Goodbye Producers’ Forum

Goodbye Producers Forum

I launched 4 years ago. At the time there was a need for a “Yahoo Groups”-functionality that offered:

  • RSS Feeds

  • Wikis

  • Sub-lists for working groups that would still be accessible/cross-searchable

It seems rather quaint now, but there was a need for this for community media groups in 2006. Built using Drupal, it is the only website I know that followed Zack Rosen’s Magic Groups recipe to turn Drupal into a mailing-list manager that could create an arbitrary number of email lists, allow users to post via email or via the website, and archive beautifully-threaded conversations on the website. Built with Drupal 4.7, I learned quite a bit in optimizing user workflows and smoothing Drupal’s poorly executed content creation interface.


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Write first, outline later

Peter Elbow on free writing, from the book Writing without teachers (1973):

There is a paradox about control which this kind of writing brings into the open. The common model of writing I grew up with preaches control. It tells me to think first, make up my mind what I really mean, figure out ahead of time where I am going, have a plan, an outline, don’t dither, don’t be ambiguous, be stern with myself, don’t let things out of hand. As I begin to try to follow this advice, I experience a sense of satisfaction and control: “I’m going to be in charge of this thing and keep it out of any swamps!” Yet almost always my main experience ends up one of not being in control, feeling stuck, feeling lost, trying to write something and never succeeding. Helplessness and passivity.

The developmental model, on the other hand, preaches, in a sense, lack of control: don’t worry about not knowing what you mean or what you intend ahead of time; you don’t need a plan or an outline, let things get out of hand, let things wander and digress. Though this approach makes for initial panic, my overall experience with it is increased control. Not that I always know what I am doing, not that I don’t feel lost, baffled, and frustrated. But the overall process is one that doesn’t leave me so helpless. I can get something written when I want to. There isn’t such a sense of mystery, of randomness.

This paradox of increased overall control through letting go a bit seems paradoxical only because our normal way of thinking about control is mistakenly static: it is not development or process-oriented because it leaves out the dimension of time. Our static way of thinking makes us feel we must make a single choice as to whether to be a controlled person or an out-of-control person. The feeling goes like this: “Ugh. If I just write words as they come, allow myself to write without a plan or an outline, allow myself to digress or wander, I’ve turned into a blithering idiot. I’ll degenerate. I’ll lose the control I’ve struggled so hard to get. First I’ll dangle participles, then I’ll split infinitives, then I’ll misspell words, then I’ll slide into disagreement of subject and verb. Soon I’ll be unable to think straight. Unable to find flaws in an argument. Unable to tell a good argument from a bad one. Unable to tell sound evidence from phony evidence. My mind will grow soft and limp, it will atrophy; it will finally fall off. No!  I’ll be tough. I won’t be wishy-washy. I’ll have high standards. I’ll be rigorous. I’ll make every argument really stand up. I won’t be a second-rate mind. I’m going to be a discriminating person. I’m going to keep my mind sharp at all times.

But this static model isn’t accurate. Most processes engaged in by live organisms are cyclic, developmental processes that run through time and end up different from how they began. The fact is that most people find they improve their ability to think carefully and discriminatingly if they allow themselves to be sloppy and relinquish control at other times. You usually cannot excel at being tough-minded and discriminating unless it is the final stage in an organic process that allowed you to be truly open, accepting—even at times blithering.

You can encourage richness and chaos by encouraging digressions. We often see digressions as a waste of time and break them off when we catch ourselves starting one. But do the opposite. Give it its head. It may turn out to be an integral part of what you are trying to write. Even if it turns out to be an excrescence to be gotten rid of, if it came to you while you were thinking about X it must be related and a source of leverage. And you may not be able to get rid of it completely unless you see more of it. Almost always you cannot disentangle the good insight from the excrescence until after you have allowed the digression to develop. At the early stage the two are so intertwined that you can’t tell one from the other. That’s why it feels both interesting and wrong. There are concepts in there that you haven’t yet learned to discriminate.

Try it again

From the Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives:

Going against the law of small numbers requires character. For while anyone can sit back and point to the bottom line as justification, assessing instead a person’s actual knowledge and actual ability takes confidence, thought. good judgment, and, well, guts. You can’t just stand up in a meeting with your colleagues and yell, “Don’t fire her. She was just on the wrong end of a Bernoulli series.” Nor is it likely to win you friends if you stand up and say of the gloating fellow who just sold more Toyota Camiys than anyone else in the history of the dealership. “It was just a random fluctuation.” And so it rarely happens. Executives’ winning years are attributed to their brilliance, explained retroactively through incisive hindsight. And when people don’t succeed, we often assume the failure accurately reflects the proportion with which their talents and their abilities fill the urn.

The law of small numbers, in context of the quote here, says that people believe that a small sampling of a large urn of different-colored balls will be representative of the proportions of colored balls as a whole. This is not the true, but people are biased to believe it. This is compared to the Law of Large Numbers, which says that if you make a large continuous sampling, it will eventually limit towards the true proportion—which is true, but large is large.

A definition that is good enough

Wikipedia on  satisficing:

Satisficing (a portmanteau of satisfy and suffice) is a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than to identify an optimal solution. A satisficing strategy may often be (near) optimal if the costs of the decision-making process itself, such as the cost of obtaining complete information, are considered in the outcome calculus.

…The word satisfice was coined by Herbert Simon. He pointed out that human beings lack the cognitive resources to maximize: we usually do not know the relevant probabilities of outcomes, we can rarely evaluate all outcomes with sufficient precision, and our memories are weak and unreliable. A more realistic approach to rationality takes into account these limitations: This is called bounded rationality.

…Satisficing occurs in consensus building when the group looks towards a solution everyone can agree on even if it may not be the best.

Example: A group spends hours projecting the next fiscal year’s budget. After hours of debating they eventually reach a consensus, only to have one person speak up and ask if the projections are correct. When the group becomes upset at the question, it is not because this person is wrong to ask, but rather because they have come up with a solution that works. The projection may not be what will actually come, but the majority agrees on one number and thus the projection is good enough to close the book on the budget.

JFK accuses media of sensationalism, triviality

This is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s primary run in West Virginia, where a large focus of his time was spent responding to fears over his Catholicism. This is from remarks titled “ The Religion Issue in American Politics” that JFK made at the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Washington, DC, April 21, 1960:

What, then, is the so-called religious issue in American politics today? It is not, it seems to me, my actual religious convictions - but a misunderstanding of what those convictions actually are. It is not the actual existence of religious voting blocs - but a suspicion that such voting blocs may exist. And when we deal with such public fears and suspicions, the American press has a very grave responsibility.

I know the press did not create this religious issue. My religious affiliation is a fact - religious intolerance is a fact. And the proper role of the press is to report all facts that are a matter of public interest.

But the press has a responsibility, I think you will agree, which goes far beyond a reporting of the facts. It goes beyond lofty editorials deploring intolerance. For my religion is hardly, in this critical year of 1960, the dominant issue of our time. It is hardly the most important criterion - or even a relevant criterion - on which the American people should make their choice for Chief Executive. And the press, while not creating the issue, will largely determine whether or not it does become dominant - whether it is kept in perspective - whether it is considered objectively - whether needless fears and suspicions are stilled instead of aroused.

The members of the press should report the facts as they find them. They should describe the issues as they see them. But they should beware, it seems to me, of either magnifying this issue or oversimplifying it. They should beware of ignoring the vital issues of this campaign, while filling their pages with analyses that cannot be proven, with statements that cannot be documented and with emphasis which cannot be justified.

I spoke in Wisconsin, for example, on farm legislation, foreign policy, defense, civil rights and several dozen other issues. The people of Wisconsin seemed genuinely interested in these addresses. But I rarely found them reported in the press - except when they were occasionally sandwiched in between descriptions of my hand-shaking, my theme-song, family haircut, and inevitably, my religion.

At almost every stop in Wisconsin I invited questions - and the questions came - on price supports, labor unions, disengagement, taxes and inflation. But there sessions were rarely reported in the press except when one topic was discussed: religion. One article, for example, supposedly summing the primary up in advance, mentioned the word Catholic 20 times in 15 paragraphs - not mentioning even once dairy farms, disarmament, labor legislation or any other issue. And on the Sunday before the Primary, the Milwaukee Journal featured a map of the state, listing county by county the relative strength of three types of voters - Democrats, Republicans and Catholics.

In West Virginia, it is the same story. As reported in yesterday’s Washington Post, the great bulk of West Virginians paid very little attention to my religion - until they read repeatedly in the nation’s press that this was the decisive issue in West Virginia. There are many serious problems in that state - problems big enough to dominate any campaign - but religion is not one of them.

I do not think that religion is the decisive issue in any state. I do not think it should be. I do not think it should be made to be. And recognizing my own responsibilities in that regard, I am hopeful that you will recognize yours also.

Sounds so timely—especially if you substitute religion for whatever (e.g. race). And considering these remarks were made 50 years ago, does that mean we can’t blame bad journalism for the downfall of news?

History is an art form rooted in scholarship

A personal statement from a Public History grad student (taken from their Facebook Page):

I am interested in using history as an instrument for social change; history with a pragmatic purpose. The power of the past can be used to engage the present in ways to fight corruption, aristocracy, inequalities, racial/gender divides, and other forms of oppression and exploitation. I believe history is an art form rooted in scholarship.

Ethical omissions

Again from Marianne M. Jennings’ The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse: How to Spot Moral Meltdowns in Companies… Before It’s Too Late:

Some years ago a former dean asked me to look into a new way of teaching students business ethics. He wanted to stop sending our students over to the philosophy department for their ethics training. His reasoning was that “they go over there, find out capitalism is a tool of the devil, and then switch majors.” His theory had one more part to it. Those who did not switch majors and returned to study business came back with a guilt complex. They assumed, based on the views of their philosophy professors, that they had already sold their souls to the devil, so what possible difference could a little cooking of the books mean in their eternal damnation? So, those who remained became comfortable with crossing ethical lines.

Ethics instruction during the era in which the crop of officer felons was trained was not virtue ethics. Rather, these students were given a heavy dose of social responsibility and little or no discussion of the ethical issues in financial reporting. Their ethics instruction focused on these distinct areas:

  • Environmentalism
  • Diversity
  • Human rights
  • Philanthropy
  • Giving back to the community

The ethics books and curriculum of this generation of business leaders (and regretfully, still today) define doing the right thing in these areas as ethics writ large. Moral relativists are hesitant to establish bright lines between right and wrong, except in areas they deem appropriate. These topics and guidelines for business ethics come directly from the AACSB accrediting body for business schools, which mandates the following content in the business-school curriculum if the school desires AACSB accreditation for its programs:

  • Ethical and global issues
  • The influence of political, social, legal and regulatory, environmental and technological issues
  • The impact of demographic diversity on organizations

Those trained under this pedagogical philosophy will order, “No sweat shops,” but could never bring themselves to say, “Always be honest.” They can condemn lumber companies for destroying the rain forests, but they would never suggest that corporate executives should control their conduct in their personal lives. To students trained in this era of business-ethics instruction, a demented sort of logic and attitude has resulted. As long as the company had a good record on community development and contribution, a little fraud was fine. They were not trained to ask the question “Does social conscience in some areas atone for the lack of moral conscience in finances and financial reporting?” Fannie Mae was named number one by Business Ethics magazine in its annual list of the most ethical companies in America in the same month that Fannie Mae’s multibillion-dollar accounting deception was unfolding. The CEO was forced out by his board because of questions about the firm’s financial reports even as the same group that created the parameters of ethical behavior in such a facile and arbitrary manner was honoring the company. True, few organizations have done more to help individuals get affordable housing than Fannie Mae. But recognition for a job well done does not justify misrepresentation in the marketplace.

Corporate social distractibility

From Marianne M. Jennings’ The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse: How to Spot Moral Meltdowns in Companies… Before It’s Too Late:

Sign #7: Goodness in some areas atones for evil in others

…Beware the socially responsible company. Watch out for the big donors. There is a certain con component in the Yeehaw Culture. The con men and women of the Yeehaw Culture have figured out a formula for drawing attention away from company performance and, in many cases, its financials. Even without the Yeehaw Culture, this dedication to causes and charity seems to be a distraction from running the business. The result is not just a lack of focus, but also a diversion of funds that were needed for simple things, including, for example, the employees’ pensions. That distraction comes in the form of virtuous efforts in the community, charities, and all those social goals one can now find on pretty much every company’s website. Stunningly, that information will be located on the investor-information home page. As cynical as it seems, skepticism about social responsibility and philanthropy may be one of the most certain determinants of a Yeehaw Culture. If you find these present in a company, check for the other factors of ethical collapse because the generosity and service may be a cover in a troubled soul and even more troubled books.

The term “yeehaw culture” comes from the Wyoming Law Reviews’ “Restoring Ethical Gumption in the Corporation: A Federalist Paper on Corporate Governance—Restoration of Active Virtue in the Corporate Structure to Curb the ‘Yeehaw Culture’ in Organizations”. It’s also the cry of Billy Crystal in City Slickers.

The book also encourages researching the community connections between management and charities.

Via Earl Stewart on Cars.

I am now a Technology of Participation facilitator

Last week I completed a 2 day Technology of Participation Facilitator training. Developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs, the Technology of Participation is a series of practices and principles for leading groups through inclusive and participatory dialogues and planning. The training was led by Nancy Jackson and Ruth-Ann Rasbold, who were excellent.

One of my first questions in the training was the ethical/political dimension to leading participatory methods (after an early morning drive to New Hampshire, I was feeling punchy). Here are the circumstances when participation doesn’t work (from the facilitator handbook):

  • there is no intention of using the information gathered, the plans made, or the excitement generated when people become involved.
  • people are attached to a particular outcome.
  • truth telling is not an accepted norm in an organization.
  • people are so busy, they are unwilling to set aside the time needed to engage in participatory processes or follow through on their collective decisions.
  • there is no apparent need to do things differently
  • the leader does not champion participation
  • people want a quick fix to a deep problem
  • participation is performed around a non-issue or merely a surface issue—that is, when the focus is to “straighten something out.”

from Participation Works: Business Cases from Around the World, James P. Troxel (ed.) with the Institute of Cultural Affairs, Alexandria,Virginia, Miles River Press, 1993, p. 28.

I participated in the facilitator training both because of my enjoyment in facilitating small groups—and my desire to improve my methods and confidence for facilitating larger groups—and that my boss is also trained in the Technology of Participation and I’ve quite enjoyed being a participant in the use of these methods.