28 February 2007

What do you get when cross ethics and Wal*Mart?

Besides a bunch of lawsuits, I mean. Evidently, you get Global Ethics University (GEU), who really, really, really wants to be your

one-stop online ethics and compliance-training provider for both individuals and corporations. From easy, affordable online ethics courses to complete, ready-to-use ethics training curricula, look no further than Global Ethics University. Ethics is a serious problem and requires serious solutions. Of course you can do it yourself or reinvent the wheel, but Global Ethics University has everything you need in one convenient place with packages and prices that suit any size organization.
"Ethics is a serious problem?" Um, no it's not. Ethics means principally the study of habits, which means that it is at bottom a framework for understanding what the problem is and how to solve it. One kind of "serious problem" typically results when unscrupulous people and ineffective management systems get together and do the corruption mamba. Another kind of "serious problem," as I've noted before, occurs when people conflate ethics with compliance (again from the homepage):
You can do something significant and different TODAY to achieve high standards of ethical compliance. The best part is that you don't have to settle for either reflective professional/personal development course or hard-hitting compliance training. You can have BOTH in EVERY Global Ethics University course or training program.
Textbook conflation. This kind of thing just reeks of intellectual confusion.

But wait! There's more! From the glossy-pamphlet literature on their "flagship Ethics for a Modern Workforce program":
[The program] is the perfect balance between a no-nonsense compliance program and a personal/professional growth course. The easy, straight-forward program builds participants’ ethical skills and knowledge using practical teaching and real-life scenarios. What makes Ethics for a Modern Workforce unique is that it builds skills in incremental levels, or ethics Competencies.
"Perfect balance?" They mean that it's both and neither, right? Donkey before the cart and all that, right?

No one told us that the donkey was on a diet.

And the program "builds participants’ ethical skills and knowledge?" Maybe they mean working on participants' ethical reasoning, or something along those lines?

And the uniqueness of the program "is that it builds skills in incremental levels, or ethics Competencies?" The whole incremental education thing has been around since Johan Amos Comenius took the idea mainstream back in 1657 or so. And "ethics Competencies?" First off, the whole capitalization of random nouns thing died off in the early 19th century. And secondly, there are no such things as generalized competencies in ethics. Each person must develop techniques for his/her personal challenges.

If you want to learn pablums bordering on nonsense, it would seem that GEU is you one-stop shop. Otherwise, it's back to the books.

24 February 2007

Web 2.0 meets real estate

I recently--in the context of this blog, I mean--opened the can of worms that is web 2.0 vis-a-vis education. Another important intersection between the internet and the real world is real estate. Although there's a tendency, as I recently noted, for people to think that the internet univocally minimizes the importance of geography, in fact there are a number of interesting ways in which the internet actually reifies geographical distinctions. One important way is through the organization and distribution of real estate information.

I've been poking around in the web 2.0 universe a little bit lately, and I'd like briefly to introduce four web 2.0 real estate tools to anyone who may not have yet heard of them. Organized roughly in order, in this author's humble opinion, from most interesting to least interesting (all emphasis added to call out the key innovation of each project):

(1) Zillow. From the site:

Today we are answering what we believe is the first question most home buyers, sellers, and the curious ask: "How much is this home really worth?" Zillow.com calculates a valuation (the Zestimate™) that anyone can see — for free — for most homes in the U.S., including yours. Or the one you want to be yours. Or the one you are curious about. Or ours, for that matter. You can refine the value of any home with My Estimator, an interactive tool that allows you to enter things you know about a home but we don't.
(2) Homethinking. From the site:
Homethinking helps you find real estate agents by showing you what each real estate agent has done in the past and what customers have said about the job they did.
(3) Propsmart. From the site:
Propsmart is a next-generation, independent real estate search engine and online community. We crawl and index over 1 million homes for sale and other properties, then organize and display them on a slick Google Map interface.
(4) Trulia. From the site:
Whether you are moving down the street or clear across the country, we're here to help you understand real estate trends at the local level. When you are about to make the biggest financial decision of your life, we help you understand how your future home stacks up compared to similar homes on the market, and similar homes that have recently sold. We show you how sales prices have been trending where it matters—in your county, city, ZIP code and neighborhood.
All players to watch.

18 February 2007

Preservation + green = good questions

The Real Estate section of today's Sunday NYT has an article on "The Greening of Graying Buildings." The article covers two successful preservation projects--a NJ farmhouse and a Hoboken factory--which also go green. The most interesting of the two is the farmhouse, developed by Conservation Development of Hillsborough, NJ. (Full disclosure: The principal of Conservation Development, Lise Thompson, is a personal friend and colleague.)
Rosemont Farmhouse
It may not look green... and that's the point.

In its customarily clunky way, the NYT states the obvious as though it were utterly arcane:

THE conversion of a huge Hoboken warehouse building into condominiums and the nearly completed restoration of a small 1860 farmhouse near the Delaware River are two very different sorts of projects. But they share an intriguing goal: creation of 21st-century “green” homes in history-laden structures without stripping the buildings’ original character.
It's not "intriguing"--it's only sensible. In any case, the real story here is captured beautifully and succinctly in a quote from Ms. Thompson:

“Sometimes, we had to ask ourselves: What is ‘green?’”

Green isn't a "movement," a "lifestyle," or even a technological category. Green is a state of consciousness--a paradigm--a mental model. The challenge isn't a scientific or technical one--the whole question of "efficiency" is merely a sidebar--but rather a spiritual one. In order to build greener buildings, we must become greener people.

Ms. Thompson goes on to explain a bit of her generative thinking vis-à-vis this project:
“The fact is that preserving the house is itself ‘green,’ because it avoids further development and sprawl — but there are tensions between being green and authentic restoration, and we had to resolve them as best we could.”
While there's plenty of room for growth beyond this statement, the point is that Ms. Thompson didn't assume that there is only one answer, and that all she had to do was find it. Instead, she creatively opened up an entire new vista for thinking green: the idea that preservation itself is a kind of environmentally sensitive practice.

There's much left to explore here. But the takeaway, which of course the NYT doesn't really take away, is that green isn't the answer, it's the question.

16 February 2007

How the web thwarts virtuality

Here's a new site which I think indicates a general trend which has creeping potential to be really important for proponents of place: placeblogger.

Notice the tagline: "towards an annotated world..."

One emerging trend in our networked world is the return of geography in (post-) modern consciousness. I remember seeing an ad for a cell-phone company (can't remember which) a few years back which said, "New York, Buenos Aires. What's the difference?" To which one can only reply that if you don't find the difference obvious, then I pity you your blindness. That ad was based on a 20th century, world-is-flat (a la Thomas Friedman) mentality. Increasingly, I'm seeing geography--by which I mean embodied place--emerge as a concern for designers, and in particular for designers of web-based services and products.

I (almost) hate to break it to Thomas Friedman and his fans, but, um... no, it's not.

Although placeblogger specifically is a project inspired by the journalism/ free press movement online, there are tremendous implications--and opportunities!--for anyone who cares about place. Even as our world becomes increasingly virtual (where we use the word "community" to describe people who merely share interests), it also becomes becomes ever more embodied (where your neighbors--who drink the same water and breathe the same air--matter more than your far-away fellow-feelers). It's just so surprising--and delighting--to find that the Internet organically enhances embodied experience as well as what you might call virtual experience.

09 February 2007

Inquiry always trumps "information"

Educator, blogger, and technophile TomMarch summarizes web 2.0 in a single sentence:

Inquiry always trumps "information."
His coinage, "School 2.0" is suggestive, but this isn't just school he's talking about (whether he means it or not, it's how the mind of humanity--aided by the internet--functions as a thinking collective. World wide web as prosthetic.

07 February 2007

What is "Ethics Training?"

Mr. Norm Alster takes a look at some of corporate America's recent efforts at protecting themselves against Enron's fate. Central to most efforts, according to Alster, is ethics training; the piece essentially revolves around the question of whether or not ethics training works, and if so, to what extent. In a brief two sentences, Alster defines in what ethics training consists:

Typically, the programs involve training in ethical reasoning, along with mechanisms to encourage the reporting of misconduct. In some cases, employees act out scenarios that could land them in trouble in the workplace.
So, ethics training more or less boils down to "training in ethical reasoning" coupled with information on and incentives for snitching. Oh yes, and a bit of playacting. Ultimately, Alster concludes that
...ethical training may not be enough to discourage cheating in a competitive business world. Training must be coupled with new techniques — things like preemployment screening and revamped performance reviews — if future Enrons and WorldComs are to be averted.
Given his watered-down and indistinct definition of ethics training, it's hardly surprising that reinforcements should be necessary.

After reading the article, I have one burning question: What is "ethical reasoning" (and how does it differ from normal reasoning)? Reasoning in general means the inference of valid conclusions based on given premises. There is only one, universally valid, way to reason, though there are infinite chains of reasoning one might follow. Ethical reasoning must therefore simply mean reasoning about ethical issues. OK, so no special skills necessary. Any training given in ethical reasoning must be quite simply training in how to reason.
Before-After Ethics Training
Different? Yes. Better? Well, um... at least we've got the technology in hand.

Besides, ethics means one's relationship to one's habits. Habits as in "automatic thought, feeling, or action undertaken without reflection." Reasoning about ethics consists almost entirely in first (1) becoming aware of one's habits of thought, feeling, and action; second, (2) in discerning the broader implications of the patterns one finds; and third, (3) in identifying appropriate steps to improve one's habits. Ethical problems, in other words, are not of the same order as the question, "Is this action, which I am considering doing, right or wrong?" Ethical problems are long-term considerations of personal character and its relationship to personal contentment.

The goodness or badness of a particular action, in ethical terms, depends upon its position within a larger pattern of behavior. Whether an action does or does not comply with some code of belief is not an ethical, but rather a moral consideration. (The curious should consult Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory for more on this crucial distinction.) The moralistic and legalistic slant of the ethics training considered by Alster reveals itself through its reliance on the language of compliance, which has nothing really to do with ethics per se. Before corporate America can address its issues, it first needs to get clear on whether or not those problems are indeed ethical. If they are, then ethically effective--rather than morally hopeful--measures will be needed.

Graffiti that cleans

My friend AM emails me to let me know about reverse graffiti, which consists in making images by scrubbing away soot and dirt rather than applying paint or dye. Socially conscious art at its very, very best.
Reverse Graffiti
He's actually cleaning the wall--scrubbing away soot and grime to create images!