Sunday, 27 January 2008

If you had one...

You know the type of question - if you had one book when marooned on an island..., if you had one person to invite to dinner..., and so on and so on.

So here's another one: if you had one advice to give, what would it be?

Just one; the gateway to all the rest, the one to suffice for life.

Feel free to correct me, but try as I might I always end up with this:

Everything has a cost.

It's not even original ("there's no such thing as a free lunch" comes to mind and many other variations on the theme). Still, no matter how trivial it may seem at first it is only a matter of time before one gets into deep waters.

Let's dispense with spending money on something - no great mystery there.

How about the reverse - you win the lottery, big time. Consider the situation in detail and the costs will become apparent. The sudden "friends" who knock on your door, the bank managers with their glossy brochures waiting for your signature, all those possibilities keeping you awake at night... no cost?

Or you received a gift. You would be kidding yourself if you think there are no obligations whatsoever, however subtly their presence would make itself felt at some point in time.

'Free' energy? To construct a device, any device, requires planning, organisation, and execution; all of which draw on resources of a manifold nature, from finances to politics to infrastructure which now must be maintained in their own right.

The dream of a perpetual motion engine has largely been put to rest. Yet when it comes to initiatives of a more abstract nature the phantasy still lingers. Even if reality has set in, the tendency exists to restrict one's intellectual scope to the barest necessities. Yet continue the musings and not before long there are aspects which appear less and less comfortable.

Persist and you might well come to ask yourself, why bother? But that too has its price.

As I said...

Sunday, 20 January 2008

This is so Queensland

Last December this blog featured an open letter to the Queensland police commissioner. At the same time I pointed him to that post via personal correspondence.

In the open letter I asked whether my approach regarding the dispute with Griffith University had been wrong, too genteel perhaps. Some people in this state had gone as far as burning down police stations and high-ranking members of the judiciary were put at their disposal for their efforts. In my own case however no-one contacted about the issue wanted to have anything to do with it. The general excuse was that universities are autonomous and handle such matters internally.

There was a response. About two weeks later I received a letter from the Acting Deputy Commissioner. 'I make no attempt to look for the "open letter" on the internet', he wrote, and added I should discuss any concerns with the officer in charge of my local police station.

How ludicrous. Imagine walking into a police station with your thesis in hand and launching into a complaint about its evaluation.

Let's be kind; I assume had this man been familiar with the "open letter" he would have replied differently. Since he wasn't, what he said was laughable.

These things are not uncommon here. Over the years we've had problems with the public health system, child welfare, transport, even airport security. It turned out these problems were systemic, the result of a general culture that fears openness and being confronted with its mistakes. Those few individuals who dared to stand up were intimidated into silence and sometimes even lost their jobs. We are not talking about some document ending up in a wrong tray; there was the loss of life, severe shortcomings in quality of service, and many millions of dollars being wasted. Some were actually quite funny: train carriages were ordered that proved too large for the tunnels.

Essentially there are two ways in which a demographic can be analysed. The more obvious one is to focus on an area and examine what is going on. The other, less targeted but no less productive, is to observe the manner in which matters are handled, regardless of what they may be or where they occur. From town planning to the placement of street signs, from access to information to the spelling of words, from the intensity of religious leanings to the civilised tone of debates.

It is no coincidence that my few examples along those lines about Queensland evoked such antagonism by the examiners of my honours thesis.

Naturally, in such a culture the institutions are not immune, and that includes universities. The University of Queensland for instance saw fit to confer an honorary doctorate upon Joh Bjelke-Petersen, a late premier and Christian fundamentalist under whose reign this state become the laughing stock of Australia. And Griffith University spent a considerable amount of money to establish its Interfaith Centre. In deference to religion, not to critically examine the role of phantasies in a troubled world.

Compare that to the recent protest at a university in Rome because the present pope, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, supported the actions by his church against Galileo Galilei. As a consequence his planned appearance there was cancelled.

Could this happen here? I doubt it. Only a few years ago some girls at a Christian school were writhing on the floor in religious ecstasy. How is that for the local zeitgeist.

But rest assured, my fellow citizens, the teachers could tell it wasn't the devil.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Kids and countries

One of the main advantages of the Otoom model consists in recognising that the behavioural dynamics we observe can be scaled up and down.

An act played out before our eyes is a collection of dynamics that uses objects to become manifest, a phenomenon which depends on the scale. The dynamics themselves however, or to be more exact, the functionalities possessed by the dynamics, remain comparable.

So take a schoolyard. Two kids have started a fight. Quite possibly before long the whole thing has turned into a melee. What's going on?

For a start, that fight doesn't happen out of nowhere. In a group - society on a small scale - there are animosities and there are friendships. In other words, there is a history to the altercation. A teacher commanding the children to stop won't solve much because it doesn't address the history. What's more, at the moment of the first clash the associations between the members of the group come to the fore, all mixed together with the dispositions of the individuals who have finally been provided with the trigger to act out their own sentiments.

Now imagine there are outsiders. Friends of the children, possibly some parents, and so more associations with their own potential to be acted upon. How long before such a biff has turned into a substantial affair?

In Otoom's terms we have the dynamics of identity, of competition/survival, of affinities, and all of them moulded by specific emotions.

Move up in scale. Now we deal with tribes, demographics, and societies. The higher scale avails itself of greater volume, that is identity has become weightier, the survival instinct is more profound, and associations are more prolific and meaningful. Kids won't fight until they are dead, but tribes or societies can, indeed often expect their members to do just that. And when everyone is gone history tells of yet another heroic tragedy.

The recent events in Kenya are the latest example of such scaled-up dynamics. Substitute the kids in the school yard with the relevant players there and what's the difference?

Unctuous commentary by fly-in fly-out journalists doesn't help. While their readiness to enter those zones must be respected, their very nature precludes them from gaining a profound knowledge about the local circumstances. A camera with the sticker 'CNN' does things to people, and of course the person in front of it won't hold back with their version of who did what to whom. Then there is the sheer shortsightedness. Kenya a traditionally quiet place?? Doesn't anybody remember the Mau Mau with piles of hacked-off hands here and there? Then again, perhaps not.

During the 60s the film Africa Addio was doing its rounds through the cinemas of Europe, but was banned in British Commonwealth countries because of its portrayal of colonialist policies intermingled with tribal brutalities. Made by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi it was one of the first visual documentaries about Africa at its rawest (and Riz Ortolani gave it a good soundtrack too).

In the 70s those for whom conventional armed forces were not exciting enough could connect to organisations which brought them into contact with Kenyan warlords who paid well for Western mercenaries. Leaving morality aside, this takes a certain kind of infrastructure at both ends to make it possible. A quiet place?

And then there are the slums. Nairobi has one of the world's largest, a land in its own right that not many suburbanites would relate to. Something like that doesn't grow overnight, and its very existence does not say much about its host society.

Here then was our good journalist who intoned, after a suitable pan across dilapidated shacks, "And as usual it is the poor who suffer". No doubt they suffer, but think back to the school yard, a hotchpotch of simplistic sentiments and raw emotions boiling over. It is in the slums where the first fires start.

Meanwhile, in the comfort zone of a rich West we have politicians who must be seen to do something, and on a lower level we have the peace kiddies who, cranking up everything from cell phones to wikis, don't hesitate jumping into the fray from their safe distance. They can do so because some of them know someone over there and of course those must be helped. Who can stand on a nearby roof top overlooking a school yard and honestly declare to have completely understood the situation, decide who is right and who is wrong? On that much bigger scale - forget it. And so, on that hot and dusty ground far away, there are now some who have 'friends' coming to their 'aid', and others who will be spurned on even more. Who is to say that a visually effective victim, once the boot is on the other foot, won't do exactly the same to his enemies?

In the end it comes down to resources, to money. There is a point at which a bushfire has reached a size where it must burn itself out, and nobody in their right mind would add more brush to one side of the valley just because they found themselves on the other. Yet this is exactly what happens in so many places because the funds are available.

It is time for better priorities to take over.

Friday, 4 January 2008

2050: References

The preceding description of the world in 2050 may come as a shock to some, to others it will be a matter of "What else is new". Since in either case we are dealing with a scenario that has not happened yet it comes down to one's perception.

Yet certain observations can be made right now that assess the present potential and therefore point to the possibility of some developments provided the surrounding environmental factors remain supportive. What follows is a general listing of those factors, drawn from the framework of the Otoom model as well as current events.

The Otoom model relates to the dynamics underlying an event, where the event is the instantiated manifestation of the dynamics. The former refer to types of behaviour, the latter to an action being played out that makes use of whatever facilities are available. First comes the type, regardless of who or what the performer may be. The action comes second, and is usually referred to by a name given to the performers. Hence the world of 2050 is not presented in terms of particular people or nationalities but by demographics, type descriptors in line with the model.

Generally speaking one can say that the decision-making process leading to some initiative will be compacted in direct relation to the pressure applicable at the time. How sophisticated or otherwise the result turns out in the end depends on the starting point and the overall availability of resources, be they of the intellectual or the material kind. Acting as a counter-balance would be the size of the knowledge base which makes it possible to widen one's scope so that other items can be associated with the subject under focus. The process is an interdependent one and is characteristic of complex systems.

The influence of regions...: While the West's religious disposition has always drawn its members to the Middle East, only with the advent of oil as a basic energy source did this region acquire a political clout on its own. It is difficult to see how the current involvement there to the tune of many hundreds of billions of dollars, coupled with military interventions that threaten global stability, and policies that seek to support one nation against others with not much gain overall, could prevail once oil has been removed from the equation. At that point peace in the world is not guaranteed, but certainly a particularly volatile part will be forced to deal with its own problems without affecting everybody else. For example the US has spent over US$450 billion on the Iraq war so far and wants US$190 billion more (Courier Mail, 28 Sep 07, "$200b war bid bill"). The major energy consumers and therefore stakeholders are the industrialised regions, and with many not tied to religious baggage from the Middle East but being major players anyway the priorities will have changed significantly.

Electronic surveillance...: In the UK more than 1 million genetic fingerprints have been added to Britain's police DNA database in only 10 months (Courier Mail, 6 Nov 07, "DNA grab gains pace"). The integration of surveillance cameras into more comprehensive police databases is nothing new by now (Courier Mail, 16 Mar 04, "Police establish city camera database"). Designing computer chips away from traditional silicon reduces their size further and even present-day mobile phones have more computing power than the average desktop machine ten years ago. The realisation that gene research sheds light on the fundamental source of human character traits already makes its way into general articles about people's behaviour (Courier Mail, 30 Oct 07, "Obsessing ourselves sick over optimism"). Major search engines are pressed to provide data to the US Justice Department in its fight against pornography, and Google has as its aim to create a database that includes the habits of people going about their affairs (Courier Mail, 21 Jan 06, "Google vow to fight for Net privacy", 10 Nov 07, "Bigger brother").

What prevents the data logs...: On one hand moralistic regimes may want to implement policies in line with their convictions, such as the present Rudd Labor government in Australia trying to make internet service providers enforce a net censorship filtering out "undesirable content" (Courier Mail, 31 Dec 07, "Net Nanny"). This puts this country on a par with nations like China, Burma, and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, in the face of climate change questions about carbon footprints are already applied to the representatives attending the recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bali (Courier Mail, 6 Dec 07, "Emission fallout from talks entourage"). In Germany the attempt to make phone companies log the personal details of callers in the service of national security is met with protests about the costs and the companies want compensation (SBS-TV Deutsche Welle, 27 Dec 07). From the 1st of January the government has implemented the law, making it compulsory to store the details of phone calls and emails for six months (SBS-TV Deutsche Welle, 2 Jan 08). Then again, if the pressure is great enough, whether moral or financial, governments are quite willing to institute controls far beyond their usual scope, such as the plan to curb welfare payments to Aboriginals if their children are not looked after properly because the parents spend their money on drugs and gambling (Courier Mail, 22 Dec 07, "Cape trial for radical solution"). Even the ban on public smoking in industrialised regions can be seen in this light, triggered in part by the pressure on public health systems.

Artificial mind simulations...: Whether it is the Otoom model or one going by another name, the potential exists to simulate societal behaviour patterns in terms of their dynamics, leaving aside their instantiated, object-related content. As such scenarios can be recreated on a computer using dynamics as parameters and played through under certain conditions. Who or what will represent the actions in the real becomes a matter of associating the current players with the resultant effects.

Within the under-industrialised regions...: Whatever region will come under this label by 2050, its character defines itself by a relative paucity of information, a low skill base, intense adherence to a religion or a political ideology, and a significant number of individuals displaying a coarse behaviour. On the ground this translates into violence at elections, for example in Kenya (SBS World News, 1 Jan 08); cruel laws, such as in Saudi Arabia (Courier Mail, 17 Nov 07, "Lash for rape victim"); or the infant mortality rate which can be as high as 185.36 per 1000 live births in the case of Angola, when in a nation such as Spain it is a mere 4.37 (SBS World Guide, 15th edition, Hardie Grant Books, Prahran, Victoria, Australia, 2007).

Migration surges occur...: Power play based on tribal and/or religious perceptions causes massive population movements as a response. For example in Zimbabwe (Courier Mail, 26 Sep 05, "Hell in world basket case"), or in Sudan (Courier Mail, 24 Jun 04, "Goondi man witnesses Sudan horror"). At the same time border protection in rich countries is stepped up, so when Africans try to enter the EU via Spain in places like Ceuta they are met by barbed wire and guards that shoot (Courier Mail, 7 Oct 05, "African migrants make fresh dash for better life").

Sometimes the historical boundaries...: When demographics within a nation develop differently because of their respective inherent characteristics, pressures build to disassociate one from the other. The outcome depends on the degree of cohesiveness overall, that is the sum total of factors contributing to the nation state and/or its dissolution. Current examples are Bolivia, a country divided into two zones, one of relative high productivity and the other representing a largely indigenous population (Courier Mail, 17 Dec 07, "Rival rallies show a divided nation"); and Belgium, where two disparate demographics make it difficult to form a government (Partij van de Arbeid van Belgiƫ, 30 Sep 07, "The End of Belgium?").

Dissolution here and there...: Smaller disparate demographics form niches which are either tolerated or acted upon, depending upon their status as defined by the host society. In Italy for instance the attack on a woman by a Romanian living in a slum caused the government there to enact laws making it possible to send slum dwellers back to their respective countries, even though in this case the other country happens to be another member of the EU. Up to that point such slum areas have been allowed to grow (Courier Mail, 3 Nov 07, "Attacks prompt Italy to expel EU offenders").

The same goes for non-human organisms...: While programs are underway to assist many species in their survival, ultimately it becomes a matter of economics and global politics. When Japan decided to embark on another whale-catching season in the southern oceans, the Australian government used its armed forces as a form of political protest. To some degree it worked when one type of whale was let off the hook, but in general such actions carry a potential that goes quite beyond the welfare of this or that animal species (Courier Mail, 14 Dec 07, "Military whale watch").

Aid programmes...: Already the emphasis is on sustainable development in the target regions. Consider the Humanitarian Development Program where this aspect represents its core mission statement. Japan examines its own aid programs under a similar umbrella, and so does Australia with the stated proviso that the initiative should follow the country's national interest. Increase the pressure overall, and how long before the national interest assumes the top priority in any case?

Although the above references are more or less specific, since they are part of interdependent systems they should be seen in conjunction with each other. It's a matter of connecting the dots.