Sunday, 25 March 2007

What's going on?

First there were complaints here and there about the education system. Students needed remedial classes once they entered university, teenagers had trouble parsing sentences, and their maths was ruefully inadequate. Gradually politicians started to take notice, and eventually the concerns entered the election arena. In Australia the federal government prepared reforms, so did the states, and the federal opposition countered with their proposals while teachers added their own experiences as anecdotal evidence. In other Western countries the situation is not much different.

Here's an example from personal encounters. How many times have I sent an email to someone only to be misunderstood, requiring another post and maybe even another just to get the point across. We're not talking about the finer points on a theme, but seemingly straightforward sentences. It happens to other people too. Say someone offers to dig up certain articles and immediately is assumed by someone else to be on the verge of sending the whole lot - yet nowhere did he say that. It takes a further email to clarify the matter.

In the meantime certain books appeared, here and overseas. For example, Don Watson, "Death Sentences: How Clich├ęs, Weasel Words and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language", Gotham; or Frank Furedi's "Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?", Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, "Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child", Chicago Review Press; and, even more poignantly titled, Shelley Gare's "The Triumph of the Airheads - and the Retreat from Commonsense", Park Street Press; Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur, "Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?", Little Brown; Michael Bywater's "Big Babies: Or Why Can't We Just Grow Up", Granta; and Tony Perry, "On Being Grumpy, The Musings of a Malcontent", Penguin.

Recently Carl Hiaasen wrote in the Miami Herald, ".. But this is the New Journalism, which is steered by a core belief that people would rather be smothered by seedy gossip about ex-Playmate junkies than be bothered with the details of North Korea's nuclear program. Like the Don Henley song says, crap is king".

Just a statistical fluke or is there more to it?

When a phenomenon extends beyond an immediate area and becomes visible in various contexts it is time to think about deeper causes.

The ability to speak does project into the personal environment where communication provides a constant feedback loop going from one's own thoughts to the other and from there back again to the individual's mind. Just as new words or phrases gain credence through such usage so does language in general, and the standard, whatever its quality, echoes around the conceptual landscape of linguistic formats.

The general manner of expression finds its own level amidst the communal reverberations. A lack of variety spreads and the reservoir of expressions becomes attenuated to the emerging paucity.

In functional terms an acceptance of the simple as a substitute gains hold. Whether that manifests in terms of a population's vocabulary or whether mental exercises sink to the lower ground is only a matter of opportunity, but the principle holds regardless.

Naturally the choice of topics runs alongside. Debating a country's foreign policy requires more complex conceptualisations than talking about Paris Hilton, and from a certain point onwards that woman's predilection is just about the only thing left that makes any sense.

A certain tendency to relax may exist all the time, but when it has grown into lethargy any prompt for something sharper is smothered at its source. Since behaviour is fundamentally determined by one's identity we need to look at the influences in society which shape the core of a person.

Descending to the lowest common denominator signals the absence of an opposite. The placing of the child on a pedestal, the virtually groveling attitude of parents, and the simplistic idea of "everyone is special" are the cloying cocoon that wraps itself around a growing personality which is supposed to confront a world that simply is and always has been. Reality however does not give way and has a habit of dictating its own terms. The result is consternation, shock, and anger.

The title of yet another book, "The Princess Bitchface Syndrome" by Michael Carr-Gregg, Penguin, says it all.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Hello Griffith!

The heads of the thirty-two schools and/or departments at Griffith University have been pointed to the open letter to Terry Dartnall and the Examiners' report and invited to comment.

Wonder what they make of it.

Monday, 12 March 2007

A matter of consequence

Considerable space has been devoted to the ‘Griffith affair’, here and on the Otoom website. Bad assessments happened before so why bother, especially after all these years?

One could express this slightly differently. With all the cynicism about the so-called ‘pillars of society’, what does another well-deserved dose matter anymore?

From politicians to business, from academics to the judiciary, the effects of cluster building in a complex society and the associated blindness to conditions elsewhere have spared no-one. Still, academia is different.

Politicians may have their agendas, business its greed, and the judiciary bows to the ruling regime; yet all those players, at some point in their performance, act in line with the information available to them. That information is ultimately supplied by the universities from where it filters, ever so gradually, into the wider forum.

Curtail that flow and facts become brittle, spectres rule, and human life diminishes. But poison it at the spring and even the most elementary nourishment is a threat.

A life of plenty makes it difficult to imagine absence. Our achievements have engendered a false sense of security where trivialities are paramount, danger becomes entertainment, and warnings are the target of scorn.

What could be more devastating than dying of thirst? How many suburbanites know what it is like to have their tongue swell inside their mouths, to have the body suddenly experience hot as cold, and to watch as your mind wilts away?

Right now the region of south-east Queensland is going to run out of water within the next two years. At that point there won’t be any sand dunes covering the CBD but all the dams which have supplied the area with water over the past decades will be below five percent capacity. The remaining sludge will barely be useable and that includes drinking, and the power stations will be shut down.

To be sure, major construction programs are under way and if all goes well the work will be finished almost literally the very week the water runs out. Who knows what the restriction levels will be then, and what kind of hardships a million people will be subjected to.

So what’s my point? The water crisis is only one of several which have been documented over the past few years (health, education, security, have been others) and they all reflect the general character of this state’s demographic. A lack of respect for education, a close horizon, religious intensity, and moralistic fears in a population determine how reality is being responded to. The very features mentioned in my honours thesis and deemed worthy of special mention by both examiners to underline their disapproval.

Forget about artificial neural networks, contextual layers and double-linked lists. When well-paid, respected, yet ultimately decadent intellectuals feels secure enough to indulge their fantasies with no regard to the society behind them, when there is an institution that actually houses them and even derives a source of pride from such inanity, then it becomes a matter of interest as to the surrounding perception.

I wonder then how other staff at Griffith see all this. For that matter, how do others outside Griffith relate to it? It would be worthwhile finding out. There are consequences.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

The next step

It's rather difficult to guess how many people read one's blog. Sure, there are the hits here and from the Otoom website, but how many have actually read the thing?

Comments are no true indicator either. There may be one visitor itching to say something, or a dozen who couldn't be bothered.

To be certain at least some people know about the last entry (Shame, Griffith, shame!) and especially about the examiners' reports, I went to the school's common room yesterday on Nathan Campus and handed out some business cards.

As of today the Otoom website showed some specific hits already - so good on ya, guys!

Monday, 5 March 2007

Shame Griffith, shame!

An open letter to Dr Terry Dartnall, lecturer at the School of Information & Communication Technology, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia:

Dear Dr Dartnall,

This is with reference to my ill-assessed honours thesis in 1999.

Although according to the Vice-Chancellor Ian O'Connor my legal options in this matter have been exhausted, there are still questions which remain unanswered.

What would be of interest is your own role in all this.

My supervisor, Grigoris Antoniou, decided to have you assess the thesis. I was present when the conversation took place, and at the time such a mentioning did not seem out of place to me. After all, who did the marking of any assignment and/or test had never been a secret so far. When I subsequently handed in the thesis at the counter just before closing time on that day (I think it was Marie Gehde who took the papers) I made some remark along the lines of you still being in your office despite the late hour. This elicited the - somewhat non-plussed - reply that I should not have "known about that", meaning that I shouldn't have known you were the intended assessor.

Was there a change of plan, and what did it involve?

Moreover, throughout your lectures in the undergraduate as well as the honours course it became evident you have been working on a solution to how the mind works yourself, indeed according to the faculty's web pages you and others are still working on the problem.

There would not have been some kind of jealousy involved, an attempt to stall someone else's progress at a time when such a plan could have been effective?

In my step-by-step advance towards the goal I naturally had to consider what had been done already by others in the field including the converse, ie what kind of questions had not been asked and why. During some of your lectures I asked certain questions along those lines, being careful not to disclose too much (for one thing I often was still not certain myself and obviously I wanted to preserve the opportunity to get there). At one stage my questions incurred the label "eccentric librarian" from you.

Before you dismiss the above as the whining of yet another disgruntled student, the sheer silliness of some of the criticism in the assessments of the thesis does raise certain questions about a higher agenda. As far as my own status is concerned, I can only refer to what is presented on my website - the main work, the computer programs, the ongoing applicability as well as the many confirmations since its completion.

In addition you could consider -

- my entire academic record throughout the years at Griffith University (that thesis received the only graded Pass in any subject);

- the election to become a member of the Golden Key National Honours Society, despite the fact that I completed the undergraduate degree in two years instead of the standard three (in fact, at one stage I effectively dealt with five subjects at once because one lecturer wanted to leave for somewhere else and so decided to cram one entire semester into half the period);

- the subsequent progress in so many areas, from the computer programs to more society-related issues, all of which would not have been possible without a profound basis from where to start (see the website for all the details);

- my CV overall, which should indicate I am not the kind of person who under-performs and then tries to get away with it through some shenanigans (again see the website).

Sooner or later the truth will come out. It always does.

Yours sincerely, etc etc