Ruminating on the Taste of Offal

I don’t pretend to be a biblical scholar, and this is not an article or book proposal on a sociology of religion. The paragraphs below are occasional reflections where I attempt to illustrate ambiguity or problems of interpretation. I don’t intend to offend but by bringing out such mentions of odor I’ve come across. A nobler function of religion is rooted in carnality in the sense that it it’s the lowest or most offensive opposite. And of course that is why the rejection or condemnation is so formidable and long lasting. However, I have used non-religious sources to illustrate this point. One might say that these are an uncharacteristic micrology.

Opium of the People

From Karl Marx’s most hated quotation:

“Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

From Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law” Introduction “Speech for the altars and hearths” in Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works, Volume 3, International Publishers, New York, 1975, page 175}

For Marx at this point, religion is a complement and consolation in reaction to history’s current configuration.  Read carefully, the sentences state that religion is a means of expression and protest. It makes ‘spirit’ possible in a heartless and spiritless world.  Second, a rhetorical relationship between aroma and opium is there.  The aroma of religion is in the air. Religion has the aroma of opium.  Now, is opium a narcotic or a pain killer?  Using ‘opium,’ seems incongruous with the other ideas or just an ill-conceived choice of words to follow ‘aroma.’  The phrase “of the people” could be read as “for the people.” That might be more plausible depending on what the German phrase is, which I haven’t had time to consult.  “For the people” might switch the valence from people accepting to be duped by religion to a veil cast by political and social institutions for the purpose of preventing people from learning the truth about their circumstances.  The complex nature of religion is a way for people to find themselves along with real political and economic change or, even, revolution.

But what if Marx had not used the word “opium?” Would any other odor be less dismal or, instead, sacrosanct? What if the aroma of religion were gardenias, lilacs, onions, garlic, garbage, sewage, roses, pine trees, fresh bread, newly mown grass or hay, cilantro, dead fish, curry, oranges, or the Cedars of Lebanon?  What about the Amorphophallus titanium at the climax of its rare blooming?

What does any odor mask, at the altar, whether of incense, fresh flowers, or Christmas trees?  Of course, the “rose” has a great deal of symbolic weight in the Bible and Christianity.  But if Marx had written instead:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the rose of the people.

That seems to confound his meaning as well as that of the significance of the “rose” in Christianity.  A rose can mask bad odors too. A rose aroma, associated with the thorns of the State, might have been more appropriate than the smell and effect of opium.  A rose smell would have lulled people into a pleasant delirium of the senses too.  Would then a ‘rose by another name’ smell as sweet?

Odor of Absolute Knowledge

Absolute knowledge of the Hegelian model is elusive either because it either exceeds the grasp of thinking and history or is veiled from sight or smell.   That is, one can’t obtain Absolute Knowledge or wouldn’t recognize it if one did. What is the tell-tale sign of the trail of Absolute Knowledge after Hegel? In his impressive history of the interplay of theory and praxis, (Lobkowitz, Theory and Practice: The History of a Concept from Aristotle to Marx, 277) calls this the “opiate of Absolute Knowledge…”

He argues that Left Hegelians’ search for Absolute Knowledge yields a definition of practice as the exercise of self-consciousness to identify their own critical escape from religion and underscore the hope that one-day humanity may develop a critical consciousness.   Whether in publications or in solitary exercises of critical thought, while attending to signs of history manifesting Absolute Knowledge, they doubted efficacy of political engagement. Lobkowitz suggests that the atmosphere of this position is an opiate clouding better thinking about praxis.

Lobkowitz picks up Marx’s phrase to characterize the “Left Hegelians” predecessors of Marx. Chronologically in texts, the opiate of religion follows the “opiate of Absolute Knowledge” but both address religion as a barricade to social and historical development. In this case, the opiate applies to reliance on self-conscious critique or the rumblings of history. Salvation comes from humanities’ escape from religion.   Even then “Spirit” lifts the veil and shows the way. Spirit’s vision must be manifested by being externalized in the consciousness and critique.

At the end of Hegel’s “Phenomenology,” the externalization of Spirit takes shape in movement from self-consciousness to time, space, and History. “Externalization” (A.V. Miller; trans. 492) is also “kenosis.” A brief search of definitions yields definitions including “emptying oneself” and “abasement” A Catholic definition is that In Christ’s “kenosis” “He freely subjected Himself to most of the pains resulting from bodily exertion and adverse external influences, e.g. fatigue, hunger, wounds, etc.….Besides, He could prevent their disturbing the actions of His soul and His peace of mind.” –( If one were to imagine the most base result, that would give off some kind of odor.

Lobkowitz writes of the course of the Left Hegelians that until 1848 in “them the general politicization of thought had developed under the unlucky star of Absolute Knowledge.” (209) Leaving no stone unturned relevant to his criticism, he writes that these “cranks” amount to thirty persons at the most. (216). That Left Hegelians were under the shine for an unlucky star is another metaphor for their limited sense of politics and history. The star of Absolute Knowledge is unlucky, not a guiding star by which to navigate

In an unrelated but appealing connection here, Adorno exposes the popular version of finding unlucky stars through astrology. Astrology (T.Adorno, “Stars Down to Earth”) portrays itself as a key to understanding and predicting one’s place in the cosmos. When newspapers (or now other media) carry horoscopes, then, comfort and hope displace feelings of despair and hopelessness. Astrology is a sign of and vehicle of reification.

For Adorno, “occult” beliefs and practices – e.g. astrology – embody or spiritualize social and cultural domination and reification. The individual subjective search for meaning is surrendered to the stars and planets. Adorno writes that followers of occult beliefs find only the “offal of the phenomenal world” outside the configuration of time of birth, place of birth, and positions of the sun, moon, planets, stars, etc.; especially as given in “Christian Astrology” of 1647. . Adorno (174) uses the term “offal” to describe occult followers’ perception of worldly context. However, I don’t think it is farfetched to think that Adorno feels this way about occult practices themselves.

Offal means the organ parts of animals that are usually undesirable to eat (e.g. lungs, gizzards, livers, kidneys, tongue, or brain) in spite of its appearance. In the U.S. lungs, chitterlings, pork rind, brains, and tongue are parts of the culinary scene. For example, my parents always wanted gizzards and livers from fried chicken. I met a Norwegian sea captain who left the delicacy of fresh salmon eyeballs for a tasty last bite. In Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom walks through the city with a lamb’s liver in his pocket. Needless, to say Romans found auspices in the entrails of birds. Like opium in the Communist Manifesto, the smell of offal might be the smell of sewage, roses, decay, desirable cuisine, or even the hope of further prosperity.

An individual’s taste affects what is offal and like opium. Offal has substance that becomes a stink. Whether offal or opium, the odor may be acceptable to some people in order to get some pleasure. Offal or opium exhibit their own form of thoughtful stimulants. In both cases, the critique of religion falls short of theory and praxis. Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” (Helen Keller)

The smell of mushrooms in science, religion and “New Thought”

William James uses an interesting phrase of “mushroom knowledge” to color ideas about the proliferation of scientific and empiricism and science. We know that mushrooms have their own moldy smell and taste of earth; however they can be safe in a salad, suspicious as a hallucinogen, and, of course, deadly. They grow from decay in the woods. James’s settings for his analysis of alternative descriptions of traditional science and religion brush up against forest mushrooms probably in his own hiking and camping in spite of his own physical disability. Mushrooms become metaphors only when a cliché rather than mycology is adapted. This is an infinitesimal phrase in James’s work, but a pithy one.

This phrase appears in a lecture about suicide, or rather if “life is worth living.” Both traditional science and traditional religion offer no assurance or comfort to one in despair. James strongly argues and urges that suicide is not the proper or justified (but understandable) response to that despair. The more science dominates though, the more it cannot acknowledge the depth of other approaches to knowledge. The more dogmatic religion brushes up against science, the more it infects other beliefs. Both degrade individual hope rooted in different sources of belief and approaches to reasoning.

When James uses the phrase “mushroom knowledge” he must mean that scientific knowledge grows fast and abundant. About the growth of science and scientific information James asks whether it is “credible that such a mushroom knowledge, such a growth overnight as this, can represent more than the minutest glimpse of what the Universe will really prove to be when adequately understood?” (James, William, 1842-1910. Is life worth living? (Kindle Locations 488-490, emphasis added).

The ‘mushroom” knowledge alludes to proliferation of claims that science is the threshold of explaining more and more of the natural and mental worlds. Examples include evolution, electricity, mental healing, or suicide. Many authors at the time claim that each has discovered a “law” is the cause of any phenomena.

Persons with debilitating pessimism – today said to be people with “suicidal thoughts” — weave among mushrooming claims of science, faith, and freedom of suicide itself. About this dreadful topic, James provides a fascinating dialectical argument.   A person’s indecision about suicide is a form of being an “agnostic” with regard to life itself.   James, in order to bringing the twists a stop, states that the “fight” for itself against careening between optimism and pessimism — the pursuit of scientific or spiritual explanations – is the pragmatic solution. In the last sentence, James contradicts the entirely of his argument. Quoting Shakespeare’s Henry IV, James suggests that giving up the fight is a disgrace compared to the certainty or supposed bravery of people who continue the fight.

When James uses the phrase “mushroom knowledge,” this can be interpreted by examine what scientific facts of mushrooms themselves disrupt this cliché. The odors of mushrooms are distinctive. Varieties of mushrooms are nutritious, hallucinogenic, or deadly. Some of their smells include almonds, raw potatoes, and rotting flesh. I think the ones that smell or taste like raw potatoes smell and taste like soil itself. They grow at varying rates, especially in rotting logs and moist soil. James’ walks would have taken him past mushrooms. Mushrooms “prefer dark, cool, moist, and humid growing environments.”   Mushrooms turn decay into nutrition.   James’ “Pragmatism: A new name for old ways of thinking” does not shy away from examining philosophy and science like examining mushrooms from all their characteristics. He does his own digging and uprooting the sources of both. “Pragmatism” is a method and individual aspiration to approximate truth by uncovering what is suitable for life.

In the course of scientific exploration In contrast he states that “the world of physics is probably not absolute, all the converging multitude of arguments that make in favor of idealism tend to prove… “It is a fact of human nature that men can live and die by the help of a sort of faith that goes without a single dogma or definition. (James, William, Is life worth living? (Kindle Locations 556-557

The other sources of hope are hidden and manifested even in the “crepuscular depths of personality” (James, William, 1842-1910. Is life worth living? (Kindle Locations 646-647). The dominant views of religion and science suppress other expressions of the “spiritual.” Expressed by a theologian Fechner, James – of whom James is somewhat crucial — describes his view under contemporaneous conditions that “the flowers wither at its breath, the stars turn into stone; our own body grows unworthy of our spirit and sinks to a tenement for carnal senses only.” (James, William, 1842-1910. “A Parallel Universe” (Kindle Locations 150) James states that in the “crepuscular depths of personality” of an individual — and maybe, for James, of a collective memory and spirit — a parallel universe of spirituality persists and resists the gravity of science and religion.

At this point in James’ writing and Joyce’s philosophy are pointers to exploration of consciousness and “mental activity” as well as their association with nature. Strong’s “brain event” shows the scientific method of finding causality at work. Strong does admire James, but tries to refute this. (C. A. Strong   “A Naturalistic Theory of the Reference of Thought to Reality, “The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Vol. 1, No. 10 (May 12,   1904), pp. 253-260, Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc. Jstor: stable URL:,   Accessed: 06-12-2015 17:22 UTC)   Both Henri Bergson and Strong, James writes, “have the hunter’s instinct for the fruitful trails.” In contrast, Radical Empiricism and Pragmatism are aspects of the some method of thinking beyond the borders of traditional science and traditional religion, scientific method and absolutism or logic and feeling.

James cites Fechner’s idea of an “Earth-Soul” (Essays on Radical Empiricism, Longmans, Green, and Co. 39 Paternoster Row, London, New York, Bombay, and Calcutta, 1912). With a bit of mycology, James could have turn the phrase ‘mushroom knowledge” many ways applied to traditional science and religion. For example, science and religion could be deadly: James wrote that “religion is a pathology.” Radical Empiricism would explore the intricacies of both, but not to arrive at a synthesis, but in order to understand if the

“The health for philosophy is to leave off grubbing underground for what effects effectuation, or what makes action act, and to try to solve the concrete questions of where effectuation in this world is located, of which things are the true causal agents there, and of what the more remote effects consist…. Causation inhabits no more inquiry equally sublime level than anything else. It lives in the dirt of the world as well as in the absolute, or in man’s unconquerable mind. The worth and interest of the world consists not in its elements, be these elements, be they elements of things, or be the of conjunctions of things; it exists rather in the dramatic outcome of the whole process and in the meaning of the succession stages the elements work out.”A Pluralistic Universe, 392, 393

James’ comments about “New Thought” are satirical at best. “Mind” or the “law of association” are caricatures of absolutism. They are given life by faith and action, but that is not to say have any causal relationship to the “universe.” They may be useful to give meaning, but not to materialize “cash value.” Discovery of ‘the Secret’ is a misplace search for a cause rather than a meaning; furthermore it generates its own ‘cash value’ in being a form of usury. James’ criticizes Royce and absolutism for ignoring the “particulars” of life and activity no matter how seemingly small and smelly.   The name of big causes (in all senses) cling to the abstract when seen in their bloody particulars.

Causes, as anti-slavery, democracy, liberty, etc., dwindle when realized in their sordid particulars. The veritable cash-value of the idea seems to cleave to it in the abstract status Truth at large, as Royce contends, in his Philosophy of Loyalty, appears as another thing altogether from the true particulars in which it is best to believe. It transcends in value all those expediencies, and is something to live for, whether expedient or inexpedient. Truth, with a big T, is a ‘momentous issue’; truths in detail are ‘poor scraps’ mere ‘crumbling successes.’James, A Pluralist Universe, 341.

 Meaning cannot be severed from the particulars, and ‘mind’ cannot be abstracted from its content and context. We can neither bury meaning in the dirt nor ‘lift up’ its significance in a balloon of abstraction.

Mushrooms turn decay into nourishment. Decay and nourishment, light and dark, can be scientifically investigated for causes. Mushrooms have meaning enough to give credence to a metaphor of knowledge. Mushrooms exhibit a construct of meaning





Ruminating on the Taste of Offal.

Adorno writes, in his essay “Theses on Occultism,” that adherents of occult beliefs contrast those with “offal of the phenomenal world.” (Adorno, 174). The phenomenal world is “offal” which deliverers of the occult contend is the debris of the cosmic and spiritual. “Occult” beliefs and practices – e.g. astrology –spiritualize social and cultural domination and reification, which leads to an individual subjective search for meaning. Nevertheless, exponents and critics of the occult ruminate on the association of the offal with the cosmic or spiritual.

Offal is the organ parts of animals that are usually undesirable to eat (e.g. lung, gizzard, liver, kidney, tongue, or brain). Adorno uses the word “offal” to set the tone of how astrologers and others regard the material world. Rumination of the taste offal illuminates its attraction. In Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom walks through the city with a lamb’s kidney in his pocket. Lungs, chitterlings, pork rind, brains are parts of common diets the US. For example, my parents always wanted gizzards and livers from fried chicken. Calf’s lung soup, menudo, is regarded as a hangover cure. Once I met sea captain in Norway who left the delicacy of fresh salmon eyeballs for a tasty last bite. The taste of offal is more varied that the smell of opium, but its desirability in its origin and effect varies according to individual taste. Offal still has substance but can give off a stink. Whether offal or opium, the odor may be acceptable to some people in order to get to their pleasure. Not yet ready for the sacred fruit, people have a taste for offal.

Adorno criticizes astrology for its regard for the physical world as “offal” compared to the real realm of the invisible cosmic forces ruling individual life. While I do not want to conflate the subtlety of Adorno’s and James’s ridicule of trust in the invisible, they both point to underlying contradictions in its marketing.  Writers, prophets, enchanters, and showmen allow many enthusiasts of “mental science” or “soul culture” to see in James a philosophical ground. Nevertheless, the father psycho-ology, James is a product of his times.

In the second of two 19th century US religious “awakening,” blending spiritualism and religion and science was a supposed to remedy the taint of the empirical world.  For example, in an obscure essay, Thomas Troward, “The Edinburgh Lectures On Mental Science” in 1906, makes a case for the business of Mental Science “to ascertain the relation of this individual power of volition to the great cosmic law which provides for the maintenance and advancement of the race; and the point to be carefully noted is that the power of individual volition is itself the outcome of the cosmic evolutionary principle at the point where it reaches its highest level.” The spiritual validity of attraction or magnetism depends on demonstration or manifestation by success in romance or business.

Smoking out the link to plausibility of belief is difficult unless dismissed entirely, but some are thoroughly preposterous no matter how optimistically they are presented. As the co-founder of Unity, Charles Fillmore wrote “faith is that consciousness in us of the reality of the invisible substance and of the attributes of mind by which we lay hold of it. We must realize that the mind makes things real.”   (Fillmore, Charles (2015-07-13). “Dynamics For Living” (p. 107). Kindle Edition). Despite attempting to interpret Christianity in a, then, new way, this remains a figment of his times. Moreover, when capitalism fails to bring health and prosperity, a person has easiest access to “mind” and prayer to change everything. Mind is relatively plausible rather than stars come down to earth.

In Adorno’s essay, the mass effect of “spiritual” claims against the physical world appears when it is exploited through newspaper publications or other media. Astrology sustains belief based on reification of the material world which astrology denounces in its revelation of alternative cosmic laws. The intertwingling of spirit and offal appears when economics depends on the belief in the ‘invisible hand’ which it promotes as the magical cause of equilibrium in supply and demand. Moreover, explanation by sociological “laws” conspires with faith in science. For some people, astrology confirms cosmic forces that otherwise could easily be uncovered by ordinary reading of the rest of the newspaper or examining public records. When suspecting another person, an adherent of astrology finds consulting the newspaper is easier and less expensive than rifling through arrest records to find worse information. Avoiding communicating with another person is easier to justify if the relationship was doomed by the stars anyway.

Astrologers deliver the taste of offal in two of their own ways by (1) covering up the dependency on people’s fears and insecurity induced by reification, and (2) foisting off the need to buy newspapers to read their horoscope as a result in the first place. Minions of horoscopic astrology requires mundane machinery and money to make astrology popular. Horoscopic astrology may now be relegated to the entertainment but its lingering attraction is contingent on the same material factors of income, health, and emotional insecurity.

Adorno sniffs out in folds of newspapers the staying power of astrology – and the “spiritual” writ large – when the physical and social are regarded offal. Then “spirit” is thought to sweep away the stink of the real. Even if “pessimism is a religious disease,” Adorno’s pessimism rightfully comes from the reek of fascism, which still wafts across the globe, and in the name of spiritual correctness. The “spiritual” is still a wedge of hope in what James calls the “crepuscular depths of personality.”

It occurs to me that the similar searches for alternatives to traditional religion, which James touches are, explicitly, “natural religion” and spiritualism. He does not address “Ethical Culture” – where the lecture was given – or Unitarians. Writing an obituary for James, the largely Unitarian newspaper Christian Register mentions James’s father’s belief in the ideas of Swedenborg as well as and James’ familiarity with mysticism and spiritualism. (The Christian Register, September 1 and 22, 1910) [What aspect of Swedenborg James accepted is not discussed in this obituary. It should not go unmentioned that Kant, James, and Adorno commended on various associations of spiritualism, New Thought, Unitarians, and the occult. In the “New Thought Primer, Origin, History, and Principle,” Henry Harrison Brown singles out Unitarianism and “spiritualism” as pivotal sources of New Thought. Theodor Parker, the prominent theologian of Unitarianism, acknowledges “spiritualism” to a degree for its departure from traditional theology and the Puritans, and points to a deep dissatisfaction with what contemporaneous religious movement have to offer. (Theodor Parker, Collected Works,

From a broad philosophical examination of the predominance of “association” in “psychophysical” theory and experiments —   part of the historical background of James and New Thought — is found in A History of the Association Psychology by Howard C. Warren Stuart — of religious experience from the late 19th century, the founders of Unity, a spiritual conglomeration of what came before and after 1900, deliberately combined spiritual acceptance, “Practical Christianity,” and “mental science.”   Paradoxically, Unity was probably the first group to deliberately merge prayer and mass media. At its inception in Kansas City, Missouri, “Silent Unity” went world-wide with 24-hour international telephone service. This was dished out as potential optimism as an antidote for pessimism.  Silent prayer exchanged over mass media is a contradiction too obvious to mention, and is still in operation today. In a world where horror never sleeps, Unity offers hope for individuals looking for sanctuary among the leftovers. Being a speck in the banquet of religion, Unity is still emblematic of a fight but remains a retreat in the face of resource wars veiled by claims of “religious conflict.”

In a Unitarian obituary for William James, it is stated that James’ father was a Swendenborgian.  What interested James is not stated there. Looking at Swendenborg directly or through Kant, that could be many about topics and directions.  Kant takes Swendenborgians to task in many ways both rude and serious.  Kant generally calls them crack pots.

Kant responds to questions of spiritualism (and by implication, astrology, and occult) with many methods of criticism. These might be taken to be allegories of a hope for a better life in the future in their bizarre ways. Even such speculation takes us away from our very soul that such thought is believed to safeguard.

…it seems to be more in accord with human nature and the purity of morals to base the expectation of the future world upon the sentiment of a well-constituted soul than, conversely, to base its good conduct on the hope of another world. Such is also the moral faith, the simplicity of which can do without many a subtlety of sophistry and which alone and only is appropriate to man in any state because it guides him without further ado to his true aims.”

Adorno unveils astrology an irrationality of desperation to escape from the bond of reification by believing in the bonds of the stars. In the face of today’s moral bankruptcy, trading on moral faith seems as foolish. The consequence is even more serious than abandonment of a moral compass but a psychology that in “eras of decline of social systems, with the insecurity and anxiety widespread in such eras paranoid tendencies in people are evinced and often channelized by institutions wishing to distract such tendencies from their objective reality,” “Occultism is the metaphysic of dunces,” Adorno forcefully states of occultism in general. In an era of the abolition and prohibition of reason in general, the meat and potatoes of religion, astrology, and the occult turns into the blood lust that trumps thought.

Obtaining Information from Events and Results, the limitations (a draft)

The purpose of information technology is to capture the result of an event. The result is represented or embodied, in general, in a transaction or a report. For heuristic purposes here, I would include business intelligence, semantic data, and sensor data. Again, this is only a heuristic statement. The data may be minute, “big,” or a meaningful semantic and graphs. Whether data sources are large amounts, submitted to massive parallel processing, and analyzed with NEW statistical procedures those may result in trivial reports such as the sheer raw number of “tweets.” Users, databases, other machines, sensors are even for minute events, consumers and producers of results. A result belongs to data curators, data stewards, DBAs, developers, and testers.

An economics of information can be seen as the effort and expense required to capture a result of an event. The economic costs versus benefits of information are measured by the significance and meaning, and values of results. The economics of data, seen in a simple way compares the probability that the benefits exceed the costs Good or bad, true or false, a representations of results can come from any size system. Designation of “data at rest” or “data in motion” is a distinction without a difference. Any transactional result is an instantaneous report, and a report is a persistent, but not necessarily permanent and can be seen as representation of a transaction. At any instant, data in motion must rest in order to be converted into new data or information, and data at rest must move in order to capture history, become master data, or be archived.

Data integration is a means of cutting the fat from the lean of information. Too often typical enterprise architecture stack diagrams or matrices portray “data” as sitting between business intelligence and applications as in the Federal Enterprise Architecture Framework (FEAF). The FEAF model reduces data architecture to a storage and management function of applications. The “data” element is supported by applications and technology. In contrast to this, Zachman’s framework gives “Data” a cross cutting importance through all layers. Some Zachman diagrams name this first column “What” and other John Zachman diagrams label it “Data.” However, no application is worth more than the result of the data captured. The foundation of systems should be seen in terms of their function, not in terms of a popular sensibility looking for a technology or infrastructure foundation.

It is important how data” is depicted” in any ‘stack’ diagram. No matter how the rest of the application and infrastructural are stood up or configured, the referential integrity and semantic continuity are essential. Representation of where “data” sits or in what “swim lane” it appears, conveys meaning.

Typical IT Stack Diagram

BI, Report, GIS




The role of data is minimized in this representation and depicted as supported by the infrastructure, and not as a pervasive, cross-cutting, requirement. Furthermore, the fundamental ground of data is the “semantic layer.” There is no semantic “layer” in a swim lane by itself. Even such a robust software development book as “Design Driven Development” emphasizes the need to ensure understanding of
semantic content of data.

When “glossary” or “vocabulary” words are used to attempt to identify data semantics that does not mean that either is a complete or comprehensive or enterprise approach. A glossary can refer to only the words in a single system, API, or group of applications, or any non-enterprise development. A glossary can have no or little relationship to foundational meanings. Even “semantics” can be assumed to be equivalent to glossary. These views of meaning may reflect a strictly as-is and bottom-up approach to capture concepts that comprise physical data models. However, a to-be and top-down approach starts with a canonical model.

A canonical environment and its semantic derivations are foundations of continuity from data collection to analytics.  Building an ontology (or trying to automate discovery of one) or using Natural Language Processing to see into data and to check on its validity, and organizing data are foundations. Data cannot be analyzed which is not collected in the first place, and data that isn’t collected consistently is probably worthless. The data collected is a result of an event no matter how transient or persistent. The trajectory of data collection is analysis.

Nevertheless, there are three major contradictions in the organization of “analytics.”

  1. Creating and maintaining a “controlled vocabulary” and semantic continuity is possible, but doing so may not keep up with changes needed by users to gain analytical insight.
  2. Making faster and flexible self-service BI applications may be desirable, but doing so may be at done the cost of data quality.
  3. Relying solely on a client’s statement of a data problem may be “business” oriented, but may miss insights into the actual substance of the problem at hand. This is not an IT problem – it is not a problem of too much or too little data – it is a problem of knowing the subject at hand (medicine, health care, customer demographics, geography, housing finance, agribusiness, civil engineering, urban design, linguistics, logic, and all the rest).

The purpose of information technology is not software development for its own sake. Definitions of information technology may just be a list of the means of creating systems and data with emphasis on the technology, and not the information.

Get Smart – From Wearable Technology to Talking

In 1965, Maxwell Smart used wearable information technology to share administrative information. Smart bumbled into action, while the anonymous woman, “Agent 99,” was the rational voice supporting him. Occasionally, he had to use his rotary telephone in his shoe only to confirm her advice from “Control”. The “shoe phone” became a pop culture symbol for things to come. The Smart Phone (maybe named after Maxwell Smart?) has now replaced the Shoe Phone. Then when talking to his supervisor a “cone of silence” was the secure communication space where tactics were discussed. The “cone of silence” was a transparent bubble where what was said could not be heard outside. This is an interesting metaphor for claims about transparency, when there is really secrecy instead.

Get smart means knowing your strengths, which may not come stamped by a post-graduate degree. I have been extremely lucky, because I am quick to synthesize ideas rather than follow procedures, especially procedural computer programming. I hate procedures, but in 1989 my girlfriend at the time taught me how critical administrative procedures are. She taught me why a “two-hole punch” with holes 2.25 inches from center to center in a cardboard file was necessary to organize hard copy (then when “soft copy” did not exist) grant applications. Punching holes in folders was the epitome of administrative manual labor to make this a uniform container for hundreds of documents. Today, there are still valuable non-technical skills needed. As always, proof reading, without software assistance, is a critical manual skill.

Get smart means “emotional intelligence.” This does not come only from reading the book by that name. It means knowing weakness in modulating your emotions. The “civility” discussions are related to that. Historically under Roman law, I was shocked that in displaying administrative discourse a man (then only specially selected men) could be ostracized, flogged, or executed for showing emotion, especially anger. There was no excuse accepted for demonstrative behavior. Those necessary qualities of behavior are still applicable, but without capital punishment. I would have been a goner long ago if it hadn’t been for the indulgence of supervisors. Other GovLoop discussions on conversations are good guides. However, there must be a place for emotion and intuition at work. For example, see here.

Get smart means knowing the interpersonal and political contexts of what is said or written. Reading between the lines is usually required. Plain writing does not necessarily clear that up. Long ago, in, “On Authority” Richard Sennett stated that writing in “active voice” (now perhaps a part of “plain writing”) rather than in anonymous passive voice would be a step forward in responsible communication. However, for example, in the sentence, “Today the House Committee on …..decided that ………legislation creates jobs” that active voice tells you nothing. Making mistakes and political decisions to handle linguistics mistakes are significant too. At HUD, I was very personally caught up in missing “,”, which I did not create, in a homeless program regulation. For want of a comma, many necessary shelter operating eligible funds were excluded. The missing comma kept me busy answering regulatory questions to the contrary. When I recommended a “technical correction” in the Federal Register be published to correct this at that time no one did anything about it. That was very stressful and disappointing for me, even though as a result it kept me in contract directly with homeless shelter providers.

Get smart means paying attention to co-workers, friends, family, spouse, or a partner. Nothing brings more stress to interpersonal relationships than carrying all the above home after work. Lingering stress makes for bad relationships. It is not easy, for men anyway, to focus on maintaining relationships when personal values and professionalism are at stake. Asking and answering the question “what do you do,” are not foundations for relationships. This GovLoop essay on conflict resolution has good advice important in professional and interpersonal contexts.

My point is only that being adept at some fundamental skills and attitudes is vital. They are not as fun as purely technical ones, however, they open more doors to doing technical stuff. After an eon I haven’t mastered any of these. Nevertheless, computer science and data science have caught up to me, i.e. recognition that their foundations are logic and linguistics, which establish coherent meanings of data. I am not a DBA or programmer because those are my weaknesses. I more or less know where a semi-colon goes in a sentence but not in script. I have decades of technical experience with GIS, SPSS, and SAS (a little with R), but don’t get Python or JavaScript. Natural language processing and Graph models play to my strengths.

Get smart means getting smart. Being aware of all this takes work. Being smart about the law, political motivations, and social context is part of our job. The old fashioned means of citizen engagement was and is talking to citizens and one another. There is no doubt that some of us are more comfortable and adept at that than others. Max stumbled when he talked, and got better advice from “Agent 99” than from any info coming in over his wearable device. Rather than being a last resort, talking should be first. I know I’d rather send email because I communicate better in writing, I think. Keep on talkin’.

Ghost Whisperers of Institutional Memory

Ghosts have needs. Memories, like dreams, need to be resolved, and that is how insights come. “Ghost Whisperer,” iRobot, and many crime shows depend on detective work based on access to other people’s memories. “Ghost Whisperer” character Melinda Gordon talks with ghosts so they can “move on” after resolving their memories and their insight and knowledge with the still living. Ghosts with lost memories plead for recognition, and only calm, measured, and respectful tones will bring them to life.

I have great memories from talking to older guys at HUD, who had worked on HUD’s “701” urban planning program. They were urban planners and architects educated in the 1950s, who remaining at HUD, traversed those disciplines’ remnants through the 1990s. The “701” program institutionalized and professionalized urban planning, but it became victim of its own success as well as by political change in the early 1970s.

These men had great stories, and they could not have cared more about the fate of cities. In the mid-1990s, one guy’s primary concern was “sustainability” but there was little attention to that then. Their thoughts were ahead of their time, not in a useless past.

Another friend spent 40 years at USDA (since retired, but still very active in his mission) and was at the forefront of introducing the internet to the government and he organized technology programs teaching thousands of youth in 4H clubs and schools. In the 1970s, he organized the digital transmission of President Carter’s press release text to Seattle about Mount St. Helen’s eruption.

Other friends were involved with the invention of magnetic storage disks that replaced paper tape, magnetic tape, or punch cards. These friends used large laser disks to provide documents and images to the public. Using what then was a significant adaptation, they used “listserv” instead of Twitter. In the 1990s, these friends and others created Americans Communicating Electronically, which was the first collaborative public sector eGovernment group. This was before the current so-called “Digital Revolution,” which is a phrase for a poor repetition of what started 20 years ago.

History may not be important for new government staff to motivate them to be whisperers. However, their jobs would be impossible without their elders’ committed work in technology.

What could you possible learn from older people? They are people who know underlying weaknesses of current technology or how derivative it is in comparison to original breakthroughs. For example, in a coffee shop, named “Crows Coffee” in Kansas City down the street from me, but not related, a guy my age came up to me saying “that stuff will cut you to ribbons.” I was dumbfounded at first, but only because I know about the history of cybernetics and system theory did I understand he was taking about the original use of paper tape which “stored” the code for analogue computers. When the perforated tape broke or unreeled, sharp edges cut people or more tape. Special glue was required to fix the program. He recounted the history of computers he had worked on from vacuum tube mainframes to minicomputers. With his tablet, thanks to the café’s Wi-Fi, he found pictures of those computers. He hardly talked to anyone interested in what he did. I couldn’t absorb the details of his life, and he couldn’t stop talking about the transition from analogue to digital computers. This is a story more about relating to other people than about technology.

Were it not for their lives and stories would I know a little bit about why and how stuff works. For example, it is a trite common place now to mention vaguely the “bug” in the machine of computer history.  The etymology (or entomology) of “bug” may not matter, but the word carries on and should not be trivialized. Does it matter that my use of the phrase “bug” in the machine is a reference to sociology books on technology: “The Ghost in the Machine” (Arthur Koestler, 1967) or the “The Machine in the Garden” (Leo Marx, 1964). Historical echoes matter whether belonging to people, books, or literature.

Young people need expertise that gets them out of their chairs and to step away from their computers. Administrative ghost whisperers, younger staff or not, should seek out older staff. That experience should not be disregarded as a novelty. Institutional memory does not belong to processers or SAN, it is not stored in files or on disks. Harbored in silence, mystery, and memory is insight into the origin of technological triumphs and failures. Even visions of past success might inspire young staff now. Warnings about political and personality intrigue offer sound advice about what and who to stay away from. Stories gained by clandestine or unpopular ways may yield facts that cannot be read from technology companies’ marketing material, administrator manuals, blogs, or user groups. This is not a platitude about respecting your elders. It is about not repeating past mistakes. Repeating past mistakes may be beyond your control when political leadership, who are under pressure to come up with something “innovative,” reject an agency’s status quo, only to repeat the costly failure of the past, which they may willfully ignore. It is not your fault

I’m not a techno-sceptic, and, as an Enterprise Information Architect, I’m immersed in data architecture and technology most of the time. Today, I concentrate on knowing why, when, and where “data science” makes sense and when it does not. Does this matter to staff told to “code” first and ask questions later? Does this apply to “agile” or “application driven” software development?

We do not need homilies, panegyrics, memorials, or prizes dedicated to women and men who made current technology possible. Older agency staff need respect.