Sunday 24 June 2007

The big picture

He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Individuals are born, live, and die. Societies come into being, pursue their interests, and deconstruct. Civilisations emerge, form their environment, and vanish.

The ever widening circles of mutual flows, from low to high and back to low again, determine the overall stability at their respective scales.

Today there exist three great civilisations, each drawing on thousands of years, each having achieved brilliance, and each managing to survive despite so many catastrophes. In alphabetical order they are China, Europe, and India.

One may ask, "What does it take to make a great civilisation?" - one can equally ask, "What does it take to make a great individual?" - because, although different in scale, the fundamental qualities that Life appreciates need to be there in any case.

We need stability, so we have the chance to strike out on an adventure. We need knowledge and wisdom, so we can identify ignorance and stupidity. We need records of our history, so we can see the importance of the moment. But above all, we need an atmosphere that allows our intellect to range far and wide, and atmosphere that sustains the mind with its manifold particles of the spirit, because without the mind there can be no individual, society, and civilisation.

And here we find one essential difference between Europe and the other two. For all its unpredictable intellect, a strange animal that can fight and obey, rage and love all at once, there was a time in its history when it decided to absorb the mentality of an alien people. That mindset became known as Christianity, an outgrowth of Middle Eastern values which imposed their chains on its host ever since.

Do we really know all about the wealth of our antiquity, "the glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome" as Poe called it? Can we imagine where we would be now if a thousand dark years of Church dominance had not intervened - if the Age of Enlightenment had continued where Rome had left off?

Instead we had to endure one disaster after another driven by a general religion that with its monotheism imposed a spiritual dictatorship that persecuted the search for knowledge, through its yearning for self-flagellation destroyed elegance and beauty, and whose evangelism drove us to conquer not just lands but also the minds of people, their most precious possession. Think of the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the missionaries, the hate towards the human eros.

So here we are today, facing challenges on a global scale, and yet loosing ourselves in Middle Eastern affairs we even invited into our midst, for here to fester. We wage wars trying to convince the victims that our values are better than theirs; we harbour people within our own lands who scorn the millions of volumes of their own culture while at the same time standing in awe before those who cannot show a single sheaf; we permit individuals to harness an entire governance to their fear of their own selves.

We imprison those who wilfully damaged others in pursuit of their own gains, and rightly so. Yet actions on a grand scale, similarly destructive but not even enhancing our selves, are defended and glorified.

The lives of individuals make a society; the society creates a civilisation through its endeavours; the civilisation in all its might relies on its members. It takes wisdom to understand this continuum.

Sunday 17 June 2007

The dark side of the tribe

A few days ago another horrific story about honour killing went through the news.

Those terrible events haunt us not only for the murder but also because they confront society with the dark reality hiding behind the romantic image of the tribe.

From sports to the construed glory of indigenous society, when it comes to the tribe the West likes to see in such demographics the opportunity to re-live its own mythical past. The ambience of close relationships, immovable customs, and a value system unencumbered by outsiders are perceived as a comfort zone we in our seemingly unnatural sophistication have lost long ago.

A classic symptom of selective memory. What is conveniently forgotten are personal ties that are inviolable, rigid laws that must never be broken, and the veil of secrecy protecting wrong-doers at any cost.

There is a reason why large-scale societies have left such prisons behind. The more people there are subsuming themselves under a common law, the more open and more accountable such a framework will need to be. The sheer volume and dynamism demands it.

The relationship can be turned around quite easily. A society that cannot manage to overcome traditional idiosyncrasies will not be able to extend its reach since its parts will stay bound to their respective customs; overall harmony remains elusive.

Societies can be seen as systems, and so their definition relies on identifiable common denominators. Hence there are systems within systems, institutions, organisations, and groups; all situated within the greater whole but equally cultivating the similarities of their members.

Should any such entity revert back to a cloistered existence its relationship with the wider realm becomes endangered. Queensland has provided us with examples - years ago it was the entire state government under Joh Bjelke-Petersen that actively hunted down dissidents, more recently we had the health system which tried to silence those that spoke out against its transgressions.

And always it was the value system of the tribe held above all else; submit to the group, play along, don't speak to outsiders lest you get punished.

The affair surrounding Griffith reveals another version. In the West universities achieved a degree of autonomy grown out of the desire to protect our places of learning against the vicissitudes of religion and politics. They were meant to be a sanctuary from ideological persecution and the hysteria of the driven masses. Yet as human activity systems they are equally not immune to tribal machinations, should the opportunity arise. To misuse something of value is a form of decadence.

On the advice of Queensland Education Dr Richard Armour, the Academic Registrar at Griffith University, was presented with the case. His response? The same old whitewash dished out so many times before. No new information had been provided he claimed, when in fact the questionable selection of the thesis' examiners was mentioned for the first time. In his view the evaluation should stand, when in fact the points raised by myself had not been examined. How could they have been, unless one assumes the presence or otherwise of text written in black and white was actually some form of hallucination on my part. Should I submit to a test, to ascertain whether I am capable of parsing sentences and processing their content?

Or had Dr Armour's examination of the case been nothing more than talking to a select few, relying on their assurances that everything is just fine? Never mind the glaring detail, if only there is the will to look through the veil.

It's the tribe all over again: submit, play along, don't say anything. After all, it worked for the Kurds, didn't it?

Sunday 10 June 2007

It's a FEAST! But not for everyone

On the 24 May the Queensland-European Research Collaborations Initiative (QERCI) was launched. It is the first time such a link has been established between a single Australian state and the European research community (read the announcement on the Forum for European-Australian Science and Technology cooperation - "Queensland researchers to enjoy close ties with Europe").
The benefits could be considerable, as the summary of the projects under the 7th Framework Programme demonstrates.
On the other hand... As Neil Hamilton, then Executive Director of FEAST writes in one of the Forum's newsletters, there are problems. Poignantly titled, "If Australian Science is World Class, why aren't we the Partner of Choice for European Projects?", he lists short-sighted funding on Australia's side, lack of strategies, high overheads associated with European systems, and being too busy just trying to make our own system work, as the main reasons.
Admittedly the article dates from January 2006, but I'll wager not much has changed. There is also a more insidious factor, often hidden but instrumental none the less.
As it happens, back in November 2006 Jean-Michel Baer, Director, Directorate L - Science, economy and society, issued an invitation to myself and Australian scientists in general to participate in the EU's 7th Framework Programme (see here and here). I had submitted the essay "The social Europe: a formal view". It deals with the EU as a large-scale system, subjected to various dynamics identified through the Otoom mind model which have the potential to advance but could also spell deterioration. Such a perspective is not derived from politics or ideology, but is available under a formal and objective analysis. This presentation - and possibly other material gleaned from the Otoom website - resulted in the invitation.
Wonderful, except for my limited means to follow through. As so much in this sad affair it comes back to the difficulty experienced with Griffith University. Being confined to your little room is hardly a productive basis from which to engage with the EU's scientific community. The posts "When in Rome..." and "The reasons behind Otoom" should give some idea what all this means.
How ironic - there is Queensland's Premier Peter Beattie proudly announcing the state's collaboration with Europe and here is one of its own citizens shunted sideways by the ignorance and deviousness of certain compatriots (and they are even members of a university!).
Clearly, something needs to be done.

Monday 4 June 2007

Living in a fog

The other morning Brisbane experienced heavy fog. How rare to have the horizon only a few blocks away.

Your memory replaces the skyline and fills in all the bits. You get in the mood and think.

Fog - such a good metaphor for language. When the mists surround you objects retreat and turn into silhouettes. Much of their definition is lost, they have become two-dimensional.

Words can be like that. All those meanings so many of them have - unless the mind sees only one.

There seems to be a creeping paucity in people's understanding, an ever-shrinking space caused by the disappearance of meanings that have been swallowed up by their mental fog.

Take 'functionality' - in it's generic sense the property of a function. Over the years certain fields have added their special interpretations and so we have the functionality of a module in a software, or the nature of a hypothesis trying to model the human mind. Yet the original basis still stands, ready to be used.

In recent emails much confusion resulted from an insistence of readers to exclude any version of the word outside the context they were familiar with. Other words were suggested as a substitute to facilitate my explanation, but they didn't work because I wanted my readers' thoughts to proceed just so. But they couldn't know that, unless and until they accepted the word in its basic form.

In the exchange of emails the opportunity exists to at least point to the problem; but what if there is no feedback and contexts are changed ad hoc, never to be challenged?

Now the words have become like the silhouettes in the fog. The semantic landscape has turned into a flat canvas of shapes, a hotchpotch of things that may or may not connect with each other. One's very situatedness in the world has become precarious, based on subjective substitutes.

Carolyn Henshaw, an English teacher at a Brisbane school, has written about the worsening of language and how it is treated in the classroom (Courier Mail, 30 May 07, "Ideology turns joy of teaching English literature into an ugly game").

Instead of conveying the richness and beauty of language, the medium has become a vehicle for pushing ideological interpretations, a pared-down tool in the service of the political moment.

"Boys and girls", she writes, "who are still forming and clarifying their own beliefs and values are expected to analyse those of writers and historical contexts about which they know little or nothing."

"They regurgitate set phrases, such as 'marginalised groups', 'gaps and silences' and 'dominant discourse', in an attempt to meet criteria."

"Knowing how to play this critical literacy game is a more certain guarantee of 'success' than an appreciation of language and being able to respond to the complexities of literature with insight, intelligence and originality."

19th century poetry becomes an "integrating device for a discussion of inequality", "Hamlet is a stimulus for an exposé on Shakespeare's misogynistic attitude to women".

What happens when, instead of dancing with words, pupils are taught a "sociocultural-critical model of language", "invented by politically motivated academics and imposed by bureaucrats"?

Like someone wandering through a fog where the surrounds are looming shades of grey, their inner space has become a prison - and they can't even see its walls.