture. P34

Up through the year 2000, American presidents had collectively employed signing statements [the president’s practice of appending his own specific interpretation of how to enforce the legislation] on about 600 occasions. In the 6 years since then, Bush has added signing statements more than 750 times. P41 Has our congress and judiciary put themselves on a path to `become as impotent as the Roman Senate under Augustus?

Within any closed, insular system, the competitive pressure for status becomes intense. Roman officialdom’s taste for fancy forms of address is without parallel. Or is it? During the Kennedy administration, only 29 people held the coveted title of assistant, deputy assistant, and special assistant to the President; by the time Clinton left office, there were 141 such people. P55

The world is the way we say it is. In the most recent federal budget, $20M has been set aside for an eventual day of celebration marking American victory in Iraq and Afghanistan… In 476AD, the Roman Senate ordered new coins struck bearing the legend of ‘Roma Invicta” Rome unconquered. This not long after the remains of the empire and its last emperor were deposed. P58

The US has no military rival; its level of annual spending is equivalent to that of the next 15 countries – combined. P65

Military manpower shortages become a big problem for both Rome and America – and both arrive at the same unsatisfactory solution. P66

Two great military similarities stand out between Rome and America. One is simply the logistical capability of the 2 armies [the other is a man power shortage - see below]. If it were a private corporation, the Defense Logistics Agency, which buys and tracks all of the US military’s basic supplies, would rank number 50 on the Fortune 500, above Intel… In terms of logistics, the world had never before seen anything like the Romans – and once the Romans were gone it would not again see a fighting force as complex and well managed until the 17th century’s British Royal Navy. P68

In 55BC, Julius Caesar built a wooden bridge across the Rhine so that his legions could march into Germany, deeming it ‘unworthy of his own and the Romans’ dignity to cross in boats.’ Then, after marching back, he ordered the bridge destroyed, as if to demonstrate to the barbarians that such marvels were as nothing to Romans. P69

In Dayton, Ohio during 1995, American negotiators fostered the cooperation of Slobodan Milosevic, by seating him directly under a cruise missile. Once, to encourage a spirit of mature reflection among a delegation of barbarians, Hadrian ordered a unit of mounted cavalry – in full armor, in perfect formation – to swim across the Danube and back. The barbarians stood in terror of the Romans… p72

The Romans understood the technology of waterpower, but more widely used for sawing marble than for industrial processes that might sustain an economy or relieve a labor crunch. It’s as if America used electricity to power Disney World but not US Steel. P79

As the Army grew, quotas had to be levied on cities and big landowners. Then as now, physical impairment was one way out, and potential conscripts sometimes maimed themselves to escape military service – by cutting off their thumbs. But even that could prove unavailing. One emperor ordered thumbless ones to be burned alive; another decided to take the mutilated conscripts anyway and then doubled the quota on the localities they came from. Finally, an arrangement with the barbarians – land, power, and autonomy in return from military service. This seemed like a good idea at the time – outsourcing the national defense… Civilian contractors performing military chores number in the 100,000s; America makes greater use of the so-called privatized military industry than any other nation… The Iraq war is the most privatized major conflict since the Renaissance. P83

A bill now in congress targets the noncitizen children of undocumented immigrants: they would get legal status and become eligible for citizenship if they signed up for 2 years of military service. This takes a page from the ancient imperial practice of full Roman citizenship after 25 years in the legions. P 86

Roman commentators of their day had a standard bill of complaints against the barbarian forces in the military: their training did not match that of the Romans, they were hard to discipline, and when Roman legions saw what the barbarians auxiliaries could get away with, their own standards began to slip. Training in full armor became a thing of the past, to the point that they could no longer wear armor in battle because they were so physically unprepared to the strain of full breastplates, mail, and helmets… A recent study raises all the same concerns for our forces. Contractors operate outside military justice – they can’t be disciplined. Their pay and living conditions are better than those of ordinary soldiers – which is bad for morale. The US military can no longer operate without them, but their services are for sale. P88-9

Americans are well aware of the nation’s worsening income inequality, with those in the Top 1% earning 50 times more and widening than those in the bottom 20%. But in the Roman empire, that gap was 10,000 to one. P100

The expectation in Rome, maintained over many centuries, was that affluent citizens, as individuals rather than taxpayers, should provide for community needs. M Agrippa whose name adorns the Pantheon was its funding source. In a single year he repaired many of the public buildings, put statues in the public baths, distributed salt and olive oil to the masses, paid barbers to give everyone haircuts, and after cleaning out Rome’s sewers, sailed a boat through their main channel, the Cloaca Maxima, out into the Tiber… Closer to our own era, Agrippa might have been Rockefeller or Gates. P101

A bronze plaque affixed to a Roman public building provided a recommended price list for payments to ensure the prosecution and success of various kinds of litigation. We don’t have anything quite like that now, but here’s the Republican contribution hierarchy for the 2004 elections: $100,000 Pioneer, $200,000 Ranger, $250,000 Regent, $300,000 Super Ranger. P105

America’s public universities are fast losing their public character. These institutions were created by Lincoln in 1862, via federal land grants to the states as a basis for public financing of higher education. But state support is evaporating quickly so that less than 2/3s of the funding is coming from state legislatures. For some schools that figure is far lower. University of Michigan only receives 18% of its annual costs from public finances. The president of Penn State has warned of a slow slide toward privatization. P113

A considerable amount of tax collection is now done by casinos; rather than raise taxes to pay for services, legislatures legalize gambling and then take a rake-off. It’s tax farming for the modern age, recalling the hated Roman practice of selling the right to collect taxes to private individuals who were then allowed to keep anything over what they agreed to remit to the government. P115

On paper the federal workforce, leaving the military aside, appears to total about 2M people. But if you add in all of the people in the private sector doing essentially govt jobs with federal funding then the figure rises to over 12M. p116

The new globalized world is not exactly flat, but it is rather spiky – most of the wealth, creativity, and entrepreneurship on the planet is contained in some 50 city regions, and it is overseen by a class of people who move easily among these de facto city states and often owe allegiance mostly to the class itself… In Rome there seems to be a sharp cultural cleavage between the upper, Greek and Latin speaking, classes and the mass of the people who spoke in Gothic, Celtic, Coptic, or Punic – Rome’s version of the flyover people and the NASCAR nation. P147

Hadrian’s wall was the original Home Depot. It was initially 15 feet thick and tall and stretched for over 100 miles. Even in the best preserved stretches the wall is now only 6 feet high and thick. P153

Legionaries all wore something akin to dog tags – and so did their horses… There were some 20,000 status of Augustus publicly displayed around the empire, thanks to ingenious techniques for replicating marble sculpture. This makes the post office display of American presidents seem pathetically unambitious by comparison. P165

The migration of the Huns from central Asia pushed other groups into the empire along a broad front in 376 and 406AD. The Romans permitted some of these groups to stay and settle in designated regions under their own leaders with their own armies. This was a major break with long standing policy. What was the rationale for allowing these autonomous enclaves? The Romans seem to have been strong enough to fight them off as no major defeats were suffered between 350 and 500AD. It could be that concessions to the barbarians were safer than the domestic risks of efficient defense. Safer for instance than demanding more money and men from areas that were already drained of both. Safer than handing victories and armies to generals who might then harbor designs on the purple. P171

Today, NYPD officers can be found almost anywhere, from Rotterdam, to Istanbul, to Dubai. More than 1000 officers work the counterterrorism beat. NYC is deploying its own auxiliaries beyond its borders because it’s not depending on the imperial legion. P174 This is exactly how the city states of Europe split off from an impotent imperial yoke at the dawn of the dark ages by creating their own militias first for defense, and later for expansion and conquest. Will cities like London, Tokyo, Bombay soon follow suit?

On the great Roman estates, slaves vastly outnumbered free men; in Italy at the end of the Republic, slaves made up ½ of the population… Ever mindful of the need to keep the bondsmen in bondage the Romans had harsh statutes. One law stipulated that if any slave killed his master, all the slaves in that household must be executed – to discourage conspiracies and to give every slave a stake in the safety of his owner. P194

One unilateral decision that would buy a lot of breathing room and ought to be made regardless: to adopt a long range energy policy based as much as possible on renewable resources, allowing us to pull away from military oversight of the entire MiddleEast. This may be a 100 year project, but a society with pretensions to staying power thinks in those terms. Rome wasn’t built in a day either. P205

Saturday, July 21, 2007

* Wider than the sky by Gerald Edelman, Nobel Winner

The genetic code is made of triplets (codons) of nucleotide bases, of which there are 4 kinds: G C A T. Each triplet specifies 1 of 20 different amino acids that make up a protein. Since there are 64 different possible triplet combinations (4x4x4=64), but only 20 amino acids, the codes are degenerate (meaning that multiple codes map to the same amino acid). If it takes a sequence of 300 codons to specify 100 amino acids in a protein, then a large number of the differen base sequences in messages 3^100(3 to the 100th power) can specify the same amino acid sequence. Despite their different structure at the nucleotide level, these degenerate messages yield the same protein. p43

What is the consequence of evolutionary development in which value-category memory was dynamically linked to perceptual categorization? It is the ability to construct a complex scene and to make discriminations between components of that scene. As an animal moves, engaging in many global mappings in response to the world around it, the ongoing parallel signals reentrantly connecting different sensory modalities lead to correlations among complexes of perceptual categories stimulated by objects and events... Signals from the self systems begin even before birth and remain as a central feature of primary consciousness... The ability to construct a conscious state in a fraction of second is the ability to construct a remembered present... For example an animal in the jungle sensing a shift in sounds while the light is diminshed may flee even if there is no casual correlation between these 2 inputs. It is sufficient that the combination of such simultaneous inputs in the past history was previously accompanied by the presence of tiger. Such an animal however may survive without the gift of primary consciousness for some time in a niche. By contrast an animal with the ability to construct a scene can have greater discriminatory capacity and selectivity in choosing its responses. p56-8

No 2 brains are identical, so much so that the same stimulus and reported response triggers different neurons in our brains.

In one set of experiments, no 2 subjects had identical response patterns... Although each subject had a similar response to report (that they saw the same blue or red horizontal or vertical lines), the brain patterns recorded for each subject were individual and unique from those of any other subject... Given the complexity and degeneracy of the environmental and bodily input, there will be no singular mapping for each representation. [You don't have a neuron for President Clinton that lights up everytime you see his picture, nor does another person have a similar neuron.] p110

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

***Starfish and the Spider by Yuri Brafman & Rod Beckstrom

An excellent book to help you understand the phenonom behind the success of Wikipedia, Craigslist, open source software, P2P networks, etc. There is much for managers, teachers and parents to consider here as well.

Starfish have an incredible quality to them: if you cut an arm off, they grow a new arm. And with some varieties, the cut off arm itself replicates into a new animal… They can achieve this magical regeneration because in reality, a starfish is a neural network. Instead of having a head – like a similarly shaped spider, the starfish functions like a decentralized network. Get this: for the starfish to move, one of the arms must convince the other arms that is a good idea to do so. The arm starts moving and then – in a process that no one fully understands – the other arms cooperate and move as well. P35

It’s not that open systems necessarily make better decisions. It’s just that they’re able to respond more quickly because each member has access to knowledge and the ability to make direct use of it. P39

In a decentralized organization, anyone can do anything. A part of a decentralized organization is akin to a starfish arm: it doesn’t have to report to any head of the company and is responsible only for itself. P48

Hallmarks of a starfish, decentralized organization.
1. There is no person in charge.
2. There are no headquarters
3. There is no head to chop off to kill it
4. There is no clear division of roles
5. If you remove a unit or piece of it, it is not harmed irreparably
6. Knowledge and power are not concentrated
7. The organization is not rigid
8. You can’t count the members exactly
9. Working groups are self funded
10. Working groups communicate directly, not through intermediaries
P 46-53

What matters most in an open system isn’t the CEO but whether the leadership is trusting enough of members to leave them alone. P67

Because open system communities don’t have hierarchy and structure, it’s hard to maintain rules within them; no one really has the power to enforce them. But such communities aren’t lawless. Instead of rules, they depend on norms… Members enforce the norms with one another, because they realize that if they don’t the norms, no one will. In doing so, members begin to own and embrace the norms as their own. As a result of this self-enforcement, norms can be even more powerful than rules. Rules are someone else’s idea of what you should do. If you break a rule, just don’t get caught and you’ll be okay. But with norms, it’s about what you as a member have signed up for, and what you’ve created. P90

In letting go of the leadership role, the catalyst transfers ownership and responsibility to the group. Without Mary Poppins, the family takes responsibility for itself. A catalyst isn’t usually in it for praise or accolades. When his job is done, a catalyst knows it’s time to move on. P93

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists; not so good when people obey and acclaim him; worst when they despise him. – LaoTzu, ancient Chinese proverb

Rather than suggesting ways for a person to change or fix their problem, acknowledge their experience: “So you’re unhappy with your job. That must be difficult.”… As you focus on listening and acknowledging, something amazing will happen. The person will find his own solution to the problem. “You know I’ll look for a new job.” When people feel heard, when they feel understood and supported, they are more likely change. A catalyst doesn’t prescribe a solution, nor does he hit you over the head with one. Instead he assumes a peer relationship and listens intently. You don’t follow a catalyst because you have to – you follow a catalyst because he understands you. P125

Catalyst vs CEO
A CEO is The Boss. He is in charge and he occupies the top of the pyramid. A catalyst interacts with people as a peer, coming across as your friend. CEOs lead by command and control. Catalysts depend on trust. CEOs are powerful and directive. Catalysts are inspirational and collaborative; they talk about ideology and urge people to work together to make the ideology a reality. CEOs create order and structure; catalysts thrive on ambiguity and apparent chaos. P129

In an unnamed Muslim country – the govt had created small circles to combat Al Qaeda. By day, the members are police officers or military experts. By night, the members go out and hunt Al Qaeda cells. The govt supplies them with ammunition and doesn’t ask any questions. The members of each circle don’t know how many other circles, nor who’s a member. Terrorist cells, meanwhile, don’t know what hit them. Human rights groups may object that the govt is funding an undercover killing spree. We won’t go into the political or moral implications of creating such circles, but one thing is for sure. The programs cost 1% as much as all other efforts, and works better than anything else the govt has tried. It works because these guys know what’s going on in their communities. They know who’s a terrorist. They know where they live. And they know how to get them. P157 Is the solution really better than the problem? This is frightening when you think of the ramifications.

Assume that Everyone wants to contribute, and that everyone has something to contribute somewhere. P169 Psychologically we all want a purpose and meaning.

A community wants to interact with one another. P171 We are social and need some recognition and validation.