Saturday, 28 July 2007

A culture most peculiar

In a previous post I mentioned some of the players at Griffith University who would have been of influence in this ongoing affair.

But, as every detective knows, there is such a thing as circumstantial evidence. Hints and signs that may not be directly relevant yet reveal the nature of someone's surrounds, their ambience and culture. Becoming familiar with this type of evidence opens doors and dissolves the mist.

Arriving at Griffith it didn't take long before the place struck you as somehow tendentious. On the very first day there was the introductory performance by Lisa Banyard, chairperson of the local student union, a body run by activists where membership is compulsory for every student and which never lost an opportunity to push its political agenda. In her talk to us newcomers she couldn't suppress mentioning her union's affirmative gender action policy resulting in The Women's Room, an exclusively female space. To the question by someone in the audience, "Why isn't there a place only for men?" Lisa's answer was, "Well, that's politics!".

Nothing wrong with a political agenda - especially if you're young, first time away from a cloying home, and are invited to rebel to your excited heart's content. Except that a body such as the Griffith University Student Representative Council demanded $111.00 membership fee per student per semester (to be paid in total at the beginning of the year - $222 in one hit do make a difference to those on a measly budget) and in 1997 for example the university counted 15,948 students. That translates into well over $3.5 million for an exclusive little club of intellectual narcissists to play with year after year.

If three-and-a-half million dollars makes you wonder what that kind of money can buy, a look behind the dingy office with its couple of photo copiers, the GUSRC's token service to those 16,000-odd students, and the monthly rag Gravigrrrl, a never-drying well of feminist rants, may provide the answer (re Gravigrrrl: in one of its articles I once substituted the word 'man' with 'black' and 'woman' with 'white' - my listeners reacted with horror). I almost forgot - there were the performances by some musicians on campus grounds once or twice or so during the semester; a friend of mine got to play there every now and then, but he never got paid a cent.

In 2000 the Shepherdson enquiry revealed big-party connections and references to the Australian Workers Union having retained control over the GUSRC through dummy candidates.

During 2001 for instance Griffith's band of protesters spent at least $40,000 on demonstrations, political activism that, for all the pious officiousness towards democracy, remained as exclusively left as it was unassailable. In 2002 it all became too much even for the university when it finally threatened to suspend funding (funding? - for someone who gets $3.5 million already??) unless the SRC abided by its own constitution. Clearly, the enquiries and emerging complaints in their wake had left their mark. Mind you, in all those years before no high-gowned mandarin could be bothered.

Enough of the wider framework, although it shows once again how interests further afield create a very particular set of characteristics where much goes unchecked provided it leaves the higher agenda to do its bidding. A typical dictatorial scenario, a breeding ground for abuse.

A culture thus promoted makes itself felt through the smaller detail. Suppose there is the subject "Ethical Issues in Computing", and suppose the female tutor decides to use its thema as an exercise in political correctness. The students are given the hypothetical (?) situation where 'illegal content' is discovered on someone's computer and the Assistant Manager (played by the student) needs to respond. A nice test of one's attention in class, political orientation, and dexterity with euphemisms! To the more critical it also affords the opportunity to collect some statistics about the extent of representation available to women vs men when it comes to workplace related issues - figures which predominantly favour women in every state and capital in Australia.

No response there, the marks were as high as usual. In the final and most important exam however the essay required three specific subtopics, identified by their headings. I certainly dealt with those topics, except that I changed the words in the subheadings to better relate to their content. As I discovered later I almost failed that subject because I allegedly did not do what I was asked - an assessment either based on nothing more than a perfunctory glance at the words in the subheadings, or done for a deeper reason. A complaint to the lecturer - away from Jenny Gasston the tutor - and he restored my marks without much ado. It was my first introduction to academic payback.

Perhaps the silly evaluation of my honours thesis was some grotesque way to get back at my supervisor, Grigoris Antoniou? After all, a successful student or otherwise does reverberate back to the lecturer.

I remember a scene one day. The lecturer - a female - took longer than usual to finish her own session and vacate the theatre. All hundred or so of us milled around the door unable to get in. Finally Grigoris couldn't wait anymore and he told us to enter anyway. As he walked up to the lectern the woman protested, "But I am ... (so and so) and how dare you ...", to which Grigoris replied, "And I am a professor at ... so get out!" Two minutes later our own lecture was underway.

Then there was the criticism of his clothes, or at least the rumour of it. Apparently his superiors had castigated him for his tendency to wear black jeans, insinuating a lack of hygiene. As whispers go, the cadence is on what they don't say. He may have preferred jeans and yes, they were inevitably black, but never had there been any untoward hint about their cleanliness (I should know, my nose is rather sensitive and body odours are more of a bane to me than to most others). Besides, the possibility exists for someone to own more than one pair of the same colour if they wish. So, why such rumours?

My idea of university comes from my European heritage, particularly the Age of Reason. Tertiary institutions would not be what they are today had it not been for the courage and diligence of those who rolled back the dark influence of religion. After all, in the beginning universities did exist as instruments of the church.

How curious then to detect so many traces of ideology, over and over, in such a place. Why does a lecturer in mathematics and logic (no less) see fit to decorate his office wall with examples of his church activities? Why are references to some scientist's homosexuality expressed in such a strange, discomfort-inducing manner during a lecture?

What can prompt a body like a university to build an Interfaith Centre at a time when even computer terminals are subject to budget constraints - an entity which is not dedicated to a methodical analysis of human beliefs and superstitions but designed as a meeting ground for spiritual ideologues of any shade to justify their existence?

Francis Crick resigned his fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge, because it built a chapel at the behest of a benefactor (for this elucidatory piece of information I am indebted to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion). And here is Griffith University, not only building an entire religious faculty rather than a mere chapel, but using public funds instead of money given by a private individual!

In a god-fearing demographic like Queensland such matters are par for the course. If there should be a murmur there are measures in place to keep things quiet. Remarks made to this writer about such pressure and undesirable legal events confirm the general impression.

They all constitute a culture by merging into a whole which in turn affects its members. As in any such exercise one is judged according to one's submission to its principles. Accept, and you have it easy; criticise, and punishment follows.

Unless of course some outside arbiter is finally throwing the doors open.

Friday, 20 July 2007

We all smile in the same language (not!)

The above statement - minus the "not" - appears on the notice board of a school in West End, Brisbane.

It is quite wrong, in fact dangerously so. In the following short essay I will show why (and it is an essay; for more detail see the Otoom website with all its papers, confirmations from around the world, computer simulations, and references).

Let's take the literal meaning first. The sentence is meant to convey the common nature of us as humans, a feature underneath so many differences often emphasised and hence leading to conflict. A nice try if you will, but like other well-meaning but ultimately misguided views promising much but delivering little.

What is a smile? It is a type of body language representing the pleasure of feeling satisfaction. You don't need to be a profound philosopher to realise the prompts for smiling are as varied as life can make them. Even a child (and remember, that false proverb is there for mostly children to see) could smile for many a reason - to the face of a friend in agreement, to the face of an enemy out of Schadenfreude, because they got praised or because they got away with something.

But, you might say, aren't these the very things that bind us? Yes they are, but here we run into the first of several problems. Consider 'agreement'. Do we all agree on the same thing? Certainly not, but why?

Whether we agree on something depends on our disposition, on what we know, what we have experienced, on our surroundings, our culture. In other words, we interpret the world according to what our minds can make of any given situation. The thought associations we are capable of determine our response, and what we don't know won't get to play a role - end of story.

Yet even what we 'know' does not present the full picture. For an association to be made the right triggers need to be in place (think of mnemotechnics), but it also requires the brain to be sufficiently flexible. Certain psychological tests rely on that characteristic to evaluate a person's ability to process information.

Hence for some people a particular moment is enough to evoke an avalanche of ideas, others it passes by in silence. Being creative is a trait we sometimes admire (if it makes us smile!), and sometimes dread (if it takes us out of our comfort zone).

Going right back to the basic detail the associative capacity is a function of the connectivity of the brain's neurons and their processing ability. The more dendrites per neuron the greater the cognitive reach, the healthier the neurons the more efficacious they are. All this is no longer conjecture, and feeds into such aspects as goal setting and sense of responsibility.

Now shift the perspective to the recipient. If the source of a smile is difficult to ascertain, how much harder is it for the other to interpret? If I grow up among friends and only friends I will never know what it is like to smile with grim satisfaction - I never had the opportunity to learn. If higher abstractions are beyond me what do I know of wan wistfulness?

And so my mind will process the proffered gesture and respond accordingly. The other will do the same in turn. Where does that leave the "common language"?

If the response goes beyond mere conversation but involves acts of significance the diversion of our respective trains of thought can lead very quickly to radical measures.

Consider the fury generated by Salman Rushdie's knighthood. Consider also the attempts by the British government to hose down the flames. Neither side understands the other. Muslims don't relate to the often iconoclastic nature of our culture, and the government doesn't recognise how meaningless it is to point to Rushdie's authorship as an apology. In fact, an apology - like a smile - means different things to different people. For some it is a measure of manners, to others it represents weakness.

On a larger scale the contingencies have moved along. The idea has become the cultural meme, the individual has become the demographic. Just as in a person their mindset has to reconcile the differences somehow, so do the effects of varying cultures influence the status of a society. The mutual relationship between the greater whole and its parts requires a certain synchronicity, but enhance the differences and there comes a point at which the very definition of society becomes questionable.

Furthermore, although we all are capable of learning to some degree, what we allow ourselves to learn depends very much on our exposure to the wider world and how we perceive it. Increase the number of a demographic's constituents and the probability that any one of them will widen their frame of reference diminishes. From a certain size onwards there is no change and the culture will maintain itself regardless of their host.

In the era of globalisation the above applies not only within nations but across the entire world.

Tamil militants in Sri Lanka blackmail immigrants in Australia; radical Muslims associate in groups spread between tribal areas in Pakistan and the UK; newly arrived Africans evoke networks between Europe and their homelands to circumvent EU border controls.

The very laws we have created reflect our general mien. They can never define each and every act anyone is ever able to come up with, but are a collection of markers that rely greatly on social consensus. Introduce behaviour from outside that zone and the law becomes inadequate and needs to accommodate the new. Terrorism and the influx of religious intensity have shown how unsettling the shift can be.

For example, in Western jurisdictions guilt by association has been largely expunged, and for good reason. Yet an association based on family, tribe, and sect are most powerful drivers in Middle Eastern demographics. As I write this the law in Australia is forced to wrestle with the extent to which such alien concepts are to be aligned with our own definitions, in order to deal with suspects arrested here and connected with an act of terrorism that occurred in the UK. There are protests and misgivings, a fear of loosing the achievements gained through centuries of hard work. Those gains had sharpened themselves on the minds of Europe, and not on those of the Middle East.

We have moved beyond the land of rosy visions in which the downtrodden stand in awe before Western accomplishments eager to take part as we in our naiveté would like to assume. Some do, but more and more the darker side of wishful inclusivity in the face of irreconcilable difference emerges. The canvas so far is still the same, but increasingly what is painted there are not the comfortable idylls of yesteryear but the charring strokes of dissonance, anger even.

How long before the lines burst the frame?

Sunday, 15 July 2007

An update...

Still doing the rounds.
After the essentially unsuccessful attempt to interest certain entities in what Griffith University has potentially to offer a student (see When in Rome...) the search goes on.
The irony of my situation had been heightened by State Premier Peter Beattie's initiative to establish a collaborative link between Queensland and the European research community (see It's a FEAST! But not for everyone). The point being while such a pact had been achieved through the efforts at a high level, I had received an invitation from the EU half a year earlier. Unfortunately I can't follow it up due to a lack of affiliation. As Bonny Barry, Parliamentary Secretary to the Queensland Minister for Education and Training, meanwhile confirmed in a letter, "...research is typically auspiced by educational institutions or research organisations themselves".
This is a pity. The Otoom model provides useful perspectives, highlighted as recently as the past few days in the context of the ongoing growth of slums, the pervasive nature of fanatical religionists, and the recognised need for a "two-speed" European Union (see the most recent links on the Otoom website under Cluster building, Terrorism, and European Union respectively dated 4 July and 29 June 07). All these developments had been predicted years ago under the formality of Otoom.
It would be interesting to have the Premier's take on that. Therefore the Premier's Office had been contacted pointing him to the relevant posts in order to explain what is going on. His Chief of Staff replied, saying my problem with Griffith "is of an academic nature and this is to be resolved internally".
This is the kind of bland reply which is so infuriating. Despite making it abundantly clear that the University’s internal procedures are getting exactly nowhere I am simply given the same old pap. As to the “academic nature”, it may well be that the entire matter ends up in a criminal court. Either these people cannot parse sentences in their daily work or they are too afraid to come to an independent, albeit critical, conclusion.
Tomorrow I’ll phone the Premier’s Office and try and persuade Mr Whiddon to have a meeting in order to explain about the internal procedures and how academic this case really is.
I am also trying to find out if there is any particular contact person regarding the Queensland-European collaboration and what they think can be done about it (if anything). An exercise that is no mean feat in itself.
And if this latest approach proves to be unproductive? Well, let's cross that bridge when we come to it.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

The reasons against Otoom

A previous post presented a sweep of vistas open to someone who employed the conceptual tool set of the Otoom mind model.

Yet like any analysis that probes into hitherto hidden areas the findings can be decidedly uncomfortable. What could prevent a person from looking in this particular direction?

Otoom allows two general approaches, from the top down and from the bottom up. Let's take the latter first.

The subject under focus can be identified as a system, and its active constituents as elements that behave in a certain manner. As such these are functional elements, that is to say the things they do relate to their inherent properties, their potential for 'doing a certain thing'. For example, a particular collective of neurons processes visual information, and nothing else. It does so because its configuration allows it and the neurons do nothing else because they are exposed to one certain set of data and no more.

Yet clearly that bunch of neurons is also part of a larger system, similar in terms of functionality but different in scale and in terms of the information they receive and process, and therefore in terms of the result. That result, which higher cognitive processes represent in the form of meaning to us, transpose what is initially some bundle of light frequencies into an image that moves us.

Or take the activities of an organisation. Again there are sections dedicated to one particular type of work, but they also belong together and all those processes reflect the part as well as the greater whole. Since Otoom is scalable it makes sense to talk about a focus on neurons as 'from the bottom up' and it makes equally sense to refer to our view of an organisation along these lines.

The sheer relativity of this approach does not sit well with somebody's need to keep the world and its parts in neat little boxes. It prevents them from separating one phenomenon, one characteristic even, from its neighbours and so responding as if one element exists in isolation from any other. Reality of course teaches otherwise, but for the purpose of maintaining a perspective that prefers simplistic answers to complex situations - and acting accordingly - anything that opens unwanted windows would be anathema.

Now take the top-down approach. Since the act of labeling a particular contingent 'a system' is only ever a relative one, the result of an observation coming from the top and moving downwards could also have been achieved by having arrived there while proceeding from some lower focus to that higher one. What will have changed are the associations observed along the way, but the characteristics pertaining to that focus and now having become visible are no different.

Again, that can be problematic for someone who prefers to be selective. Suppose the idea is to reconfigure an organisation. A plan is developed that concentrates on the wider view but does not involve the sections, the subsystems. Without considering the functionalities of those sections the plan may prove unworkable. Add the personal agenda, surrounding politics plus the need to 'save face', and the iconoclast who points to discrepancies between the grand vision and the practicality on ground level may well be disposed of.

All this would seem straightforward to most, but how often are such considerations disregarded? How many times has a system intruded upon another to impose its ideal, with no thought given to the contingencies present at the target and proceeding blindly no matter what the cost - think of Iraq, of missionaries, of arrogant governments.

Otoom also addresses the processes themselves in terms of their situatedness within the conglomerate of functional elements. Just as in the brain a visual processing area (let's say, V1, V2, etc) deals with data according to such neurons' capacity, a different set of neurons produces other results depending on their situatedness within the brain overall. On a different scale a similar functional relationship holds, although the outcome will have changed.

A human activity system that is dedicated to creating and maintaining a database will behave functionally similar regardless where it is employed, only the content differs (let's say it works for a police department, or an employment agency, or for the biology section of a cancer research institute).

Not only that, but the result also reflects what the data have been subjected to along the way, in other words their history. The history is a function of whatever associations have been evoked and the processes they gave rise to.

To remain with our examples from above, an employment agency will be able to profile an individual according to their work history, but may not include any criminal convictions. The potential difference between the set of present associations and what will not be covered depends on the respective situatedness of the processing domains. While it is less difficult to enable a connection between a potential employee and court cases, when it comes to cell structures the research institute could well have pertinent information but how associative will that type of information be for the employment agency?

Therefore, under a certain focus (a relative exercise in itself) the representation of something that happens in a given situation can easily be omitted because the processing system does not contain the necessary associations to encompass such detail. There is a saying, "To a hammer everything looks like a nail".

The effects can be profound. A Christian will see the world - interpret the world, to be exact - in terms of what that mindset will allow to be covered; not more, not less. For Muslims the filter will be a different one. Adjust that lens to any set of contingencies our world offers and one gets some idea how variable our perceptions can be.

There was a time when we in the West categorised people by their 'obvious' differences. Because they were obvious they also were superficial, and over the years to come the presumptuous nature of that view was duly recognised. Unfortunately, today we fail on the other side of the spectrum: everyone is considered to be the same, with no thought given to their specific mindsets.

Not only can someone interpret a certain scenario differently from someone else, even what is quite literally seen and not seen can disagree with reality.

For someone - whether child or adult, male or female - the experience of joy and happiness, of pleasure and pain, of honour and dishonour, of what is desirable and objectionable, can differ to such an extent that for an observer the effect can be anything from consternation to horror. And yet, especially in today's climate, we act as if everyone has exactly the same mind.

Consider how we evaluate a display of emotion, or religious intensity, or sexual behaviour. Nor can we necessarily rely on the articulations from the individual concerned, since they are made on the basis of their own perspective.

Under Otoom the functionality of subjective assessment can be just as arrogant and overbearing whether we judge someone to be different based on skin colour and nothing more, or whether we presume them to be the same by dismissing the difference in cognitive processes. The former drives unwarranted exclusion, the other promotes blind inclusivity; both can be dangerous.

In a very real sense, our mind is at once a prison and our home. Otoom can be a friend who guides us out of our prison, but becomes the enemy if it dissolves the other.

... and society pays.