Quitting at 40

6 Apr

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Walter Guillioli. Walter is one of those few brave people who has had the courage to take the reins of his life. Walter carefully and smartly worked to save enough to live off the savings and then quit a well-paying job at 40 to live his life.

GS: Tell us a bit more about yourself.

I grew up in a middle-income family in Guatemala. I am the youngest of five. Growing up, I enjoyed getting into trouble.

From a young age, I was taught that education is important. I studied Computer Science in college. And later, I was fortunate to get a full scholarship from the Dutch government to get an MBA.

I worked in Marketing for 10+ years until I got bored and decided to switch careers to data science. I just finished a Master of Science in Data Science from Northwestern while working full-time.

I love animals, the outdoors and the simple things in life like camping and good scenery. I also like to push myself in sports because it humbles me and helps me build character. I got a black belt in Tae Kwon Do at 38, and I am currently training for ultra-running trail races.

GS: Why did you decide to quit working full-time at 40?

WG: It is a combination of factors, but it is mostly a result of intellectual boredom and a desire to spend my time on earth doing things I love, and to not just “survive” life.

I have always questioned the purpose of (my) life and never liked the cycle most follow: study > work > get married & have kids > consume > be “busy” > (maybe get free time at old age) > die.

Professionally, I have done relatively well. Searching “success,” I have found my dream job three times. However, each time I found my “dream job,” the excitement faded away quickly as I spent most of my time surviving meetings and going through the grind of corporate overhead. I never understood all the stress for work that I didn’t think added much value. I love intellectual challenges and good work, but it was hard to find it in a big corporation.

One of my favorite quotes in Spanish translates roughly to “the richest person is not the one that has the most but the one that knows how to desire less.” And between spending my time in a cubicle working on stuff that didn’t matter to me and buying things I didn’t need, I decided to buy my time and freedom to do what I want.

I decided with my wife to live a simpler life and to move closer to nature and the mountains. I decided to spend more time with my family and raise my 2-year old. I decided that each day I will pick what to do – whether it is going for a trail run (I am training for a 52-mile run) or riding my mountain bike or dirt bike or simply walking my dogs for a few hours or playing with my son and wife in a park or just reading a book.

I will work on projects. I will just work on stuff that matters to me. I want to occasionally freelance on data science projects and contribute to the world. I am also considering personal finance advising to help people.

GS: Tell us a bit more about how you planned your retirement.

WG: I never had a master plan. It has been a learning process with mistakes along the way.

The most important thing for me was changing the mindset about money. I never paid much attention to money. I spent it relatively mindlessly. However, after reading articles like this one, I realized that money is a tool to buy my time and freedom. I can’t think of anything better that money can buy.

So, we focused on understanding our expenses and figuring out ways to reduce them. It’s not about being cheap but about spending intentionally. We also started saving and investing as much as possible on index funds. The end goal became having enough money invested that we could cover our annual expenses from its interest.

GS: What’s your advice for people looking to do the same?

WG:

  1. Track and understand your annual expenses with a tool like Quicken or Mint.
  2. Save as much as you can and invest in index funds. Don’t worry about timing the market (it doesn’t work) or about having the perfect portfolio. Start investing in a broad index fund like Vanguard’s VTSAX and get a bit more sophisticated later. Learn more here.
  3. Make a list of things that truly bring you happiness and contrast that with your spending.
  4. Avoid “lifestyle inflation.” And don’t try to keep up with your neighbors. Nothing will be ever enough.
  5. Read these books: Little Book of Common Sense Investing, Simple Path to Wealth, Your Money or Your Life, Four Pillars of Investing.
  6. Read these blogs: Mr. Money Mustache, Mad Fientist
  7. Listen to the ChooseFI podcast.
  8. If you are married, make sure that everyone is onboard.
  9. Have savings targets and automate everything around it so that you pay yourself first.

Interview with Saira Wasim

13 Aug

Saira Wasim is a US-based contemporary artist from Pakistan. Saira has carved a niche for herself with her innovative, meticulously crafted Persian miniatures, which she employs to make political and social commentary. Saira’s work has been widely feted. It has been exhibited at numerous prominent art institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Personal

How was it growing up in Lahore? Did you ever visit the BRB canal?

While I was born in the city, my parents moved to the suburbs right after my birth. I grew up in Allama Iqbal town, which is a south-western suburb of Lahore. After my birth, my father built a house in Allama Iqbal town; he always wanted to live away from the city life. Our house was one of the first in the town. My early memories of living in that new town include seeing fields all around our house. My parents still live in that house, though the town itself is much more crowded now. And yes, I have visited BRB Canal plenty of times. My father loved to take us there on picnics.

Is your family originally from Lahore? Or did they move there during partition?

My maternal grandparents were from Lahore while my paternal grandparents were from Pasrur, a small village near Sialkot near the Indian border. Many of my family members originally lived in Qadian, a small village in Gurdaspur in Indian Punjab as Ahmadis have long had very strong ties with Qadian.

Childhood and parents

We were raised in a protected environment. Our weekends were spent at my father’s village of Pasrur. Our father always wanted us to have a first-hand knowledge of village life because he wanted us to experience how people live in extreme poverty. We were also taught swimming, horse riding, fishing, and how to climb on trees, among many other activities of village life.

Abu

My father is an engineer. In 1984, my father started a factory for manufacturing capital goods in Lahore. He ran a factory to manufacture control panels and switch gears. Power Electronics, my dad’s company, was the first Pakistani company that made switch gears. Before that, Pakistan had to import these products from Western countries at an enormous cost. It was, in fact, that realization which prompted him to start manufacturing capital goods.

My father disliked the idea of emigrating to other countries. He believed that we have to make things better in our own country. He thought things would get better after Zia’s regime and that our Caliph, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, would come back. He thought that Pakistan would be on the road of peace and prosperity soon after Zia left, but my father was mistaken in his optimism.

Anyhow, while the 1980s were the worst in Pakistan history in terms of freedom of speech and religious freedom, 1990s were the worst in terms of political chaos and corruption in the country. My father had to struggle hard and faced numerous obstacles due to the constant flip-flop between democratically elected governments of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, and because these governments brought a lot of corruption in the country. The common man in Pakistan had thought that democratic governments would bring peace and prosperity in the country but things got much worse.

Ami

She is a very sensitive person.

My mother had a very tough childhood. My Nana Jaan died when she was two years old and she had to live in extreme poverty.

Although my Nana Jaan, a close friend of Mirza Gulam Ahmad (founder of the Ahmadi sect), was a very rich businessman, with interests in Lahore and Bombay, before partition, and left huge property for his four kids and two widows, those four kids and two widows didn’t get even a single penny from that property because my mother’s two Chachas (uncles) were very much against my naana jaan’s conversion to Ahmadiyya faith and his second marriage at the age of 60 to my nani jaan (a young Kashmiri Ahmadi school teacher from a very poor family). His first wife was a rich lady from a nawab family who lived most of her life with my nana jaan. She had converted to Ahmadiyya faith along with nana jaan but couldn’t have kids so she, along with second caliph Mirza Basir-ud-deen Mahmud and his wife, made my nana jaan do a second marriage with my nani jaan. The first wife died soon after my nana jaan death, and both chachas distributed the wealth among their children. My nani jaan, who got widowed at the age of 25 with four young kids, moved to Rabwa from Lahore where the second caliph was living, who supported nani just like his own daughter and grandkids and there she started teaching at local school. My nani also died when my ami was 16 yrs old and my mamoo (ami’s elder brother) who was himself just 21 yrs old became the guardian of three younger siblings.

Growing up as an Ahmadi in Pakistan

Ahmadis have faced antagonism since the beginning. Ulemas of all the major seventy-two sects of Islam declared them Kafirs in 1891.

In 1974, Prime Minister Zulifqar Ali Bhutto declared Ahmadis non-Muslims. The constitution of Pakistan was amended to outlaw Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslims. Following the legislation, anti-Ahmadiyya riots broke out in the entire country. Thousands of Ahmadis died in the riots. Their properties were looted and their homes burnt.

My ami (mother) always tells us this story that in 1974 when she was pregnant (with me) and alone in the house with her three-year-old daughter (my elder sister), the mullahs led a call during the Friday sermon for every Ahmadi house to be burnt in order to secure Islam from Ahmadiyyat. A huge mob went on a rampage. As the word got around people, including our next door neighbors left their houses to try to save themselves. When the mob, which included some of our own Sunni relatives, was marching toward our house, my abu (father) went to the police to ask for help. The police refused point blank saying that they could not go against the mullahs.

Just when the mob was about to reach our house, there was a sudden severe sandstorm. My ami always says that it was a miracle. (I don’t know about Indian Punjab but in Pakistani Punjab we have a lot of sandstorms especially in early summer and they come so unexpectedly that one doesn’t get the opportunity to close the windows and doors of the house. The storms leave your house covered in dust and the whole city turns into a desert; one can’t even see beyond a foot). The mob couldn’t do anything except break a few windows. My Ami tells us that after the storm there were only shoes and turbans found on the street.

So at a fairly early age we came to know that we had a religious identity which was unacceptable to the mainstream Muslims. We were nurtured in the basic teachings of Ahmadi faith in the house and sent to Convent of Jesus and Mary school because my father didn’t want us to face any discrimination because of our faith.

The discrimination against us has also been endorsed on our passports. If we call ourselves Ahmadis, we have to enroll as a non-Muslim which deprives us of all our basic rights as Muslims. For example, Ahmadis cannot cast votes as Muslim and in order to vote, we have to enroll as non-Muslims.

During Zia-ul Huq oppressive regime, our Fourth Caliph (spiritual leader) Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad was compelled to migrate to England. Since then many Ahmadis in Pakistan have emigrated to European countries. Most of my relatives moved to USA and Canada.

Zia’s oppressive regime left a long-lasting legacy of turmoil in the country and religious extremism. There were many incidents of animosity that I witnessed, and now living in the US I realize how much we were denied of our basic religious rights. Ahmadis were not allowed to practice their faith in public places or build their mosques. So my father volunteered our house for congregational prayers in Ramazan and other Ahmadis meetings. When Mullahs of local mosque got this news my father had to face huge threats and warnings that we were using our residential area for un-Islamic activities. It is against the constitution of Pakistan to build Ahmadiyya mosque or use a building as Ahmadiyya mosque and activities. My father was sued by the local mullahs but my father took the fine in his stride and paid the penalty.

I find it ironic that the only country where I am a non-Muslim is my own. In the past, I have never commented on these issues in my work. And although I was very willing to address such controversial issues, the general air of intolerance in my society always discouraged me from doing so.

When did you first realize that you were interested in art? Was it a Eureka moment for you or a slow eventual realization? South Asian societies generally see art as a hobby. From art as a hobby to choosing it as a profession, this transition is especially difficult in Asian societies. Were your parents supportive of your decision? If you feel comfortable, please tell us a little more about your parent’s professions and their impact on you.

From the earliest that I can remember, I have always been very fond of drawing. Every wall, cupboard, and door was covered with silly figurative drawings and portraits of family members, relatives, and whoever visited our house. I watched the visitors secretly and drew their appearance on the wall and when they were gone I showed it to my parents and said, “Look, I made the picture of Baba Chokidari, motti Chachi, and Apa ji – don’t they look like this?”

In the beginning, my parents were amused by the drawings, my parents said, “look how creative and clever she is.” They laughed at those silly drawing on every wall of the house. And then they realized that every wall was covered with scribbling and drawings, and it gave them a very untidy appearance. So I was given blackboard and white chalks to draw on and instructed to draw on the blackboard only. The blackboard had two sides, one for me and one for my elder sister. We were told to do anything on our given area of Blackboard. My sister’s side was always covered with homework and my side was always covered by drawings. It is funny that now my sister is a Doctor (a general physician in Missouri), and I am still doing those silly drawings.

Let me share one another interesting story with you, my mother was also interested in art and always wanted to be a professional painter. Unfortunately, being a woman, she was not allowed by her family to paint or to pursue a professional career. When she was young, art was considered un-Islamic, and a waste of time. She used to make miniature paintings on fabric, newspapers, and vases, from scratch and without any guidance or training. At that time, parents decided what careers the children would pursue and with whom they would marry. My widowed grandmother, who was a teacher and vice principal at a local school, decided that my mother should become a doctor. However, my grandmother died untimely and the male guardians of my mother disallowed her from continuing her education. So, with her hidden passion for the arts and her mother’s unfulfilled dream for her to be a doctor, she was married away.

Since early childhood, my mother has been mentally and academically preparing my sister and me to eventually become doctors. My sister fulfilled my mother’s dream and became a doctor. But when it came my turn to choose a career, I disappointed her. She always said: I didn’t get permission to be an artist by my mother, so how can I allow you?

At the time, my progress in school was getting very weak and she had to face complaints from my school teachers that they had caught me drawing in the class. So whenever my mother caught me drawing or painting, she would destroy whatever artwork I had created. The only safe time I had was in the middle of the night. I used to wake up in the middle of the night when everybody was asleep, switched on a torch, covered myself with a big blanket, and pursued my art underneath it. Now I feel funny sharing all this but I was still caught and received a good beating from Ami. My mother had a special beating stick for me. If I ever said I wanted to be an artist my sister immediately fetched that stick and put it in front of Ami.

My mother was not an anti-art person, but she feared that her daughter wouldn’t have a respectable place in the society and that pursuing art would kill my professional abilities. As you know in South Asian society artists are deemed to be mere craftsmen.

My secret decision of being an artist was totally opposite to what my mom had decided for me. What I was painting was an even graver threat to Ami and Abu because starting 8th grade, I started painting compositions on human suffering, persecution on minorities and women’s issues.

Eventually, after years of persistence, my parents realized the intensity of my devotion to being an artist and I was granted permission to go to an art school. My Abu was a very big support from the very beginning – he always supported me in whatever I did or chose except we were supposed to be good in studies and elite in our fields. Like, Kasbeh Kamal khon khe Aziz-e-Jhan Shohri Iqbal

My Ami had her own very strong principles and beliefs. She always taught us it was a rigid patriarchal society (secondly we were a religious minority) where there was much discrimination against women and minorities and so women must pursue a career of utmost prestige and which would be considered safe and money making too.

Another reason for these strong anti-art sentiments in the 80’s was Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship. Every sort of art except for calligraphy was condemned; figurative art was considered un-Islamic. In fact, engaging in any form of art was considered a great sin.

I was careful to never show my work to my family till it was exhibited or published because if they saw the content and imagery of my work, they would never allow me to continue making such paintings or display them. So, belonging to a family from a controversial religious minority, and one that didn’t support the arts, I grew more politically conscious by the day.

Art

Why did you choose miniature art? What specific affordances does miniature art provide for your overtly political work?

Even today, Pakistani audiences perceive miniature painting as decorative, a form of art that reflects and glorifies their rich traditional heritage. Miniatures, for me, however, have a more transcendental role; it is a vocabulary for the artist to engage in a sociopolitical dialog with viewers towards a more humane society.

Of late, the miniature has drawn attention from foreign curators, museums, and art institutions. Yet, in Pakistan, my work was accepted by just one gallery — Rhotas2, the only serious gallery in Lahore; others were reluctant to display anything controversial.

Moving to Chicago in 2003, I gained the artistic and religious freedom that was somewhat precarious in my own homeland. I began responding to my new environment. The post 9/11 climate of fear, scrutiny, and surveillance of Muslims in the West shaped my current work. Global politics has become a consistent theme. Western societies in general — and the United States in particular — tend to be less aware of other societies in the world, particularly about Islam and Muslim culture. This is an era of cross-cultural misunderstandings; misperceptions created by the Western media that are mostly hostile to Muslim societies and Islam. Much of this misperception is attributable to the Western media, which often presents a distorted version of reality and only one side of the global debate. My new works unmask the injustices and hypocrisy of both the Eastern and the Western worlds.

My work has journeyed through several boundaries, from employing the centuries-old miniature format to a contemporary stage where a human drama unfolds every day, to cross-cultural forays and political interventions. And the inspirational sources have been many — the courtly propaganda of the Mughals, the grandeur of baroque opera, the fun and enjoyment of circus performances, icons of pop culture, and the glamor of South-Asian cinema.

With Mughal allegorical symbolism, we miniaturists have created our own visual semiotics and metaphors. For example, the extremist mullahs who have hijacked Islam for their own political agendas and manipulate Muslim youth in the name of jihad are allegorized by Greek-satyrs, Muslim leaders are depicted as string puppets in the hands of President Bush, Pakistani army generals wearing Hawaiian sandals indicate the irony that this nation is the world’s seventh nuclear state and is spending on a defense budget of over $3.5 billion a year in spite of a national debt of over $40 billion, and the Shia-Sunni clash in Iraq is a bull-fight and the bogeyman media is a monkey with a camera.

Although they provide comic relief, they are critical of ignorance and prejudice, manipulation of governments and religious heads. The ironies and paradoxes of a post 9/11 world permeate my tragi-comic paintings. Mine is a plea for social justice.

Note: The interview was conducted in early 2007. The interview has been extensively edited for style, and on occasion for content. Due care has been taken to keep the overall emphasis and context intact.

Interview with Bina Shah – part 2

28 Jun

Bina Shah is a noted Karachi based author, and journalist. This is a follow-up interview.

In the response to the question about the choice of male protagonists in your novels, you noted, “This is going to change in my next novel, in which the protagonist is a young girl. But she comes from a level of society in which she can slip in and out of various places because she is the poorest of the poor, and they have more liberty in many ways, at least at that age, than a middle or upper-class woman in Pakistan. If that sounds like a paradox, it is.” Your observation reminded me of a passage in Ms. Sidhwa’s novel, The Bride, “Miriam, reflecting her husband’s rising status and respectability, took to observing strict purdah. She seldom ventured out without a veil.”

I think what you say is largely right and something which anthropologists have commented on earlier. They argue that it is the necessity of going to work etc. for the lower class that causes these somewhat lax attitudes. What is your take on the issue? Can you also comment briefly on how economics defines culture? Of course, we have heard all about it through the Friedman patented McDonald’s angle that tackles cultural change via globalization. But can you talk about it from a different angle? And how do you deal with it in your own work?

You won’t see women in the rural areas in purdah. They cover their heads with their dupattas and that is the end of it. They have to go out into the fields and work, and you can’t do that in a purdah or a burqa or a hijab. Some of our women-related cultural rituals and habits are affectations or posturing—making a statement about who you are, or who others think you should be, a very considered statement. Real culture comes more naturally; you don’t have to think about adopting it because you live it.

In response to the question about the ‘type’ of novel—elemental versus Intellectual—you said, “I had a story and I wanted to tell it. I did not feel entitled to comment upon the state of the world at large because I had seen so little of it, in my opinion… My own theories could wait till I had figured out what they were. Why inflict that on my reader?” I perhaps misstated my point about elemental novels for they often have do have opinions and critiques woven in. I certainly think that your novels have implicit critiques, and at least amorphous theories. In fact, I find it impossible that a novel can be absent of ‘comments upon the state of the world’. Perhaps the ‘type’ is more appropriately consigned to the creative process. For instance, I have little doubt that Naipaul first had the ‘idea’ of denigrating revolutionary leaders before he wrote ‘guerillas’. On the other hand, the vicious ‘pettiness’ of everyday life manifest in ‘The House of Mr. Biswas’ seems very much a peripheral part of this sort of unvarnished descriptions. Perhaps I am wrong here and the ‘vicious pettiness’ was indeed a deliberate point. Even if it was deliberate, it was still very clearly made. So is the faux distinction that I draw about types of novels about intentionality? Can you comment briefly on this? And can you talk more about how you craft your own work?

For me, the story always comes first. The social critique comes as I am writing the story. The characters deal with certain situations, and if it is appropriate to comment on society at large because of what they’re going through, then I do it, but I really try hard to weave it in to the narrative rather than taking a big aside that goes on for pages and comments very obviously and loudly on that aspect of society. I’m always sensitive to what sounds natural and what is very obviously the author taking over the narrative, imposing her own voice on the voice of the characters – to me that is very intrusive and distracting and ultimately weak writing.

In response to the question soliciting your comment on whether most ‘authors are trying to write their psychological autobiographies and failing to write them honestly’, you intriguingly started with the phrase, “For me, writing is a therapeutic process”. Was that false start a ‘cousin-of-Freud’ Freudian slip? The point that I was trying to make was that our own histories sometimes make it hard to look at the world objectively, especially in a personal (and seductively powerful) medium like novel that allows, in fact, urges, a novelist to say more or less what s/he wants. Additionally, I think that novelists don’t use the novel to ‘understand the world’ but use it for delivering what they understand about the world.

I meant what I said when I wrote that writing is a therapeutic process. But not therapy for the writer in terms of her own psychological traumas – therapy for the writer as a person existing in a world, a universe, that is difficult and heartbreaking and joyous and eleventeen layers of complex; and coming to terms with all the multiplicities and the multitudes in that world, that universe. There are people that use the novel to exorcise their own demons, certainly. But I will stand by my assertion that novelists write novels to understand the world. When you’re writing or you’re undertaking any sort of artistic project, the process of creation is one that continues throughout the entire span of the project. It’s not that you think and think for five years and you formulate your theories and only then do you put pen to paper and what emerges is fully formed. As you write, your mind keeps working, your theories keep developing. Every day of writing my novel was a new day of discovery, of mental exercises and challenges and expansion and growth. I grew as a person as a result of writing my books. I learned what I knew about the world and what I didn’t. I understood my limitations and where I needed to go in order to overcome them.

Karachi

Can you talk about how Karachi has influenced your writing?

You are not going to let me get away from that question, are you? Karachi is my inspiration. I couldn’t have been a writer in any other city in the world. Maybe I could now. Like a soldier going into her first battle, I’ve gotten my basic training in Karachi. Karachi is where the stories are. I am a bit of an amateur psychologist and never have I seen another city where people behave in the most contradictory ways. And yet when you examine their motivations and their thought processes, you come up with some amazing insights and illuminations about the human race. It is like a big…what’s the word I am looking for? a cauldron, a test-tube, a type of crucible…where the best and worst of humanity are all thrown together and the results are unpredictable, sometimes horrible, sometimes heartbreaking, but always amazing. I chronicle those results. That is the sum total of all my endeavors as a writer.

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This follow-up interview was conducted via email. Questions and answers have been edited for style and content.

Interview with Bina Shah

27 Jun

Bina Shah, a Wellesley and Harvard alumna, is a noted Karachi based author, journalist, editor, and blogger. She has published two novels and two collections of short stories. Her first collection of short stories, Animal Medicine, was published by Oxford University Press in 1999. The collection was followed by a well-received novel, Where They Dream in Blue, that cataloged the return of an expatriate to Karachi. Ms. Shah currently edits the Alhamra Literary Review along with Ilona Yusuf.

Biographical

How was it growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s under Zia-ul-Haq?

Weird and tense. I remember the day Bhutto was hanged. I was only five but everyone was terrified that there would be some sort of reaction. And there wasn’t. The streets were quiet. Later, I remember “Black Days”, but I didn’t understand what they were about. I touched on those days in my short story 1978 in Blessings where this young boy grows up in the Zia era—the feeling of being out in some sort of wilderness physically echoes what it felt like in this country back then.

You have spent a fair amount of time in the US. You spent your early years in Virginia and then upwards of five years in Massachusetts getting educated, first at Wellesley and then at the School of Education at Harvard. Can you tell us a little more about your time in the US?

Those were the years that formed me. From zero to five, you are absorbing everything and understanding how the world works. Getting your initial programming, so to speak.

When I returned for college and graduate school, it was a time of great freedom, of experimentation, trying my wings. The contrast between a sheltered upbringing in Pakistan and being in the hothouse environment of a Boston education couldn’t be greater. Both of those times in America made me who I am today.

Can you tell me a little more about your parents? What took you and your family to Virginia and what brought you back? What was their attitude towards your choice of profession?

My father was a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia, and that is why we went there. We came back when he completed his studies, five years later. My parents are many things to me. They were young when they had me, and in a sense, the three of us have grown up together. They challenge me in ways that nobody else does; they are supportive of me but they will never let my head get too big. My mother, particularly, is good at deflating my ego! They are extremely pleased that I have turned out to be a writer because they see how happy it makes me. My dad always said I should be a writer and he never lets me forget that he was right. :)

What was your experience like attending an all women liberal Liberal Arts college in Massachusetts?

Absolutely fantastic! I would send my daughter there in an instant. You have your whole life to spend with men; you only get four years to spend it in an all-women environment. The amount of support, the building of self-confidence and self-esteem is unrivaled anywhere else. It was a very special time.

Your book Where They Dream in Blue deals with an ABCD’s visit to Karachi. How much of the book parallels your own journey? How hard was it for you to readjust to Karachi when you came back from the US in the 1990s? Can you tell us about some of the challenges?

The book attempts to deal with the questions that any person visiting their homeland would feel, especially Pakistanis who were raised in America. The questions that a Pakistani raised in Britain would have might be slightly different, but I think there are some things that apply to everyone. Certainly, I grappled with many of those questions myself. Adjusting back to Karachi in 1995 was nowhere near as difficult as adjusting to it in 1977 when the differences between the two countries in terms of culture and environment were far different. In 1977, there was nobody like me—a person who’d been raised in America. In 1995, there were starting to be lots of kids like me, who had gone for school there and come back. However, the challenge was the same here as it would have been for any young adult attempting to re-enter the real world after college: what am I going to do with my life?

You began your career as a Features Editor for Computerworld in 1996. That is fairly early in terms of the web revolution, and even the Computer revolution when it comes to Pakistan. Can you tell us a little more about the technology ‘scene’ in Pakistan at that time and how it has evolved in the past decade?

The technology scene in Pakistan was it its embryonic stages. The Internet had just come to Pakistan that year, and those of us who had been in America and used email got really excited about the Web and what it meant. People who were based here, especially traditional sorts of businesses, were suspicious and terrified of the new technology. So you had pockets of great understanding – we were like this little team, spread out across the country but keeping in touch through email and being astronauts in a way: “the Internet, the brave new world and then the larger landscape of resistance. But like they say in the space movies “resistance is futile”. Now everyone’s using technology in much the same way they were using it in the United States around, say, 1999. Mobile phones are part of that boom, by the way. We could be doing more – applying technology more to our everyday lives, rather than making an effort to integrate Blackberries and Wifi, it should all fall into place naturally – but it is always going to be that much more of an effort here.

Authorship

The heroes of both of your novels, Where They Dream in Blue, and The 786 Cybercafe, are men. Arati Belle, in her review of Animal Medicine, writes, “Curiously, she seems to get into the skin of the boy in this story than any of the girls in the other stories” in reference to the story ‘Going Fishing.’ Was it a deliberate choice on your part to use male protagonists?

Yes, it was a deliberate choice. When you are starting out with your writing, the last thing you want is for everyone to ask you, “Well, is this about you?” Making the protagonist a man was the easiest way I could think of to sidestep this question, which gets very annoying to answer after the twentieth time.

The other reason for using men as protagonists is that there’s a practical consideration: in this society, men simply have more access to certain situations and locations than women do. I don’t like it, but it is true. How many women of a middle-class background do you know who would be able to set up a cybercafe on Tariq Road? So I bring women into the narrative, but then I try to highlight their positions/situations in society.

This is going to change in my next novel, in which the protagonist is a young girl. But she comes from a level of society in which she can slip in and out of various places because she is the poorest of the poor, and they have more liberty in many ways – at least at that age – than a middle or upper-class woman in Pakistan. If that sounds like a paradox, it is.

“In the novel, there is room for poetry, for tenderness and violence, for description and investigation, for analysis and synthesis; there is room for the portrayal of the countryside and of characters and of non-characters. That is, the man from within and from without.” Camilo Jose Cela, Nobel Prize-winning Spanish author once said in an interview when asked about the novel. Do you agree with what he says? What do you think is the range of the novel as a medium? What are its limitations?

I had to look up the novel in my Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms to answer this question. The great strength of the novel is its freedom from limitations: style, structure, length, content. It is like this form that can absorb and make its own all the other literary forms around. If there are limitations to the novel, they exist in the limitations of the writer. A bad writer is going to write a bad novel, sure, but even a very good writer can be limited by her own limitations of experience, geography, knowledge of other disciplines, lack of worldview, and so on. The novel really challenges you to dig deep within yourself as a writer and bring out everything you know. It will totally exhaust you as a medium if you are not up to the challenge.

There are a variety of novels – the intellectual novel in the vein of Joyce and Rushdie, an elemental novel or the simple novel, the kind of novel written, for example, in the style of Dickens, or Balzac. (Cela) And then there are of course myriad hybrids. You, to me, have crafted two elemental novels. Firstly, do you agree with the statement and if so then can you tell us a little more about what went behind the choice?

Yes, I agree with your statement. My first two novels were very simply written. I think I simply was not ready to write a very intellectual novel. I was young, I was inexperienced, and I was not confident. I had a story and I wanted to tell it. I did not feel entitled to comment upon the state of the world at large because I had seen so little of it, in my opinion. I wanted to concentrate on my stories and my characters, and do a good job of that; I felt I owed that to the reader first and foremost. My own theories could wait till I had figured out what they were. Why inflict that on my reader?

Most authors are trying to write their psychological autobiographies and failing to write them honestly. Their inability to come to terms with their own ghosts, their psychological traumas, and their inability to forgive themselves and others, often creates perversions that surface in the form of misplaced viciousness with which they deal with some characters. They are also trying to ‘understand’ the world and often ‘fail’ to understand it. Let me provide an example to illustrate the point. You listed Of Human Bondage as one of your favorite books in one of your interviews. The book is also a great favorite of mine. My friend Chaste recently provided a wonderful analysis of a facet pertinent to the question and I paraphrase his analysis here- Philip Carey’s character is largely autobiographical with his club foot a substitute for Maugham’s stutter and closet homosexual status. Then there is Mildred, a common shop girl, who declines in status every time we meet her anew – from a struggling shop girl to a prostitute with syphilis. Chaste argues that Maugham uses Mildred’s debasement as a way to come to terms with the trauma that he had to suffer from at the hands of his peers. He transfers all of that angst onto a working-class girl than the middle-class women, at whose hands he most probably suffered. Can you comment briefly on the unduly broad statement with which I start this question by first pruning it and then analyzing it?

For me, writing is a therapeutic process, not to try and heal the writer of any psychological demons, but to understand the world around them in some way. By writing about issues, especially ones that bother me, that nag me, that are complex and not easily categorized or understood, I grapple with them and eventually arrive at a better understanding of them. As for being vicious towards a character, that is an odd thing to do. As a writer, I have love for all my characters, even the ones that aren’t particularly likable, because they are my creations. I try to make them play out the complexities of life that I see going on in the real world, not the ones in my head.

Can you now answer the question that I raise above with regards to your novel, The 786 Cyber cafe, that in the words of one of your prior interviewers is “centered on a story based on the infamous ‘other side of the Clifton bridge.” In response to which you said, “I think people on this side of the bridge are more narrow-minded in many ways.”

People are hemmed in everywhere by their preconceptions and prejudices. Just because you are rich and you are educated doesn’t mean you lack those preconceptions and prejudices. Nor does being rich or educated make you any more open-minded or tolerant. I believe the rich, the elite, those that live on “this side of the Clifton Bridge, which is a bridge that connects the richest parts of Karachi, Clifton and Defence, to the rest of the town on the Saddar side and beyond – think that their intellectual work is done once they have gotten their college degrees and taken the reins of their fabulous destinies as the nation’s leaders. Intellectually they are some of the laziest people I have ever seen: content to expound forever on whatever theories they formulated thirty years ago, without taking in anything else and considering whether their views are outdated or inapplicable today. When you are hungry, in all sense of the word, you stay humble. And humility goes hand in hand with open-mindedness: the ability to realize that your view is only one of many, and only an opinion at best.

Both of your novels and your current collection of stories have been published by Alhamra Publishing. And you edit Alhamra Literary Review along with Ms. Yusuf. Al-Hamra in Arabic simply means “the red”. It is of course usually used to describe the 13th Century “crimson castle” or Alhambra in Granada. Do you see the name ‘Al Hamra’ as an apt title for a Literary Review or for that matter a publishing house based in Karachi? And if so, why?

You would have to ask the publisher, Shafiq Naz, what was in his mind when he chose that name. I think he wanted to capture the idea that the Islamic world and Europe once had a rich, intertwined history in Moorish Spain. Literature is part of that cultural tradition. Maybe it is an oblique association. Going back to a time when art and literature and poetry was very grand and respected by kings and emperors. It is a good vision for a publishing house.

What is your vision for the Alhamra Literary Review?

We want to encourage Pakistanis to write; we showcase their talent and creativity. I would like to foster a future Booker Prize winner. That is my vision.

Karachi

The late nineties were a tumultuous time for Karachi with MQM boycotting elections, political turmoil, and violence. Karachi has again recently been in the grip of a maelstrom. In the interim the number of Afghans has multiplied, Karachi beach has suffered a major oil spill, the political alliances have turned topsy-turvy, and the economy has sputtered on. Can you talk briefly about the past ten years in the political life of Karachi?

I am not comfortable commenting on politics, so I will take a pass on this question.

Since you are an author, it would be interesting to raise this question with you. I have traveled to Pakistan twice and extensively toured the cities of Lahore and Karachi. I came across some good bookshops but alas not a great one. Should I have searched more or is the bookshop scene really that modest? (Mayank)

The Liberty Books chain is doing great things for Karachi; they’ve brought the best of English publishing to the country, although at high prices. But I don’t really know how to get around that issue. I always find their bookstores a pleasure to be in; they are relaxing, inviting places, the staff is knowledgeable and helpful, and they’re working on promoting Pakistani writers with their new Book Club, which has hosted some fairly well-received launches of books, including my own. But a country like Pakistan really needs to have several excellent sources in each city for sourcing and obtaining books, and not just in the English language. Right now you have to really hunt for good literature. One day there will be a better bookshop culture, I am sure.

Every great city leaves some an imprint on the work of its writers. How has Karachi contributed to your writing?

I would think that is fairly obvious from my work!

Being a young Pakistani writer who writes about young people, how would you chronicle the changing values of the urban youths in the country? Is it difficult to strike a balance between the Islamic heritage and the McDonald culture? (Mayank)

It is not a case of ‘either/or’. It is a case of ‘and’. Understand that and you have understood the young people of Pakistan. They want choices. They do not want restrictions. But they want to choose both options, not to have to choose between them. This is the strength of Pakistani people of all ages: they are open to everything, influences from the East, the West, from Islam, from America, from Britain, from India. We are like big sponges and we are hungry for all of it. We absorb it all and then we distill it into something that is unique to us. I think that is magical and it should not be contained in any way.

Just following up on the title of your novel, “Where the dream in blue” – what color would you pick to describe Karachi? What color would be the dreams of Karachites?

Again, that should be fairly obvious! These days, however, I think the color of Karachi is brown. There is a lot of dust and mud and construction going on here.

Karachi has a multiplicity of cross-cutting ethnic and class cleavages – Sunnis Vs. Shias, Muhajirs Vs. Natives Vs. Afghans, Urdu speakers Vs. Punjabi Vs. Sindhi Vs. Pashto, rich vs. poor etc. Add to all of this a military, whose role according to Ayesha Siddiqui’s new book runs deep within the economy. What is the prognosis for its future?

Oh God, you are really asking me the easy questions, aren’t you? Karachi will survive everything. We already have. We will go on. Underneath everything, the people of Karachi want two things: to make lots of money and to be happy. To achieve both, you have got to get along with everyone else. We know how to do that, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Picking Favorites

Which is the last great book by a Pakistani author that you enjoyed? (Mayank)
The two books I really enjoyed most recently are anthologies: And the World Changed edited by Muneeza Shamsie and Beloved City edited by Bapsi Sidhwa. I am sorry I cannot give you a book by a single author. These ones were fantastic just for the sheer variety of good writing between two sets of covers.

You maintain a personal blog. What are some of the other blogs that you like visiting? (Mayank)

From the ridiculous to the sublime: a variety of friends’ blogs, including Jonathan Ali’s Notes from a Small Island, Greg Rucker’s Glossophagia, Jawahara Saidullah’s Writing Life, and the Second Floor’s blog (that’s the coffeehouse that I frequent). Then there are some gossip blogs I have to go to every day, but I won’t name them here because it’s too lowbrow and I am supposed to be this great Pakistani writer. I enjoy the PostSecret site. I like Anglophenia from BBC America. I used to go to Miss Snark, the Literary Agent every day too, but she closed that one down.

Where do you get your news?

I heard it on the grapevine, where else? Just kidding!

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The interview was conducted via email. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for style and content. Questions ending with ‘Mayank’ were posed by Mayank Austen Soofi.

Interview (pdf) with Camilo Jose Cela from which the quotes were drawn.

Interview with Bapsi Sidhwa

13 Jun

Bapsi Sidhwa is the author of Cracking India and The Crow Eaters. She currently lives in Houston, Texas.

What does your name Bapsi mean? Who gave you the name?

My grandmother doted on the British. She gave me what she thought was an English name. Ironically, an English woman asked me, “You’re quite dignified. How come you have a name like Bapsy or Popsy?” They said it was definitely not an English name.

I would have preferred to have a poetic Persian name, but I am reconciled to it now. It’s short and easy to remember in the US.

I gather there is a lot of biographical detail in Cracking India’s Lenny. But it is hard to disinter facts from fiction. Can you tell me a little more about your parents? What school did you go to? Was it a Catholic school? What do you remember most about your time in pre-partition Lahore?

Even I often don’t know where fact ends and fiction begins. My father was orphaned as a child and his mother ran their wine business in Lahore. He acquired wealth after the war and Partition — he had the Parsi business gene. My mother was the youngest of ten siblings. Her father Ardeshir Mama became Mayor of Karachi, built the Mama school for girls and donated generously to hospitals etc. before going bankrupt. Because of childhood polio, the doctor suggested I should not be burdened with school. I had light tuition, thankfully no math. The roar of mobs and the fires were a constant of my childhood pre-partition. A mob came into our house to loot but departed when told that we were Parsi by our cook. I have used this scrambled memory for the ayah kidnapping scene. I have fictionalized biographical elements in the earlier part of Cracking India. Lenny is not me, perhaps my alter ego.

A novelist is expected to be both, an insider, and an outsider. How did each of the following things that made you an outsider affect your writing—contracting polio at a young age, being a Parsi in Lahore, the short stint in India in your youth and contact with the larger Parsi community in Mumbai, and your immigration to the US.

That question deserves a detailed answer. I write instinctively and I don’t quite know how to answer the first part of your question. Having polio as a child, and being a Parsi in Lahore or anywhere except in Bombay, marginalizes one. This creates a distance, and also a pressure—I was a lonely child and motivated to give voice to the silences in my life, I guess. Being with the larger Parsi community in Mumbai, was a wonderful experience for me. It gave me a sense of belonging I had never experienced. I found I shared the same weird sense of humor, tastes, and enormously enjoyed being with my cousins. I loved and still love Bombay.

Lahore, the City of Sin and Splendour

Do you think the title of your book, City of Sin and Splendour, captures the book (or the city)? Yes, there is Heera Mandi and the Badshahi mosque, but I felt the book was more about people and their ‘undying’ love for food.

It is called ‘Beloved City’ in Pakistan. But I think the Indian title is more chutpatta.

How often do you go back to Lahore? How has Lahore changed from the days of your youth?

I still have my house in Lahore, and I go back about once every two years. I spent the nineties in Lahore to look after my sick mother. On each visit I find Lahore improved.

How much of the book is—to the extent that you chose the stories and the writers—an expatriate’s silver tinted reflection on the city of her youth?

Lahore is not just the city of my youth. Until the late nineties, I was more in Lahore than in the US. I chose the stories and articles for the Lahore book for the quality of the writing, my respect for the authors, many of whom I know, and because the pieces engaged me as a reader. I tried to present a broad spectrum to show the many facets of Lahore. I also commissioned quite a few pieces. One Indian reviewer asked why I hadn’t mentioned street-children. Lahore has virtually none. The Lahoris take care of their own: children are adopted by madrassas or orphanages. Visitors are surprised at how well-fed Lahoris look. There are hundreds of langars in charitable institutes, Mosques, shrines, etc and no one needs to go hungry.

You dedicated your Lahore anthology to your daughter Parizad whom you complimented as the quintessential Lahori. What traits should a person have to merit such a title?

To me, she is a typical Lahore girl of a certain class. She spends nights with her friends doing tapsaras of Urdu poetry and most of her friends are still from or in Lahore. The way she dresses, relates to her friends, the subjects they talk about, her hauteur and reserve with strangers, her mannerisms, gestures, values and her thought process still reflect the culture of that city. She moved to the US in the late nineties and still functions at the rhythm and laid back pace of that city. Please keep in mind, this is a spontaneous, perfunctory answer. Any more and I’d be intruding on her privacy.

Other Books and such

Usually, it is films that are based on books. But your new book Water is based on Deepa Mehta’s film. This is also your first book that is away from your typical setting—no Pakistan, no Parsis. What prompted you to write it? Can you also elaborate on the relationship that you share with Deepa Mehta?

Deepa Mehta called to say that she wanted me to novelize her film Water and sent me a rough edit of the film. I started with much trepidation because she wanted me to write the novel in three months, to time it with the release of the film. I said I would give it a try because I loved the film, and Deepa can be very persuasive. Once I started writing I didn’t find it as difficult as I had imagined. The child widow Chuyia has much in common with the child Lenny in my novel Cracking India, and once I created an earlier life for the child in her village before the film starts, I had a grip on the novel. I enjoyed the challenge, although I have never worked so hard. I would wake up dreaming of sentences and get to the computer to write them down. I wrote late into the night.

I have known Deepa Mehta since she called me to say she wanted to make my novel Cracking India into the film Earth. She wrote the script for the film but I worked closely with her on it, keeping in mind that it was her cinematic vision of the book that mattered. I was at the film-shoot in Delhi for a good part of the time. I think Deepa and I respect each other and appreciate and trust each other’s work.

You put in a fair amount of autobiographical detail in your novels. Can you briefly comment on it?

I write instinctively, one paragraph giving rise to the other, and have a general idea of where I want to go. Everything, everyone I know and every experience I have or hear of are grist for my mill, like Flaubert, who famously said, “I am Emma Bovary.” I am almost every character in my books.

Pakistan and being Pakistani

Your novels “Cracking India” and “The Crow Eaters” captured the flavor of Pakistan at its dawn. In “The Pakistani Bride”, you dealt with the tribal lores of the Frontier. If you were to decide to write a book on present-day Pakistan, which theme would you like to deal with?

I have just finished writing a collection of short stories. I think that will contain the answer to your question. The stories deal with what you mention above and also my new location in America.

Being a woman in Pakistan, did you think it was a risk to put in sexual humor in your novels? Did it upset the readers? In fact, you self-published your first novel “The Crow Eaters”, which had quite a lot of uninhibited sexual comedy, in 1978, the very year General Zia-ul-Haq announced setting up of the Shariah benches. Did anyone harass you?

I wrote naturally about sexuality because I hadn’t realized I needed to censor what I wrote. Although I am very liberated, my writing is more inhibited now. There were no complaints about this in Pakistan. In fact, my candor was appreciated. When I launched the self-published The Crow Eaters in Lahore, there was a bomb scare at the hotel and the function was hastily closed. I realized later that the Parsi community was very offended and responsible for the bomb scare. No one had written about the Parsis before, except books praising the community, and the Parsis could not stand to see characters fictionalized, warts and all. The general Pakistani community loved it. It was not until the book was published in Britain to critical acclaim that the Parsis accepted it.

The only squeamishness about Cracking India has been in the United States. A mom and her pastor tried to ban it from being taught in a Baccalaureate program in a Florida high school. A committee of 30 people decided it was suitable to teach.

Who are the writers to watch out for in Pakistani literature?

Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie are the most prominent. Tahira Naqvi and a few others who write short stories in America. Aamer Hussain has published three collections in the U.K., India, and Pakistan. He is a sensitive and poetic writer. Among the new crop of writers published in Pakistan, I really like Bina Shah’s writing. All of the above have stories or articles in the Lahore anthology.

Living in the US, do you ever face any discrimination because of your Pakistani passport?

I have a U.S. passport now, and it is a breeze to sail through various countries with it. Pakistan is out of favor in America and Europe and this does affect me as a Pakistani writer. Although I must admit ‘Cracking India’ had a spectacular reception when it was first published and is taught in almost every university.

A ‘novel’ medium

Naipaul has talked about the end of the novel as a literary form. Is novel a sufficient medium to bring forth the complexities of modern life?

The novel is thriving. There is no other medium which can bring out the emotional nuances and complexities of modern life as well as the novel can in the hands of a good writer.

Milan Kundera recently wrote that the novel is the only form in which you can convey the pointless. It can convey the pointlessness of violence, the myriad irrational tugs and pulls that define humanity, etc. History, on the other hand, is an exercise in sense-making when none exists.

There is validity in what he says when it comes to violence, although the sequence of cause and effect, even in the most irrational-seeming incidents, are always present. Novelists like myself use the novel to express their deepest emotions and views. One usually writes the truth as one sees it. Of course, no one owns the truth and there are many valid points of view. Many historians have arrived at the truth. But often their narration is imbued with their own prejudice and can slant history to suit their or their own or their country’s agenda. History in the hands of fiction writers like Tolstoy is often more authentic and vivid than history books.

Azhar Nafisi in her novel, Reading Lolita in Tehran, makes a fascinating point about the democratic structure of a novel – where each character has a voice. Nafisi, in my mind, fails at the task herself, as all we hear is her elitist trauma. Nonetheless, I think it is an important point and one if followed can help readers really empathize with a variety of characters. Virginia Woolf to me remains an epitome in that regard. Is the role of the novel to build empathy? What do you see is the role of a novel and a novelist?

The role of a novelist, and by extension the novel, is to reveal the culture and complexities of a society in a manner that is engaging and entertaining. The emotions we hold in common have to be strongly portrayed: without empathy for the characters the novel loses its value as a narrative.

Lastly

I am often struck by how few of the stories of my parent’s and my grandparent’s generations have been chronicled. We are soon going to lose a lot of those stories forever as the oral traditions die, and the storytellers grow old. What do you think should do to keep some of these traditions alive?

The partition was poorly represented because the memories were too painful, and people were too busy setting up new lives. But storytellers will tell their tales, and very little will be lost. Writers in Indian and Pakistani languages are chronicling the old tradition. As long as there are writers and storytellers most of what is important will be retained. Writers are the new mythmakers.

I am struck by the ‘unconscious feminism’ (Sara Suleri-Goodyear) of South Asian female writers like Ismat Chughtai. South Asian female writers take on feminism bubbles with urgency, humor, and candid pugnaciousness that rejects the system but does so in a rooted and informed way. Can you expand a little more on the South Asian female writers and their contribution to highlighting the gender inequalities?

I cannot talk for all South Asian women writers but I imagine that as women, consciously or unconsciously, we bring out the problems and discrimination women face and project our aspirations. I don’t like to preach about feminism but the way the stories unfold illustrate their position in the family and in society.

While South Asian writers have grown in prominence in recent years, their books reflect more and more reflect inert globalized ideas rather than alertness to South Asia. Is there a future for the distinctive South Asian fiction or are we seeing the end of it with increased globalization?

The vernacular languages embed South Asia in their narratives. South Asia will continue to be written about and by authors who write in English as well. Indian writers in the Diaspora reflect their new experiences if that is what you mean by globalization. As writers move their writing reflects their new locations, experiences, thoughts, and aspirations.

Ms. Sidhwa’s Favorite Books: Pickwick Papers (Dickens), Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain), Black Mischief (Evelyn Waugh), A Passage to India (E. M. Forster), Palace Walk (Naguib Mahfouz), The Tin Drum (Gunter Grass), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller), Refuge (Terry Tempest Williams), Waiting For the Barbarians (J.M. Coetzee), Things Fall Apart (Achebe), The Last Mughal (William Dalrymple), Poems — Elegies (Rainer Maria Rilke), The Essential Rumi (Translations by Coleman Barks and Joyn Moyne), Urdu Ghazals (by Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz, Zauk, etc.), Short Stories, essays and novels by Saadat Hasam Manto & Ismat Chugtai, A House For Mr. Biswas (V. S. Naipaul), The Mimic Men (V. S. Naipaul [I like almost everything by Naipaul]), An Angry Tide (Amitav Ghosh), A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth), Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie), The Collected Short Stories of Kushwant Singh (Kushwant Singh), Difficult Daughters (Manju Kapur), An Obedient Father (Akhil Sharma), Arranged Marriages (Chitra Divkaruni), Baumgartner’s Bombay (Anita Desai), Meatless Days (Sara Suleri), The In-Between World of Vikram Lal (Moyez Vassanji), Family Matters (Rohinton Mistry), Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), Everything by P G Wodehouse, Thrillers by John la Carre, Ken Follett, etc.

Some of the questions are by Mayank Austen Soofi, who blogs at The Delhi Walla.

Interview with Eric Berlin

10 May

This is the third article in a multi-part series devoted to understanding some of the ethical aspects that dog blogging sites. The series will end with an analysis of Blogcritics.org and blogs in general. Prior two articles –

Can you tell me about your current role in BC and how you came to be involved with it?

Well, I am the Executive Producer at Blogcritics. I take the position to mean doing whatever it takes to move the site forward and take it to the next place, wherever that next place happens to be.

I had been writing a sort of e-magazine by the name, Dumpster Bust, in 2003 and 2004 and I would distribute it to friends and fans via an e-mail list. Then in November 2004, I started an eponymous blog. It had just been a month since I had started the blog when I discovered Blogcritics.org.

It was an extraordinary moment — I’ll never forget it. I simply couldn’t get over how great it was to have a community where writers from all over the world could congregate and write about pop culture and politics and everything in between and chat and argue and laugh and hang out.

I got pretty involved, pretty active right away, and became an editor a few months later I think.

It was apparent to me from the very beginning what an enormous value that BC offers to both writers and readers. As a writer, I noticed that my own writing was improving, that I was reaching a much larger audience than I ever could have on my own, that I could access free review materials, and most of all, I was making connections and even friendships with great, interesting, wonderful people from all over the world.

I became an Executive Producer somewhere around the late summer of 2005 and moved into helping provide editorial oversight, though over time my role has evolved to mostly take on business development and public relations.

Tell me a little more about your decision to blog under real name plus what do you do for your “real” job?

I use my name because I want to present who I really am, “expose” my writing and the person behind it.

It’s a little strange being that “naked” before the world sometimes, but that’s a decision all writers much make

My “real” job is producing websites for a company in Los Angeles. I do try to keep the two roles separate to an extent, though you can, of course, infer that there’s tremendous crossover in terms of what I have the privilege of learning and experiencing each day.

Blogcritics is a passion and a job that has to fit into the cracks of my regular life, but that’s something that millions of fellow bloggers out there are also contending with. It’s a balance thing. Relatively few can pull a full-time wage from blogging so it’s an activity born of passion and devotion and even obsession for most!

You do a full-time job and still take time to volunteer.

I think that people — including the 1,700 “writer-bloggers” of Blogcritics, our passionate readers and commenters, our most involved site users, and most of all our hardworking and dedicated and monumentally talented editorial staff members (which includes many of the site’s best writers!) — put in so much effort because they are passionate about the site and our community and want to see it grow and prosper and do well.

That’s certainly what drove me and what still makes me eager to get up in the morning, flip on the computer (it’s usually on all night, actually!) and see what’s happened since my last visit.

By the way, I am now one of the three co-owners of Blogcritics.org so my position is no longer strictly a volunteer position.

In your response, I think you were also alluding to the fact that the success of BC and the volunteerism that we see on it is due to its symbiotic nature.

Yes, BC is symbiotic — I like to use the somewhat cheesy term “people power” — Blogcritics is a grassroots success story (we’ve never had a dime of investment) literally powered by its membership.

So our “sinister cabal of superior writers” help one another to succeed, producing stories and work that is good and beneficial to the Internet community.

BC has an open commenting policy and an open attitude towards accepting new writers. I am sure there must have been plenty of behind the scenes discussions about it. Tell me a little about the process of deciding about policies around BC.

Open commenting has been around since I joined the site in 2004, and it really falls under the umbrella of creating a wide-open community that is open to multiple viewpoints and that has as low a barrier to entry as possible.

Because of the increased menace of spam, we may one day have to require membership for commenters, but for now, we can maintain this arrangement as we always have.

Tell me a little more about the vision you have for BC.

Whew… that’s a big one! Blogcritics is in a very exciting phase right now in that we’re expanding into a suite of sites that we call the BC Network.

Desicritics, our first network site, is now a year old and is thriving as a platform for people who live in and are passionate about the Desi world.

Now we are looking to create specialty “niche” sites that can capture a new audience that isn’t necessarily into the more magazine-style format that BC presents

GlossLip has now launched under the direction of Dawn Olsen and is a fantastic place to check all things celebrity and gossip, subjects in which there is an insatiable audience for new stuff, and particularly when it’s done with style and attitude and savvy, which basically sum up everything that Dawn is about.

We’ve also just within the last few weeks launched BC Forums into private beta and will very very soon go wider with it. Just in testing, we’ve seen the explosive potential of this area — which provides yet another way for our community to communicate, interact, joke around, or just hang out.

So that’s really the vision right there — providing new ways for our audience and potential audience to learn, interact, and communicate, creating cutting-edge content-community networks online

Eric, I was talking to the other Eric – Olsen- recently and he was telling me of he quickly realized that he would have to assume responsibility if the site had to go anywhere. There are always key actors in a grass root organization. In a way, I am questioning how grass root is a grassroots organization? You are creating a media company from bottom up and I am interested in understanding how norms and policies are decided and who are the key players

Yes, Blogcritics is as grassroots as it gets — most people don’t realize this!

The only full-time employee is the founder and publisher Eric Olsen, so he is the “man at the helm” for emergencies, troubleshooting, fire patrol, you name it!

Phillip Winn is our technical director and lives outside of Dallas. I live in Pasadena California and EO lives outside of Cleveland.

And our editors live around the world — several key editors live in the UK which is great because it gives us “wide coverage” in terms of the unending 24-hour production cycle.

So it’s all virtual, all grassroots, all people working together to create something that’s never been done before. That’s the thing that’s important remember: Blogcritics is singular in so many ways.

That’s why it was named as part of the AlwaysOn 100 in the trendsetter’s category, I believe and that’s what makes BC so fascinating.

Now Eric, a harder question! Do you see this as a model for running media organizations? Even mainstream ones? What the advantages to it? And what are the problems? Is this a model for a more accountable media?

Well — I see your questions as taking on a few different issues. Let me start with the first one.

I do see virtual organizations and small teams of founders working closely together as the present and future of software development. The barrier to entry is so much lower than it has ever been, which is a huge boon to the Internet industry and people who simply dig the Internet and technology.

I’m not sure if it’s the model for “mainstream ones” — I think it depends on the particular circumstances but certainly it’s there as an option.

At the same time, there’s really no replacing in-person day-to-day contact. As to your other question about a more accountable media, I think you’re talking about the role of the blogosphere in making the mainstream media and other institutions more accountable?

I believe so but I am also interested in talking about ownership and editorial policy decisions that are decided differently than they are today. BC is creating a new type of socially owned media company and do you think media itself can be reorganized via this principle and what kind of issues do you see around it.

Well, I think media, in general, is in a state of great flux with the role of traditional media companies declining in some ways and changing rapidly to deal with changing times while new and online media companies are gaining audience and credibility and dealing with the many issues that come along with that accountability and responsibility.

Take for example Mike Arrington at TechCrunch — he’s an interesting case in that he outright declares that he’s not a journalist while reviewing start-ups and tech companies, issuing opinions, and so on, all while openly investing in many of these companies, reviewing competitors, etc.

We’ve really arrived at a new place!

It seems blogosphere itself is going under reorganization as media companies poach top bloggers and buy more electronic media assets. Do you see a more corporatized blogosphere in a few years time?

I see a blogosphere that is maturing and dealing with issues that come with it, pretty similar to what I mention in terms of the greater online media community. I see the blogosphere and traditional media companies, which are online, incorporating elements of one another.

Yeah,.. WP, NYT, BBC – all have blogs…

Yes, I’ve recently covered how companies like Reuters and The Economist are incorporating blogs into their online offerings.

My overarching theory on all of this boils down to a term I call “hybrid social media,” which I think is the future of news online.

I have covered some of the issues you raise in the article, Netscape Is the Future of News.

Very briefly, hybrid social news posits a future in which news will incorporate three main forms of content: original content produced by the online media company publishing the site, social news content driven by user submissions and user voting, and administrator or editor-selected content, which includes editor-selected pieces from all over the Internet, including those submitted by the general audience.

Blogcritics.org has always tried to combat that trend by forming an open platform where competing ideas and ideologies and values can co-exist together under a big tent of sorts. That said, a lot of our stories revolve around popular culture so can, therefore, escape some of the combativeness found in the arena of politics.

Though of course, we do have a politics area that can get rowdy at times but generally does very nicely in bringing in a vast array of news stories, thoughts, and opinions.

Interview with Lisa McKay

9 May

This is the second interview in a multi-part series that will end with an analysis of ethics etc. that underpin BC, and blogs in general. The first interview with Christopher Rose, Comments Editor at BC, can be accessed by clicking here

Lisa McKay is the Executive Editor of Blogcritics.org. Lisa has been with Blogcritics.org since August 2004.

The interview was conducted via email a couple of months ago.

You joined BC at a time when BC was much smaller than today. Tell me a little more about how you came across BC and what led you to join it.

I came across BC a few months before I actively joined, while I was in the process of looking for good sources of movie and music reviews. It was unlike anything else I had come across – it still is, really – and I started checking in on a daily basis to read stuff. Eventually, I worked up the courage to post a comment here and there and then decided that maybe I should actually join the site and try to get some writing done.

You work full time, are a mother of a young son and a wife. How do you juggle your responsibilities?

Actually, only two of those facts are true at present – my son just turned 21 and has been away at college for the past couple of years, so juggling parental responsibilities hasn’t been part of the equation for a long time. Having said that, I think that people make time to do the things they want to do if they want to do them badly enough. My husband and I both have pretty intense interests outside of our work and our family life (which includes a lot of shared interests), and we’ve been very supportive of each other’s pursuits, so part of it is that I have a built-in support system, and part of it is that I’ve become very good at multi-tasking and prioritizing. Even so, I wish I could use all 24 hours in the day sometimes.

While writing an article about why you chose to ‘come out’, if you will, and start writing under your real name, you say that part of the reason was to lay claim on the articles that you have written. This works both ways – now people know whom to hold accountable when they see a ‘perceived’ injustice or have an ax to grind. Has blogging under your real name been a problem? How comfortable do you feel about commenting and blogging about contentious topics?

It probably says something about the nature of what I write that using my real name has never been a problem. The place where the discussions really seem to get personal is in the political arena, where people seem to take everything to heart and can get quite ugly when they disagree. I don’t have the stomach for that type of discourse, so I stay out of that particular venue. I have opinions on pretty much everything, and I have no problem with expressing them when asked directly to do so, but I really don’t see those contentious discussions as serving much purpose. There are a lot of people who like to “argue” just so they can call names – it has nothing to do with actually listening to what other people are saying – and I just don’t have the time for it, as I see it as unproductive.

At the heart of your decision to blog under your ‘real name’ is an ethical question that surrounds online media outlets – the issue of accountability. Of course, there are real people behind these ‘false’ online identities and they often are accountable but somehow the cost-free nature of leaving even the most borderline crazy comment or article under an assumed identity does probably sabotage perhaps reasoned commentary? What are your thoughts on the issue?

While I understand the reasons that many people have for remaining anonymous online, I do believe that a false persona makes it easier to say things that one might not say when using one’s real name. The faceless nature of the Internet makes that easier anyway – even when using a real name, I think many people say things to faceless strangers that they would never dream of saying in person. Accountability online is certainly a different animal than it is with print media, or with television or radio journalism. This is still in many ways the wild, Wild West, and I think one probably has to work a bit harder in the blogging arena to build up a reputation and to build trust among one’s readership. Once you’ve built up that trust, it doesn’t matter if you’re using a pseudonym or not – you maintain integrity the same way you would if you were using your real name, by doing your homework and being honest.

Blogcritics has grown exponentially over the past three years from a small fringe Internet outpost to a relatively decent size media outlet. Tell me about some of the key inflection points in this journey – as you see them.

Certainly, the biggest change was when we went from a self-publishing site where anyone could publish just about anything they wanted to, to what we have in place right now, where every piece that’s published has been edited. We work very closely with our writers to make sure that we publish polished and well-written pieces while still retaining that which makes us unique, which is our multitude of voices. Our strength has been our continued refusal to homogenize what we do – writers find it easy to feel at home here because we don’t have an editorial “voice” in any of our content areas – we ask our writers to be excellent, but other than that, we ask them to be themselves. I am not sure there are many places with a readership as big as ours that can offer that.

Blogcritics is trying to create the norms of running a media organization on the fly. The key policy decisions – open commenting, open attitude towards accepting new writers, etc. – tell me about the behind the scenes struggle that has gone on around them and the kind of ethical questions that you have had to deal with to come to this place.

We’ve certainly had our share of policy discussions about the open comments policy. As is the case with every site that allows open comments, we get our fair share of flakes and cranks and just plain ugliness. We have yet to come to the point where we squelch that in favor of having more civil conversations, and I think that’s another area where we’re unique. We do have a comments editor who applies our very liberal comments policy with a very gentle hand, and I think that’s about all the control we’re going to have on that for a while. Our open attitude toward accepting new writers seems to work very nicely now that we have editors in place. People are either excited about the challenges and take advantage of the opportunity, or they leave because they don’t make the cut or they don’t want to put in the work. In either case, that works to our advantage, and it’s raised the level of our writing tremendously. BC’s growth has been a really organic process, at least from my vantage point. There have been growing pains to be sure, but we move past them pretty quickly.

Perhaps this current place is not the final resting place of this ongoing change. Tell me about your vision of blogcritics.org for the future?

That’s a great question. I wish I had a crystal ball. The quality of what we publish just keeps improving – we’re attracting some really amazing writers, and the section editors are continually working to shape coverage and come up with new ideas. I envision us getting bigger and better.

What kind of policy decisions do you think are integral to how you see BC? As in what kind of policies can you not see BC without, if any?

Well, I think we’ve set some editorial standards over the past couple of years in terms of what we will and will not publish (in terms of quality, not content). I can’t see us without those any more – we’ve really raised the bar, and the writers have really risen to the challenge. This is part of the process by which we become accountable.

How do you look at the role of a Critic? Is there merit in everybody being a critic kind of model? It certainly seems like a competitive market of ideas. What do you see are the positives and negatives of blogosphere?

Well, it depends on what you’re looking for, I think. The blogosphere has certainly democratized the whole process of criticism, which isn’t to say that everything everyone writes is good, or even worth reading. Sometimes you want to stand around the office water cooler and talk with your friends about the film you saw this weekend, and the blogosphere can certainly provide you with that, and sometimes you want an informed opinion about something, which is what real criticism entails. I think one of the neat things about BC is that we provide both; we have some very enthusiastic reviewers who can give you a very entertaining man-in-the-street opinion about something, but they aren’t necessarily approaching it from an academic point of view, and we have other writers who are incredibly well-informed, educated, and knowledgeable about their area of expertise, and they offer a very different perspective. The challenge and the beauty of the blogosphere, in general, is that the reader needs to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. In general, we may need to wade through more stuff, but in the end, I think it sharpens our powers of discrimination and makes us better consumers.

Blogosphere is widely credited with making mainstream media more accountable. Do you see that as its job? If not, then what do you see are the roles of the blogosphere?

I don’t think it’s the blogosphere’s job to hold the mainstream media accountable. I think that’s our job as citizens, and we’re failing at it miserably. We have the media we deserve. The roles of the blogosphere are as varied as the folks who populate it; I don’t think it has a defined role or is “supposed” to be one thing or another. It’s a tool, a means of communication, a marketplace of ideas, of commerce, of social interaction – it’s a way of organizing, presenting, and retrieving information. It’s a lot of things to a lot of people, and it’s continually evolving. It is whatever we want it to be at any given moment.

It seems blogosphere itself is going under reorganization – as media companies poach top bloggers and buy more electronic media assets. Do you see a more corporatized blogosphere in a few years time?

As soon as people figure out that there’s money to be made somewhere, things change. Certainly, that’s happened in the blogosphere, but a lot of the people who are Internet entrepreneurs are also in the business of putting the tools of production and commerce into the hands of the end users. That’s us, and that’s a good thing. I think the business models we used to have changed, and are continuing to change. Since I have no business background at all, I wouldn’t even want to hazard a guess as to how this is going to look in five or ten years’ time. If you told anyone twenty years ago what we’d be doing online now, they wouldn’t have believed it.

Interview with Christopher Rose

8 May

The following interview with Christopher Rose was conducted via email a few months ago. The interview is part of a series that will end up in an article that provides history and analysis of Blogcritics.org

How did you come to be involved with Blogcritics.org?

I just surfed in one day and was drawn in by the way the site is so open and accepting to all kinds of people. I made a few comments and then, nervously as I was a fairly novice blogger, applied to join. Afer a few months, I was offered the role of Comments Editor, which I mostly love.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your role in BC and how it has grown?

Well, after becoming Comments Editor, I also started contributing ideas, some well received, about how we could develop the key qualities of the site into other areas. Hopefully, some of this will start to become more apparent over the course of this year as we look to develop some more sites.

You are part of three major projects aside from BC. Tell us a little more about those projects and how you juggle your responsibilities.

Well, I don’t know how major they are but I love the potential the web offers to develop new ideas quickly and economically. In addition to my own three blogs, I love the idea of citizen journalism and have developed a repeatable model of how such sites can be launched and made interesting, relevant and profitable very quickly and this is something I’d like to develop more fully. I am also developing an entirely original idea which has the (modest) twins aims of making people’s dreams come true and ploughing a lot of money into micro-credit financing projects to help the world’s poorest people to help themselves. I think the micro-finance model is very strong due to its inherent sustainability and that it doesn’t create welfare dependency but actually empowers people to help themselves. The project just needs a little work on the payment system and a little legal clarification to be fully actualized but I need to find solutions to those two issues so if anybody reading this would like to help, I’d be very grateful!. I also work as the Managing Editor for the Niner Niner family of blogs, which perfectly complements the work I do for Blogcritics. I am also developing four hopefully major new online projects, two for Blogcritics and two of my own. Taking on a bit more than I can handle is possibly one of my signature habits but I like to be busy – and life is for living, right!

Ethics, Normative Standards, Policy Making and Blogcritics

At the heart of your decision to blog under your real name is an ethical question that surrounds online media outlets – the issue of accountability. Of course, there are real people behind these ‘false’ online identities and they often are accountable but somehow the cost-free nature of leaving even the most borderline crazy comment or article under an assumed identity does probably sabotage perhaps reasoned commentary? What are your thoughts on the issue?

I think it’s mostly a question of personal preference. I have several online identities, of which the most well known is Alienboy. It’s a name I started using for online gaming which was reinforced by the fact that I live in Spain, so I am indeed literally an alien boy! I have a semi-dormant-due-to-lack-of-time blog called Alienboy’s World and when I first joined Blogcritics I carried on using that ID for a while. I then decided that the character of Alienboy just didn’t seem right for Blogcritics and reverted to using my full name. Alienboy still has a lot of plans for new sites that will be developed down the road aways but these are temporarily on hold. I don’t see the identity issue as an ethical question unless people abuse it by pretending to be other people, which is obviously totally unacceptable. As to sabotaging reasoned commentary, that’s actually a more complicated issue. Freedom of speech is obviously a major concern and ought to be protected but if people abuse that by making deliberately insulting or offensive remarks then I think there is a case for careful and restrained editing. It’s an incredibly fine line that calls for some serious and careful judgment before hitting the delete key and an issue that I try to keep in the core of my thinking at all times. In the end, I just do the best I can and hope that will be acceptable but it is impossible to please all the conflicting points of view all the time.

Can you elaborate on how are norms created within a new media organization? The kind of decisions that you had to take, along with rest of the BC community, about the nature, editorial policy and style, commenting policy etc. of BC.

Well, when an organization forms, obviously the decisions are taken by the people who start it up. The three people that own and maintain Blogcritics are mostly incredibly open to input and tolerant of a very broad range of views and I think that is an important part of what BC is about. It would have been a much less interesting proposition if “The Troika” had tried to imprint their own very diverse views onto the site and wisely they have largely avoided that. On the other hand, they’re all so very busy with stuff that it can be a bit hard to find out what they’re up to. I hope to be able to help bridge that gap and enhance the level of communication between us all over the coming months.

Blogcritics is trying to create the norms of running a media organization on the fly. The key policy decisions – open commenting, open attitude towards accepting new writers, etc. – tell me about the behind the scenes struggle that has gone on around them and the kind of ethical questions that you have had to deal with to come to this place.

Well, those policies were in place before I joined so I can’t shed much light on those early days but I feel they were absolutely crucial decisions. Dogma and other rigid belief systems are absolutely the enemy of all humankind and I very much doubt that I would have become involved with the site if it limited itself in that kind of way.

In your role as a Comments Editor – you probably have to had to deal with ad hominem attacks, spam and other conflagrations with people using all sort of sophisticated ways to get their message across. Tell me a little more about the challenges and how you deal with them while maintaining a free open commenting policy.

There is a perpetual and natural conflict between freedom of speech and the need to maintain the site’s neutrality, open door policy, and simple readability. It’s obviously important to foster an atmosphere of mutual respect and try to maintain some basic level of good manners or simple common civility. On the other hand, to simply not allow any kind of personal remark would render the site sterile and stifling. Wisely, the site uses guidelines rather than rigid rules, which is much more time consuming to manage but I believe that is well worth the extra time and effort involved.

How do you deal with people who post multiple comments under different names? Should this practice be frowned upon and why?

It’s not actually that common. There are a few who like to do that for dramatic effect, which is fine. When it is done to create a false sense of support for somebody’s point of view, that is basically just lying and is not tolerated. The worst is when people pretend to be other already known characters in order to create false content and is also not tolerated.

What kind of policy decisions do you think are integral to how you see BC? As in what kind of policies can you not see BC without, if any?

I just think that as long as BC maintains its open door policy and avoids becoming controlled by dogma, it will remain the fascinating multi-faceted jewel it is.

From the policy decisions of BC to how do you look at the role of a Critic? Is there merit in everybody being a critic kind of model? It certainly seems like a competitive market of ideas. What do you see are the positives and negatives of blogosphere?

There is information and there is the interpretation of information. Making sense of the ever-increasing complexity of the world we live in is a vital part of contemporary life. There are many often conflicting takes on all that on Blogcritics and that dialectic struggle is part of what makes it so special.

Blogosphere is widely credited with making mainstream media more accountable. Do you see that as its job? If not, then what do you see are the roles of the blogosphere?

It’s both more complicated and simpler than that. There’s been a huge flattening of society worldwide, although obviously different parts of the world are at different points in that process, which has been going on for at least fifty years now. A lot of the old school mainstream media have imitated the blogosphere by adding comments space to their websites for example. That’s a step in the right direction but until they value it as highly as sites like Blogcritics do, it often seems like a token measure rather than really getting the point. However, to answer your original question, it’s certainly not the blogosphere’s job to make the MSM do anything. They will either come to understand the nature of the new world order we live in and adapt to it or they will fade away into history.

Blogcritics has grown exponentially over the past three years from a small fringe Internet outpost to a relatively decent size media outlet. Tell me about some of the key inflection points in this journey – as you see them.

The two key points for me have been 1. the incredibly smart decision by the founders to accept all (legal) points of view on the site and not limit the Blogcritics space on any cultural or ideological grounds and 2. the later introduction of having all articles edited rather than self-published. This has been crucial in establishing a massively popular, well-written non-dogmatic site. The fact that the whole operation, editors and writers alike, is entirely voluntary is pretty impressive too. We really do work hard to help the writers improve their writing ability and bring their work to as wide an audience as possible.

Perhaps this current place is not the final resting place of this ongoing change. Tell me about your vision of Blogcritics.org for the future?

I think the main site can carry on as it is. I would like to see all the fantastic content by a diverse range of great writers put to better use. I think the simple fact that we have around 1,700 (and rapidly growing) writers offers a lot of potential for the rapid creation of other more focused sites in the future. I have a few ideas for the kinds of sites we could develop; sites that would offer compelling content around specific themes and those conversations are ongoing. I don’t really know what other ideas the troika may be considering…

It seems blogosphere itself is going under reorganization – as media companies poach top bloggers and buy more electronic media assets. Do you see a more corporatized blogosphere in a few years time?

Probably both yes and no! Unless a company understands the interactive essence of the online world, its attempts to operate on the web will be compromised. For example, trying to prevent employees from expressing their views is symptomatic of the old way of doing things. It’s been well documented that companies that empower their workers and include their feedback in the company’s development have a competitive edge over those businesses that try to run an old-school centralized command and control structure which sees workers as nothing more than cogs in a machine. I believe in transparency and that carries through all levels of a business in a particularly powerful way that transforms everything it touches, to the mutual benefit of all. A corporatized blogosphere that seeks to control what is said will always be inferior to one that allows true free expression.

Interview with Bill Thompson: Fragmented Information

10 Mar

This is the fourth and concluding part of the interview with BBC technology columnist, Mr. Bill Thompson.

part 1, part 2, part 3

This kind of completes two of the major questions that I had. I would now move on to digital literacy and fragmented informational landscape. Google has made facts accessible to people – too accessible, some might say. What Google has done is allowed the people to pick up little facts, disembodied and without the contextual information. It may lead to a consumer who has a very particularistic trajectory of information and opinions. Do you see that as a possibility or does the fundamental interlinked nature of the Internet somehow manages to make information accessible in a more complete way? In a related point do you see that while we are becoming information-rich, we are also simultaneously becoming knowledge poor?

That is such a big question. In fact, I share your concerns. I think there is a real danger – that it’s not even just that there is sort of a surfeit of facts and a lack of knowledge, its that the range of facts which we have available to us becomes defined by what is accessible through Google. And as we know that even Google, or any other search engine, only indexes a small portion of the sum of human knowledge, of the sum of what is available. And we see that this effect also becomes self-reinforcing so that somebody is researching something and they search on Google, find some information, they then reproduce that information and link to its source and it becomes therefore even more dominant, it becomes more likely to be the thing people will find next time they search and as a result alternative points of view, more obscure references, the more complex stuff which is harder to simplify and express drops down the Google ranking and essentially then becomes invisible.

There is much to be said for hard research that takes time, that is careful, that uncovers this sort of deeper information and makes it available to other people. We see in the world of non-fiction publishing, particularly I think with history every year or two we see a radical revisionist biography of some major historical figure based on a close reading of the archives or access to information which was previously unavailable. So all the biographies of Einstein are having to be rewritten at the moment because his letters from the 1950s have just become available and they give us a very different view of the man and particularly of his politics. Now if our view of Einstein was one defined by what Google finds out about Einstein we would know remarkably little. So we need scholars, we need the people who are always going to delve a little more deeply and there is danger in the Google world – it becomes harder to do that and fewer people will even have access to the products of their [careful researcher’s] work because what they write will not itself make it high up the ranking, will not have a sufficient ‘page rank’.

So I actually do think Google and the model of information access which it presents us is one that should be challenged and it should only ever be one part of the system. It is a bit like Wikipedia. I teach a journalism class and I say to my students that Wikipedia may be a good place to start your research but it must never be the place to finish it. Similarly, with Google, anybody who only uses the Google search engine knows too little about the world.

You bring up an important point. Search engine design, and other web usage patterns are increasingly channeling users to a small set of sites with a particular set of knowledge and viewpoints. But hasn’t that always been the case? An epidemiological study of how knowledge has traditionally spread in the world would probably show that at any one time only a small amount of knowledge is available to most people while most other knowledge withers into oblivion. So has Google really fundamentally changed the dynamics?

You are trying to do that to me again and I won’t let you.

This is not a fundamental shift in what it means to be human. None of this is a fundamental shift in what it means to be a human. Things may be faster, we may more access or whatever but we have always had these problems and we have always found solutions to them. And I am not a sort of a millenialist about this; I don’t think this is the end of civilization. I think we face short-term issues and we historically have found a way around them and we will again. That Google’s current dominance is a blip. In a sense – it will go, I don’t know how. Ok, here’s a good way in which Google’s dominance could go. So, at the moment we have worries in the world about H5N1 avian flu mutating into a form which infects humans. Let’s just suppose that this happens and that somebody somewhere writes an obscure academic paper which describes how basically to cure it and how to prevent infection in your household. Well all the people who rely on Google won’t find this paper will die and all the people who go to their library and look up the paper version will live and therefore the Google world will be over. How about that? There is something, perhaps not quite on that scale, something will happen which will force us to question our dependence on Google and that would be a good thing. We shouldn’t ever depend on anyone like that.

You know Mr. Thompson, even libraries have sort of shifted. They are increasingly interested in providing Internet access.

Yeah, it is and it is search rather than structure. And you know the fact is that search tools make it easy to be lazy and we are a lazy species and therefore we will lazy and we will carry on being lazy until we are forced until something bad happens because of our laziness at which point we will mend our ways.

That’s why I had brought up the question of fragmented knowledge earlier. One of my close friends is blind and he generally has to read through the book to reach the information that he wants. He tends to have a much fuller idea of context and the kind of corroboration that he presents is much different from the casual kind of scattered anecdotal argumentation that others present. Of course part of that is a function of he being a conscientious arguer but certainly part of it stems from he not having as many shortcuts to knowledge and actually having a fuller contextual understanding of the topic at hand. The fact is that most users can now parachute in and out of information and Google has helped make it easier.

I don’t think we see what’s really going on. There is a lot more information and there is a lot more to cope with and this superficial skimming is a very effective strategy. Skim reading is something we know how to do, we teach our children how to do, we value in ourselves and indeed in them, and skim surfing is just as valuable. You know I monitor thirty-forty blogs, news sites and stuff like that and when I am doing it, I don’t look too closely at things. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have the ability or the facility to do something which is a lot deeper and a lot more involved.

I have a fifteen-year daughter. She is doing her GCSE exams this year. And I have watched over the last 18 months or so how she has developed her ability to focus, her research skills, her reading around, she is surrounded by a pile of books, she has stopped using the computer as the way to find things quickly because she now needs to know stuff in depth and she is doing all of that. So I suspect that from the outside observing children we seem them in a certain way because we only see part of what they do and we have to look in more detail. It is too easy to have the wrong idea and actually I am a lot more hopeful about this, having seen this with my daughter and I think I will start to see it with my son, who is fourteen at the moment. And again I see his application to the things he cares about and the way he searches. He is a big fan of The Oblivion, the X-Box game, his engagement and the depth of his understanding is immense. So we shouldn’t let the fact that we look at some domain of activity where they are purely superficial let us lose sight of the fact of other areas where it is not superficial at all, where they have developed exactly those skills which would want them to have.

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Bill Thompson’s blog

Interview with Bill Thompson: Copyright Law

8 Mar

This is part III of a four-part interview with Mr. Bill Thompson, noted technology columnist with the BBC.

part 1, part 2

“Copyright is not a Lockean natural right but is a limited right granted to authors in order to further the public interest. This principle is explicitly expressed in the U.S. Constitution, which grants the power to create a system of copyright to Congress in order to further the public interest in “promoting progress in science and the useful arts.” (Miller and Feigenbaum, Yale) UK’s copyright law dates back to Statute of Anne from 1709, which states – “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.” Both seem to see copyright as something tailored towards the public good. The modern understanding of it has sort of disintegrated into a sort of “right to make as much money as one can”. Am I correct in saying that? Please elaborate your views on the subject.

Copyright started out as an attempt to restrict the ability of publishers of books to control absolutely what they did under contract law and to establish limitations on the period in which a work of fiction or indeed any written work could be exploited by one group of people, and to ensure that after a certain amount of time it was available as part of the public domain to serve the public good. So copyright has always been about taking away any absolute right so that the creator of a work of art, fiction, literature or non-fiction has so that everyone can benefit; take away the absolute right and give away in return monopoly over certain forms of exploitation during which period they are expected to make enough money or gain enough benefit to encourage them to carry on creating.

So the idea is that it is a balance – give the creator enough so that they can create more and encourage them to do that because it is good but make sure that the products of their creative output fall into the public domain so they can be used by everyone for the wider good on the grounds that you can never know in advance who will make the best use of someone else’s creative output and therefore it should be available. So, the fact that the early years of the last century a cartoonist in the United States called Walt Disney drew a mouse based on other people’s ideas is great and Disney and his family have had a lot of time to exploit the value in the mouse but there are other people now who could do a better job with it and they should be allowed to get their hands on the mouse and do cool stuff with it. That’s the idea and that is the principle that is being broken by large corporations who see the economic advantage to themselves in extending the term of copyright, in limiting the freedoms that other people have because they don’t care about the public good, they care about their own good. And legislatures, particularly in the United States but also elsewhere, have been bought off, corruptly or not, and have not been true to the original principles, which is that in the end it should all go into the public domain so that anybody who wants can make use of it and exploit it in creative ways that we cannot yet imagine. In a sense it’s an expression of humility – it’s saying that we cannot know for sure who will be able to do the best with its work and therefore it is the interest of everybody that it should be available to everybody. That was the breakthrough – the insight – of copyright law 300 years ago. We are coming up on the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, the first codified copyright law and I think we should big party for it.

The point is that – the point is most eloquently made not by Larry Lessig, who is good, but by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation and his point is just that copyright is broken and it needs to be rebalanced and we need new and different approach to copyright and in a sense it is the one area of law where we actually do need to start again. I am always an advocate of trying to make old laws work with new technologies. I think that we should be very cautious about making new laws because looking back historically it does like that today’s politicians are more stupid and more corrupt than those of older days and therefore are less likely to make good laws – that just seems to be the case. Correct me if I am wrong. And therefore we should avoid giving them the ability to screw things up. But with copyright, we are forced to. So we have to engage with the political system, we have to make sure that the people who have political power understand the issues and we have to force them to do the right thing. In other areas for example libel laws and all sorts of other aspects of what we do online, in fact, the existing legal framework has proven remarkably robust. There have been problems over jurisdiction and problems over enforcement but the laws themselves have applied pretty well in the networked world and we haven’t needed that many new laws and that is a good thing. Copyright is the one area where we clearly do.

Copyright, if minimally construed, is the right to produce copies. This particular understanding is fabulously unsuited for the Internet era where technology companies like Google have a business model based on making daily copies of content and making it searchable. Book publishers, along with some other content producers, have cried foul. It seems to me that they don’t understand the Internet model, which in a way has changed the whole dynamic of ‘copying’.

I don’t think it has changed the whole dynamic as much as it as exposed another reading of the word copy and made it the dominant reading and so undermined part of the ball. Parliamentary draughtsmen, the people who wrote those laws, were perfectly right in using the word like they did; it is just that we have promoted one particular facet of copy. The fact that we use the word copy to refer to the version that is made in sort of viewing a webpage on a browser – the version that is held in the display memory and all those sorts of things – we could have avoided a lot of this fuss by redefining what the word copy means thirty years ago or fifty years ago or just not using the word copy. It wouldn’t have actually helped the larger issue because the real problem with copyright is not that too many incidental acts on our computer systems, on our network are in principle in breach of copyright, it’s the fact that the existence of the network makes it possible to breach copyright deliberately, almost maliciously.

As we talk I am waiting for the Episode 13 of Series 3 of Battlestar Galactica to download onto my PC via BitTorrent from the United States so I could watch it. Ok! Now that is a complete infringement of copyright.
[I reply jokingly – so I am going to the MPAA.] Feel free, I would welcome their letter. I would delete it once I have watched it and I would buy the DVD once it comes out. But Sky here hasn’t started showing it four months after it was on the Science Fiction channel. Well, I am not going to wait four months to watch something when it is available. I mean that’s just foolish. That exposes holes in copyright law. It also exposes holes in the economic strategy of multinational corporations who run the broadcast industry in the UK and the US because they just don’t understand the market or what people are doing. There are times when you have to stretch the system to demonstrate the absurdity of the old model and that’s what I see myself as doing.

The US and EU copyright regimes differ in some marked ways. Similarly, Australian copyright law is different in its statute of limitations that is much smaller than the US. Post Internet, we do really need a common international framework for copyright.

But we do. We have that. We have the World Trade Organization, we have WIPO – the World Intellectual Property Organization, we have the Berne (convention signatories). There is an international framework for copyright. It’s as broken as anything else. We need a new Berne, we need to go back to Switzerland and renegotiate what copyright means on a global level but there is that framework but it’s been caught out by technology.

Databases are given legal protection in EU via its database directive while similar privileges haven’t been granted in US. What do you make of this effort to give copyright to databases?

That’s just a European absurdity which we will realize was a mistake and eventually change. You have a database copyright in the European Union and in some other countries though not in the United States and it is clearly a mistake. There is growing awareness that something needs to be done about it because it’s not necessary to offer such protection. The idea that you get automatic protection for taking other people’s data and structuring it in a certain way has limited economic flexibility and has damaged competitiveness.

There is always a problem you see that as new technologies emerge to suggest new rights to go with them and this was the case where [we drafted something into] a law before wiser counsels could prevail.

Gowers report recently received a fair bit of attention. The report, I believe, had this wonderful recommendation for handling patent applications. It talked about putting up patent applications online and having an open commenting period. You in fact wrote about the report in your recent column. Can you talk a little more about the report?

Gowers report was commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who is a senior government minister, basically second only to Tony Blair and indeed Gordon Brown hopes to be Prime Minister within the next few months. Because of the way British politics works he can probably manage that without ever getting elected because he would just become party leader and therefore automatically the Prime Minister because the Labor Party is the dominant party in the government.

Brown commissioned a man called Andrew Gowers, who had at that point just been fired from being the editor of the Financial Times, to carry out this report. Andrew is a nice man but many of us doubted his ability to resist the Copyright lobby, to resist the pressures, to write something which would make industry happy, but he surprised us all, partly thanks to the excellent team of people he had working for him at the Treasury in the UK. He came up with a report that wasn’t radical but was sensible and what we do best in British politics is sensible because people can behind sensible. He said some things which were well argued, didn’t give in to the vested interests and didn’t give the music industry what they wanted.

Unfortunately, the Gowers Report is just that – it is a report, it is a series of recommendations which then goes into the government machine and has then to be acted on. It doesn’t do anything itself. We have a political issue here which is that when Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer commissioned the report, he believed that by the time it was published he would be Prime Minister, he believed by then Tony Blair would have gone and he would then be in a position to take this report and say I commissioned this report when I was Chancellor and it is absolutely fantastic, now I am Prime Minister and I am going to make it happen. Unfortunately, Tony Blair has refused to go and so Gordon Brown has received the report as a Chancellor and has no real power to deliver on it. And so the question is when Gordon does become Prime Minister – will it be his priorities – probably not, will the world have changed- probably, will he have been leaned on so effectively by the very wealthy music and movie industry so that he will actually dilute some of its recommendations –well tragically probably yes. So the timing is all wrong. The opportunity that Gowers presented was for Gordon Brown to say – this is great let’s just do it. Now we are going to have to wait – eight months – and [in that time] things would have changed and there will be a lot else for Gordon Brown to do. So for those of us who think that the recommendations are good are trying to keep the pressure on and keep track of what is happening, have the right conversations and make sure that when Gordon does become Prime Minister, because it looks fairly likely that he will, that he is reminded of his at the right time in the right way so that it can then turn into real change.

The other thing to remember is that a lot of changes that are proposed, a lot of recommendations are proposed, are actually international recommendations. So there are things that will have to happen at a European level or at a global level and so to some extent it is a call for British ministers, for British representatives, for British commissioners at Europe, for British delegates at WIPO to behave in a different way but it will take some time before we know that’s being successful. The report advocates engagement at a global level. It then needs to happen.

Interview with Bill Thompson: The Political Economy of the Internet

6 Mar

This is part 2 of the interview with Bill Thompson, technology columnist with the BBC. part 1

When I look at the Internet, there is this wonderful sense of volunteerism. It is incredible to see the kind of things that have come out of recent technology like the open source movement, and Wikipedia. Even Internet companies seem to have adopted sort of socially nurturing missions. How did these norms of volunteerism get created? Has technology merely enabled these norms? Or are we witnessing something entirely new here?

If you look at common space peer production, as Yochai Benkler calls it, what motivates people is exactly the same question as what motivates altruism. Because what we have with contributions to open source projects like Linux or positive contributions to Wikipedia, is what would seem to be on surface just pure altruistic behavior. So we can ask the same questions. What do people get in return? And do they have to get something in return?

Pekka Himanen in the Hacker Ethic, I think, nailed what people get in return— the social value you get from that, the sense of self-worth, the rewards that you are looking for, all of that makes perfect sense to me. I don’t think we need to ask any more questions about that. You get stuff back from contributing to the Linux kernel or putting something up on SourceForge. The stuff you get back is the same sort of stuff you get back from being a good active citizen. It is the same stuff as you get back from say recycling your trash.

The question as to whether something new is emerging, whether what’s happening online, because it allows for distributed participation – because the product of the online activity is say, certainly in the case of open source, a tool which can then itself be used elsewhere, or in the case of Wikipedia, a new approach to collating knowledge. Whether something completely new or radical is coming out of there still remains to be seen. I am quite skeptical about that. I am quite skeptical of brand new emergent properties of network behavior because we remain still the same physical and psychological human beings. I am not one of those people who believes that singularity is coming, that they are about to transcend the limitations of the corporeal body and that some magical breakthrough in humanity is going to happen thanks to the Internet and new biomedical procedures. I don’t think we are on the verge of that change.

I think that Internet as a collaborative environment might emphasize what it is to work together and change what it means to be a good citizen, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter the debate.

But the kind of interactions that we see today wouldn’t have happened if it were not for the Internet. For example, the fact that I am talking to you today is, I believe, sufficiently radical.

But has it changed anything fundamentally? Ok, it has allowed us to find each other but there was in the 13th century medieval Europe a very rich and complicated network of traveling scholars, who would travel from university or monastery to share each other’s ideas, they would exchange text. It was on a smaller scale, it was much slower, and it was at a lower level but was it fundamentally different to what we are doing in the blogosphere or with communications like this? Just because there is more of it doesn’t mean it is automatically different.

Let me move on here to a related but different topic. I imagine that the techniques which have been developed around this distributed model be applied to a variety of different places. For example, lessons from open source movement can be applied to how we do research. Can lessons of the Internet be applied elsewhere? Certainly, alternative forms of decision making are emerging within companies. Is Internet creating entirely new decision models and economies?

That’s quite a big question. There’s a sort of boring answer to it which is just that more and more organizations and more and more areas of human activity are reaching that third stage in their adoption of information and communication technologies. The first stage is where you just computerize your existing practices. The second stage is where you tinker with things and perhaps redefine certain structures. But the third stage is where you think ok these technologies are here so lets design our organizational processes, structures and functions around the affordances of the technology, which is a very hard thing to do but something which more and more places are doing. So just as in the 1830s and 1840s, organizations built themselves around the capabilities of steam systems and technologies and in the 1920s they built themselves around the new availability of the telephone, so now, in the West certainly, it is reasonable to assume that the network is there, and the things it makes possible it will continue to make possible. So you start to build structures, workflow and practices, businesses and indeed whole sectors of the economy around what the net does. In that sense, it is changing lots of things. As I said, I think that’s a boring insight. That’s what happens! We develop new technologies and we come to rely on them. It’s happened for the past five thousand years. So while it may be a new one but it’s the same pattern. Joseph Schumpeter got it right in the 1930s talking about waves of ‘Creative Destruction’ and everybody is now talking about that in the media but fundamentally there is nothing different going on there.

There is a more interesting aspect of that. Are some of the outputs of the more technological areas—the open source movement and things like that—creating wholly new possibilities for human creative and economic expression? And, they might be. I don’t think we know yet. I think it’s too early to tell. We have seen the basis of the Western economy and hence of the global economy move online (become digital) over the past twenty years. As Marx would put it the economic base has shifted. We are seeing the superstructures move now to reflect that. The idea of economic determinism is not right at every point in history but certainly, the world we live in now is a post-capitalist world. We still use the word Capitalism to describe it but in fact, the economy works in a slightly different way and we are going to need a new word for it. In that world – we have a new economic base – we will find new ways of being. And we will start to see the impact in art and culture, in forms of religious expression. You know we haven’t yet seen a technologically based region and it is about time we saw something emerge where the core presets rely on the technology.

Are we really post-Capitalist as you put it? I would still argue that Capitalism still trumps. The usage patterns of websites etc. still largely reflect the ‘old economy’. More importantly, I would argue that the promise of Information Age has long been swallowed by the quicksand of Capital.

When I say post-Capitalist, I don’t mean it’s not capitalist. If you look at the move from the feudal economy to Capitalism, the accumulation of capital became important. It still remains very important. It is still what drives things. The rich get more, the powerful remain more powerful and indeed those who have good creative ideas get appropriated by the system. We are seeing it happen already with the online video world where now if you create a cool 30-second video, your goal is to monetize that asset and basically you put it on Youtube and try to advertise it – you become part of the system and that this continues to happen. Just in parenthesis, the idea is that we are post-Capitalist not in that we are replacing Capitalism but it’s a different form of Capitalism—it is Uber Capitalism, it is Networked Capitalism. We need a new word for what we can do now. It doesn’t mean that those with capital don’t dominate because they do and they will continue for some time, I imagine.

In that sense that the network had some sort of democratizing influence is misguided. It hasn’t. It has enabled much greater participation. It may well make it possible for more people to benefit from their creativity in a modest way but I don’t think it will do anything to challenge the fundamental split between the owners of capital, those who invest their money and that counts as their work, and the wage slaves, the proletariat, those who have to do stuff every day in order to carry on and earn enough money to live. I don’t think it will change that at all.

Your comments are just spot on. There is an astute understanding of the political economy of the net especially at a time when one constantly hears of the wondrous impact of the Internet to revolutionize everything from Democracy to Economy.

Yeah. The network is a product of an advanced Capitalist economy largely driven by the economic and political interests of the United States although that balance is starting to shift. We see what is happening – particularly India and China are starting to have some influence, not very strong at the moment but growing, on the evolution of the network. But again India and China are trying to find their own ways of be industrial capitalist economies. They are not really trying to find their ways to be something completely different.

The digital economy, as you pointed out, still largely reflects the ‘real’ world underneath it. Things will change and are changing in some crucial fundamental ways but the virtual world is anchored to the real world. One facet of that real world is the acute gender imbalance in the IT industry. What are your thoughts on the issue?

There have been massive advances, particularly in Europe and the United States, [which] are I think two [places] in which over the past 100 years we have accepted and indeed believe that differences [in treatment] between men and women, which existed in many other societies, were just wrong. The differences which are currently enforced on billions of women around the world by their religions should be overcome. This was a historical era. There is no real difference [between genders]; the gender differential is unjust. Social justice requires equality. But it’s [gender equality] a very recent idea, it’s a very recent innovation and one of the last places where it has made an impact is within the education system so that fifty years ago the education system would push the men towards science and technology and women towards art and domestic skills. I think we are just living through the consequences of that in that sort of adults that we have today, in the people of my age now. When I was in school the girls would be glided away from the sciences and as a result technology and engineering were to a large extent male preserves and we are still correcting that historical injustice.

Now, what’s interesting though is that whilst we see that difference between those who build and create the machines, and at the engineering level, we are seeing it much less and less at the user level. So now the demographics of Internet use, computer use, laptop use, mobile phone use and all those sorts of things, certainly within the West, reflect the general population. Over the last ten years I have watched Internet use equalize, certainly here in the UK between men and women, and indeed what research has been done about how computers are used in the household makes it very clear that the computer has now become another household device that is as likely to be used by or controlled by the women or girls in the house as by the boys. So I think at the user level where the technology pushes through into our daily life that distinction isn’t there anymore. It’s at the programmer level where we see fewer women programmers and fewer women web designers. There are still a lot of them out there, friends of mine, male and female who are just as equally good and astute and capable at coding and developing and all those things but we still do see fewer. And I think it’s just a general societal imbalance that has yet to be corrected.

Interview with Bill Thompson: The Future

5 Mar

While technology has become an important part of our social, economic and political life, most analysis about technology remains woefully inadequate, limited to singing paeans about Apple and Google, and occasional rote articles about security and privacy issues. It is to this news market full of haberdasher opining that Mr. Bill Thompson brings his considerable intellect and analytical skills every week for his column on technology for the BBC.

To those unfamiliar with his articles, Mr. Bill Thompson is a respected technology guru and a distinguished commentator on technology and copyright issues for the BBC. Mr. Thompson’s calm moderated erudition of technology comes from his extensive experience in the IT industry in varying capacities and a childhood without computers. “I was born in 1960. So I grew up before there were computers around. Indeed, I never touched one at school.” It was not until his third year at Cambridge University when he was running experiments in Psychology that he first touched a computer. He says that in many ways his first experiences with computers formed his mindset about computers. And that view—computers are there to perform a useful function—has stayed with him for over 25 years.

Mr. Thompson went on to get a Master’s level diploma in Computer Science from Cambridge University in 1983. After graduating from Cambridge, he joined a small computer firm and then quit it to join Acorn Computers Limited, creators of the successful BBC Micro, as a database consultant. He left the enterprise because “they wanted to promote me” and joined as a courseware developer with Instruction Set. After a stint with PIPEX, he found himself running Guardian’s New Media division a decade or so ago when the Internet was still in its infancy. After working for a few years managing Guardian’s online site, Mr. Thompson left to pursue writing and commenting full time. It is in the field of writing and providing astute analysis on technology-related issues that Mr. Thompson finds himself today.

I interviewed Mr. Thompson via Skype about a month ago. The interview covered a wide range of issues. Given the diversity of issues covered I have chosen to put an edited transcript of the interview rather than an essay styled thematic story. Here’s an edited (both style and content) transcript of the interview.

The technology opinion marketplace seems to be split between technology evangelists and Luddites. Your writing, on the other hand, manifests a broad range of experience; it reflects moderated enthusiasm about what computers can do. I find it an astute and yet optimistic account.

I am fundamentally optimistic about the possibilities of this technology that we have invented to both make the world a better place and to help us recover from some of the mistakes of the past and make better decisions as a species, not just as a society, in the future. It informs my writing. It informs as well the things that I am interested in and the areas that I want to explore.

Our relationship with machines was once fraught with incomprehension and fear. Machines epitomized the large mechanized state and its dominance over the natural world. There was a spate of movies somewhere in the 70s when refrigerators and microwaves rose up to attack us. Over the past decade or so, our relationship has transformed to such a degree that not only do we rely on fairly sophisticated machines to do our daily chores, but we also look at machines as a way to achieve utopian ideals. Fred Turner, professor of Communication at Stanford, in “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism” traces this rise of digital utopianism to American counterculture. How do you think the relationship evolved?

The way you phrase the question leads me to think that perhaps it was the exaggerated claims of Artificial Intelligence community that led people to worry that computers would reach the point at which they would take over. And the complete failure of AI to deliver on any its promises has led us to a more phlegmatic and accepting attitude, which is that these are just machines; we don’t know how to make them clever enough to threaten us, and therefore we can just get on with using them.

The fact is known that Skynet is not going to launch nuclear weapons at us in a Terminator world and so we can then focus on the fact that the essential humanity of the Terminator itself, certainly in the second and third movies, is a source of redemption. We can actually feel positive about the machines instead of negative about them.

When you have a computer that is around, that crashes constantly, that is infected with viruses and malware, that doesn’t do what is supposed to do and stuff like that, you are not afraid of it. You are irritated by it. And you treat it as you would a recalcitrant child that you might love and care for and that has some value but is certainly not something that is going to threaten you. And then we can use the machines. That then actually allows us to focus on what you call the Utopian or altruistic aspects. It allows us to focus on machines in a much broader context, which recognizes that human agency is behind it.

The dystopian stories rely on machines getting out of control but in fact, we live in a world in which the machines are being used negatively by people, by governments, by corporations, and by individuals. The failure to have AI allows us to accept that – to reject the systems they have built without rejecting the machines themselves.

And for those who actually believe that information and communication technologies are quite positive – (it allows us) to focus on what could be done for good instead of just dismissing all of the technology as being bad. It allows us to take a much more complex and nuanced point of view.

You make an excellent point. I see where you are coming from.

In a sense, it is where I am coming from and which is—I am a liberal humanist atheist. I believe we make this world and we have the potential to make it better, and the technologies we invent should be part of that process.

Just as I am politically socialist, I believe in equality of opportunity and social justice and all those things [similarly] I have a humanist approach to technology which is that what we have made we can make ‘do good’ for us.

Interview with Victor Stenger

3 Mar

Dr. Victor Stenger is professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. He is the author of God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, which debuted on the New York Times Bestseller List last week.

When did you first realize that you were an atheist? Was it a sort of a Eureka moment or a gradual realization?

In high school, I started reading a lot of popular science, especially astronomy, nuclear physics, and evolution. I began to see Catholicism as irrational but I did not become an atheist immediately. When I was a graduate student at UCLA I attended a Methodist church and sang in the choir. When I lived in Hawaii, my wife and I sent our kids to church-related schools, although we did not go to church. Finally, in the 1980s I began to get involved with the skeptical movement and learned about Humanism. The more I gained from experience, the more I read, the more I realized that the God concept had no merit.

Church attendance and belief in God have remained relatively steady in the US, while there has been a precipitous decline in Western Europe. What do you think is behind this?

Big money is given by extremely conservative, wealthy sources in the US to churches and other organizations such as so-called think tanks to brainwash Americans. Europe is less vulnerable to what Chris Hedges, in his best-seller, called “American Fascists”. Incidentally, he is not an atheist.

On occasion when I chance upon religious programming on TV – it seems half gimmickry and half psychological therapy. In fact, mass religions from fairly early on took on the job of providing ‘guidance’ to people. What do you make of this sort of role of religion?

While it is mostly good-intentioned, much in the religious right — the American<br />Fascist movement — is motivated by the desire for political power and the helping people aspect is a phony con game that is part of the scheme.

This question is somewhat related to the previous one. Say if we were to find out that belief in God is psychologically helpful, can we argue for an evolutionary reason behind the existence of religion? This question was famously asked by Time in its article – The God Gene – does our DNA compel us to seek a higher power? What do you make of these kinds of assertions?

I don’t think it’s in the genes. I think religion evolved in cultures, ironically, by Darwinian means. Religion has always be the method used by those in power to keep the masses in line. For example, I was recently in India. There the vast majority of people live in misery and squalor. But they don’t complain, they don’t revolt against the rich because the Hindu religion tells them it is their dharma – their fate. In the West, the divine right of kings justified their dominance. Today George Bush tells us that he is doing God’s work.

People have often times argued that religion is needed to uphold moral values. Psychology literature points to that people are more liable to take advice from institutions or people they trust. Is there a case to be made for religion to be there as a service that disseminates morality?

This is the prime example of how religious brainwashing works. People are told that morals come from God. But the facts say otherwise. Moral concepts such as the Golden Rule were around centuries before Jesus. They are the collective principles of humanity. Studies show that atheists are at least as moral as theists, and certainly, there is a connection between fundamentalism, in Islam and Christianity, and antisocial behavior. I prefer to call myself a humanist rather than an atheist because Humanism is the source of our morality and provides a positive outlook on life.

Religion in everyday life is understood as something uncontestable while scientific theories are considered debatable. How can we provide a more open attitude towards investigating religion?

Religion makes testable claims so these can be treated the same as any scientific claim. I document these in detail in the book, but let me give you one example. Most believers do a lot of praying and think it has a positive effect. These effects should be observable. Controlled experiments have been done and have found no effects. It could have turned out otherwise, in which case I would have to admit that science had found God.

It is a well-known fact that very few people actually ever read the religious texts and it is likely that very few of those who read them understand them. So there is a chasm between the way a religion is lived and the way it was fundamentally conceived and hence the numerous ‘fundamentalist’ movements. The argument that I am making is that ‘faith’ that is driving most religious people is of a vague though absolute kind. Debunking the extraordinary stories of the books, and even providing convincing arguments against God is unlikely to change the views of the majority of religious people.

Probably. But there are still a lot of people I think I can reach with rational arguments: agnostics; believers who are not too sure; young people, especially college students who are learning to think critically and have not yet formed their views. Also, I provide ammunition for those who think like I do to use in their arguments with believers.

Science thrives on the parsimonious model. One shouldn’t create something if it isn’t needed to explain the phenomenon at hand. Hence if all ‘natural’ phenomena can be conceivably explained by variables at hand then why devise new ones. This, I believe, is one of the chief arguments that you try to make about the absence of God. Can you expand a little more on this?

In an earlier book, Has Science Found God? I refute the claims that there is scientific evidence for God. In this book, I go much further than just the absence of evidence argument that you reiterate in your question. I claim there is positive scientific evidence against the existence of the God most people worship, as in the absence of support for the efficacy of prayer that I mentioned earlier.

It is a well-known scientific corollary that absence of proof is not proof of absence. The kinds of models that you describe in your book are really a probabilistic debunking that derive their strengths from 95% confidence intervals and the unlikelihood of the hypothesis but not proof that it doesn’t exist. Can you shed a bit more light on this?

The word “proof” has at least two different meanings. In logic and mathematics, a proof or disproof is with certainty given the starting assumptions. In science and law, proof means beyond a reasonable doubt. The latter allows one to conclude that God can be “proved” not to exist if the data show this beyond a reasonable doubt. Note I use “show” rather than “prove” in the subtitle to avoid that confusion.

One of the arguments that is made by people who believe in God is that there must a reason for our existence. This is sort of an existentialist argument that says that we must have a cause behind our lives and only human lives, I may add. What do you think of this?

That is simply a pious hope. There is no basis, and I would add, no evidence, for this. In fact, the universe looks just as it should be expected to look if there is no special role or purpose for humanity. However, it is important for me to add that this does not mean that we cannot find purpose in our own lives in the family, work, art, music, doing good deeds, and so on. In fact, releasing the bonds of religion gives us more freedom to explore all that life has to offer.

Q. Tell us a little more about the kind of problems you see if we allow religious superstition to dictate policy and even science.

As documented in several other books, the religion-based decision making of the Republicans and Bush administration does more harm than good, threatens the health and well being of all of us, and increases the amount of unnecessary human suffering in the world. For example, most of the federal money spent on AIDS, in Africa and America, goes to advocating abstinence and none to condoms. Scientific studies showing that abstinence does not work are deleted from government reports.

Q. Any final words to the believers and the non-believers?

If scientific evidence were ever found for God or some other form of the supernatural, then scientists like myself would become believers. I give hypothetical examples of observations that would convince me that God exists. I ask all believers and nonbelievers to look at the data and argue about it rationally, without polemics or ad hominems. I try to do this in my book.

Interview with Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo

23 Jan

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, the runaway bestseller by New York Times columnist Friedman has now been on the New York Times Bestseller list for over 85 weeks and has sold over 2 million copies in hardcover alone. Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo, authors of The World is Flat? – A Critical Analysis of Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times Bestseller, point out that Friedman’s book is also full of factual and argumentative inaccuracies, some deliberate and some as a result of living in the CEO bubble. In their book, Ramdoo and Aronica conduct a step by step demolition of nearly all the points that Mr. Friedman makes in his book.

Q) What prompted you to write this book? Were you primarily motivated by wanting to straighten the record? Can you also talk a little more about your background and how this book came about?

RA: With a 30-year career at the intersection of business and technology under my belt, I coauthored a book in 2001, The Death of “E” and the Birth of the Real New Economy. In that book, we described how the technology-enabled globalization of white-collar work would be the new frontier in the world economy. The book is about business transformation as a result of the world being wired and the capability that the Internet provides to interconnect business processes around the globe. It was time to prepare for a whole new way of operating a business. In 2006, I picked up a copy of Friedman’s book and was floored by its superficiality. But what was more shocking to me was the fact that millions of copies had been sold and its influence on leaders in business and government. Indeed, I wanted to set the record straight, for Globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, and the stories Friedman spun are but a small piece of the overall tapestry of this monumental transformation.

Globalization is a highly complex interaction of forces. Not only does it exhibit integration, it also exhibits disintegration. It is rooted in cooperation—and it is rooted in violence. For some, it represents the triumph of free-market capitalism over communism, ushering in democracy, world peace and universal prosperity; for others, it represents conflict, unbridled greed, deregulated corporate power, and an utter disregard for humanity.

Yet, the person on the street, especially in America, has little clue what globalization is all about. Few have any doubt that change is placing the world under great stress—that it is being turned upside down. And they may suspect that it has to do with the word, globalization, which increasingly appears in the press and other media. But what does it really mean? It would be great if a popularizer, a famous personality or pundit, would explain the many political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of globalization. Desperate for such information, millions of people, including leaders in government and education, have turned to Friedman’s mass market book to gain an understanding of globalization. Unfortunately, they are served up stories about Friedman’s friends, elite CEOs and other personal contacts.

The notion of globalization has been around for centuries, and has taken many forms: political, economic, cultural, and technological, to name a few. But the twenty-first century-style globalization that Friedman writes about is unique. It has a name: “corporate” globalization.

What we want our book to do is to go beyond Friedman’s superficial treatment of globalization and encourage readers who were awed by his book to “think again.”

The aim of our short monograph is to provide a counterbalance to Friedman’s cheerleading for corporate globalization. To help readers get a fuller understanding of the issues, we provide suggested readings at the end of our book and at our Web site, www.mkpress.com/flat Globalization is so important to all of us that we need become more fully informed, not misinformed by story after story based on personal anecdotes, and stories spun from meeting Friedman’s daughter’s friend’s boyfriend at Yale, or playing golf with rich and famous corporate executives. While readers might be unable to find a single falsehood in Friedman’s book, neither can they find the whole truth, nor most of the critically important facets needed for a full picture of globalization.

Q) The current way of globalization, according to you, seems like a race to the bottom. It seems like a system largely driven by large corporations and their obsession with lowering the cost of production. Let me juxtapose this thought with something which is oft mentioned – that success of US from the 1950’s onwards was largely buttressed by robust middle class with decent disposable incomes. My question to you is that is there a chance that the vanishing middle class will translate into a vanishing consumer, and what will that mean for the whole enterprise?

MR: That’s a very good question, for it touches on some of the more profound aspects of twenty-first–century style globalization. We have a whole section in our book, “America’s Former Middle Class” that talks about the plight of the American middle class. Three pillars: land (material resources); labor; and capital form the foundation of industrial economies. In the early years of the Industrial Revolution, Dickensonian industrialists kept labor down when it came to any stake in wealth. Then, in 1901, Republican Teddy Roosevelt became President. He distrusted wealthy businessmen and, as a Trust Buster, dissolved 40 monopolistic corporations. His Square Deal promised a fair shake for the average citizen, including regulation of railroad rates, and pure foods and drugs. As an outdoorsman, he promoted the conservation movement, emphasizing efficient use of natural resources. After 1906, he attacked big business and suggested that the courts were biased against labor unions. In short, you might say Roosevelt gave birth today’s American middle class. Recognizing the capitalists’ excesses during the Industrial Revolution, leaders, such as Roosevelt, reigned in raw capitalism and created a “mixed economy,” not the pure laissez-faire form of capitalism advocated by the Dickensonians.

Fast forwarding to today, free-market Friedman seems to assert that now, with his utopian, digitally connected flat world, even the nation-state could wane as flat-world capitalists create, in the words of Marx and Engels, “a world after its own image.”

Henry Ford was a pioneer of “welfare capitalism” designed to improve the lot of his workers and especially to reduce the heavy turnover that had many departments hiring 300 men a year to fill 100 slots. Efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers. In January 1914, Ford announced his five-dollar a day program. The revolutionary program called for a reduction in length of the workday from 9 to 8 hours, a 5-day work week, and a raise in minimum daily pay from $2.34 to $5 for qualifying workers.

Wall Street criticized Ford for starting the 40-hour work week and the minimum wage, but he showed that by paying his people more, Ford workers would be able to afford the cars they were producing—which would be good for the economy. Ford labeled the increased compensation profit-sharing rather than wages.

With today’s corporate globalization, we are seeing a return to Dickensonian capitalism on a grand scale. Not only do we need a strong American middle class, we need a strong global middle class, not a global 3rd world that is seeing America heading toward 3rd world status. We need a new Teddy Roosevelt and thinking capitalists in the likes of upstart Henry Ford if the world is to avoid Wall Street’s rule and its preeminent goal of only increasing shareholder value.

Q) You raise multiple points in your book illustrating ways in which the world is not particularly “flat”. If I read you right, you are not against “flat world” but a Friedman conception of a neo-liberal “flat world” that exists today. Tell us a little more about your thoughts the current “flat” world and the kind of “flat” world that you would like to see. In other words, how does the current global economic regime look like and what would you like to see changed?

RA: Neo-liberals believe that free markets, free trade, and the free flow of capital are the most efficient ways to produce the greatest social, political, and economic good. They argue for reduced taxation, reduced regulation, and minimal government involvement in the economy. They include privatizing health and retirement benefits, dismantling of trade unions, and generally opening our economy to foreign competition. Detractors see neo-liberalism as a power grab by economic elites and as a race to the bottom for everyone else.

The current economic regime unleashes neoliberalism. Agriculture, indigenous peoples’ resources, water, genes, medicines—increasingly, they are all being privatized and placed in the hands of transnational corporations. The field of economics has always addressed both private and public goods. But today’s neoliberal philosophy views all goods as private goods—perhaps even our laws are becoming private goods.

Corporations no longer influence our laws—now, they write them! Multinationals, working behind closed doors are writing the world’s economic agreements unfettered by any one nation’s interests and unaccountable to individual nations’ citizens. For example, the WTO, which emerged from GATT, which covered international trade and tariffs, is an organization that protects multinationals. And Chapter 11 of the supposed free-trade agreement of NAFTA, establishes a new system of private arbitration for foreign investors to bring injury claims against governments. The operative principle is that foreign capital investing in Canada, Mexico or the United States may demand compensation if the profit-making potential of their ventures are injured by government decisions. This gives foreign-based companies more rights than have domestic businesses operating in their home country. Global corporations are free to litigate on their own without having to ask national governments to act on their behalf in global forums. The national identity of multinationals will become less and less relevant, since they have status to challenge governments. NAFTA creates, as Lydia Lazar, a Chicago attorney, puts it, “an open class of legal equals.” She adds that “NAFTA is really an end run around the Constitution.”

What we’d like to see changed is the form of governance needed for global trade. Current forums and trade agreements (WTO, World Bank, IMF, NAFTA, CAFTA) have stripped many nation-states—hence, their people—of their former roles governing trade. Not doing this, indeed, could lead to the scenarios described in Harvard’s David Korten’s book, When Corporations Rule the World.

Because globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, there’s no pat checklist to instantly change policy and strategy. We’re talking about a multi-year struggle for individuals, companies and nations to adjust and readjust. Although we do not in any way provide cookie cutter solutions in our book, we enumerate many of the issues that must be addressed. Here are some examples:

  1. Reform of the dependence on Treasury securities, which funds U. S. over-consumption with borrowed dollars from China, Japan and other export driven nations.
  2. Reform the IMF, World Bank, and WTO to make their decision-making more transparent.
  3. Provide education subsidies, not farm subsidies in the U.S. and Europe
  4. Establish worldwide regulation that would restrict continuing damage to the environment and maintain biodiversity.
  5. Have government once again govern corporations versus the reverse as it is today (e.g. put trade policy back into Congress, not in trade agreements written behind closed doors).
  6. Establish a U.S. Federal Competitiveness cabinet position.
  7. Break the bribery cycle between poor countries’ governments and international companies.
  8. Establish tripolar trading blocs, not American unipolar hegemony (e.g. establish true economic unions, not asymmetric trade agreements).
  9. Separate public goods (the commons) from private goods.
  10. Foster. increased savings (e.g., with automatic 401K plans).
  11. Develop energy policies and strategies that will break our dependency on oil (e.g. rethink and reorganize America’s sprawling suburbs (exurbs)).
  12. Globalize health care, e.g., allow people to spend Medicare dollars overseas (Mexico would boom, solving much of the illegal immigration problem in the U.S.). We are well overdue for a wakeup call to address these and other issues. And an open debate could just lead to peoples’ active engagement in creating a just, sustainable, economic world.

Q) You spend a fair amount of time on describing the underbelly of the beast – the 998 million Indians with no access to Internet, the farmers coming suicide there, or the laid off workers in Detroit. The global middle class and under class are suffering. But certainly the number of Chinese below poverty line has taken a dramatic nose dive in the past two decades. It also seems clear to me that the 9% growth rates in India are benefiting some poor. Certainly the story of globalization is not all doom and gloom. Tell us about the cross cutting forces at work in globalization today.

MR: Today, leading economists, both advocates and critics of globalization, agree that international trade has improved the lives of many across the world, bringing technology and knowledge to virtually every corner of the globe, and has raised many above the tyranny of backward and often repressive cultures. No doubt volumes could be filled with success stories of international trade. It’s “corporate globalization” that’s at issue in the 21st century. Neoliberal free-trade proponents too often frame the issues in a polarizing way: “free-trade” versus “protectionism,” “good” versus “bad.” “Your are either for us, or against us,” they might say. “Free-trade reduces poverty, protectionism creates poverty.” Of course, this is bullshit. Globalization is not a bipolar issue, while the case can be made that “corporate globalization” is.

Defining poverty is key to any discussion of the so-called poverty lines. Is economic globalization the only form of globalization? Should some goods be off limits to corporate globalization and, if so, which ones? To answer these questions, we’ve included a large section in the book devoted to the concept of the Privatization of the Commons. We quote Indian ecologist Dr.Vandana Shiva, “People do not die for lack of incomes. They die for lack of access to resources. Here too Jeffrey Sacks (The End of Poverty) is wrong when he says, ‘In a world of plenty, 1 billion people are so poor, their lives are in danger.’ The indigenous people in the Amazon, the mountain communities in the Himalaya, peasants whose land has not been appropriated and whose water and biodiversity has not been destroyed by debt-creating industrial agriculture are ecologically rich, even though they do not earn a dollar a day. On the other hand, even at five dollars a day, people are poor if they have to buy their basic needs at high prices. Indian peasants who have been made poor and pushed into debt over the past decade to create markets for costly seeds and agrochemicals through economic globalization are ending their lives in thousands.”

After China announced plans to adopt a new law that seeks to crack down on sweatshops and protect workers’ rights by giving labor unions real power for the first time since it introduced market forces in the 1980s, guess who started lobbying the Chinese politicians? As David Baboza reported in the New York Times, “The move, which underscores the government’s growing concern about the widening income gap and threats of social unrest, is setting off a battle with American corporations that have lobbied against it by hinting that they may build fewer factories here. The workers’ advocates say that the proposed labor rules—and more important, enforcement powers—are long overdue, and they accuse the American businesses of favoring a system that has led to widespread labor abuse.” “You have big corporations opposing basically modest reforms,” said Tim Costello, an official of the Global Labor Strategies and a longtime labor union advocate. “This flies in the face of the idea that globalization and corporations will raise standards around the world.”

What’s currently going on is called “corporate globalization,” where powerful transnational corporations, backed by supposed “free trade” treaties penned by corporate lobbyists in Washington, go to the ends of the earth to exploit slave-like labor. No one of us wants continuing poverty in China, India, or elsewhere. But is making $2.00 a day (the oft quoted dollar amount to be “out of poverty”) the goal, the only goal?

Out of Poverty?

Life in rural communities in China, India and elsewhere is tough. Are we to displace a non-money economy with formerly self-sufficient peoples moving to the mega cities to live in slums? In the recent PBS documentary, “China From the Inside,” rural people dislocated due to the damming of rivers were given new high density housing. But as one of them exclaimed, we have no jobs and cannot raise our food anymore. Relocation from dam areas, like the Three Gorges, is causing huge social upheaval (75,000 riots in China in 2005).Thousands of families are divided throughout China as parents spend most of the year in large cities making a living, while their children remain in rural villages with grandma tending to all the chores and to the fields. In other cases, women are left in the villages to raise children while husbands go off alone to the cities to work. Expectant mothers still abort female fetuses or abandon newborn girls because of the long-held view that women are not as valuable to the culture as men. China is the only nation in the world where the suicide rate for women is higher than that for men. Of course, relocated peasants cannot afford the shoe strings on the brand-named shoes they manufacture in sweatshops. But then, again, they do get to see their children 4 days out of the year! So yes, they are “out of poverty” according to the $2.00 a day rule, but at what cost? Is there hope for a Global Middle Class? Why, when the Chinese Communist Party’s latest five-year plan called for increased focus on unions, did multinationals threaten to relocate jobs to Viet Nam or other dirt-cheap–labor countries?

China is run by the Communist Party, which bases its legitimacy on delivering both stability and the conditions for prosperity. But stability is under threat as the economic boom strands millions at the margins. Meanwhile, rampant corruption is sapping people’s trust in the Party. Officials are seen, increasingly, not as public servants but as profiteers. Is China Corporate Globalization’s 21st century poster child where the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer in social as well as monetary terms? We don’t have the answers in our book, but we identify the essential questions, such as, Is earning $2.00 a day the end of poverty? You’ll see little discussion of these matters in Friedman.

Q) Thomas Friedman in his book, “The World is Flat: A brief history of the 21st Century” quotes Bill Gates, “Thirty years ago, if you had a choice between being born a genius on the outskirts of Bombay or Shanghai or being born an average person in Poughkeepsie, you would take Poughkeepsie, because your chances of thriving and living a decent life there, even with average talent, were much greater. But as the world has gone flat, and so many people can plug and play from anywhere, natural talent has started to trump geography.” It seems to me Bill Gates is comparing a child born to fairly rich educated parents near Bombay or Shanghai given only a tiny fraction (about 1% in India) of people in India and China have access to “plug and play”, something which you point out in your book. Even if we agree with Mr. Gates, we still miss the close to 95% of population with its share of geniuses that don’t live close to Mumbai and Shanghai. Can you shed some light on their chances for “success” or integration in the global economy?

MR: What Gates and Friedman are discussing are the opportunities for the elite. Friedman writes, “I cannot tell any other society or culture what to say to its own children, but I can tell you what I say to my own: The world is being flattened. I didn’t start it and you can’t stop it, except at a great cost to human development and your own future. But we can manage it, for better or for worse. You can flourish in this flat world, but it does take the right imagination and the right motivation. While your lives have been powerfully shaped by 9/11, the world needs you to be forever the generation of 11/9 [the fall of the Berlin wall]—the generation of strategic optimists, the generation with more dreams than memories, the generation that wakes up each morning and not only imagines that things can be better but also acts on that imagination every day.”

While these lessons display concern for his children, he leaves it up to their imagination as to the way forward. Friedman’s daughter attends Yale, and there he sees the “precisely the sort of young person we want the America education system to keep churning out.” People getting degrees in biomedical engineering while having medical doctors and science professors for fathers.

If only every kid in America had these advantages and could graduate from Yale, all would be well in the Kingdom of Flat. All they need is a wealthy daddy, a degree from U.S.-President-producing Yale, and we are off to the races. But for those of us whose children do not breathe such rarefied air, Freidman tells them to use their imagination.

Ditto for our children that don’t breathe such rarefied air Chindia (China and India). The haves and have-nots are growing further apart in both rich countries and poor. But there is hope in programs such as microbanking. Bangladeshi Grameen Bank and its founder Muhammad Yunus received the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. Indeed, there is a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, but few multinationals seem to notice. While most IT activity is focused on urban centers such as Bangalore, India’s Netcore is producing the $100 PC for the next billion. So, the big hope for addressing poverty isn’t about the “zippies” in Bangalore that Friedman writes about, it’s about the bottom of the pyramid. And when innovations happen there, entrepreneurs in Chindia will take them global at Chindia prices. Change is being driven by the bottom of the pyramid and not in the chrome and rosewood boardrooms and halls of the WTO or the World Bank or Wall Street.


Q) Friedman has all sorts of suggestions for parents living in suburbs like Poughkeepsie. What would you like to say to the parents of young kids across America – Is it to vote to change the economic and social policy of the government?

MR: Americans are just beginning to think about what can happen as early as 2010. Some forecasts show that, with an average growth rate of 8–10%, China’s GDP will, by 2010, have surpassed Japan’s, by 2030, China will have the world’s largest economy, and, by 2050, it could be double that of the U.S.

Meanwhile, Washington leaves industrial policy up to the “free market”—or, as we write in our book, Washington has no industrial policy, which is perhaps the real issue—America does not have a national industrial policy that identifies and strengthens the industries in which it wants to be the master in the twenty-first century. America’s economic policies are, by and large, set by transnational corporations who wield excessive power in Washington. Their interests are not in America, but are in their stockholders. As more than one CEO has said, their interests may indeed lie outside of the United Sates. So, keeping this in mind, Friedman’s thesis could translate into “Go East, young man. Get your engineering degree, and move to Bangalore, because that’s where your job is going.”

For starters, I’d tell parents to read Sen. Byron Dorgan’s book, Take this Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America. It’s a real eye opener. Then visit his Web site, http://dorgan.senate.gov, to see the kind of legislation that is needed to put America’s industrial policy back on track. He calls for: (1) antisweatshop legislation that bar imports produced under internationally defined “sweatshop” conditions and hold companies accountable for using forced labor or denying basic human rights to workers, including the right to organize; (2) repealing tax incentives for American companies that enjoy all the benefits of being “American”—government services and subsidies, and U.S. Military protection—while discarding reciprocal obligations to the country—jobs, economic investment, and paying a fair share of the tax burden; And (3) capping trade deficits and stopping the $800-billion-a-year trade deficit hemorrhaging. These recommendations do not deal with every disorder caused by globalization, but they could jump-start a debate that Congress has long avoided. And they are not about “protectionism.” Instead they are about America formulating an industrial trade policy, because as, as former Reagan commerce advisor Clyde Prestowitz said, , “China and India have very clear national industrial policies. America does not.”

Q) You bring out a variety of points that dismantle nearly all of arguments that Friedman makes in the book. What, according to you, did Friedman get right in his book? What does he get about global economic regime?

RA: The main thing Friedman got right was that there is a need for a book on globalization that can reach the general population. Unfortunately, his book misinforms the public. We could not find a single falsehood in Friedman’s book. What he wrote, he mostly got right. But it’s what he didn’t write—it’s what he left out—that makes the book so problematic. There’s little more in his book beyond being a cheerleader for unfettered corporate globalization. And its important to recognize that, in some sense, this globalization stuff he writes about really does seem to work; if you consider that if four average blue-collar Americans join Friedman at a bar, the five of them, on average, would be a group of millionaires. As some of our politicians like to remind us, America is the economic envy of the world, and similar statistics to the bar scenario prove them right. That’s right, eh?

Q) Thomas Friedman started of as a successful Middle-East pundit, something for which he has actually received training. It is at best a strange transition from being a Middle-East pundit to being an “expert” on globalization. Do Friedman’s flaws in his economic analysis, as pointed out by you and numerous other scholars, emanate primarily from his lack of intellectual training in economics or his lack of intellectual honesty or is it something else entirely?

MR: It seems Friedman is an opportunist. Remember, he started on his globalization quest when he was on assignment for the Discovery Channel doing “The Other Side of Outsourcing.” It seems to have occurred to him during that assignment, “Aha. A book!” You’ll see that he based many of the stories in his book on the Discovery documentary. Being a well-placed smart person, Friedman did what any capitalist would do, he used his celebrity assets to make money. And to him, we say kudos. Stiglitz, Bagwhati, Roach, Leamer and other well-respected, fully-qualified economists and business analysts can write their hearts out, but who will read them? Celebrity has its privileges.

What’s unnerving is not Friedman, but the overwhelming traction of his book. This is best explained by Professor Roberto Gonzalez, “Ultimately, Friedman’s work is little more than advertising. The goal is not to sell the high-tech gadgetry described in page after page of the book, but to sell a way of life—a world view glorifying corporate capitalism and mass consumption as the only paths to progress. It is a view intolerant of lives lived outside the global marketplace. It betrays [unconsciously reveals] a disregard for democracy and a profound lack of imagination. This book’s lighthearted style might be amusing were it not for the fact that his subject—the global economy—is a matter of life and death for millions. Friedman’s words and opinions, ill informed as they are, shape the policies of leaders around the world. Many consider him to be a sophisticated thinker and analyst—not a propagandist. It is a sobering reminder of the intellectual paralysis gripping our society today.” Today we don’t play sports; we sit on the couch and play our sports vicariously through celebrity sports stars. Today, we don’t have much time to think; we let our celebrity pundits do that for us.

Q) You heavily rely on paraphrasing and quotations from others authors to put forth your case. Was that a conscious decision or was it strictly a result of time pressures?

RA: We’ll give you yet another quote to tell why! Here is Bill Moyers at the 2007 National Conference on Media Reform, “The degree to which this [free trade] has become a purely ideological debate, devoid of any factual basis that people can weigh the gains and losses is reflected in Thomas Friedman’s astonishing claim, stated not long ago in a television interview, that he endorsed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) without even reading it. That is simply because it stood for ‘free trade.’
We have reached the stage when the Poo-bahs of punditry have only to declare that ‘the world is flat,’ for everyone to agree it is, without going to the edge and looking over themselves. It’s called reporting.”

And that’s exactly what we want to accomplish with our book, going to the edge and doing some “reporting” on what those qualified to analyze and report on 21st century globalization has to say.

We have 46 footnote references on our sources of information. Friedman has zero. We don’t make stuff up and tell stories about friends and elite CEOs. And we explore nine critical issues Friedman ignores or glosses over, along with an enumeration of 22 action items. Our book would be hundreds more pages if we expounded on each of these strategies and their rationales. We meant only to set the record straight on what Friedman is saying by providing the views of the experts, and then to provide the reader with a roadmap for exploring this vital subject further, for globalization affects all our lives and will be of even greater significance to our children and grandchildren. Simply stated, we all must learn about globalization and our available choices as we define our place in a global economy.

We hope our analysis of Friedman’s book provides readers who were awed by his 600 pages of bafflegab with a second take on the monumental subject of globalization.

To help our readers to develop their understanding of the issues, we have a shortlist of suggested readings and a comprehensive and growing resource list at www.mkpress.com/flat. Our message is “Wake up!” it’s past time to come to grips with the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution.

Q) Friedman is often accused of writing newspaper plain speak, speaking in clichés and in analogies but avoiding facts and avoiding substance to story telling. The idea is, according to Friedman, to be a translator of the economic jargon and make it accessible to the public. Is there any merit in this idea? Are economic facts about the current global regime so complex?

RA: A translator of economic jargon would be great. We open our book saying that the person on the street, especially in America, has little clue what globalization is all about. But few have any doubt that change is placing the world under great stress, that it is being “turned upside down.” And the person on the street may suspect that it has to do with the word, which increasingly appears in the press and other media: globalization. But what does it really mean? It would be great if a popularizer, a famous personality or pundit, would explain the many complicated political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of globalization. Walter Cronkite or Bill Moyers could probably do that.

Desperate for such information, millions of people, including leaders in business, government and education, have turned to Friedman’s mass market book to gain an understanding of globalization. Unfortunately, they are served up stories from friends, CEOs and other personal contacts of the author. These stories are not harmless, for they become solemn writ for lawmakers and opinion mongers.

It’s not so complex to explain that multinational corporations, are by their very nature, aimed at maximizing shareholder value. To achieve this corporate goal, multinational corporations are literally going to the ends of the earth in search of dirt-cheap labor for both manufacturing and high-end knowledge-based workers. IBM recently laid off 15,000 employees in America, while hiring 45,000 in India. There is nothing complex about that idea.

But shipping jobs overseas and hollowing out America’s middle class is only part of the picture. America is exporting its pollution by relocating manufacturing facilities to countries where environment laws are lax or non-existent. Let’s not forget about the human abuses lurking behind famous brand names and companies. Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee cites Wal-Mart among others as repeat offenders. Friedman has nothing but awe for Wal-Mart’s supply chaining, failing all mention of Wal-Mart’s darker side cited by Kernaghan. Like other US retailers, Wal-Mart claims to be enforcing decent labor conditions, but investigators find otherwise. Kernaghan points out that the same companies have won enforceable rules in trade agreements to protect their trademarks, labels and copyrights, yet regard protections for workers as “an impediment to free trade.” “Under this distorted sense of values,” says Kernaghan, “the label is protected but not the human being, the worker who makes the product.”

What’s so hard for the laymen to understand about that? Plain newspaper speak is great if it conveys substance. Friedman is especially destructive when he opines on public matters outside his supposed expertise. His thinking seems to be anchored by Ayn Rand’s social philosophy: Let the strong prevail, let the weak pay for their weakness. There is no doubt that many of those who read Friedman are now convinced the world is flat (perhaps they also believe the moon is made of green cheese). But newspaper plain talk doesn’t make it so. Having paid the price of wading through Friedman’s almost 600 pages of grandiloquent prose and bafflegab, there are those who want to protect that investment by clinging to the idea that they have gained a full understanding of globalization. Albert Einstein once wrote, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Friedman’s simplistic treatise on globalization fails that test.

While Friedman’s personal anecdotes fascinate many readers and make for good tales at cocktail parties, it’s what’s left out of story after story after story that makes the book such a flawed distillation of globalization. Thus, it is what’s ignored on the many issues that Friedman touches upon that makes the book dangerous, for it gives average readers a false sense that they are gaining a true understanding of this broad and complex subject, globalization.

Interview with Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo

23 Jan

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, the runaway bestseller by New York Times columnist Friedman has now been on the New York Times Bestseller list for over 85 weeks and has sold over 2 million copies in hardcover alone. Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo, authors of The World is Flat? – A Critical Analysis of Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times Bestseller, point out that Friedman’s book is also full of factual and argumentative inaccuracies, some deliberate and some as a result of living in the CEO bubble. In their book, Ramdoo and Aronica conduct a step by step demolition of nearly all the points that Mr. Friedman makes in his book.

Q) What prompted you to write this book? Were you primarily motivated by wanting to straighten the record? Can you also talk a little more about your background and how this book came about?

RA: With a 30-year career at the intersection of business and technology under my belt, I coauthored a book in 2001, The Death of “E” and the Birth of the Real New Economy. In that book, we described how the technology-enabled globalization of white-collar work would be the new frontier in the world economy. The book is about business transformation as a result of the world being wired and the capability that the Internet provides to interconnect business processes around the globe. It was time to prepare for a whole new way of operating a business. In 2006, I picked up a copy of Friedman’s book and was floored by its superficiality. But what was more shocking to me was the fact that millions of copies had been sold and its influence on leaders in business and government. Indeed, I wanted to set the record straight, for Globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, and the stories Friedman spun are but a small piece of the overall tapestry of this monumental transformation.

Globalization is a highly complex interaction of forces. Not only does it exhibit integration, it also exhibits disintegration. It is rooted in cooperation—and it is rooted in violence. For some, it represents the triumph of free-market capitalism over communism, ushering in democracy, world peace and universal prosperity; for others, it represents conflict, unbridled greed, deregulated corporate power, and an utter disregard for humanity.

Yet, the person on the street, especially in America, has little clue what globalization is all about. Few have any doubt that change is placing the world under great stress—that it is being turned upside down. And they may suspect that it has to do with the word, globalization, which increasingly appears in the press and other media. But what does it really mean? It would be great if a popularizer, a famous personality or pundit, would explain the many political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of globalization. Desperate for such information, millions of people, including leaders in government and education, have turned to Friedman’s mass market book to gain an understanding of globalization. Unfortunately, they are served up stories about Friedman’s friends, elite CEOs and other personal contacts.

The notion of globalization has been around for centuries, and has taken many forms: political, economic, cultural, and technological, to name a few. But the twenty-first century-style globalization that Friedman writes about is unique. It has a name: “corporate” globalization.

What we want our book to do is to go beyond Friedman’s superficial treatment of globalization and encourage readers who were awed by his book to “think again.”

The aim of our short monograph is to provide a counterbalance to Friedman’s cheerleading for corporate globalization. To help readers get a fuller understanding of the issues, we provide suggested readings at the end of our book and at our Web site, www.mkpress.com/flat Globalization is so important to all of us that we need become more fully informed, not misinformed by story after story based on personal anecdotes, and stories spun from meeting Friedman’s daughter’s friend’s boyfriend at Yale, or playing golf with rich and famous corporate executives. While readers might be unable to find a single falsehood in Friedman’s book, neither can they find the whole truth, nor most of the critically important facets needed for a full picture of globalization.

Q) The current way of globalization, according to you, seems like a race to the bottom. It seems like a system largely driven by large corporations and their obsession with lowering the cost of production. Let me juxtapose this thought with something which is oft mentioned – that success of US from the 1950’s onwards was largely buttressed by robust middle class with decent disposable incomes. My question to you is that is there a chance that the vanishing middle class will translate into a vanishing consumer, and what will that mean for the whole enterprise?

MR: That’s a very good question, for it touches on some of the more profound aspects of twenty-first–century style globalization. We have a whole section in our book, “America’s Former Middle Class” that talks about the plight of the American middle class. Three pillars: land (material resources); labor; and capital form the foundation of industrial economies. In the early years of the Industrial Revolution, Dickensonian industrialists kept labor down when it came to any stake in wealth. Then, in 1901, Republican Teddy Roosevelt became President. He distrusted wealthy businessmen and, as a Trust Buster, dissolved 40 monopolistic corporations. His Square Deal promised a fair shake for the average citizen, including regulation of railroad rates, and pure foods and drugs. As an outdoorsman, he promoted the conservation movement, emphasizing efficient use of natural resources. After 1906, he attacked big business and suggested that the courts were biased against labor unions. In short, you might say Roosevelt gave birth today’s American middle class. Recognizing the capitalists’ excesses during the Industrial Revolution, leaders, such as Roosevelt, reigned in raw capitalism and created a “mixed economy,” not the pure laissez-faire form of capitalism advocated by the Dickensonians.

Fast forwarding to today, free-market Friedman seems to assert that now, with his utopian, digitally connected flat world, even the nation-state could wane as flat-world capitalists create, in the words of Marx and Engels, “a world after its own image.”

Henry Ford was a pioneer of “welfare capitalism” designed to improve the lot of his workers and especially to reduce the heavy turnover that had many departments hiring 300 men a year to fill 100 slots. Efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers. In January 1914, Ford announced his five-dollar a day program. The revolutionary program called for a reduction in length of the workday from 9 to 8 hours, a 5-day work week, and a raise in minimum daily pay from $2.34 to $5 for qualifying workers.

Wall Street criticized Ford for starting the 40-hour work week and the minimum wage, but he showed that by paying his people more, Ford workers would be able to afford the cars they were producing—which would be good for the economy. Ford labeled the increased compensation profit-sharing rather than wages.

With today’s corporate globalization, we are seeing a return to Dickensonian capitalism on a grand scale. Not only do we need a strong American middle class, we need a strong global middle class, not a global 3rd world that is seeing America heading toward 3rd world status. We need a new Teddy Roosevelt and thinking capitalists in the likes of upstart Henry Ford if the world is to avoid Wall Street’s rule and its preeminent goal of only increasing shareholder value.

Q) You raise multiple points in your book illustrating ways in which the world is not particularly “flat”. If I read you right, you are not against “flat world” but a Friedman conception of a neo-liberal “flat world” that exists today. Tell us a little more about your thoughts the current “flat” world and the kind of “flat” world that you would like to see. In other words, how does the current global economic regime look like and what would you like to see changed?

RA: Neo-liberals believe that free markets, free trade, and the free flow of capital are the most efficient ways to produce the greatest social, political, and economic good. They argue for reduced taxation, reduced regulation, and minimal government involvement in the economy. They include privatizing health and retirement benefits, dismantling of trade unions, and generally opening our economy to foreign competition. Detractors see neo-liberalism as a power grab by economic elites and as a race to the bottom for everyone else.

The current economic regime unleashes neoliberalism. Agriculture, indigenous peoples’ resources, water, genes, medicines—increasingly, they are all being privatized and placed in the hands of transnational corporations. The field of economics has always addressed both private and public goods. But today’s neoliberal philosophy views all goods as private goods—perhaps even our laws are becoming private goods.

Corporations no longer influence our laws—now, they write them! Multinationals, working behind closed doors are writing the world’s economic agreements unfettered by any one nation’s interests and unaccountable to individual nations’ citizens. For example, the WTO, which emerged from GATT, which covered international trade and tariffs, is an organization that protects multinationals. And Chapter 11 of the supposed free-trade agreement of NAFTA, establishes a new system of private arbitration for foreign investors to bring injury claims against governments. The operative principle is that foreign capital investing in Canada, Mexico or the United States may demand compensation if the profit-making potential of their ventures are injured by government decisions. This gives foreign-based companies more rights than have domestic businesses operating in their home country. Global corporations are free to litigate on their own without having to ask national governments to act on their behalf in global forums. The national identity of multinationals will become less and less relevant, since they have status to challenge governments. NAFTA creates, as Lydia Lazar, a Chicago attorney, puts it, “an open class of legal equals.” She adds that “NAFTA is really an end run around the Constitution.”

What we’d like to see changed is the form of governance needed for global trade. Current forums and trade agreements (WTO, World Bank, IMF, NAFTA, CAFTA) have stripped many nation-states—hence, their people—of their former roles governing trade. Not doing this, indeed, could lead to the scenarios described in Harvard’s David Korten’s book, When Corporations Rule the World.

Because globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, there’s no pat checklist to instantly change policy and strategy. We’re talking about a multi-year struggle for individuals, companies and nations to adjust and readjust. Although we do not in any way provide cookie cutter solutions in our book, we enumerate many of the issues that must be addressed. Here are some examples: 1. Reform of the dependence on Treasury securities, which funds U. S. over-consumption with borrowed dollars from China, Japan and other export driven nations. 2. Reform the IMF, World Bank, and WTO to make their decision-making more transparent. 3. Provide education subsidies, not farm subsidies in the U.S. and Europe 4. Establish worldwide regulation that would restrict continuing damage to the environment and maintain biodiversity. 5. Have government once again govern corporations versus the reverse as it is today (e.g. put trade policy back into Congress, not in trade agreements written behind closed doors). 6. Establish a U.S. Federal Competitiveness cabinet position. 7. Break the bribery cycle between poor countries’ governments and international companies. 8. Establish tripolar trading blocs, not American unipolar hegemony (e.g. establish true economic unions, not asymmetric trade agreements). 9. Separate public goods (the commons) from private goods. 10. Foster. increased savings (e.g., with automatic 401K plans). 11. Develop energy policies and strategies that will break our dependency on oil (e.g. rethink and reorganize America’s sprawling suburbs (exurbs)). 13.Globalize health care, e.g., allow people to spend Medicare dollars overseas (Mexico would boom, solving much of the illegal immigration problem in the U.S.). We are well overdue for a wakeup call to address these and other issues. And an open debate could just lead to peoples’ active engagement in creating a just, sustainable, economic world.

Q) You spend a fair amount of time on describing the underbelly of the beast – the 998 million Indians with no access to Internet, the farmers coming suicide there, or the laid off workers in Detroit. The global middle class and under class are suffering. But certainly the number of Chinese below poverty line has taken a dramatic nose dive in the past two decades. It also seems clear to me that the 9% growth rates in India are benefiting some poor. Certainly the story of globalization is not all doom and gloom. Tell us about the cross cutting forces at work in globalization today.

MR: Today, leading economists, both advocates and critics of globalization, agree that international trade has improved the lives of many across the world, bringing technology and knowledge to virtually every corner of the globe, and has raised many above the tyranny of backward and often repressive cultures. No doubt volumes could be filled with success stories of international trade. It’s “corporate globalization” that’s at issue in the 21st century. Neoliberal free-trade proponents too often frame the issues in a polarizing way: “free-trade” versus “protectionism,” “good” versus “bad.” “Your are either for us, or against us,” they might say. “Free-trade reduces poverty, protectionism creates poverty.” Of course, this is bullshit. Globalization is not a bipolar issue, while the case can be made that “corporate globalization” is.

Defining poverty is key to any discussion of the so-called poverty lines. Is economic globalization the only form of globalization? Should some goods be off limits to corporate globalization and, if so, which ones? To answer these questions, we’ve included a large section in the book devoted to the concept of the Privatization of the Commons. We quote Indian ecologist Dr.Vandana Shiva, “People do not die for lack of incomes. They die for lack of access to resources. Here too Jeffrey Sacks (The End of Poverty) is wrong when he says, ‘In a world of plenty, 1 billion people are so poor, their lives are in danger.’ The indigenous people in the Amazon, the mountain communities in the Himalaya, peasants whose land has not been appropriated and whose water and biodiversity has not been destroyed by debt-creating industrial agriculture are ecologically rich, even though they do not earn a dollar a day. On the other hand, even at five dollars a day, people are poor if they have to buy their basic needs at high prices. Indian peasants who have been made poor and pushed into debt over the past decade to create markets for costly seeds and agrochemicals through economic globalization are ending their lives in thousands.”

After China announced plans to adopt a new law that seeks to crack down on sweatshops and protect workers’ rights by giving labor unions real power for the first time since it introduced market forces in the 1980s, guess who started lobbying the Chinese politicians? As David Baboza reported in the New York Times, “The move, which underscores the government’s growing concern about the widening income gap and threats of social unrest, is setting off a battle with American corporations that have lobbied against it by hinting that they may build fewer factories here. The workers’ advocates say that the proposed labor rules—and more important, enforcement powers—are long overdue, and they accuse the American businesses of favoring a system that has led to widespread labor abuse.” “You have big corporations opposing basically modest reforms,” said Tim Costello, an official of the Global Labor Strategies and a longtime labor union advocate. “This flies in the face of the idea that globalization and corporations will raise standards around the world.”

What’s currently going on is called “corporate globalization,” where powerful transnational corporations, backed by supposed “free trade” treaties penned by corporate lobbyists in Washington, go to the ends of the earth to exploit slave-like labor. No one of us wants continuing poverty in China, India, or elsewhere. But is making $2.00 a day (the oft quoted dollar amount to be “out of poverty”) the goal, the only goal?

Out of Poverty?

Life in rural communities in China, India and elsewhere is tough. Are we to displace a non-money economy with formerly self-sufficient peoples moving to the mega cities to live in slums? In the recent PBS documentary, “China From the Inside,” rural people dislocated due to the damming of rivers were given new high density housing. But as one of them exclaimed, we have no jobs and cannot raise our food anymore. Relocation from dam areas, like the Three Gorges, is causing huge social upheaval (75,000 riots in China in 2005).Thousands of families are divided throughout China as parents spend most of the year in large cities making a living, while their children remain in rural villages with grandma tending to all the chores and to the fields. In other cases, women are left in the villages to raise children while husbands go off alone to the cities to work. Expectant mothers still abort female fetuses or abandon newborn girls because of the long-held view that women are not as valuable to the culture as men. China is the only nation in the world where the suicide rate for women is higher than that for men. Of course, relocated peasants cannot afford the shoe strings on the brand-named shoes they manufacture in sweatshops. But then, again, they do get to see their children 4 days out of the year! So yes, they are “out of poverty” according to the $2.00 a day rule, but at what cost? Is there hope for a Global Middle Class? Why, when the Chinese Communist Party’s latest five-year plan called for increased focus on unions, did multinationals threaten to relocate jobs to Viet Nam or other dirt-cheap–labor countries?

China is run by the Communist Party, which bases its legitimacy on delivering both stability and the conditions for prosperity. But stability is under threat as the economic boom strands millions at the margins. Meanwhile, rampant corruption is sapping people’s trust in the Party. Officials are seen, increasingly, not as public servants but as profiteers. Is China Corporate Globalization’s 21st century poster child where the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer in social as well as monetary terms? We don’t have the answers in our book, but we identify the essential questions, such as, Is earning $2.00 a day the end of poverty? You’ll see little discussion of these matters in Friedman.

Q) Thomas Friedman in his book, “The World is Flat: A brief history of the 21st Century” quotes Bill Gates, “Thirty years ago, if you had a choice between being born a genius on the outskirts of Bombay or Shanghai or being born an average person in Poughkeepsie, you would take Poughkeepsie, because your chances of thriving and living a decent life there, even with average talent, were much greater. But as the world has gone flat, and so many people can plug and play from anywhere, natural talent has started to trump geography.” It seems to me Bill Gates is comparing a child born to fairly rich educated parents near Bombay or Shanghai given only a tiny fraction (about 1% in India) of people in India and China have access to “plug and play”, something which you point out in your book. Even if we agree with Mr. Gates, we still miss the close to 95% of population with its share of geniuses that don’t live close to Mumbai and Shanghai. Can you shed some light on their chances for “success” or integration in the global economy?

MR: What Gates and Friedman are discussing are the opportunities for the elite. Friedman writes, “I cannot tell any other society or culture what to say to its own children, but I can tell you what I say to my own: The world is being flattened. I didn’t start it and you can’t stop it, except at a great cost to human development and your own future. But we can manage it, for better or for worse. You can flourish in this flat world, but it does take the right imagination and the right motivation. While your lives have been powerfully shaped by 9/11, the world needs you to be forever the generation of 11/9 [the fall of the Berlin wall]—the generation of strategic optimists, the generation with more dreams than memories, the generation that wakes up each morning and not only imagines that things can be better but also acts on that imagination every day.”

While these lessons display concern for his children, he leaves it up to their imagination as to the way forward. Friedman’s daughter attends Yale, and there he sees the “precisely the sort of young person we want the America education system to keep churning out.” People getting degrees in biomedical engineering while having medical doctors and science professors for fathers.

If only every kid in America had these advantages and could graduate from Yale, all would be well in the Kingdom of Flat. All they need is a wealthy daddy, a degree from U.S.-President-producing Yale, and we are off to the races. But for those of us whose children do not breathe such rarefied air, Freidman tells them to use their imagination.

Ditto for our children that don’t breathe such rarefied air Chindia (China and India). The haves and have-nots are growing further apart in both rich countries and poor. But there is hope in programs such as microbanking. Bangladeshi Grameen Bank and its founder Muhammad Yunus received the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. Indeed, there is a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, but few multinationals seem to notice. While most IT activity is focused on urban centers such as Bangalore, India’s Netcore is producing the $100 PC for the next billion. So, the big hope for addressing poverty isn’t about the “zippies” in Bangalore that Friedman writes about, it’s about the bottom of the pyramid. And when innovations happen there, entrepreneurs in Chindia will take them global at Chindia prices. Change is being driven by the bottom of the pyramid and not in the chrome and rosewood boardrooms and halls of the WTO or the World Bank or Wall Street.


Q) Friedman has all sorts of suggestions for parents living in suburbs like Poughkeepsie. What would you like to say to the parents of young kids across America – Is it to vote to change the economic and social policy of the government?

MR: Americans are just beginning to think about what can happen as early as 2010. Some forecasts show that, with an average growth rate of 8–10%, China’s GDP will, by 2010, have surpassed Japan’s, by 2030, China will have the world’s largest economy, and, by 2050, it could be double that of the U.S.

Meanwhile, Washington leaves industrial policy up to the “free market”—or, as we write in our book, Washington has no industrial policy, which is perhaps the real issue—America does not have a national industrial policy that identifies and strengthens the industries in which it wants to be the master in the twenty-first century. America’s economic policies are, by and large, set by transnational corporations who wield excessive power in Washington. Their interests are not in America, but are in their stockholders. As more than one CEO has said, their interests may indeed lie outside of the United Sates. So, keeping this in mind, Friedman’s thesis could translate into “Go East, young man. Get your engineering degree, and move to Bangalore, because that’s where your job is going.”

For starters, I’d tell parents to read Sen. Byron Dorgan’s book, Take this Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America. It’s a real eye opener. Then visit his Web site, http://dorgan.senate.gov, to see the kind of legislation that is needed to put America’s industrial policy back on track. He calls for: (1) antisweatshop legislation that bar imports produced under internationally defined “sweatshop” conditions and hold companies accountable for using forced labor or denying basic human rights to workers, including the right to organize; (2) repealing tax incentives for American companies that enjoy all the benefits of being “American”—government services and subsidies, and U.S. Military protection—while discarding reciprocal obligations to the country—jobs, economic investment, and paying a fair share of the tax burden; And (3) capping trade deficits and stopping the $800-billion-a-year trade deficit hemorrhaging. These recommendations do not deal with every disorder caused by globalization, but they could jump-start a debate that Congress has long avoided. And they are not about “protectionism.” Instead they are about America formulating an industrial trade policy, because as, as former Reagan commerce advisor Clyde Prestowitz said, , “China and India have very clear national industrial policies. America does not.”

Q) You bring out a variety of points that dismantle nearly all of arguments that Friedman makes in the book. What, according to you, did Friedman get right in his book? What does he get about global economic regime?

RA: The main thing Friedman got right was that there is a need for a book on globalization that can reach the general population. Unfortunately, his book misinforms the public. We could not find a single falsehood in Friedman’s book. What he wrote, he mostly got right. But it’s what he didn’t write—it’s what he left out—that makes the book so problematic. There’s little more in his book beyond being a cheerleader for unfettered corporate globalization. And its important to recognize that, in some sense, this globalization stuff he writes about really does seem to work; if you consider that if four average blue-collar Americans join Friedman at a bar, the five of them, on average, would be a group of millionaires. As some of our politicians like to remind us, America is the economic envy of the world, and similar statistics to the bar scenario prove them right. That’s right, eh?

Q) Thomas Friedman started of as a successful Middle-East pundit, something for which he has actually received training. It is at best a strange transition from being a Middle-East pundit to being an “expert” on globalization. Do Friedman’s flaws in his economic analysis, as pointed out by you and numerous other scholars, emanate primarily from his lack of intellectual training in economics or his lack of intellectual honesty or is it something else entirely?

MR: It seems Friedman is an opportunist. Remember, he started on his globalization quest when he was on assignment for the Discovery Channel doing “The Other Side of Outsourcing.” It seems to have occurred to him during that assignment, “Aha. A book!” You’ll see that he based many of the stories in his book on the Discovery documentary. Being a well-placed smart person, Friedman did what any capitalist would do, he used his celebrity assets to make money. And to him, we say kudos. Stiglitz, Bagwhati, Roach, Leamer and other well-respected, fully-qualified economists and business analysts can write their hearts out, but who will read them? Celebrity has its privileges.

What’s unnerving is not Friedman, but the overwhelming traction of his book. This is best explained by Professor Roberto Gonzalez, “Ultimately, Friedman’s work is little more than advertising. The goal is not to sell the high-tech gadgetry described in page after page of the book, but to sell a way of life—a world view glorifying corporate capitalism and mass consumption as the only paths to progress. It is a view intolerant of lives lived outside the global marketplace. It betrays [unconsciously reveals] a disregard for democracy and a profound lack of imagination. This book’s lighthearted style might be amusing were it not for the fact that his subject—the global economy—is a matter of life and death for millions. Friedman’s words and opinions, ill informed as they are, shape the policies of leaders around the world. Many consider him to be a sophisticated thinker and analyst—not a propagandist. It is a sobering reminder of the intellectual paralysis gripping our society today.” Today we don’t play sports; we sit on the couch and play our sports vicariously through celebrity sports stars. Today, we don’t have much time to think; we let our celebrity pundits do that for us.


Q) You heavily rely on paraphrasing and quotations from others authors to put forth your case. Was that a conscious decision or was it strictly a result of time pressures?

RA: We’ll give you yet another quote to tell why! Here is Bill Moyers at the 2007 National Conference on Media Reform, “The degree to which this [free trade] has become a purely ideological debate, devoid of any factual basis that people can weigh the gains and losses is reflected in Thomas Friedman’s astonishing claim, stated not long ago in a television interview, that he endorsed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) without even reading it. That is simply because it stood for ‘free trade.’
We have reached the stage when the Poo-bahs of punditry have only to declare that ‘the world is flat,’ for everyone to agree it is, without going to the edge and looking over themselves. It’s called reporting.”

And that’s exactly what we want to accomplish with our book, going to the edge and doing some “reporting” on what those qualified to analyze and report on 21st century globalization has to say.

We have 46 footnote references on our sources of information. Friedman has zero. We don’t make stuff up and tell stories about friends and elite CEOs. And we explore nine critical issues Friedman ignores or glosses over, along with an enumeration of 22 action items. Our book would be hundreds more pages if we expounded on each of these strategies and their rationales. We meant only to set the record straight on what Friedman is saying by providing the views of the experts, and then to provide the reader with a roadmap for exploring this vital subject further, for globalization affects all our lives and will be of even greater significance to our children and grandchildren. Simply stated, we all must learn about globalization and our available choices as we define our place in a global economy.

We hope our analysis of Friedman’s book provides readers who were awed by his 600 pages of bafflegab with a second take on the monumental subject of globalization.

To help our readers to develop their understanding of the issues, we have a shortlist of suggested readings and a comprehensive and growing resource list at www.mkpress.com/flat. Our message is “Wake up!” it’s past time to come to grips with the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution.

Q) Friedman is often accused of writing newspaper plain speak, speaking in clichés and in analogies but avoiding facts and avoiding substance to story telling. The idea is, according to Friedman, to be a translator of the economic jargon and make it accessible to the public. Is there any merit in this idea? Are economic facts about the current global regime so complex?

RA: A translator of economic jargon would be great. We open our book saying that the person on the street, especially in America, has little clue what globalization is all about. But few have any doubt that change is placing the world under great stress, that it is being “turned upside down.” And the person on the street may suspect that it has to do with the word, which increasingly appears in the press and other media: globalization. But what does it really mean? It would be great if a popularizer, a famous personality or pundit, would explain the many complicated political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of globalization. Walter Cronkite or Bill Moyers could probably do that.

Desperate for such information, millions of people, including leaders in business, government and education, have turned to Friedman’s mass market book to gain an understanding of globalization. Unfortunately, they are served up stories from friends, CEOs and other personal contacts of the author. These stories are not harmless, for they become solemn writ for lawmakers and opinion mongers.

It’s not so complex to explain that multinational corporations, are by their very nature, aimed at maximizing shareholder value. To achieve this corporate goal, multinational corporations are literally going to the ends of the earth in search of dirt-cheap labor for both manufacturing and high-end knowledge-based workers. IBM recently laid off 15,000 employees in America, while hiring 45,000 in India. There is nothing complex about that idea.

But shipping jobs overseas and hollowing out America’s middle class is only part of the picture. America is exporting its pollution by relocating manufacturing facilities to countries where environment laws are lax or non-existent. Let’s not forget about the human abuses lurking behind famous brand names and companies. Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee cites Wal-Mart among others as repeat offenders. Friedman has nothing but awe for Wal-Mart’s supply chaining, failing all mention of Wal-Mart’s darker side cited by Kernaghan. Like other US retailers, Wal-Mart claims to be enforcing decent labor conditions, but investigators find otherwise. Kernaghan points out that the same companies have won enforceable rules in trade agreements to protect their trademarks, labels and copyrights, yet regard protections for workers as “an impediment to free trade.” “Under this distorted sense of values,” says Kernaghan, “the label is protected but not the human being, the worker who makes the product.”

What’s so hard for the laymen to understand about that? Plain newspaper speak is great if it conveys substance. Friedman is especially destructive when he opines on public matters outside his supposed expertise. His thinking seems to be anchored by Ayn Rand’s social philosophy: Let the strong prevail, let the weak pay for their weakness. There is no doubt that many of those who read Friedman are now convinced the world is flat (perhaps they also believe the moon is made of green cheese). But newspaper plain talk doesn’t make it so. Having paid the price of wading through Friedman’s almost 600 pages of grandiloquent prose and bafflegab, there are those who want to protect that investment by clinging to the idea that they have gained a full understanding of globalization. Albert Einstein once wrote, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Friedman’s simplistic treatise on globalization fails that test.

While Friedman’s personal anecdotes fascinate many readers and make for good tales at cocktail parties, it’s what’s left out of story after story after story that makes the book such a flawed distillation of globalization. Thus, it is what’s ignored on the many issues that Friedman touches upon that makes the book dangerous, for it gives average readers a false sense that they are gaining a true understanding of this broad and complex subject, globalization.

Interview with Felicia Drury Kliment

22 Jan

Interview with Ms. Felicia Drury Kliment, author of Acid Alkaline Balance Diet: An Innovative Program for Ridding Your Body of Acidic Wastes, was conducted via email over the past week.

The book, “Acid Alkaline Balance Diet: An Innovative Program for Ridding Your Body of Acidic Wastes” is in stores now.

Q) Let me begin by asking you a little more about yourself- Where did you grow up, in particular, what kind of food you generally ate while growing up?

A) I grew up in the late forties and fifties in Youngstown, Ohio, population 100,000. The food additive industry was still in its infancy then, so food was relatively free of pesticides. At the time a well balanced meal which included the three food types—carbohydrates, fat, and protein—was the by-word to good health. A typical dinner was made up of meat, potatoes, vegetables and salad, while a typical breakfast consisted of eggs, bacon, and toast for breakfast.

One of the highlights of my youth was the food we got fresh from a farm or grown in our backyard. Although Youngstown was then referred to as a steel town, we –my mother, father, and brother—lived in a suburb only minutes away by car from many small farms In the summer my mother and I would drive to the Fite farm to buy corn on the cob. When we arrived, Ms. Fite would go out to the cornfields and pick corn especially for us. I also remember our ‘milkman,’ delivering milk in glass bottles. The top third of the bottle was pure cream because milk was not homogenized in those times. What also stands out in my memory are the beefsteak tomatoes my mother raised in the backyard. She fertilized them with her ‘handmade’ fertilizer—a compost heap of leaves and other debris.

Q) Tell us a little more about your professional background. What led you into your current profession and your interest in the Acid Alkaline Diet?

A) You might say that it started when I was 10 years old. I had terrible headaches from the strong glasses I wore, so I started eating raw carrots all day long. In three months my eyesight was normalized and I threw my glasses away! My interest in the healing power of foods then went into hibernation—until I was in my early thirties when I picked out a book in the library at random, unintentionally re-awakening my interest in alternative medicine and diet. The book was about how vitamin E could heal eye disease. I was hooked! I began researching the subject of alternative health and writing articles in professional journals and popular magazines. Years later I began teaching at City College in New York.

What triggered my book writing and health consulting was an ailment I had developed, acid reflux. My knowledge of chemistry had made me aware that the body consists most basically of acid and alkaline particles. Their balance is vital not only to good health but to survival itself. Acid reflux increases the levels of acid in the body, thereby disrupting the acid-alkaline pH of the blood. I set about working out a diet that would heal acid reflux and other degenerative disease, thereby restoring the normal ratio of the acid alkaline ph balances in the body. Then I wrote a book about it, the Acid Alkaline Balance Diet.

Q) Can you talk a little more about the history of acid alkaline diet? Who first came to the conclusion that it is the acid-alkaline imbalances that lead to certain diseases? How has the field grown since?

A) Concern with acid alkaline imbalance stretches way back to the late nineteenth century. However, the idea that acid waste can disrupt the acid-alkaline pH balances in the body has evolved fairly recently, in the last 25 years or so. German and Japanese scientists came to the conclusion that the acid wastes from metabolic (organ) function was the cause of pH imbalances. I have taken the problem a step further by pin pointing the wrong diet as the principal culprit in the production of acid waste in the body.

Food that the individual can’t break down in the digestive tract turns into acid waste, which is highly toxic. The blood stream carries it to all parts of the body and wherever acid waste settles, it inflames organ tissue. This is how degenerative diseases get started.

Q) A simple search on Google for “healthy diet plans” reveals that diet plans these days are inextricably linked to weight loss. In particular, the diet options seem particularistic and generally tailored towards “fixing” the weight problem. Please tell us about you thoughts on this issue?

A) That’s the problem with most diet plans. They’re standardized—one size fits all—as if every person has the same physiology as everyone else! Furthermore, most diet plans aim directly at losing weight, rather than doing so indirectly—by eating foods that enhance health. The primary aim of my book is to help the reader find foods that they can digest easily rather than merely the foods that take off weight. Because foods that aren’t digested properly ultimately put on weight. When your digestive system works well, you automatically lose weight because there is no leftover acid waste— some of which the body converts into fatty acid which puts on pounds..

Q) There is a proliferation of healthy diet plans and ideas including the macrobiotic diet and what not. Tell us about the specific problems with other kinds of “healthy” dieting options that fail to address the acid-alkaline balance?

A) What very few diet plans don’t address is the differences in individual digestive metabolism. I advocate eating according to your metabolic needs. When you do this you are not only eating foods that your digestive system can break down, but you’re also supplying your body with the nutrients you are short in, while eating less of those nutrients that you have in excess. When you approach dieting in this way, you automatically normalize you acid-alkaline pH balances.

Q) Can you walk us through the biology behind the acid-alkaline diet? How important is the acid-alkaline balance as compared to say other health eating virtues including low fat or including Omega3 etc. and healthy lifestyle virtues like exercising regularly. Am I amiss in asking you to compare and contrast when the real answer is syncretism of these options?

A) No you’re not. First, a low fat diet is unhealthy because scientists long ago showed that for normal body function, 25% of your diet should consist of fats and oils. All health issues, including obesity can be resolved if you eat according to your metabolic type. There are three types of metabolisms: the grain eater, the meat eater, and the omnivore (meat and grain) eater. The niacin test in my book enables you to discover which metabolic type you are. Your type of metabolism determines what food you should eat. For example, the meat eater does well on lots of meat, butter, root vegetables, etc., This leads in to your question about omega 3 oils. Everyone needs some omega 3, but the grain eater can digest greater quantities of it than the meat eater because the grain eater can eats lots of fish the primary source of omega 3 oil. By eating the foods for which your digestive system was designed, you will maintain the proper acid-alkaline ph balances in the blood and other bodily fluids. To answer the third part of your question. Certainly exercise is important, but the problem is that the press, fueled by the medical profession, implies that exercise is the most important factor in good health. A healthy diet comes first. Another problem that should be addressed is electro-magnetic pollution, particularly from cell phones and computers. There are chips which are very effective in neutralizing this pollution.

Q) The book lays a lot of blame on the current dietary acid-alkaline imbalances to modern agricultural and food processing methods including food coloration, hormones, insecticides, preservatives etc. Tell us a little more about this. Pleases give us an example of a specific chemical and how it affects us, if so is possible.

A) There is so much pollution in everything that we are exposed to that it’s hard to know where to start. Obviously organic foods should be eaten when ever possible. While not totally free of pesticides, they have far lower levels than agribusiness produce and are free of antibiotics, and additives including food coloring. I’ll mention one additive that is particularly harmful to health, and that is the growth hormone in milk. Studies show that it causes a spurt in growth which makes those who grow above a certain level 2 to 3 times more likely to get pancreatic and colon cancer.

Q) You advise people to eat raw foods including organic eggs. If I am not wrong, there is a chance that some harmful bacteria and fungi can be ingested as a result of eating raw organic eggs.

A) You do read a lot about the danger of eating raw eggs, but the facts don’t support the claim. The American Egg Board reports that research studies conducted by food scientists have found that the average consumer might encounter a salmonella-infected egg once in eighty-four years! Because organic eggs weren’t used in the studies, the chance of eating a salmonella-infected egg if the egg is organic would be even more remote.

Q) Should we take your book as a whole hearted approval of eating organic foods?

A) I certainly would encourage buying organic, but for anyone who is tight financially it isn’t necessary to buy all organic produce. If possible, don’t buy fruits and vegetables found to be higher in pesticide residues such as peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, strawberries, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce, carrots, and potatoes. On the other hand, if you’re short on cash you can buy broccoli, bananas, pineapple, mangoes, frozen sweet peas, frozen corn asparagus, avocados, and onions since they are low in pesticides.

Q) Lastly, what would be your diet advice for average Americans that cannot avoid eating out?

A) For such people who for one reason or another cannot avoid eating out most of the time, I would suggest that they buy a juicer and make at least one glass of juice daily, preferably in the morning. Use organic vegetables such as carrots, beets, celery, lettuce, zucchinis, and a little parsley. I would also recommend taking supplements that are derived from food complexes. Standard Process is one such brand and probably the best. (I’ve been through their factory and seen their cultivated fields and the animals they raise, which are the raw materials for their supplements.)

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Foreign Reporting and Technology

20 Jan

Part 5 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Let’s talk a little more about the challenges of foreign reporting. I feel that some journalists like Ryszard Kapuscinski have done wonderful reporting from Africa while most others have failed to bring out the complexities while reporting on other countries. Can you talk a little more about what journalists can do in this regard?

That’s part of what you had asked me before. I think its really important that over the course of three or four-year tour of duty in Africa or the Middle East to give a well-rounded body of work that captures both the complexities of the region and gives readers some sense that something else is going on besides conflict. I love Kapuscinski’s work, and some of my colleagues have done great work, but sometimes I am critical of them and myself because we make it sound like it’s one big war. In the Middle East as well, the Israeli society and the Palestinian society are complex, interesting creatures. There are a lot of things going on, and I always found that some of the most interesting stories are about events and forces at work within each society rather than the constant struggle between them. We can’t understand that struggle unless you understand the forces at work within each society, especially in the Israeli society. Both sides get shortchanged by this kind of parachute phenomenon. We write about the war and we leave, and we write about the conflict, but we never write about the actors, the two societies at work. In Africa as well.

One way to do that is to constantly be thinking about the counter story if you will. The conventional wisdom, if you will, or the story that confirms everyone’s deepest prejudice – conflict Africa, Africa at war, Africa can’t feed itself –it is really quite lovely to find once in a while where people are being fed quite well and to write about why that is, what works. So I remember writing about – this is long ago, far away – Zimbabwe in 1984 when it was the breadbasket of Southern Africa – it had an enormously successful agricultural system and just writing a long piece which ran on the front page of the Washington Post about how that worked and how they were exporting 2 million tones of grain to other parts of Southern Africa. Partly it was the function of the weather, but mostly it was the function of a successful process. Not only did they paid farmers a decent amount for their product, a decent rail system, and a warehouse system so you could actually take maize and corn and transport it, get it off the farm and on to a market. And how American dumping of our maize was potentially damaging to that system, our cheap corn, given in the name of our policy for providing food to hungry people. Those are more complex, rich stories that contradict the conventional wisdom.

I think it is really really valuable as a foreign correspondent to think about ways of subverting the conventional wisdom, so you tell your readers about something surprising – I mean what is journalism telling among other things – telling them things that they don’t know, surprising them, making them think twice about the world we live in and about their own role and you do that by being critical of the conventional wisdom. ‘Wait a minute – is this really true and if it’s not what’s my role here.’

One of the great things about being a journalist is that you should be able to be constantly self-critical and the critical analysis that you provide to the world around you, you also apply to your own work and to the work of your many dear colleagues and trying to figure out what are we missing here. Journalism, I think still fundamentally rewards that kind of enterprise, that kind of critical analysis. I think there is still room – whether its Seymour Hersh writing about the Iraq war or others I think it still really rewards people who can climb their way out of the conventional wisdom and surprise you and shock you or stun you in some way. That’s the great correcting mechanism in journalism if there is one.

What challenges and opportunities do blogs and social media present?

I have no problem with that. My fear is that because of the technology, because dead tree edition is in trouble—and I don’t mind if dead trees themselves are in trouble—that’s ok if we move away from the newspaper form. My fear is that our big newsrooms and our big newsgathering operations are also shrinking. It should be a vast marketplace with many forms of journalism. The blogosphere can be out there counting angels on a pin. That’s fine as long as we can keep the whole thing thriving, including the kind of thing that I am talking about.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Reporting on Emotional Issues

20 Jan

Part 4 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Since we have just broached the Middle East, what are the special challenges for reporting from there. What are the challenges in reporting around highly emotive issues more generally?

Where do you begin? If we are talking about Israel and Palestine, we are talking about two national movements, with their own histories, their own set of grievances and their own interpretation of their history and the relationship to each other and how they have treated each other over now 100 years. Plus, the national histories go back way before that. So what you have is an armed struggle between two national movements. And inevitably those two movements are going to – because it is an ongoing war – mobilize every fact and every tool and every potential weapon as part of that struggle. And the press, the media simply becomes another stage, if you will, another battleground in that struggle.

And I think we have to be constantly aware of the fact that we are – we walk in their trying to be neutral observers, trying to capture truth as best as we can – we are constantly being told to not be neutral observers, constantly being pulled in one direction or another, intimidated, coerced, seduced, and if we don’t fulfill the demands of each side then we are under attack – sometimes physical attack, oftentimes emotional, verbal -all of that. So, you have to go in there with an understanding, or you learn over time, just who you are and who they are and what they want from you and they are not going to be satisfied with your neutral best, even-handed approach. That’s not gonna work for them. They are going to be part of your audience but you are not really working for them, and you are not writing for them. You are writing for the world, if you will, especially now. So, your obligations are first and foremost are to the readers, to your customers – whatever you want to call them and to the truth as best as you can discover.

And so I have very little patience with journalists who fall victims to one side or the other if you will or who eventually take on the coloration of one side or the other. It is easy to do, there is plenty of justification you could have for doing it but it’s not what I see my role as. There is certainly room for journalists who become advocates, who become highly critical. Take someone like Robert Fisk, a correspondent for The Independent. I have great admiration for Robert Fisk’s for this courage, for his enterprise, and for his writing ability. I consider Bob to be a strong advocate of a certain point of view. And there is a role for him and a role for people for people like him and a role for people who are very supportive of the state of Israel; I don’t see my role and the role of Washington Post to be similar to that. I think we play a very different role. I think in a way – it’s in some ways harder, and in some ways easier. What Bob does per se, the personal courage of Bob, the risks he takes, the beliefs he has – I don’t question them at all. I don’t agree with the journalism because it’s not the kind of journalism I am seeking to practice. I think that he belongs on one side of the spectrum; he is valuable and useful for people to read. What we do, try to do is something very different.

Its really hard to do, because the struggle, the constant demands on you from people who have real grievances – I mean you know it is hard to find a family on either side of the divide from those national movements who haven’t had a direct personal loss at this point, who haven’t lost a family member, whose lives haven’t been affected in some horrible way by this struggle. Its very much a war of populations. Its not just governments fighting each other and enlisting people in the army and going off to a battlefield and fighting, it is a war which takes place within the civilian populations of both communities, both national movements. So, it becomes, even more, person and intimate. It is an inter-communal war where everyone is a soldier whether they want to be or not. Trotsky once said that you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. This kind of war allows no one to be a neutral observer. You can be a shop keeper in Ramallah and simply want to do business every day – you are not allowed to do that in this war because the Israeli army will come and shut you down because you are in middle on an unrest zone or Palestinian kids will come back at you and make you open up, your child trying to go to school on a given day could be shot, school can be closed, so many things could go wrong and then its your kid out there throwing rocks at a tank and your kid rebelling against you as well as the Israeli occupier. So many things happen. So many lives have been lost.

My job as a journalist is to try to understand all of that, to get within that process, and to meet these people and to write about them in a world they live in with empathy and understanding and at the same time to stand outside of it and to be critical of both sides and their inability to get beyond this and to find a way out of this.

It’s a beautiful job in a sense because I could be one day in a family’s home in Nablus talking about their dead son, who was killed by Israeli soldiers, and who he was and what happened and how they feel about him, and I could be at Tel Aviv next day at the ministry of defense talking to Yitzhak Rabin about how he sees the situation in Nablus and what he thinks he is trying to do. No one else is allowed to move between those two poles. No one else but a journalist can see all the things or can see both sides in that way, and there are times when of course both sides try to prevent our access to both sides. In Iraq, it is impossible to do what I have just described because the physical threat is so huge. In Israel and Palestine, at times it has been very very difficult because the army may seal off Nablus or the Palestinian authority police won’t let you in within an area. Lots of things can happen to prevent that access. But our job is to go to both those places and to talk to all those people and to process and understand what we are hearing, and to understand both the delusions, if you will, and the assumptions and the limited knowledge both sides are working under about each other and to present the best we can to our readers.

Some people have pointed to the distinction between being balanced and being accurate. They see a journalist’s responsibility towards being accurate and not particularly towards being balanced. Tell me a little more about your thoughts on the issue.

I don’t agree with a notion that there is a contradiction or an inherent conflict between being fair and even-handed and being accurate. When I talk about being fair and even-handed, it’s not a ‘on the one hand and on the other hand’ kind of journalism. I think inherent in our assumptions and the way we write stories, a good journalist conveys the truth as best he or she can.

The even-handedness involves being fair, understanding the assumptions that both sides are making, their motives, their imperatives, their personal constituencies – why is prime minister of Israel making a certain decision at some point, what are the political reasons behind that, what are his own constituents demanding of him? Understanding the internal dynamic of why he may make a decision is not the same thing as apologizing for him.

I think that the heart of accuracy is to be even-handed and to be fair and at the same time telling the truth as best as we could find it. The fact that you give everyone a chance to explain themselves in a story doesn’t mean that the story isn’t clear about whats going on. If a massacre occurs, if Israeli army guns down six or eight Palestinian women standing outside a mosque where they are protecting or putting their bodies in front of Hamas fighters, which happened a couple of weeks ago in Gaza. Reporting on that – telling the truth about who opened fire, and how it was done and the fact these people are dead and what people is Gaza feel about that. Going back to the army and figuring out what were the rules of engagement, who did that. Reporting as best as we can – reporting the Israeli apology but at the same time reporting the rules of engagement and whether this was about the individual initiative of the soldiers – I think all of that is important and all of that speaks to the truth of the situation.

It’s our obligation to report the whole thing; to see the whole complex picture of what went on. That doesn’t take away from the horror of what happened. I think in some the explaining of how it happened and to allow both sides to explain that does not say – we don’t know what the truth is, on the one hand, one the other hand. That’s not what that kind of reporting does. That kind of reporting brings you insight into how that kind of thing can happen. I think its the most valuable reporting we do and I don’t think – I think you can be very critical and provide your readers with a real understanding so that they can make their own judgment about it. Your story will guide them to a judgment.

I always thought it was most important in covering a conflict to make sure each side understood the price of what they were doing. If you are in Israel and you say that it is really important to the hold the West Bank, there is no way we can give that up. We are killing two Palestinian kids a day right now, and we are doing damage to our own army. I always felt that the journalist’s role was to make sure that everyone, our readers, understood what the price was, understood what this number 2 a day consisted of – who those people were – that they had families that they had fathers and mothers, that they were out there doing whatever they were doing, what their motives were. I felt that our role to make sure everybody understands the price and consequences of their actions. If you can do that, you have done a lot. I really believe deeply that it’s both.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Principles of Good Journalism

19 Jan

Part 3 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glenn Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


People can be fairly clever in coming up with justifications for why they did what they did. Can empathy come in the way of critically looking at the choices made by people? How do you provide both an empathetic and a critical account?

I think you have to do both. First of all, journalism to me is a fairly large spectrum of things which ranges from the sort of very aggressive — move in there and find out wrongdoing and attack it — sort of Seymour Hersh approach to people who are writing perhaps more nuanced account — lets get into the mindset of people making decisions, trying to figure out why did the things they things. The best journalists can do that and do it critically– both be critical at the same time and give a full rounded portrait. To people who inevitably end up crossing the line and writing very sympathetically about the people who made terrible decisions.

I think the very best journalists find a way to do both and to not lose their critical edge. I am thinking, it may not be an appropriate example, but we can take someone like [not clear] writing in the 1960s about somebody like Joe DiMaggio, the greatest sports star. [not clear] writes this wonderful piece for Esquire about DiMaggio which both I think summons up both the grace and charisma of DiMaggio but at the same time when you walk away from the piece, you have a very very critical understanding of his illusions, of the damage he has done, and of his total inability to say understand women in his life, and the way he seeks to dominate, manipulate and control everyone around him. To me that’s a work of art — it almost surpasses journalism, but it is an act of journalism. That kind of piece, you know, is a model of being able to both understand someone’s mindset and why they do the things they do but at the same time delivers to the readers a portrait that also is unmistakably critical and powerful. Now that’s clearly the ultimate. I can’t do that, and I don’t expect most journalists to be able to do that, but I do expect people to be both tough and fair. That’s not too much to ask.

You can tell — to apply it to much recent example — when you look at say some of the people who wrote about the Iraq war, the run-up to the Iraq war — the obvious suspects like Judith Miller of the New York Times. I hate to mention Judy in such a way because she becomes a scapegoat but nonetheless that sort of rather uncritical recitation of the material that your sources provide you – you know I think we have to be able to do more than that. I think if you contrast some of the thinks Judy was writing at the time say with Bart Gelman of the Washington Post wrote, you can see the difference. And you can see kind of being a little more careful, a little more critical, a little more that step of asking yourself about the sources. That’s part of what good journalism is about. Always kind of asking yourself about the sources, double-checking — that’s part of what good journalism is about. Not falling captive to your sources or to a particular perspective, checking it again, being critical, I think that’s something that journalists can and have to practice on a daily basis.

Having singled out Judy, it’s also a process that involves editors because that’s what editors are for. Reporters often go in certain directions and believe they have come across something quite unique and sometimes they have, but it’s the function of the editors to ask those questions to reporters that things have been covered. So, I think our failure, as collective failure to the run-up of the war, was not just the failure of the reporting, but it was mostly a failure of the editing. This gets us into a whole different subject. I really believe strongly that good journalists could do both and that empathy is not the enemy of truth.

How do you make the informational landscape, the moral topography of the choices available to somebody, accessible to the readers? How can the journalist go about doing this?

Well, this is tough because you inevitably oversimplify things to an extent. Just the act of putting something in the story, you are leaving out. Part of the art of journalism is what you don’t put in. In fact, I think most of the choices you make — first you make them into deciding what you are going to pursue and what you don’t choose to pursue; of all the human activity we could be writing about. So the first really important question is what don’t we go after? And then of course in gathering material you always leave out a lot of things, any good journalist will tell you that they are leaving 90% or more of what they find out. You actually make a lot of choices, and it is in those choices that I would argue that in those choices that subjective individual values really emerge. There are so many different kinds of stories and ways of storytelling. We find out today, and we have to have it in the newspaper by tomorrow, and that can be very valuable and very important.

The place I have always strived to get to is to go back to those stories and to tell longer narratives that involve storytelling and that involve characters, explaining to readers who people are. It is a very character-driven form of journalism and it has its flaws because when you look at history — there are forces at work and there are individuals at work, and the balance between those and who is really in the driver’s seat is something that we have all studied for and debated and will continue to debate for a long long time. Character driven journalism that uses characters to summon dilemmas and choices that were made. I am thinking of a recent good model – Karen DeYoung’s new book on Colin Powell called Soldier. It comes way after the fact so it’s only one kind of journalism — the kind of re-exploration. Karen gets to have 5 or 6 interviews with Powell.

Her portrait of Colin is both empathetic and understanding his motive, who he was, where he came from and how important the military was for him, how important it was for him to be an autonomous individual yet also feeling his responsibility was to support his leader. And, she captures that very well and at the same time she captures what a huge mistake Powell made and how he feels about that. He feels betrayed on the one hand, which she captures as well; the fact that he wasn’t willing to take a more activist aggressive stance when he realized things were going badly — to blow the whistle on it if you will — ‘I can’t do this anymore. I am quitting, protesting, whatever.’ I think in the way a very very good journalist does, Karen both helps you understand what Powell is thinking, what he was trying to do, how he was trying to work within the administration to be a moral force if you will or force for moderation and how he failed.

This gets me to the thing that I think I have focused on most of all – beyond the breaking of news and in production of all the information that we deliver day after day in newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times, I really feel that if we get 50% of it correct on that first day, we are doing very well because we are reporting on limited information, limited sources, under deadline with people constantly either lying to us consciously or unconsciously with information that they don’t themselves really understand and we are struggling to produce the subject for the next day. We are writing history on the fly. I don’t think there is any getting around that. There is no way – maybe we can improve it to 55% at times or 60%, but there is no way we are going to get much beyond that because of the nature of the enterprise.

Let me interject here. In a way, I feel that newspapers overstate their case all the time. They don’t let the readers in on the fact that they don’t know certain things or the constraints that they are working under.

I think you are absolutely right. You can almost put a box in every story—by the way, keep in the mind that we hope that half of this is true. We are coming at it again tomorrow, and we will try to do better on this particular story as we move along. First, we are going to tell you that we have won the war and tomorrow we are going to tell you that it turns out that we didn’t win the war. There is getting around it when you come out every day. It is a human enterprise.

It puts enormous pressure, enormous responsibility on us to go back at things, to revisit anything important. In my career – you always learn so much more when you go back the second time or the third time – so many things you assumed or thought you knew turned out to be wrong. A classic example of my time in Israel during the first Palestinian uprising when a young woman, a Jewish settler was killed in a small Palestinian village, called Beita. She was the first Jewish Israeli to be killed in the first uprising. So long ago and such a naive almost seems like a golden era compared to how many people have died since. Anyway, the circumstance of her death was so complex, and I went back last year or earlier this year and reread my first-day story, and it says she had been stoned to death by Palestinian villagers because that’s what the army had announced and that was totally wrong. It turned out she had been accidentally been killed by her own bodyguard. We got that story wrong the first day, and we got it a little better the second day, the army itself was investigating- whether in good faith or not. It took a week later when I went back to -had to sneak in through the army’s cordon – they had cordoned off the area- we weren’t allowed in. Two of us eventually made our way through — snuck our way in — interviewed the villagers, interviewed some of the Jewish settlers who were with her that day, got some materials from the army investigators as that came out and gradually pieced together a much much more accurate account of what had happened, and the sort of sequence of events that had led to the tragedy or disaster. It was very close to the truth, to the full truth about a week later. I looked at it and appalled at what we all wrote the first day, and I am very very proud of what I wrote a week later.

I think that’s all you can do in a sense—own up to the flaws, to the flaws of the process. There are both personal flaws, lack of skepticism at times. We can load our stories with phrases that say — “according to preliminary report”, “we had no way to being able to verify this,” “according to unconfirmed information because we weren’t allowed to interview witnesses at the time” — all those things can go in there, have to go in there but they don’t really mitigate enough of what we are saying. We have to be willing and able to go back to thing and to admit that we are mortal, that we are flawed, that the information that we provide is only as good as what our sources are giving us at that time, and to go back at it again and again, and to be as transparent and honest about the process as we can be.

And you are right—newspapers tend to speak in this magisterial, almost divine voice that claims omniscience when it is, in fact, it is a very flawed and hesitant process that we go through. I think we have come a long way over the years and admitted that and been more open about that. Certainly, that has been one of the advantages of having a blogosphere and to have everyone be a media critic. One of the real advantages of that is that it has made us more careful and it has made us a little more honest about, and a little more open about the process we go through. And surprise, surprise it’s a human flawed complicated and often subjective process.

It seems like European news organizations like the BBC are a little more careful about attribution and more conscientious in providing context. Do you think this is the case? How do you compare it to NY Times and Washington Post?

Yeah, I don’t really agree with you. First of all let’s separate out the British press—The Guardian, The Times of London, and those from the BBC. Those I would argue strongly are less careful in attributing that the Washington Post or the NY Times.

The BBC, compared to any other broadcast outlet, is head and shoulders above. Certainly, compared to certainly any American broadcast outlet, BBC is an absolutely marvelous news institution and the online version, which is what I see these days – I just got back from living in the UK for almost four years – and I admire BBC enormously.

They are thorough, they stick with things, and they cover a much broader range of countries than the New York Times or the Washington Post. They have an extensive staff. If we had a license fee and the zillions of dollars floating in from the government — we would be more extensive also. We are private institutions.

Nonetheless, I don’t agree that their attribution or their general accuracy exceeds ours. I just don’t buy it. They are good, they are careful, they may at times be a little more cautious but when I see what they write about events in America or covering the Middle East, Israel, and Palestine. I think they have a rather, at times the BBC has a sort of a London media elite set of assumptions – certainly about Israel and Palestine – that shines through their copy in ways and in their reportage –which can be skewed. Please keep that in context. I love BBC, and I think they do a wonderful job but no, I would defend us and the New York Times in terms of the quality and things that you talk about.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Early Professional Experiences

19 Jan

Part 2 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


How was it working for a small newspaper? How did you learn the ropes of going about say finding and investigating a story?

There is nothing like a small newspaper in a small community because it really is the laboratory where you can begin to do things and where when you make mistakes, they are generally small ones – they don’t have a huge impact. At the same time, you really learn very quickly that accuracy is crucial, that you were accountable for what you were writing not only to the small group of people around you at the paper but to people you were writing about because they were reading you intensely. Even in this little weekly in Chesterfield County – its called the Chesterfield news journal, I was covering the board of supervisors, which is the county government which met weekly. Everyone read this little journal intensely, and if you screwed something up, they were on top of it and if you were critical, they knew it, and they quickly took your measure as to how they felt about you. So, you were accountable to them in a way – not so much to write things that weren’t true, to skew what you were writing to please them – more that you had to be accurate and you had to be careful.

I had fairly long hair, not very good clothes. I was making a $1.65/hour on this job, and I couldn’t afford a wardrobe or even a car that started very well. (Chuckles) I was driving a Volkswagen van that had to sit on a hill to push it to start it. There are not many hills in Chesterfield County. It was always an adventure to get that thing going. But it really was a good place to sort of learn the basics.

Because I had no training as a journalist, because I had never taken a course, never written a word for a newspaper, I really had to start from scratch and there wasn’t much help at the Chesterfield News Journal and I have to add that at least for the first year, there wasn’t much help at The Richmond Mercury, the place where I worked next, a weekly newspaper in Richmond, Virginia. Both of the newspapers no longer exist. I found that I had to teach myself by and large in this first stretch.

Fortunately Richmond, Virginia is on the outskirts of the Washington Post circulation area. So for 25 cents or 50 cents a day, I could get what turned out to be a very practical useful textbook guide to modern daily journalism, the daily Washington Post. I pored over it, read it thoroughly. Really for the first time, I read the newspaper thoroughly every day. I had been a newspaper reader, war fairly knowledgeable about governmental affairs and things like that, I certainly wasn’t an ignorant person, I was well educated, but I had a lot to learn. I would sort of simply look at the way Washington Post approached stories, both in terms of how they were written and the different forms. It’s not hard; it’s not brain surgery to figure out various forms of stories. What was in the second paragraph, how did the first paragraph work, I would just analyze it for that but also for attitude and the Post then was a very muscular cheeky newspaper. Some days it was not terribly well edited, some days it almost bizarre in parts but many days, it was really quite exciting to read and in this time of Watergate, especially exciting. I used that as my text. So, developing an approach to how you did the reporting very much came from that and from my own understanding of what a reporter’s role was – I felt I was there to uncover things, to find out things.

Lord Northcliffe, the old British press manager once said, ‘News is what they don’t what you to know, everything else is advertising.’ The direct quote is “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress, all the rest is advertising.” That’s not all news is but its certainly a good starting point and certainly coming out of Columbia University in the 1960s with everything that had happened over Vietnam and everything else; certainly, my attitude and my approach was aggressive, critical, looking for the problem. That type of newspaper approach fit well with what I wanted to do. So what I had to learn over time was to be -Yes, it was important to have had edge and that sort of critical attitude but at the same time to be open to new experiences, to not make too many presumptions about what a story was, to be able to be open to the experience of reporting and actually talking to people, getting out, realizing that the truth, as best as I could determine, was more complex, had more shades of grey than the sort of black and white that I had wanted to think. That only occurred over time, and it was a very long and painful process.

Did journalism change you as a person? It seems that you came to appreciate the subtleties more. Please talk a little more about how what impact did journalism have on you and how you changed over time.

Yeah, Everyone matures over time and hopefully becomes a little more sophisticated or a little more understanding, a little more aware of your own mortality and therefore a little more forgiving, a little more aware of your own personality flaws and therefore more understanding of other people’s. That doesn’t just apply to journalists but applies for all of us, and I think that process occurred with me.

I think you become a better journalist as you understand that the world is not a simple place. And there is a fine balance between in keeping a code and an edge in the sense of – ‘Lets get on that, lets get to the bottom of that, and lets be really relentless in pursuing a particular subject’, and at the same time understanding the sort of human frailties that go into a situation or developing empathy in other words. I don’t think we are automatically empathetic creatures. I think that’s an acquired quality over the course of time.

For me, the best journalism has always been about the most complex subjects and about getting to the bottom of things that are not simple either in terms of the information involved or the morality involved. Developing a taste for that and realizing that the sort of gotcha stories, where you do an expose’ – well that’s immensely satisfying in some ways, it is even more satisfying to write about complex mechanisms and people and the reasons why people do the things they do and figuring out of the motives.

I have always been more interested in the perpetrators than the victims – whether that’s the people who ran government in Virginia and who had a rather successful oligarchy of power – ‘Who they were, what they were thinking and what they told themselves about the decisions they made’ – or whether it was in South Africa – people in the Afrikaans league who were running the government back in the days of apartheid, or whether the Israeli establishment leaders – ‘What information were they getting? What were they telling themselves or how did they justify doing things that to me seemed unjustifiable, in some ways kind of evil?’

Saying its evil doesn’t get you all that far. In the end, it wasn’t as interesting to me as figuring out who these people were, what they told themselves, what they told their children about what they were doing and how they were justifying. That to me was fascinating, and it still is.