Monday, 19 October 2009

Refugees - a mini course in basics

Watching the refugee issue - the influx, the debates, the violence - it becomes obvious some lesson in basics is needed. Here it is.

1. Have ten dollars in your pocket. Now take out twenty. Can't do it? Correct.

No howling, no weeping, no fierce statement of goodwill can change that.

2. Have ten people in a house and supply them with a hundred kilowatt hours per day in energy. Put in machinery requiring two hundred kilowatt hours per day and tell them to run it. They can't.

No howling, no weeping, no fierce statement of goodwill can change that.

3. Take a hundred people and evaluate their skills in carpentry. On a scale of 1 to 10 they achieve a 5. Now tell them to make furniture equivalent to a level of 10. They won't.

No howling, no weeping, no fierce statement of goodwill can change that.

4. Measure the accomplishments of a thousand people in some district and compare their standards with the outside. Whatever the result, it will reflect the combined ability of those people.

No howling, no weeping, no fierce statement of goodwill can change that.

5. Ask a million people comprising a society what they know about themselves compared to societies beyond their borders. They will be more familiar with their own and know less, if anything, about the others.

No howling, no weeping, no fierce statement of goodwill can change that.

Human migration has existed on this planet for as long as there were humans. Apart from the last five decades or so two major factors governed their performance: the availability of space and the competition between locals and newcomers unregulated by an outside authority.

Now, this is no longer the case. Space is running out or has disappeared already, and governing entities have acquired an influence over local legislations. In addition we have developed a mindset - confined to the West - which has become obsessed with the plight of others somewhere in the world.

Not only is that mindset driven by emotion in the face of reality, it is highly selective and refuses to accept the fundamental laws which apply to any eco-system. When transposed into the human realm they are reflected in the five points above.

Energy in a closed system is finite. Use part of it for one thing and it becomes unavailable for something else.

Resources are no longer abundant as they once were. As environmentalists never tire of telling us, it has become unsustainable to neglect the balance between generation and use.

Competition between individuals, demographics and nations still exists as it always has. It matters whether any such unit foregoes its desire to keep up and is falling behind.

In the end no outside force can alter the general ability of a people to shape their destiny. However good or bad the conditions in a certain country are, the ultimate determinant of those conditions is the capacity and will of its inhabitants.

At any scale, one's home will always inform its residents first and foremost; knowledge about the lands beyond the border needs to be worked for and doesn't come readily. Even today's opportunities for travel do not teach the tourist what it really means having to deal with the daily travails in a Third World country. And remember, the problems exist because the inhabitants made them so.

When it comes to refugees therefore - or migrants in general - five questions suggest themselves.

1. If money needs to be spent on local issues, why is it used on others outside our control?

2. If resources are becoming sparse, why devote them to areas with the least promise?

3. If quality of output is a function of quality of input, why do we suddenly forget this relationship when it comes to dysfunctional societies?

4. If it requires a certain degree of skill to achieve higher standards, why dilute them with members of a region which demonstrably falls below our level?

5. Why do we harness ourselves to the whims of decision makers who have no idea what the notion of a dysfunctional society actually stands for, and who probably wouldn't survive more than a month under those conditions?

Why do we make it so easy for our competitors to win?

Thursday, 23 July 2009

How dumbing down kills

Over the last few days Brisbane’s Courier Mail ran a series of articles on the problems alcohol causes. During the night the streets around night spots fill with drunken revelers and violence is often the result. So much so that over a period of three months just under 112,000 were admitted to Queensland hospitals as a consequence of alcohol-fueled violence.

(By the way, the manner in which the figures were presented is interesting in itself. The article focuses on Brisbane and particularly Fortitude Valley, a suburb featuring a high concentration of bars and nightclubs. Yet the first set of figures mentions that alcohol was a factor in “25-30 percent of representations at emergency departments”, which covers the entire state. Then it says “The latest figures produced by Queensland Health showed that 373,000 people presented at its emergency departments in three months”. If we are pessimistic and accept 30 percent then there would have been 111,900 hospital admissions due to alcohol, and across Queensland as a whole. How many of those came out of Fortitude Valley is not mentioned. This is not to deny there is no issue, but the reporting does veer towards the sensational)

In any case, it helps to consider the situation in terms of human activity systems.

For a system to function on an ongoing basis it needs resources which play their part in its overall set of dynamics. The higher the complexity the system achieves, the greater the draw on resources. For the system to remain sustainable any measure that raises the level of complexity must sooner or later offer a return on the credit side of its ledger, since a debit has the effect of reducing the sustainability.

In the case of alcohol-induced damage a number of initiatives have been enacted in order to address the problem. Called the 17-point plan (Courier Mail, 21 Jul 09, “Lockout a failure”) they range from locking out patrons from re-entering a venue after 3am, to extra police in the district, to increased security at taxi ranks, to forcing hotel staff adopt various policies. They all have one thing in common: they cost money. Nor does any of those measures deal directly with the lout who throws personal responsibility to the wind and causes mayhem.

The result is an ever increasing burden to society while at the same time constructing an environment in which the irresponsible can act out their dysfunctional instincts. Rather than having to deal with their consequences even more funds are directed towards the training and protection of medicos who get attacked by drunken patients. In another article the next day we read that the emergency department of the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital treats about 72,000 patients a year (around 200 per day) and “a higher proportion of patients were sicker than they were two decades ago”, and “Alcohol-related injuries had become more common in the under-25 age group, particularly among teenage girls” (Courier Mail, 22 Jul 09, “Abuse a constant threat to medicos”).

Conventional, and proven, wisdom has it that transgressions of behaviour need educational resources to prevent continuing damage being done; but that presupposes that the target represents a member of society who nevertheless remains a part of the general ameliorating and adjusting framework, a framework that in the end relates to the common standard. Remove the member from that standard and the educational process is left to perform in a social vacuum.

The experience related by the professionals in the field, be they medicos, doctors, police, or hotel staff, show the adjusting framework has been allowed to evaporate.

To force the system into a higher state of complexity through something like that 17-point plan effectively means shifting more resources towards a demographic that can now cause more damage as a consequence. The result is a spiral of dumbing down affecting society as a whole. Not only do the costs rise, the negativity spreads, leading to greater costs still, and so on.

Systems dynamics offer the solution: destructive elements require less resources, not more, for the entire system to remain within the envelope of sustainability.

The approach has been practised in the past. In frontier societies where a horse means the difference between survival and death horse thieves are not treated by an army of counsellors, they just hang them. Even more on the extreme side, indigenous cultures do not have the luxury of treating under-performers, initiation rituals decide whether a member of the tribe becomes accepted or simply abandoned.

We have advanced from those beginnings. Nevertheless, the principles still hold.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

By their deeds ye shall know them

We are aware of our conscious thoughts but not more. The subconscious processes continue regardless of any filters that may be imposed later. Their hidden nature and sheer volume makes them powerful determinants of our actions. Evidence suggest these are in fact more powerful.

Thoughts, seen as functional dynamics, can be scaled up to wider society where ideations become its members and entire thought structures represent what has been called cultural memes. In principle the affinity relationships causing customs to grow or to shrink hold at the lower as well at the higher end of the spectrum. Underneath it all the subconscious still reigns.

Since filtering by the conscious mind leaves so much unseen, can its counterpart be identified nevertheless? As its very nature precludes direct observation we need to ascertain its presence and from that deduce an influence.

The first step focuses on the act of filtering. If the end result is in harmony with the remainder, what has become visible holds no surprises. On the other hand, if the filtering prevents contrary sentiments from coming to the fore, there is a dissonance between what is seen and what is not. In most cases the complexity of ideational constructs virtually ensures the latter.

At the higher end of the scale suppose certain people perform some actions over a period of time with intermediary results. Because cognitive processes do not stop, an ongoing evaluation takes place which includes the subconscious. Nor will the subconscious have disappeared if the results are in line with the original intent. Which begs the question, what do those outcomes really tell us about their initiators? Let's consider three examples.

The Australian government imposed what has been called an 'alcopop tax', raising the price of pre-mixed alcoholic beverages supposedly to stem teenage binge drinking. Critics dismissed it as mere revenue gathering and predicted an increase in alcohol consumption. A few months into this policy and security firms and nightclubs do in fact notice more intoxicated behaviour. Spirits are now consumed straight. If drunkenness had been a problem before, it is even more so now.

What were the policy makers thinking? The general public reads about their intent, but they all are aware of the result. Our conscious, well-behaved mind tells us letting your hair down is bad. Yet our subconscious toys with the idea of breaking rules. As we mature (for want of a better word) our memories hark back to a wild youth, chuckling as we tell each other those stories. The alcopop tax - catharsis for our rulers.

Second example. Speed limits on our roads are lowered on a continual basis. Accidents due to speeding (actually, due to insufficient skills at higher speeds) are with us as ever, and the much-touted government line "every k over is a killer" sits comfortably with our abysmal record in science education. The lower the limit the more frustrated drivers get, the more likely they are to break the law and the recriminations keep coming. At the same time no-one facilitates the raising of skills.

Who doesn't get a thrill from speed? The more confined you are the more you want to break out especially if you play the role of supervisor. From carnivals to roller coasters the escapes are there for all to see. Speed limits - another candidate for a catharsis.

The third example is the age-old bugbear of puritans, pornography. Whether ever so reluctantly revealed from the ruins of ancient Pompeii, or certain paintings behind thick drapes in monasteries, or the modern-day offerings on the internet, erotic visuals have always sent delicious tickles tip-toeing down the spines of the suppressed. The moralists' response? Censorship.

Rather than removing the exuberant nastiness from this world, naked humans kept coming. All censorship ever did was to push the purveyors towards more bullet-proof schemes to circumvent the restrictions. It always has been an art form, if not in execution then certainly in delivery. Not even the most cantankerous denier could fail to spot the relationship. So much so that the heavier the cloak of righteousness the greater the opportunity to practice one's black art underneath.

Judge people by their deeds, not words - it's nothing new. And the more deeds there are, the better to judge them with.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

When not racist is racist

One of the more fascinating aspects of human activity systems is their tendency to produce opposites at the extreme end of a spectrum. Some intense intent A to avoid Z causes Z after all.

In the West we have become very careful to steer clear of any hint of racism, so much so that often measures are evoked which in fact lead to exactly that kind of sentiment. The lead-up to the current outcry against Indian taxi drivers in Queensland, Australia, is one example.

In order to be seen absolutely non-discriminatory towards foreign students the rules governing employment in the taxi industry had been largely suspended and as a consequence students from India availed themselves of the opportunity to drive taxis to supplement their income during their studies here.

Not only were they not tested on their knowledge of local streets but sometimes even their ability to drive a car needed to be questioned. Over the years the problems increased to the point where local taxi drivers - whether Anglo-Saxon, Asian or Indian for that matter - protested against the unfair practices which in turn impacted on their own employment conditions. The resultant publicity led to the general perception that Indian drivers are to be avoided.

As usual the perception is grounded in reality, but it is the generalisation derived from so many shared experiences that causes concern. Compared to world events the issue is minor, but it was considered noteworthy by Thaindian News informing Indians in Thailand and the story was picked up by news services in India itself.

In terms of system dynamics the steadily growing radius of conceptualisation can be observed to gradually extend the awareness of the system’s members but not further.

Racism is a phenomenon that lacks a sufficient cognitive reach to understand the consequences of a limited perception. As the system evolves these consequences become part of its knowledge base and avoidance measures are the result. They in themselves can be seen as a system which grows and becomes more and more influential. In the absence of mitigating factors however the measures become counterproductive. When the backlash sets in the very thing they opposed is given sustenance and attains a viable status within the wider context.

In other words, another system is born and quite possibly finds support in the previous set of notions that gave rise to the entire development in the first place. From racism to liberalism and back to racism.

In a fundamental sense this demonstrates how dangerous the obsession with an ideal can be. As nice as a perfectly clean world would be, some dirt is necessary to keep it moderately clean.

Monday, 4 May 2009

About the In-between

The other day James Graham Ballard died. He was known for his visions of dystopia, drawn from his own experiences of societies that succumb to the vagaries of fate.

He was one of a growing group of intellectuals concerned with the effects of politics, culture and power and what kind of environment they could produce if left to their own devices.

There is no doubt such exercises are worthwhile, and in the hands of a writer like Ballard these landscapes are indeed evocative.

Yet most of them concentrate on the result, the endpoint of a road travelled in a dream-like state from which the awakening is as sudden as it is destructive. For all their lessons, are those visions realistic?

Take The Drought, a future where pollutants have produced a film across the world's oceans that prevents evaporation. There is no more rain.

If pollutants are produced by industry, and industry relies on the multitudinous opportunity available in an essentially functioning world, then a reduction in resources - especially water - would surely diminish the effectiveness of industry and hence the spread of that water-resistant membrane.

Long before the planet awakes to an accomplished drought the signs would impinge upon the consciousness of people no matter how blind they would have been otherwise. Responses emerge, measures will be taken.

Far from dismissing the significance of potential disasters, the lead-up has its own dangers, and they are very real.

Factors such as the nature of those signs, who interprets them, what kind of power resides in those who perceive them, and to what extent do oppositions manifest - they all form a mixture which in itself creates precarious scenarios.

Any system exists because by and large it has settled itself into a state of interdependence with its environment. Change any one component and the effects are situated within the same mutuality that allowed the system to perform in the first place. The over-riding effect of the change is not so much derived from one component's nature, but the wider dynamics that result from a destroyed status-quo. It is here that the more real danger lies.

Nor is such a shift of concern a matter of convenience, not wanting to think about what a world-wide drought would mean for example.

In principle the interrelationships between pollution, industry and the oceans (even assuming that film was possible) are a function of complex systems, and so their step-by-step mitigating effects will play themselves out regardless of our judgmental interpretation of them.

As potentially pro-active beings humans have the capacity to abstract and think through the possibilities on offer. To put it mildly, it makes sense to use this capacity and consider any signs in terms of their perceived meaning by a particular demographic, culture or religion.

In the face of the current challenges it is not good enough to resort to more of the same; as if money spent so far should be augmented by even larger sums, as if already coercive governance should increase its pressure even more, as if one demographic's status inviting the allocation of resources should inevitably be cemented even further within a society's perception of itself.

All those responses belong to conventional situations. They become useless if not dangerous if applied to a newly emerging realm of the unfamiliar, a space where the possible gets redefined and where the impossible becomes part of existence.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

East and West

Barack Obama visits Europe and gets the opportunity to speak with many of the world's leaders at the G20 summit about the economy. Next on the list is the gathering of NATO and the topic is America's foray into Middle Eastern entanglements. After this experience he lands in Turkey where he told them what they wanted to hear.

But not everyone there desires joining the European Union for the same reason. The secular part would appreciate membership for the political openness and its pragmatic opportunities. On the Islamic side the largely cosmopolitan mantle draped over a medieval religion bestows useful advantages. It is questionable whether either side cares too much about the deeper factors influencing the affects such a move would produce. The same goes for the US.

We have arrived at a junction in time when historical currents can well up from distant pasts.

Human affairs proceed along timelines that are relevant to the scales they represent. Comparisons can be drawn between a human life and the existence of a society or civilisation or culture. One is measured in decades, others in centuries, and cultures need millennia.

On that broad canvas the world of today offers three cultures that have several things in common. They managed to keep their long-term memory, they achieved self-knowledge, they are still active, and they possess mass. From east to west these are, China, India and Europe.

Each one of these can draw on thousands of years of history, each one of these can use their own glories and disasters to interpret the present, and they all are powerful enough to influence the planet through the mental resources coming from ancient sagas, generations of experience and intellectual achievements.

Just as the individual addresses a problem more effectively with a sound memory, so do societies deal with issues at their scale depending on their ability for recall. Lack of experience, forgetfulness, or the wilful burying of inconvenient events impoverish one's knowledge base. Without content to be processed wisdom cannot emerge.

When in the near future oil runs out, when the effects of climate change overtake the contemporary plans of everyone, when the scarcity of resources impacts on standards everywhere, then the sheer drama which accompanies the destruction of the status quo will make itself felt. The aspirations, indeed obsessions, of so many interest groups are bound to join the stirred mix of smaller nations in which the multitude of incoherences add to the chaotic scenario.

When disaster strikes one does not call upon children to save the situation. Similarly, at the level of global humanity it takes the maturity of age to bring order into chaos.

Europe, India and China fulfill the equation. Even in geometric terms a triangle makes for stability, and a council of three strikes a useful balance between variance and homogeneity.

At the moment Islamic extremism enthralls our minds and holds our resources to ransom. Yet against the dangers building on the horizon they should be a mere thorn in the side at worst, an interesting interlude at best. Failing nations unable to leave their traditional shackles behind should hardly be a concern for that part of humanity which is capable of perceiving the future. Nor is it for the US to tell Europe whether ambiguous Turkey should or should not enter its realm.

A triumvirate of great minds has better things to do than enmesh itself in the inconsolable minutiae of the naïve.

And even in a space station the thoughts from a Parzival, a Mahabharata, or a Confucius have something to say.

Monday, 30 March 2009

A dose of reality

When protesters shout about burning effigies of bankers and around 15,000 people gather in Frankfurt, several thousand in Berlin, and in London the crowd is estimated at up to 35,000, all to make a point ahead of the G20 meeting, it should be time to think about what point this could be.
The financial crisis seems evident enough, but consider the headlines crowding yesterday's Daily Telegraph page and the picture is somewhat bewildering. Trillion-dollar deals abandoned just when our minds are getting used to rivers of money sluiced with abandon, suggestions to return to the gold standard, China seen as the world's saviour, extremists gaining ground, and dire warnings all around - it's a hotchpotch of the old and the new leading to the realisation that perhaps the leading minds at a recent conference at the Columbia Centre in the US got one thing right: we don't really know what's going on. "Reshaping capitalism" has become one common theme though, but do we understand what depths such a concept can reach? George Soros already argued for reconstruction back in 1997 but his rationalism is a far cry from what can be heard today, now that the pressure is on. Left-wing militants expecting our entire planet to be one country within months, a self-professed witch, a senior lecturer indulging herself in menstruation and the origins of art... that's news as of today, at least in the UK.
In his article George Soros talks about recognising certain fundamentals that give society its structure and hence its stability, fundamentals which go beyond money and riches and even transcend culture and religion.
Let's do one better and talk about the real basics around which living systems turn. The principles that govern human activity systems in general regardless of time and place, the ones that determine what happens along their time lines through history.
Such a system is situated in reality, which is to say it exists within its environment with its own vagaries, and success or otherwise depends on the system's flexibility and resourcefulness to deal with them. A simple system, if it survives, needs to devote all of its resources just to maintain itself, and the conditions are as harsh as its surrounds. It can be done, as the existence of indigenous people around today's world attests. However, the more complex the system the more buffer zones there are and the less immediate any negative effects from the outside will be. This comes at a cost: complex systems require more maintenance and place a higher demand on the intellectual capabilities of its members. Complex systems also feature a higher degree of variety and are better placed to confront changes in their surrounds.
Agrarian economies are more prone to falter during natural disasters than industrialised ones, and the more varied the industry in general the more assured the survival of the whole in the face of this or that downturn.
One factor that is often forgotten is time. It plays a significant role in the current malaise as I have argued elsewhere and it should be considered in more detail.
Usually the focus is on leisure, and it has grown into a considerable one. Time seen as a functional element without value-laden connotations however allows a more comprehensive view.
A complex, varied society permits the creation of niches that are largely removed from the immediacy of confrontational demands. If we consider the temporal path of a society in terms of standard time increments (rather like the clock ticks of a computer that allocate definite time periods to its processes) all of the society's dynamics span a given number of increments. The life cycle of any given dynamic can be measured against those of others on that basis, and they all form the wider system.
Different time spans impose their own constraints. For example, the construction of a bridge will interfere with dynamics of a smaller duration (such as travelling to and from work) and for that reason alone the system's resources will need the capacity to address the difference.
In the case of niches (activities that are not in immediate contact with the generality of their environment) a difference in time can mean the growth of activities that not only sit aside the common contingencies but whose effects on the system as a whole demonstrate a similar disengagement, at least for a certain period. Yet sooner or later their existence will impact on the rest, and the nature of the impact as well as the elapsed time influence the status of the host.
Regardless of their scale and type, there comes a point when the host responds. A couple of people spreading graffiti around their street won't change council policy, but by the time entire suburbs are affected the response sets in. In addition, at that point the practice will have grown into a sub-culture that changes the rules of the game considerably.
In principle, nothing has changed in the respective dynamics from the very start (whether in the mind of a bored kid or in the basic attitude of council members), but the difference in time lines impacts on the economy in the end.
As the financial crisis has shown, despite the decades-long existence of particular banking practices it is only now that their full nature has come to the fore - and the reaction ranges from the alarmed to the ridiculous.
Monetary adventurism is not the only threat; there are number of others waiting in the wings, all answering to similar dynamics of precarious transparency, the swallowing of resources, and delayed impact. Separate niches have grown and eventually influence their society, at which point they can't be separated any longer. Here are some of them.
The idea that everyone is equal and it is only a question of money to alleviate disparities has progressed from the small to the global radius. While opportunities need to be provided, the reality of an over-arching culture has been disregarded in favour of an evangelical idealism. Billions of dollars are poured into places like Africa without the desired effect.
The obsession with illegal drugs - the very definition a function of an ideological moralism rather than a pragmatic perspective - has created world-wide cartels and militant armies that have greater financial clout than many smaller nations. Mexico is torn apart by gangs that are financed by consumers in the US across the border. America's answer? Thousands of more soldiers and another few hundred million dollars in military hardware. At the same time a similarly predisposed attitude opened the way for many of their legal counterparts to play havoc with public health.
Although the emancipation of women has opened the doors to many opportunities denied in past ages (and enriched society), the ideological side of feminism has made demands on society without supplying the means to address them. For example, in Australia the Medicare safety net was designed to protect individuals from the often prohibitive costs of medical treatment, but over the past four years IVF costs under that scheme have risen 57 percent to $79 million. Women want babies, but at what cost?
Christian culture, in its ever-lasting war against the human eros, has swung from one craze to another. Gays, adultery, masturbation, and now anything to do with the young. Entire police forces have been created to assuage the spectres of moralists and once again the heaviest punishments are reserved for those who run foul of what is termed 'decency'. The hysteria led to the case of a 14-year-old girl in New Jersey who posted naked pictures of herself on MySpace and is now charged with child pornography facing up to 17 years in jail. Consider the sheer costs involved for everyone, and that includes the taxpayer. What should have been dismissed out of hand or at most invited a slap on the bottom has been turned into an international spectacle.
Just as with finance, there are a number of self-generated aspects of Western culture that have been allowed to flourish and no thought given as to their effects on us all. And just as with finance, under certain pressures those costs engulf us all.
Whether the calls for stringing up bankers remain a joke or not, there were times when actual people were indeed lynched and the enraged mob vented its fury on the enemies of society. All it takes is some pressure and the public's gaze turned just so.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Griffithgate: the no-show

Think of a gangster movie you have seen: do crims ever go to the police to complain?
Of course not. It's not just a clever trick by the director to spin the plot along; even in real life the last thing a shady character wants is to have their affairs placed under scrutiny by the law.
By now there exist several provocations that under ordinary circumstances would have seen Griffith University take me in court. There were the remarks made about some lecturers which prompted such a threat for defamation and bullying (see Griffithgate: let's ask the experts) but nothing happened despite having repeated the very same action. There were the disparaging statements communicated to the university's lawyers Minter Ellison, again with no response. The letters to that firm's clients, quietly passed over (see The first thing we do...). Letters to other lawyers (Griffithgate: the next phase), yet more personal attacks (And a Merry Christmas to you too, Griffith!), and the publication of my own version of the vice chancellor's welcome to students (Griffithgate: the latest). All of these were made known to a considerable number of their staff but nothing happened.
Indeed, why would someone like Ian O'Connor, Griffith's vice chancellor, drag the affair into the public arena and see all those shenanigans brought into the light? As we know, crims tend not to do such things.
I am well aware of a not insignificant disadvantage to myself when writing those letters and emails. For most people it is hard to believe a university can act in such a way, and the doubt would most likely be applied to me. And yet, the actions did take place and they are a considerable blot on any institution's character. Ian O'Connor knows this; others around him know this; hence the reluctance.
It's such a pity. Apart from the relatively small radius the affair as such represents, the wider issue is the general awareness of the Otoom model itself, prevented by a couple of incompetents. Its usefulness has been shown through the predictions about the Iraq war for example and confirmed by two major reports, one by the Americans and one by the British; the comments about Europe (The social Europe: a formal view); the outlook towards the year 2050 (2050: The Age of the Silverback); the comments about the current economic crisis (The Wall Street story), already starting to be confirmed the more details about its origins come to light; and many others too numerous to mention here.
Such a pity. But don't get me wrong - I hold no such sentiments for that couple of dills at Griffith.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The hidden face of ownership

A father has two sons: one is musically gifted, not the other. Who should get the guitar?

Surely the instrument ought to go to him who can make use of it.

The concept of ownership changed over time. With an evolving formality came a symbolism standing in for the original notion of a more direct relationship. The latter still exists, even if not always acknowledged. The functionality of the object behind the symbol cannot be erased through a transference of meaning; against the reality of the former the substitution remains superficial.

If symbolism is allowed to rule what constitutes ownership becomes sidetracked towards the trivial.

True ownership does not present itself through imaginary perception. It lives and activates itself through the relationship between subject and object, and the relationship has to be a fulfilling one.

The superficial view does not reach beyond the trivial and does not recognise the absence of a meaningful nexus.

Descend from the abstract to the tangible and apply the principle to like scenarios. Extend its scope across society, across enterprises. Replace the guitar with machinery, exchange it for a corporation, an estate; include land and territory. Let the family become a nation and all the people within it.

If a mere instrument is not worth arguing about (although a musician may see things differently), once we arrive at the larger scale the sheer magnitude gives substantial weight to any such relationship.

What is technology, what is a corporation worth in the hands of the dilettante; what becomes of a land falling into the custody of the less accomplished?

True ownership is not some artifact that waits for a higher provenance to be bestowed. While it exists for the taking it requires the will to be grasped and pressed into service. Only those to whom the significance of the act is obvious possess the will to use it for their ends; no-one else does it for them.

In that sense societies define themselves and live to enjoy or otherwise their fruits. Not to know, not to understand their own role condemns them to servitude.

In the end serfdom is an act of negative will.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Griffithgate: what happens next

Yesterday emails have been sent to some of the staff at Griffith University informing them about the modified welcome page (95 in all).
What they make of it is anyone's guess at this stage, if indeed Griffith's server allowed them to have it at all. Their reaction would be an amalgam of several factors.
Currently Australian universities are mostly run as businesses, providing room for feedback. On the other hand they are also considered autonomous, which means hardly any third-party entity is prepared to interfere in their internal affairs, and they know it. In addition there is such a thing as group-think which tends to dampen an individual member's willingness to advocate along self-critical lines.
Beyond the institution itself Queensland features a culture of hostility when it comes to general criticism towards any system that has been found wanting. Insiders who speak out are threatened, bullied into submission, even sacked. Especially if dismissal is not possible protective walls are erected making any engagement impossible. Only pressures from official enquiries or commissions are able to breach those ramparts.
The law's adversarial system has an interesting side effect regarding the role of lawyers. On the occasion of a trial the defendant's representative is required to enter a stoush with the prosecution where the outcome depends as much if not more so on either side's dexterity rather than on the facts of the case. Pre-trial scenarios therefore occupy the shadowy space of preparing for the fight where the potential impact of this or that item gets evaluated in terms of its assumed potential later on. It is not so much about ethics or even legality but what a branding exercise under forensic conditions might achieve.
The law firm Minter Ellison has Griffith University as one of its many clients. They have been contacted in the past but decided not to respond. Instead there came a reply from one of the university's pro vice chancellors, which may or may not have been the result of mutual correspondence.
What would they make of the above-mentioned web page - brush it off altogether, create an entry in their file, or start seriously advising their client?
Given the negative effects of any publicity for Griffith in this matter, it is an interesting exercise to consider the possible aspects as they apply to its wider status measured against this issue. Add the not inconsiderable resources available to the university as well as Minter Ellison (but virtually none on my side) and the strategy may well move from the purely financial to one containing elements of a psychological, even philosophical, nature.
Let's not forget, Griffith's recent foray into seeking support from the fundamentalist regime of Saudi Arabia could, in conjunction with a certain religious ambience surrounding the evaluation of my thesis, set the scene for some interesting public discussions once the conditions are in place.
It won't matter to Minter Ellison where a client's money has priority over anything else, but their place in this world is not the world.
Under more radical jurisdictions subversive elements are put against the wall, but in Australia lawyers enjoy the luxury of living in an essentially secular democracy.
Then again, misusing such freedom starts paving the road towards exactly the opposite. There are millions on this planet who understand what that means, but slick suits aren't one of them.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Griffithgate: the latest

There are many websites dedicated to student feedback about their experiences with this or that tertiary institution, and Griffith University is no exception.
The topics focus on subjects available, the rapport with lecturers, or what a degree gained in one place means compared with one gained from another.
Reading through them it is difficult to discern any actual difference beyond the subjective. After all, a university is not a high school and so it is largely up to the student to get as much out of a course as possible.
Yet I haven't found any mention of what happens when things go wrong. How is the appeal process being handled, how much does the staff (any staff) cooperate with the student to resolve the matter, and are there any obstacles deliberately placed before the student to protect the university?
These matters could easily be far more important than the seats in the lecture hall, what books the library has (Australia does have an integrated library system), or whether a lecturer is accessible during the course.
Once the exams have been done and the degree issued the student is no longer part of the university's contingent, and it is at that point its general ethics really come to the fore.
Let's say a student brings in evolution in his or her thesis and is being criticised for that - what are the religious leanings of the lecturer, indeed would the university favour superstition over science in order to appease its backers?
Last year we had this little episode where Griffith had been caught out secretly asking for funds from Saudi Arabia. Not only did it raise serious concerns by someone like Judge Clive Wall, deputy judge advocate-general in the Australian Defence Force, the subsequent response by Griffith's vice chancellor Ian O'Connor made matters even worse (read about that saga; how pathetic in itself: here is Ian O'Connor weaseling up to the Saudis for $1.37 million but they tossed him only $100,000).
Perhaps the student searches the university's website for persons who would be interested in their plight. In the case of Griffith they may well come upon the assurance by none other than Professor Sue Spence, Pro Vice Chancellor for Learning and Student Outcomes. It said there (interestingly, the page has since been removed), "Many students have asked me whether we listen to the feedback you provide about your courses and teachers at the end of semester and whether we take it seriously. The answer is - definitely yes".
Not really. A letter sent in early December last year asking the good professor how the assurance above can be reconciled with the vice chancellor calling the police to remove you from campus rather than talk to you, or destroying pertinent records so that a request under the Freedom of Information Act becomes useless, went unanswered. Words come easy; it's action that counts.
These days image and the associated spin is all important. On 14 January 2009 the Queensland Department of Justice and Attorney-General in conjunction with Griffith University ran an advertisment in the Courier Mail titled, "Mediationworks". The idea was to invite businesses and the general public to make use of training courses in mediation, facilitation and dispute resolution. With something like the Justice Department and a university to back the claims who would argue? If potential clients only knew ... does locking a complainant into a police van or destroying evidence sound like exceptional skills in dispute resolution to you?
Perhaps it's all part of the culture, where achievement can turn into a liability in no time and respect is shifted over to the dysfunctional and useless. Walk through Brunswick Street in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, any day or night and you'll find reeking bodies lining the footpath (the hundreds of people passing them would confirm the observation - Brunswick Street is no side alley). Or have a group of people engage in a drinking session on the pavement and the police dutifully carry away their discarded bottles (observed in West End one sunny day).
Hence the web page suggesting what the vice chancellor's welcome to students should really look like, compared to what Vice Chancellor Ian O'Connor has to offer.
I am all for choice. Do the courses, do exactly what's asked of you and no more, and get out with paper in hand - then the ethics and culture of the institution may not be of any concern. But just in case you're more serious about your career then other factors come into play. Whether this matters or not is up to the students, but at the very least they should be informed.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Griffithgate: the West in a nutshell

As the saga with Griffith University drags on and on I am reminded how much it reflects the wider tenor that has spread through the West over the last few decades.
Aha! I hear some say - another rant against the changing times, must be in that age group, etc etc. Well, no and yes.
A quick glance at my CV and sure enough, I am whatever one's sense of political correctness permits to call me. But no, I am not railing against another hair style, a new fashion, how women walk the streets.
Throughout the last couple of generations certain changes have occurred, changes which influence our thinking, our attitudes, and how we address issues. Rather than being a contemporary whim replacing the one before, they reach more deeply into our collective psyche.
Young people used to regard childhood as a hindrance to be overcome, pushing for the time when the opportunities waiting for an adult can be savoured. For some their youth had indeed been a problem, but now those have become the standard by which to judge that initial period and not the exception that it actually had been. Youth was seen as a preparation for the future and books, that medium used to fill the gaps in your own life, reflected the achievements and therefore the possibilities the world had in store for you. Not any more.
Dysfunction, whether in the mental, social or any other sense, is discussed, exemplified and emphasised ad nauseam as if it constituted a natural part of one's life. Yet in the same breath society has adopted the notion of childhood as a state of romantic innocence, in fact ignorance, to be savoured and preserved at all costs.
Information - not knowledge, not wisdom - has been turned into such a flood that the random collection of its multitudinous parts now stands for understanding per se. Replacing the formal and sequential acquisition of knowledge that hotchpotch of ideas, half-baked conclusions and straight-out phantasies fills the minds of most; hardly anyone dares to challenge because to do so is automatically seen as being in the service of some evil authority. The effects of the influence of reason, in the end the most powerful of them all, is equated with power and no more and therefore must be bad. To be opposed, the heroic role of the challenger and the iconoclast, has been reduced to the egocentric protester who thinks smashing a car somehow symbolises the gravitas of his complaint. "Look what I have done! Can't you see my pain?!"
The social elite, those pillars of society whose duty it should be to attain and disseminate their understanding, merely wring their hands and, depending on the degree of activism in their blood, frantically search for a palliative draught or just don't want to get involved.
Even universities have not remained immune. Actual experience, the interaction with reality, is dismissed in favour of mutual referencing of theoretical musings that keeps going around in circles. A situation in a marketplace somewhere or the dynamics in a tribe for example are dismissed and have to give way to the elaborate hypothesis or the skewed perception entertained by some bureaucrats.
Excuses are valued for the exit they offer from a difficult situation, and they are applied in abundance. And what better excuse in an age of overwhelming detail than that of religion, that age-old over-spanning protection against logic and reason. Chances are a university faculty does not analyse a faith for its psychotic content but gets established to offer a pseudo-intellectual space for clerics enjoying their time under the political sun.
The biblical proverb of seeing the splinter in someone else's eye but not the beam in one's own has been turned upside down: get obsessed with the splinter in your own but disregard the beam somewhere else. Can you see the irony?
The benefits accrued from the Age of Enlightenment have given science its resources of today, and they are considerable. While most scientists make good use of them, they also can apply a distance between their world and the rest. Experience and the insights gained from them are just another facet of information competing with navel-gazing effluvium and hardly given any priority. Hypotheses and theories, especially those dealing with the human condition, are valued for their obtuse abstraction and not for their groundedness.
The results have come in. In an age of more psychologists than ever, how come depression has been identified as the most prevalent mental condition in the West? In an age of ever greater obsession with the welfare of children, how come violence drives teachers out of the classroom and basic academic skills are found wanting in young adults? In spite of tertiary institutions needing ever larger budgets lecturers often baulk when faced with material that takes them out of their personal comfort zones.
We have more knowledge at our fingertips then ever, yet our minds have grown tired and stressed from such abundance.
What happened at Griffith University is a reflection of that wider malaise; the details can be found in many of the other posts. As usual, it may require a dramatic interruption to make people realise where they have ended up.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Israel: a grassroots perspective

Israel moves into Gaza. As it hammers home its frustration with Palestinian attacks on its population there are world-wide protests proclaiming their solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Of course there are the official announcements, the commentators, the lines we are fed through the media. Although cynics may differentiate between society on one side and its leaders on the other, in this case on both sides the two are largely at one.

Knowing Israel and knowing the Middle East another picture presents, a view from the grassroots that tells the story somewhat differently.

Just as individuals can be identified by their particular characteristics, so can demographics and societies. Societies do differ from each other, sometimes less, sometimes more so. And just as the social dynamics among individuals can be observed, so can their counterparts at a larger scale.

Put one person into a confined space with another and innate differences have the potential to create problems simply because each other's way of life cannot find a common ground. This equally holds true at the higher scale.

Israeli society is marked by centuries of a maturing culture that developed into a sophisticated whole where remnants of a more ideological and religious past have learned to coexist with modern sentiments. The old does exist, it does play a part, but a minor one.

The Middle East, Palestine included, did not evolve to the same extent. There traditional relationships between families, tribes, and obsessive affiliations of many kinds hold sway over daily affairs, all under the roof of a religion that infuses mannerisms to a degree hardly understood by outsiders.

The core of any religion - not its social graces but its spiritual aspect - is based on phantasy and conjecture. The core has become the soul of its bearers, at any scale. Since one's imagery must be reconciled with reality at some point, the mind has devised however subconscious means to circumvent the inevitable pitfalls. To put it crudely, it has become an expert liar to itself.

There more intense and the more pervasive the phantasy, the greater the need to lie in the face of reality.

Foreigners get a glimpse of such dynamics when engaging with the locals, whether it be a business venture or general social contacts. In the Middle East nothing is certain until the very last moment, and even then surprises can be sprung. A visitor to Israel experiences a more familiar, methodical, rational environment.

Israel does not have honour killings, precarious interactions with the opposite sex, the constant worry of transgressing a religious code hiding within some scenario. Children, indeed the general population has not been mixed indiscriminately with its militants.

At times a visitor may wonder why the constant bobbing of the head during a religious ceremony does not make anyone consider the effects on the brain, but most Jewish kids are exhorted to study and educate themselves. Try anything remotely critical in an Islamic society and suffer the consequences - better still, don't try.

Relax in a Tel Aviv café and admire the architecture of your surrounds, a modern product that found its way on to the world heritage list. A current achievement, unlike its Middle Eastern counterparts left over from a distant past. Talk, discuss, debate; then argue who pays for the coffee.

Is it any wonder the two sides cannot co-exist? But also observe who in the current climate rallies to the Palestinians' side. They are groups largely associated with constraint, impediment, anti-development. Greens, anti-Westerners, those that have lost the connection with the sophisticated here and now. Their affinities are telling.

And here is another thing. I am addressing myself to those who rather read a book than chase a ball, who rather have a serious conversation than shout the antics of a movie's rascal at each other. Every now and then these individuals will encounter the bully, who cannot stand anything above themselves and to whom civilised behaviour is anathema. The cultured victim will not lash out immediately, but resentment will build. Contrary to a certain popular misconception that intelligent people are weak, the response will come eventually. And when it does, naturally that act is out of proportion to the current provocation. Yet it also is effective, a characteristic alien to the bully. Who will be condemned? Not so much the bully, who yells and screams about the injustice of it all. Usually the bystanders will take his side, not bothering with the deeper reasons and the history of the moment. A sad set of circumstances that can be found in the school ground as well as in adult life. If at the larger scale the effects of a defensive action include the entire mishmash of civilians and children the screams become even louder. And the world sees the little faces but does not see the sadistic build-up.

Add the current Western preoccupation with the dysfunctional rather than achievement and a suffering drunk tends to get more attention than the difficulties of the disciplined. Let's not forget, one can get drunk from many things.

Israel does have a problem. Hamas is only part of it.