Thursday 25 December 2008

Hail the nanny state!

A few days ago the story of Hannah's parents went through the media.

Last October the two-year-old girl drowned in a swimming pool and since then her parents "lobbied vigorously" to strengthen the pool safety laws in Queensland. Pool owners face the compulsory installation of added locks and regular inspection by the authorities, all at their own expense and regardless of whether they have children of their own or not and whatever their age and swimming skills.

"Vicious hate mail" came their way, and state premier Anna Bligh was "shocked" at such a response.

Loosing one's child is tragic, but it is interesting no-one has touched upon the deeper reasons for the on-going attempts to impose more and more controls in our lives in such a general and pervasive manner.

One or two incidents of some kind are hardly a sign of a culture, but have the events multiply and there is reason to look more closely.

An unsupervised and untrained child drowns and everybody is meant to bear the consequences. An irresponsible driver fails to negotiate a curve and the Roads Department is lambasted for its negligence. Someone slips on a wet rock in a river and Parks and Wildlife Services are taken to court. A pedestrian trips over a kink in the footpath and the Council has to pay. Some people cannot handle their alcohol and the opening hours in the entire city are reduced.

See the common denominator?

Generally speaking, in the face of a potential danger one of two reactions is possible. Either the individual is held to account and leaned upon to be prepared, or the environment at large is modified to reduce the danger.

The question becomes, what is the overall cost in both cases? A danger might be so unforeseeable and complex that training everybody would be unfeasible and so the focus is on the threat itself. On the other hand, the act of preparing can be so trivial that individuals rather than society can be expected to take responsibility.

Clearly, in the examples above society at large has been forced to address the issue, with the added onus of needing organisational and administrative entities to cope with the extra burden - a measure individuals do not need. Therefore, a society in which each and every member is up to the task of daily life will have more resources at its disposal than one that assumes the role of general supervisor, guardian, and nanny.

The source of both approaches can readily be found in human existence, and for good reason. A child in its first few years does not have the capacity to understand the wider surrounds and needs protection, most immediately supplied by the mother – the female. Rather than expect the child to master every eventuality a mother will concentrate on the surrounds to make them safe. When the father – the male – takes over in later years the focus shifts to the child, to be trained and thus prepared for what is to come. Hence if a young child falls off a swing a mother seeks to change the swing, if an older child does the same a father changes the child.

Through feminism the female mindset has spread out from the home into society and with it carried the values and priorities of its bearers. As a consequence society has become the ‘home’ and its members have attained the status of ‘child’ in so many ways. No longer is it desirable to have strong and independent youngsters – they must play the role of children for as long as possible. No longer is the drive to adult life seen as a sign of vigour – it is being decried as irresponsible and being deprived of one’s childhood.

Just as a mother will always see the young boy in the grown man, so does society now view its members as children who need to be protected at all costs.

“If only one child is saved by...” has become the war cry of nannies of any ilk as soon as some measure is contemplated which yet again lowers the standards for us all. Nobody can, or dares, question the effect of such a sentiment. If out of 100 children one cannot manage a roundabout, does this mean all the other 99 must be dumbed down as well?

If out of 100 children one manages to find a questionable website, does that mean every ISP in the land needs to install filters? The idiosyncrasy becomes particularly poignant in cases like these: on one hand we – however grudgingly – admire the technical savvy of youngsters, yet on the other we impose limits on their inventiveness (whether these limits actually work is of course another matter again).

Now consider those dangers that do need a collective effort to counter; climate change, terrorism, scarcity of resources, population density come to mind. If we all run ourselves into the ground trying to sustain a female-friendly nursery, what then will be left to address the real problems – the ones outside the newly-pervasive ‘home’?

Even more to the point, societies which do not cater to the inward-looking narcissism to the same extent are better placed to pursue their intents. While the West drowns in its self-imposed navel-gazing they in turn fulfill their ambitions at will.

While we pledge obeisance to the eternal Mother, they are free to take advantage of our weakness.

Sunday 14 December 2008

The Schopenhauer dilemma

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

This famous quote by Schopenhauer speaks, like all the others, of the man's experience with life.

A good phrase inveigles itself into the mind through its seductive power. A splendid phrase holds up even under examination.

When an author writes beautifully the lean sentence has an allure a volume of words cannot match. Like a simple but haunting melody the few tones stand for so much, unsaid.

Yet to delve more deeply often reveals such detail that the audience runs the risk of having its own visions curtailed against the intention of the writer.

What stands for truth has been the subject of endless arguments, from antiquity to the present. Let us not dwell on the false authority of religion, nor on the obsession of ideologues. Let us simply say that truth represents what, at any given moment, can be shown to mirror reality. No more, but certainly no less.

Since its completion in 2003 the Otoom model of the mind has proven itself against hundreds of events around the world. Almost a thousand references in the book itself and over two hundred mentioned in the Parallels attest to that (see the website). A small truth here, a small truth there, they all add up.

Why then the opposition, why the reluctance to engage?

In general a newly arrived truth, even a small one, competes with the established. By its very definition it is a sentiment not shared by anyone aligned with the familiar. For something new to take hold it has to replace the old, and the old has become comfortable through sheer habit.

That applies at any scale, but consider the mystery of the mind. For millennia thinkers have confronted the inescapable question how humans formulate thoughts, generate ideas, and arrive at insights. In modern times the theologians and philosophers were joined by researchers focusing on society, on cognition, right up to artificial intelligence. Just as nobody came up with a comprehensive picture, many offered hypotheses built upon what to them seemed plausible under their own circumstances.

From a mysterious and all-powerful creator, to the multitude of actions throughout society, to the abstracts of mental dynamics, to computer-based neural networks, they all were seen as a promising entrance to what we perceive as the Mind, that vast and inscrutable system.

Fancy has given way to science, but even here this elusive phenomenon provided more questions than answers in the end. And so in our times the debates became occasions for a form of mutual commiseration.

I may present my view, but in the absence of a conclusive solution my own version is no better or worse than anyone else's in the end. The discussions came to enjoy a conviviality born out of a shared frustration with the real, and the participants could repeat the exercise happy in the knowledge that no-one else would destroy their own artifice either.

Such an atmosphere, such fun!

For a member of that club to undermine the reason for its very existence borders on the masochistic, or at least on the personality of a misanthrope.

Yet this is precisely what the Otoom model is asking. Except that the old stuffy comfort gets replaced by the bracing winds sweeping in from a land beckoning to be explored.

Then there is status.

Imagine walking down the street and a bedraggled individual emerges from the shadows, whispering the secrets of the universe. Would you stop and listen?

Or imagine an air-brushed fashion thing sprouts inanities from the front page. Would you toss away the paper?

Under ordinary circumstances a scientist can rely upon the credence their testamur bestows. The document represents commitment, effort, and success.

But what if the circumstances are outside the ordinary - what if, for reasons that need explaining, and sometimes in detail, the usual path had not been available?

Nothing would have changed in the content of a presented material, but the perception is now radically different. Not only is the material itself questioned, if dealt with at all the tendency exists to measure it against others which did in fact come from more acceptable sources. If found wanting in that regard the concept is criticised for being in neglect of the established; never mind that it may have nothing to do with it.

Familiarity, it has been said, breeds contempt. More often than not it also calcifies thinking.

One attribute of familiarity is norm, and it can manifest in insidious ways. Since the norm represents a standard, such markers can be used to preempt further investigation.

Although universities enjoy a respect they well deserve, as societal entities they are situated within the greater realm of their demographic. It is the demographic that determines the ultimate quality of their surrounds, the mindset that pervades the overall climate and therefore the nature of any outcome.

Universities create their own intellectual space but they are nevertheless part of the wider community. Should this community be prone to secrecy, should those who voice some concern be subjected to threats and censorship, should leaders rise through its ranks not because of their learning but due to some religious or ideological appeal resonating through the social strata, then the critic is seen as an iconoclast at best or an usurper at worst. Outsiders not familiar with such an ambience do not see the background but only the critic and so his or her actions are not taken seriously.

Yet Queensland society does fall into that category, and people in the rest of the country or abroad do not necessarily relate to what can happen here. For example, a surgeon who complained about health practises has been publicly gagged, a local member of parliament thinks the financial crisis has been foretold in the Bible, a doctor who warned of problems with the intended merger of two children's hospitals has been warned to stay out of this "or else" and has been put down as a "blow-in", and the state's education system is not only well below world standards but has high school teachers who literally can't spell.

I emphasise I am talking about the general ambience. Not everybody falls into the same class and there are notable exceptions. What the latter have to deal with in everyday life is anyone's guess, but if one does speak out the response is swift and brutal.

To nurture something like the Otoom model in such a climate is an interesting experiment in itself. Only time will tell us about the ultimate outcome and furnish the lessons learnt.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Otoom on Obama

They may not have danced in the streets as they did across America, but a collective sigh of relief ran through the governments around the world.

Becoming increasingly uncomfortable with local and foreign US policies, a John McCain raising the spectre of another hundred years in Iraq and his gun-slinging, moose-shooting comrade whose only difference between her kind and a pit bull, in her own words, was the lipstick, was viewed with alarm.

In an unprecedented move the twenty-seven member states of the European Union signed a letter to Barack Obama within hours of his election win urging him to take Europe seriously as a partner. The French foreign minister's words emphatically directed to "our American friends, not America" spoke volumes. The EU being slow and cumbersome? Not this time, baby.

Talking about a water shed, a new era, a seismic shift, are no exaggerations. The new wind is sensed by Obama's followers, by his opponents, and most of all by the man himself.

The outcome of these elections defined the break from the familiar as only a spectacle representing a nation of three hundred million can. But the undercurrent, the broad cultural river which carries the daily affairs along on its stream, did not really need that latest turn to define itself.

Human affairs are dynamics which demonstrate the growth of clusters, the emergence of new domains, their eventual branching away from their source, to enter a renewed cycle of assertion and growth. They can be observed at any scale at any time, only the size and the content changes.

The United States was the cultural child of Britain, coming from a broader European heritage and Anglo-Saxon parents. As any healthy child it eventually sought independence, fought for it, and won.

Just as independence brings freedom, it also puts distance between the former home and itself. The lack of direct access to maturity is balanced by a sense of adventure and the drive for a separate identity. The generations that followed filled that new space in the name of the youth now on a path towards finding himself. The lessons were hard, often disastrous, and many a times caused a shaking of heads at such naiveté.

Yet as powerful a conceptual tool as the functional perspective is, one must not overlook the content. In tandem with the growth came the developing composition of American society, broadly summarised in terms of its three main elements: the original Anglo-Saxon demographic, its Hispanic counterpart, and alongside African-Americans.

None had the benefit of growing up among its traditional cultural peers, all needed to forge a new self in a society as wild as it seemed unbounded. Under such circumstances anything can happen, and it virtually did.

While the Anglo-Saxons revelled in their self-defined power the Hispanics worked to gain their share, but neither possessed the sheer urgency to escape the tyranny imposed by an age of enslavement. Step by step the former slaves fought their way from the burnings, the lynchings, the separation.

This century saw the degeneration of the American ruling class, its foreign excesses and its anti-social greed grown locally but affecting all of us. In those broad terms the comfort of luxury was no match against the vigour that comes from knowing first-hand what it means to have nothing.

The results from a competition between the laid-back rich and the hungry lower class manifest sooner or later. At first no immigrant struggling in a chaotic neighbourhood can take on the establishment, and no labourer sweating on a plantation can even hope to offer serious resistance to his masters. Only gradually does the balance of power shift, but it does.

And now, what does the future hold for a nation that is coming to terms with its new identity?

Previous expansionism, a concept which tells not only of strength but also of further opportunities to test its still existing sense of adventure, is not an option for a system that seeks to consolidate itself. A more local view will replace it, a perspective that is more focused on internal affairs than the outside. With the evolution of the self comes confidence, a security that stems from beginning to understand the newly-gained self.

Whether the outcome will be measured by the degree of influence in world affairs, so familiar to a certain older generation, remains to be seen. Today's world is a different place from what it was a century ago. Surrounded by the age-old, self-sustaining cultures of Europe, China and India the new America will not only need to negotiate its way through sophisticated interpretations of a common reality, it will also have to draw on its still developing inner resources to grow a confidence in matters of perception.

Already there is talk of the Age of China, supplanting the Age of America. Islam poses a cultural threat going beyond the effects of localised acts of terrorism. And trade, that medium which controls and channels the wealth of individuals as well as nations, can be a source of power if based on real goods but can also lead to destruction when harnessed to contrived phantasies.

In the end race, skin or hair do not matter. It is the mind at any scale that defines its owner.

Thursday 16 October 2008

Dumbing down: ambiguity vs precision

Dumbing down can occur in many ways, some more insidious than others. One of the most dangerous forms relates to the misuse of ambiguity and precision.

To illustrate what I mean consider the following sentence, "Standing next to a passing express train is quite an experience".

The statement is evocative because it conveys the context of danger in a manner most can relate to. But why, and how?

It contains two elements that make it work, and they are opposite in nature: 'express train' and 'next'.

'Express train' defines in an unambiguous way; we understand the big heavy object, the speed and the power. Not every train can be called an express either, and so the phrasing is precise.

'Next' on the other hand is ambiguous, its scope of meaning quite extensive. Earth is next to Mars; I am living next to the city; in water the hydrogen atoms are next to each other.

Neither precision nor ambiguity are wrong as such, it depends how they are used. Suppose I change the above sentence to, "Standing 2.3 metres away from a passing express train is quite an experience". It doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?

The statement needs the strictly defined object as the main reference, otherwise the reference itself negates its purpose. It also needs the wider scope of the spatial configuration. Not because a distance of 2.3 metres is not informative, but because the word 'next' relates to a sufficient number of experiences to identify what it means to be in close proximity to something. That 'something', part of so many patterns our mind has processed over the years, informs us about the importance of being 'next', regardless of what we are next to.

In other words, 'next' has become the symbol for a particular, multifaceted experience and it is exactly because the scope is left open-ended the symbol has power.

Therefore 'express train' relies on its precision to inform us, but 'next' does so due to its inherent ambiguity.

Swap the types around and the sentence becomes downright silly: "Standing 5.6 metres away from something is quite an experience". See what I mean?

An analogy to the above would be two versions of a basic scenario. There is a dark room with an object inside. In version one the object is a small coin and we use an average light bulb for illumination. In version two the object is a big statue and we use a strong but narrow beam of light. In which case would the object be more easily identified?

Surely the relatively dim and diffuse light from the bulb would help us find the coin quite quickly, but a narrow beam of light needs much more work to even find the statue, let alone tell us what it is.

Symbols as open-ended representations have their uses but care needs to be taken what they are paired with. By the same token, precise definitions are important but their relationship with the real must hold. Remove either from the context they need in order to function properly and confusion results or the message gets altered, often insidiously so.

At the time of writing SBS Television is running a commercial heralding its upcoming series on indigenous history in Australia. The voice-over tells of over three hundred nations across the continent, and indigenous culture is referred to as a civilisation lasting thousands of years.

Three hundred 'nations'? A 'civilisation'? There were hundreds of tribes; yet a nation represents a formally configured society, featuring documented evidence of its instrumentalities, purposefully organised layers of activity systems, general infrastructure. A civilisation implies evolutionary achievement, literature, technology, philosophical and scientific endeavours. None of them can be found among indigenous people, wherever in the world they are.

To have the meaning of words transposed from a precise definition to the unconstrained scope of a symbol, merely because the symbol per se sounds attractive, introduces ambiguity where it does not belong while at the same time neutering the power of language to inform and instruct.

It is dumbing down at its most dangerous.

Saturday 11 October 2008

The Wall Street story

The events on Wall Street are not only a symptom of a general malaise (see previous blog) but can be identified as certain specific functionalities going through their paces. In the process other domains become affected.

One benefit of using functionalities rather than content is the former's scalability, not so easily done with the latter. For example, a one kilogram iron bar requires a different neighbourhood than one weighing a tonne. But see them as a lever (a functionality) and that property can be applied regardless.

Since we can scale, let's start small. Consider the price of wheat per kilo and compare it with the price of bread of the same weight. Naturally bread costs more, reflecting the value-adding process it has undergone. If an economy were to consist of only two types of people, wheat growers and bakers, we have a problem with the generation of wealth. It is not enough to sell wheat and bread. If money is required to take care of things other than those two, for every unit of wheat grown and sold, and for every unit of bread baked and sold, there needs to be enough left over from the profits to pay for everything else. But how can this happen unless one party decides to up the price unilaterally and thereby condemn the other to perpetual bare survival. Such a situation cannot last.

So let's widen our model and add other materials and products and their respective generators. For the system to work the unit price of every good (and any associated service for that matter) must be such that, firstly, enough is left over for 'everything else' but secondly, some unit prices must be higher than others in order to introduce the differences necessary for someone's purchasing power to cover the scope of goods that economy is able to offer. (By the way, here are the underlying reasons why demographics featuring a small number of products can never be as wealthy as their more diverse counterparts - unless of course artificial loading is imposed from the outside)

A goldsmith, say, operates with different unit prices altogether as far as their raw materials and the end products are concerned. The proceeds from one gold ring buys many loafs of bread, and the baker needs a relatively broad customer base in order to afford jewellery. Add as much variety of materials and products as you wish, in principle the same relationships hold. There must be a general difference in unit prices across the spectrum to enable the proceeds to widen their usefulness in tandem with the richness of the entire economy.

But unit prices alone are not enough. Not only is a gold ring worth more than a loaf of bread, the output per time units of a goldsmith can be less than that of a baker and profits can still be realised.

What about the bottom rung in our model so far? Wheat growers do not necessarily come last because selling a lot of wheat takes care of the hierarchy in terms of unit prices per se. As long as the relationship in numbers between farmers and food processors is a reasonable one, the equation holds overall.

These two entities, price units and time units, can be combined for any commodity, let's call it the product unit. The discrepancies between product units (price- and time-wise) across an economy allow profits to be made, simply because there is always some price in relation to some other, and there is always some time period in relation to some other, which produce an oversupply of value (represented by money) such that some other product can be purchased.

So far we have assumed a certain intent to keep the system in balance. That view is improbable given human nature and the sheer resources needed to administer any transgressions. Most people will want to increase their profits, either through producing more or through jacking up the price. However, there are ultimate limits represented by the size of the market and its willingness to pay. Generally speaking the system settles into a balance more or less due to those factors. Nevertheless, a greater variety of products and a greater number of operators increase the chances of useful differences and hence profit making. It also means that there always will be a hierarchy of profitabilities regardless what certain idealists may wish for and regardless of the means of exchange, be that money, services, or status.

Suppose now someone wanted to work around these barriers. There are two options. Come up with a new product entirely and - for some time at least - it will have placed itself outside the dampening cycle of interacting pre-existing product units. Invent the light bulb and for the moment you have the market to yourself.

That option, although effective, is time and resource consuming and therefore not readily available (but it does exist).

Another option is to come up again with a new product, but this time one which is cheaper to implement. Remember the relationships between product units, all based on the exchange of their respective values, and made possible through our means of exchange, that is money.

If you view money itself as yet another product, the same interdependencies of price and time units can be applied. All you need to do is insert a process dealing with money alone into the flow and the same principles hold.

This is exactly what happened over the last few decades. Actually, one can argue the appearance of financial instruments started with the invention of paper money in China, or cheques by the Hanse, or, for that matter, the manipulations by the US Federal Reserve Bank early in the 20th century as the move away from the gold standard started to take hold there.

Still, whatever the performances of monetary product units may be, as long as the link between their dynamics and those of the other product units they in the end represent is not too tenuous the system will still work, because their respective time factors (of both, the money-related products and the rest) fit into the overall spectrum of delay and/or availability of products.

However, widen the time spans and eventually the system will slow down or even grind to a halt; put simply, money takes too long to reach the areas where it is required to play its part in the product unit cycles.

Right now the insertion process of an ever growing number of money-related products and their associated processes has widened the gap considerably, so much so that the combined price and time units of those products the money is meant to represent in the end are no longer able to keep pace with the processes belonging to those newcomers. The results can be seen around the world.

In principle, the solution is simple: remove those artificial products and with them their processes. In practice there are dangers. They centre on the existing linkages between those products and the others in the rest of the economy. To find the path of least damage requires a considerable data base containing the instantiated effects of products and their neighbours. Knowing what to remove without affecting their dependencies (such as they are) requires a commensurate familiarity with the economic structure in all its detail. I doubt whether such a flow chart even exists, never mind its use.

On the other hand, the system itself ensures that unviable products are sooner or later left by the wayside in any case. Natural re-adjustments come at a cost however, and the damage can be seen every time an economic system purges itself. Nevertheless, an organised type of healing should be possible once we have made the effort of pairing the functional picture with its content-related counterpart. While not an easy exercise I would suggest its costs are insignificant compared to those of a meltdown.

Yet whatever happens, it isn't the end of the world.

Saturday 4 October 2008

Uncle Sam and his family of man

As keyboards around the world run hot punching out the latest spins on the current financial crisis this is as good an opportunity as any to append the system's view under Otoom; a view that had been established long before the present woes were no more than yet another gleam in the masters' of the universe little eyes.

Let's start with a general statement: a system, any system, does not falter just because one of its subsystems has failed. Complex dynamics cannot be added or subtracted as with a bag of groceries. Taking out one, two, or three items will still leave you with that bag, but render one, two, or three subsystems inoperable and there comes a point when suddenly there is no system - at least under the current auspices. Complex systems are like that.

The world of finance is one vast complex system in itself and connects to other similarly vast regions that define human society. Its faults are many.

For a system to be sustainable in the long term each one of its parts must contribute to its maintenance; exceptions can be entertained provided they are being managed.

One myth that defines our times relates to the idea of equality. Not the equality before the law or the offering of opportunities, but the assumption that everybody is the same when it comes to personal qualities and circumspection. The very mantra "Anybody can be president" so often espoused in the US is nothing more than a conceptual anesthetic to lull voters (the minority that actually bothers to vote) into a convenient dream. Translate such a phantasy into lending patterns and we get 'sub-prime' mortgages, a euphemism standing for dishing out money to illusory characters.

Even greed does not underwrite those practices, for greed looks for returns (even if not much else besides).

Systems are interdependent within their domains but the degree to which any one of its parts relates to any other is a function of the respective channels of communication. The data criss-crossing the landscape, their interpretation and indeed their creation, all become a matter of how well the entities perform. Larger complexes can reach a stage where the conceptual distance induces a blurring of shapes just like a building can disappear behind smog. A resident can still know about the building, but to anyone not familiar with the district it may as well not even exist.

Over the last few decades a whole range of financial instruments have been created for the sole purpose of making money out of their dynamics; they represent subsystems which have been hidden from the general population. Neither their existence nor their nature appeared on the screens of many of our regulatory mechanisms designed to rein in excesses.

Hardly any business would countenance having its stock plundered by others in order to profit from contrived opportunities only known to themselves. Yet shares and their derivatives (already removed from the source that made them possible in the first place), traded within the context of short selling or naked short selling, were dragged down arcane passages subjecting them to questionable rituals. Shares themselves are merely items of symbolic value with a tenuous link to what they are actually meant to represent. Their fluctuations in price do not reflect the hourly quality of some product but the visceral emotions of gamblers. Perception rules; psychosis is king.

Functionalities, an often misunderstood yet powerful analysis tool under Otoom nevertheless, represent our conceptualisations as they become manifest. Acuity of vision or the lack of it, is a functionality owned by receivers of information regardless of where they are found. Degeneration - another type of dynamic - can spread across areas if such progress is made possible through underlying trends. If our masters can perform in an atmosphere of shortsightedness then chances are the ambience is of a general nature that encompasses the rest of society. Thus the housing crisis rests on levels of debt reflecting a desire for instant fulfillment; so does obesity; so does road rage; so does violence in the class room.

Lack of understanding rests on a paucity of thinking. A superficiality that allowed the effects of short selling to be shrugged off as someone else's problem can also be found in the outsourcing of aircraft maintenance; in the exporting of long-developed skills; in placing infants in child care. When something goes wrong eventually the resultant indignation is a measure of the guilt waiting in the wings.

Complex systems do not go quietly. The road to dissolution may appear placid, but any one of its subsystems can spring a surprise event which then overwhelms its neighbours in a possibly cataclysmic fashion. Even if the current fallout from the financial upheaval will have been cleaned away and put down as mere murmurs they are like the creaking of beams in a mine - one too many and the collapse will have reduced the edifice to just another layer of rocks.

Monday 1 September 2008

The fate of society

What determines the path of a society can be analysed under the auspices of a general formality. It starts with a prerequisite: being able to sustain one's presence.

The effort required to pursue the challenges of the moment needs a commensurate supply of resources. That can be transferred from one scale to another, provided we keep referring to principles.

For example, if a society decides to go urban the inherent activities must produce a sufficient amount of skills, materials and finance to support cities. Moving to the lower end of the scale, the cognitive dynamics can be analysed in a similar light.

The mental picture that represents an urban lifestyle requires a level of comprehension sufficient to address the administrative and organisational issues that relate to a relatively complex environment - and that includes an adequate degree of foresight.

Since most societies are hardly an island, interactions with the outside generates a flow of information whose contents are not necessarily in synch with the recipient. How the differences are dealt with depends on the overall quality of understanding on either side. The result becomes a function of the interacting dynamics at whatever level of efficacy.

That brief summary already hints at the contingencies needed for a well-functioning human activity system at any scale. On an individual level ideas make for potential options but need their host's situatedness in the real to turn them into effective outcomes. Groups may have ideals too, but unless the former are able to organise themselves so they will shape their environment in a realisable manner, those ideals will come to nothing. Worse still, they force their bearers into scenarios that are not sustainable and may well prove the group's downfall.

Societies at large follow the calls of their culture, but somewhere along the way their environment (geography, resources and other humans) needs to come to the party.

No path through history is ever a smooth one. Discrepancies between the inner imagery and the real impose qualifications often diametrically opposite to an intent. What overcomes such adversities is the vigour of a people and the ability to adjust one's imagination to what is.

The vigour comes from the will to look, and the readiness to adjust comes from the capacity to see.

Even a cursory glance around the world will show the extent to which either is manifest.

Ideology, that mental straightjacket par excellence, projects its own chimera onto the psyche of a people. Sometimes the spectres happen to be in line with reality, often they interfere with its dynamics. Submission to ideology's tenets impoverishes the will and makes for brittle sycophancy.

But reality, reality could not care less.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Those bad, bad stereotypes

In contemporary society stereotyping is bad form.

Every age has its spectres, and to paraphrase an old saying (an old stereotype?), you shall be known by the company you don't keep.

Yet generalisations are useful; in fact, without our ability to generalise about a situation life can be downright dangerous.

Imagine you want to cross a road. Wouldn't it be prudent to generalise about cars as being potentially deadly and never mind the specific disposition of these particular drivers and their vehicles?

Assigning any act to some nether region does not abolish the act, it merely hides it from view. Demagogues find this hard to understand and so proceed to elevate their fears to a degree of substance they initially did not possess.

Demonising the stereotype follows a similar track. Rather than producing a people of wisdom and sound judgment the content of generalisations lives under the surface, and its features are hardly touched upon.

Our mind is a pattern-seeking and identifying system par excellence. Its neuronal hardware does not so much define the re-representative content of incoming information, rather it uses it for the emergence of chaos-type states that define themselves in terms of their affinities with each other. Since it is also a highly distributive system related clusters are formed very quickly across the relevant sections of the network.

What these clusters mean to us is a function of their relatedness to previous states, and not dependent on their actual information value as such.

The more fundamental the re-representative regions are the faster the result. The term social cognition refers to our innate ability to form judgments on people within seconds, using facial traits and overall appearance. A useful introduction to such material can be found on the live science page.

Of course, recognising people for their potential positive or negative effects on us has been a necessary ability for over millennia; no wonder we have become so good at it.

A corollary to the process is the preordained pattern already formed at the moment of the current process. We don't make judgments - rightly or wrongly - without already having been exposed to some data that had been able to generate the patterns we now use to once again categorise what is new. It doesn't always work. Just because we have been hit by three red cars in a row does not mean every single read car is about to converge on us. On the other hand, how valid are the reasons for completely dismissing such a possibility? The pattern recognition facility is not about the comprehensive identification of content, it allows us to respond precisely because we don't know everything there is about a given situation. And if we do err we do so on the side of caution.

We stereotype people. Polite company excepted of course (another stereotype!) but despite an era of political correctness jokes about national traits are ever so popular. Want to know some about Europeans?

At this point there would not be too many readers who fire off an angry email. So instead of Europeans let's exchange the word for Indigenous People. Still comfortable?

The readiness to recognise generalisations as generalisations and nothing more depends on the ability to abstract. We can laugh at a joke because we know it is a caricature, not to be taken too seriously. Not everyone shows such largesse.

One measure of the degree of abstraction at work is the act of self-proclaiming. There are those who define themselves in terms of their own assessment as an individual, and there are those who see themselves as the representative of a collective. If the response by their social surrounds proceeds likewise (ie, judging them in terms of such a collective) it will either be met with approval if its nature is on the positive side but met with anger if it is not. Yet in principle that response had been exactly in line with the portrayal of themselves. The anger emerges because abstraction had been largely absent.

Suppressing innate functions never works. A far better approach is to allow them the light of day so that they may be examined for what they are.

Thursday 7 August 2008

Black sheep: the new black?

Criminals, or more precisely, young criminals, are in the news once again.

There would hardly be a newspaper in the world where headlines about children on the attack have not appeared at one time or another. The Courier Mail, Queensland's metropolitan daily, is no exception.

This time we read about youth gangs attacking shops, people on the street, and invading school grounds wielding machetes and slashing other students.

Several things stand out. Violent teenagers are nothing new, but over the last few decades have pushed their boundaries. The attacks have become bolder, and now include spaces that once used to be virtually untouchable (such as schools). At the same time the official response has spread across a spectrum of reconciliation supporting an industry of counsellors, psychologists, and courts that seek to ameliorate the phenomenon through a sophisticated construct of analysis and political correctness.

Another feature would be the tendency to barricade oneself behind a wall of optimistic perception that supports the system and attacks the critic - a typical characteristic of a parochial society such as Queensland extending into many other areas. However, this is a topic by itself.

From Otoom's point of view a society is a system that relies on the interdependent activities of its members and the information developed through creation and feedback. The activities generate the data, and their surrounds reflect via feedback which in itself becomes modified by those entities and their respective processes. How complex such dynamics turn out to be depends on the complexity of society per se.

Any event can be analysed and deconstructed to the nth degree. Whether the result is still applicable to the here and now becomes a matter of the environment's complexity, rather than the analyst's. As Freud once said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

When members of the public complain about too lenient sentences, a judge can point to the intricacies of the case and the welter of detail playing a part in the decision. However correct all that may be, in the end it is the defendant's understanding of it that determines the long-term result. In our case, would a dysfunctional youth be able and willing to consider the finer points of their condition and relate them to the wider precepts of philosophy and human rights charters? The answer, more likely than not, is in the negative.

The feedback process mentioned earlier occurs on both sides. The youth will rejoin the gang and bask in the glorification of waywardness. The judge's decision will filter through society's institutions and stimulate further the processes of their perception and seeking confirmation within their own maxims. Both derive their sustenance from a mutually contrary world where the interface is not meaningful dialogue but the appearance of yet another victim.

Since in any situation its information value is a matter of the participants' intellectual capacity, the result mirrors that capacity and not its inherent potential.

While companies continuously evolve their methods of testing job applicants for their personal characteristics, when it comes to a demographic's average we have fallen into the trap of considering humanity at large as an amalgam of essentially equal performers. Yet, as the most cursory glance around the world will show, nothing could be further from the truth. The very quality of daily life differs from Sydney to Paris to Dacca. Just as there are differences on the large scale, within a society similar variations can be found.

So yes, for a more subtle person the deliberations of a judge carry the intended meaning, but for a 12-year-old brute they are neither here nor there. Still, both are subjected to the same treatment. And both, given the confluence of interdependent information flows, will view their status from their own disposition. The judge will contemplate a complex interaction, the youth will savour his victory. Both will go from there.

On a large scale the interference by the West in the chaos of African demographics produces a similar outcome. The current accusations leveled against senior members of the French government during the Rwandan massacres demonstrate how costly the interaction of disparate complexities can become. The chaos as a result of two low-complexity groups, Hutus and Tutsis, playing out the game of hierarchy after their own fashion, cannot be met through the high-complexity action by a third party. Just as a teacher should not quote Voltaire when faced with bunch of quarrelling children, in a traditional setting warring tribes were subdued through the action of a strongman. In the current climate of perceived equality however a realistic assessment of the players has become heresy.

And so the French government is attacked by a tribe; in Brisbane citizens are set upon by gangs.

Thursday 31 July 2008

2020 Summit: a case of censorship?

On the 19 and 20 April this year the Rudd Government held an ideas summit at the Old Parliament House in Canberra. Labelled "2020 Summit" it invited 1000 people - "some of the best and brightest brains from across the country" - to, as the website says, "tackle the long term challenges confronting Australia's future".

The stated intent was not only to receive an input there and then, but also to continue the exercise by allowing the general public to post submissions to their website. By the end of the year those submissions would be perused by the government. In all there were 10 broad themes (1. Productivity Agenda - education, skills, training, science and innovation; 2. Australian Economy - the future of the Australian economy; 3. Sustainability and Climate Change - population, sustainability, climate change, water and the future of our cities; 4. Rural Australia - future directions for rural industries and rural communities; 5. Health - a long-term national health strategy - including the challenges of preventative health, workforce planning and the ageing population; 6. Communities and Families - strengthening communities, supporting families and social inclusion; 7. Indigenous Australia - options for the future of Indigenous Australia; 8. Creative Australia - towards a creative Australia: the future of the arts, film and design; 9. Australian Governance - the future of Australian governance: renewed democracy, a more open government (including the role of the media), the structure of the Federation and the rights and responsibilities of citizens; 10. Australia's Future in the World - Australia's future security and prosperity in a rapidly changing region and world).

By the middle of May the website was ready to receive further submissions and on the 16th I posted my thoughts on topic 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 10, also sent in via hard copy on the 19th.

By the 11 June all submissions could be found on the website except one, 7. Indigenous Australia. On that day I sent a letter pointing to the omission and included the text once more. A second query was sent on the 26 June. Still no response nor did that submission appear, and so yet another letter was sent on the 17 July.

As of today, the 31 July, my submission on indigenous Australia is still missing, despite the obviously functioning process that allowed many others to have their posts published in the meantime.

I hesitate to be cynical and cry foul. I won't go as far as entertaining the idea that the whole exercise was a publicity stunt for our prime minister to present as being receptive to his populace by surrounding himself with already agreed upon ideas and no others. I won't suggest that not having to argue with pesky opinions may be smoothly efficient but it won't be democratic (Kevin Rudd just loves efficiency). Oh no.

All my submissions were written from the perspective of Otoom; that is to say, considering society as a system and identifying positive and/or negative dynamics under the given perspectives. Under that view the role of indigenous people in today's world, especially in developed nations, is a troubled one. This is not the time to enter into the detailed argument, suffice to say that, generally speaking, endeavours by many governments and organisations here and overseas produced no successful outcome. None of those initiatives were conducted using a technically and societally comprehensive model of the mind - firstly because until now it did not even exist, and secondly because the originating mind sets veered between forms of colonialist authoritarianism and new-age sycophancy.

So here is that submission once more:

The following is based on a model of the mind that sees human activities as systems. What is defined as a particular system depends on the current focus. Therefore the model is scalable, from the thought structures of an individual to groups to society at large. Since an activity is an expression derived from a certain capacity, it can be circumscribed as a property of a certain type. Under this view we can do away with words such as race, culture, religion and/or politics, and substitute them with demographic, functionality, and spiritual and/or secular ideology. The model already predicted the outcomes of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the riots in France and Sydney, the implosion of so many Pacific Island states, and much more besides.

As the debate about indigenous people everywhere shows, a nomenclature that substitutes 'demographic' for 'race' is far more productive. In the world of today and the future what determines a person's situatedness is not skin colour or their cultural background, but how they perform within the context of their society. Using 'race' makes this topic indeed a "delicate" one.

When 'culture' means a specific mind set and no other, problems arise if its surrounds have reached a higher complexity. While a hunter-gatherer culture is preventing its members from creating even a written language, entire empires have come and gone and right now we enter the age of space travel.

The insistence of any mind set to remain true to itself poses a hindrance in a dynamic world. Whatever romanticists might say, China would not be where she is today had she aligned herself with Tibet rather than aligning Tibet with her standard.

Generally speaking, in Australia opportunities exist for anyone provided their inherent capacity allows them to participate. To what extent shortfalls are addressed by the overall system becomes a matter of balance. The question of whether members of indigenous demographics ramp up to the common standard or whether they choose to exist in virtual anthropological zoos remains first and foremost for them to decide.

In the past under-performing demographics were swallowed up by their betters. In today's world we have the luxury to create political buffer zones, but their existence relies on available resources. Observing the current trend lines around the globe this situation may not hold for much longer.

Although a more complex society needs more resources to maintain itself, it also affords more opportunities to its members. In this context and considering the emerging trend lines an indigenous mind set will not be a constructive partner in preparing ourselves for the challenges ahead.

Due credit to all those whose submissions contained comparable views. The current text is derived from a perspective that is formal and independent of culture and politics.

The question is not so much whether indigenous people decide or are forced to change; it is becoming a matter of what type of conditions will confront all of us with their sheer inevitability.

Monday 14 July 2008

Conquering the future

Quite a few of the posts have dealt with the general pitfalls of a society as it moves through its evolutionary phases; all against the background of the Otoom mind model.

How about the positive side - what general dynamics would have to be in place for a society to be successful in the long run?

Perhaps we should start by defining what we mean by 'success'. Systems - complex, dynamic systems - have the propensity to cluster around affinitive elements (at whatever scale) and in doing so increase their complexity further.

Complexity means greater variance, and greater variance entails a higher chance of potentially diverse subsystems. At the same time such an evolution - and it is an evolution in a very real sense - demands an ever increasing size, a wider resource base, and a commensurate infrastructure to accommodate transport and communication. So far so familiar.

The dynamics of our evolving system need to answer the resultant, and sometimes conflicting, demands. For example, a more extensive infrastructure requires improved channels of communication, but that needs resources which are now not available for the rest. Or, a greater diversity heightens the potential for new ideas, but unless organised into a productive whole the plans may never make it past their inception.

Another factor to be considered is the process of evolution itself. When observing past civilisations one is struck by the sheer number of potentially disastrous events. How many times could things have turned out quite differently, and how many times did certain situations result in an advance?

Hence a higher complexity also means a greater range of possibilities and therefore the chance of failure.

A sophisticated society that has the capacity for mastering its environment to allow, say, space travel and the use of the laws of physics to a high degree, and at the same time can take care of its citizens in the face of disease and catastrophes, needs to be able to organise itself to a significant extent.

The salient word here is 'itself'. Nature, that nature which makes for forests, oceans, and even basically agrarian societies, that 'natural' system will have been left behind long ago. The interdependent system of a forest or an ocean does not possess the set of checks and balances which takes care of its elements. Power stations and cities have no functional equivalent in a traditional setting to provide the self-adjusting influences that underpinned the survival of the old earth for millennia.

In other words, an advanced civilisation has to take control of its own destiny - for better or worse. And 'better' must be an option once the potential for disaster or success has fallen into our hands and our hands only.

Let's start with the big picture. Our society of the future will have to administer and control its environment. Not the environment obsessed by contemporary green groups but a space that offers the options to sustain its human activity systems in terms of those systems' needs and potentials - nothing more, and certainly nothing less. To carry out this task its information-gathering processes need to be comprehensive, transparent, and objective. As a consequence the administration, in fact the governance, requires a degree of intelligence that is at once curious as well as discriminatory. Since the implementation of governance spans activities across the entire spectrum of human abilities, that range in itself has to be synchronised with the range inherent in society. Just as there are skilled and not so skilled professions, there is an equally diverse range of citizens, and both sides should complement each other.

Since the higher on the ladder of decision-making we go the greater the demands on skill levels, the all-important feedback loop should take account of these differences. Under the conventional perspective this would be seen as discriminatory and undemocratic. In an advanced sustainable system however it becomes a prerequisite for stability. While the optionality of the system needs to be tested constantly - essential for survival - it must be done so with the ultimate outcome in mind; an outcome that aligns with the overall optionality of its host.

Currently the notion of equality is a well-worn leitmotiv. Yet in practice it never works and considering the historical timelines our current ideals are merely a blip on the evolutionary landscape. It starts with the young when some respond to speech and others require a belting. It continues in later life when some can handle an opportunity while others cause grief. Whether our lip service to equality proves to be as lasting as past systems without it, some of which survived for centuries and even millennia, remains to be seen. That alone should give pause for reflection. What would be the determinant is a selection process favouring ability, regardless of other, more superficial factors. At the same time, resulting averages linkable to some kind of categorisation are inevitable; let them be what they may.

In tandem with a comprehensive assessment of one's environment - not excluding anything possibly deemed inconvenient - comes a similar analysis of its customs and morals. Both of them have already undergone considerable changes throughout history, and mostly for the better. Regardless of what religion, cultural tradition, or pressure groups try to tell us, what is eventually allowed or disallowed is a function of ascertainable reality - and not a conjured spectre of some phantasts. It also becomes a function of maturity, an often ill-used expression but meant here in its most profound sense. Such a degree of maturity means knowing and understanding what is necessary and what is not, what is possible and what is not, and above all, who is able to decide and who is not.

Overall, so far we haven't achieved it yet. Who knows which part of the human race will manage that goal, if any at all.

As far as the complexity and pervasive impact on our planet is concerned, the time for readjustment along the above lines is now. Not every portion of humanity will have the wherewithal for such an exercise, and whoever proves adequate will truly inherit the earth.

Friday 11 July 2008

The Child - our Guide and Saviour??

Child sex, child pornography, child photos, child models, child fashion... Can you add to the list?

If you came up with yet another titillating, newspaper selling ratings winner you didn't think hard enough.

Observe the body language of a mother as she unabashedly casts adoring looks towards her child at a restaurant table while the little brat produces another one of its inanities.

Observe the proliferation of fashion shows where children parade the latest must-have before a rapt audience.

Observe the rage of a parent in response to the often feeble attempts by a teacher to instill a modicum of discipline in the classroom.

Can't, or won't, connect the dots?

There was a time not so long ago, and in demographics outside the West there still is, when an attitude of benign interest focused on the young as they struggled to gradually imitate the behaviour of the adult. When playing with cars, acting out through some game, handling a doll, was seen as hints of the maturity yet to come. And sex, that nasty, sweaty, ecstatic trait of our species, must be included.

Yet instead of seeing all of the above as fun, or a laugh, or a peccadillo, they have come to represent a profound message coming from the new gods. Depending on the cultural situatedness of the context they are either received with utter seriousness or vengeful condemnation.

Why should the dress worn by a child be taken as a fashion statement standing for the leitmotiv of a society - what does a child know about style anyway, and what does a little kid have that allows it to carry a symbol of cultural abstraction on its unfinished body?

How can it be that a melee on the sports ground is deemed so important that parents turn it into a rallying cry for their own wars?

How come the child has gained such stature?

As a matter of fact, it always possessed it. To a mother her child is the most precious, beautiful, intelligent being that ever was. And, in tandem with that kind of sentiment, it will be shielded against the outside regardless of its actual potential. Yet the adoration remained in the home, and without it children would not get the love and care so essential for their development. Critical analysis comes later, and in stages.

Over the last few decades feminism infused our society with the inherent mindset of the Female. Her mother instinct transposed itself into the wider world and moulded it in its image. A game of dressing-up in the bedroom turned into a public occasion, a wrangle in the backyard has become an event worthy of official assessment, and a tickle is subsumed under the mantle of paedophilia. The real paedophile, that body-mind combination which centres on the child as representative of an exclusive demand of their personal satisfaction, that phenomenon is thrown into a swirl of uninformed arguments made doubly opaque by tossing together emotional triggers serving an ill-understood catharsis.

Who, in this carnival of madness, is the real paedophile? The person who playfully engages a cute body, or someone who uses the child as a serious substitute for their own agenda?

Ultimately the problem is not so much the child. Even sending youngsters down a coal mine, for all its horrors, did not wipe out a civilisation. But today's adulation is far more insidious.

If a projection serves any purpose at all, at the very least it should be something productive. But the feedback from a fashion parade of children, or the instilled ego in a pupil, does not produce anything but an immature reflection of what should, or could, have been.

To turn such outcomes into a cultural standard spells disaster.

Monday 7 July 2008

New World + Old Ways = Danger

As we stumble towards the gradual realisation what climate change has in store for us, as energy resources become more and more expensive, as political violence on any scale has us in thrall, the calls emerge for radical solutions. In tandem commentators judge the state of the world according to their predilections, pressure groups add their shouts, and the media grab the chance to sell their wares through juicy headlines.

So how about an objective assessment based on how the mind works. Let’s skip the technical details for once and list the features how they present themselves. Feel free to interpret the order any way you like.

During the past few decades the West underwent a considerable shift. From a state of assertion and confidence the emphasis is on a navel-gazing self-recrimination regardless of the actual content. In a reverse of the original phrase, the splinter in one’s own eye is wailed about as the beam in someone other’s is disregarded.

Our so-called materialism is seen as one cause of the world’s ills. We, materialists? If you want to see real materialism in action go to Mumbai, to Shanghai, to Dubai. Which other demographic has as many libraries per head of population, as many museums, as many opera houses, as many art galleries? Who has the most philanthropists?

Slavery is used as an example of our belligerent arrogance. True, in geographical terms Europe brought slavery to the Americas. But from the very beginning the Portuguese availed themselves of the services offered at the time by Arab traders as they visited the western coasts of Africa. And who abolished it in the end? It started as early as the 12th century in London and by the 19th century it was in full swing throughout Europe and its dominions. Can anyone else claim the same?

The inward-looking contraction results in artistic expertise chased down as graffiti in our cities while standing in awe before primitive flecks of mud on some bark.

It results in youngsters lauded for their ability to swear (no doubt derived from their adults’ genuflection before violent music made untouchable due to their ethnic origin) while society bemoans their increasing inability to string together a few words in a comprehensible manner.

The ideological side of feminism forced our entire society to embrace the fundamental attitude of the female in changing one’s environment in favour of the vulnerable infant. Can’t negotiate a curve in the road? Blame the council. Can’t handle your alcohol? Impose a blanket restriction on the industry.

Oh yes, those drugs. So what if a few individuals end up burying themselves in their own haze; does this mean we spend hundreds of millions on police, the courts, feed black markets world-wide and fight the latest weapons of militias which they bought with the proceeds of our matron-state idealism?

That well-worn phrase “If only one child ... then ... has been worthwhile” has led to a downward-spiral towards ineptitude. A child falls of a swing and that swing is made safer. After a while another falls off and it’s made safer still. The ongoing education - if that’s the right word - into more and more cosseted scenarios produces a population of dysfunctional simpletons.

The same goes for the human eros. Out goes the cry “sexualisation of children!” and up rise the psychotics who superimpose their own fear and loathing upon the rest of us. Naturally the media follow suit because they know what sells. Human beings are sexualised in the uterus as soon as genitals form and the rest of the body is built around them. Later on the psychosis manifests when bloated bodies, shot-up people, and torture pose no problem on the evening news but a naked body brings on the hysteria.

Any state of affairs poses its own problems. Today’s high-level complexity disenfranchises many because they can’t keep up. Yet it is those left behind who are often allowed to call the tune. Rather than gathering our will and confront the challenge with our face to the wind the answer is sought in defeatist retreat.

Sure there are issues, dangers even. Want to know about a real problem? Revisit, if you can, the time of the Hundred Years War in Europe, the sweeps of the plague, the potato famine. Those generations may have had no more than a hammer and a hoe, but they made it.

Humans can be dirty and wild, sometimes downright stupid. But they also have a will.

In these times of pressures yet again, let’s not forget that.

Thursday 3 July 2008

Once again: everything has a cost


When an activity that has settled into a custom needs to be changed the inevitable costs already incurred are posited against what it takes to build the new. Not all of those are visible.

Just as a current scenario can suggest the expenditure to those directly involved but will only become noteworthy to the rest once the link between the activity and its effects throughout the system has been made, so does the change hide its wider influence in the initial stages. It is difficult enough to stretch one's awareness towards the unfamiliar, much harder still to define something that has not yet substantiated itself.

A process has settled in when its host system acquired a general balance as a consequence. A modification upsets that balance. At that point the question becomes: in whose favour will decisions be made?

In favour of the status quo and its adherents, or in favour of those who would benefit from the new?

Resetting the equation costs. Take childcare.

Traditionally the costs were born by the mother, the wife, added to the efforts required of the father, the husband, to maintain his family. Under feminism women moved into the workforce and despite the added income the sumtotal of resources (which includes time) proved insufficient to fulfill the equation.

Outsiders emerged and now childcare centres dot the urban landscape. They cost, and since most people are not happy with a perfect balance of their ledgers they want to see some profit. If in the home the credit and debit sides are neutralised because husband and wife do not profit against each other, the same cannot be said for outsourced activities. Each activity unit - in this case each child - represents another profit margin for the childcare centre. Hence the more children per mother, the greater the imbalance per household.

The indirect effects on a society's balance sheet have not yet been expressed in actual numbers, although their sheer existence is recognised readily enough.

Increasingly disparate family ledgers demand actions from the government and when given result in common debit. When the money has to be recouped somehow up go the taxes. A bigger tax burden triggers more demands for relief, and when governments respond in comes the new debit. And so on.

Sooner or later a solution must be found and again, in the end in whose favour will the decision be made? Whatever the perception may be, whatever ideology drives this or that side, there will be costs.

If we make home-centred child rearing our initial reference, and if the costs of reverting to the traditional standard are considered too high, the spiraling aspects of outsourcing need addressing.

Within our reference the ledgers were balanced inside the family, but the additional burden on the father was shared by all the fathers. Indirectly the costs were thus spread across the whole of society. Such a system worked for millennia.

The salient point here is not the home - after all, 'home' means a lot of different things across the variety of cultures - but the aspect of commonality.

State-run, in other words, public child care absorbs these costs in effectively the same way the obligations of traditional fathers were diffused across society.

Free-marketeers may not like this, but in the absence of any plausible solution from their side they should reconsider.

Sooner or later the decision will have to be made. Childcare is one example, but any activity that is as essential as it is potentially inflationary falls under the same heading.

The communal aspect of communism took second place to its dictatorial ideology. But replace the party hacks with math-literate technocrats and who knows, we just might have equality for once.

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Would you like an extra $173 in your pocket?

By the end of the 2007 financial year the war in Iraq has cost Australia $2.94 billion (that's nothing compared to the United States which would have spent as much as $938 billion in our currency).
For Afghanistan the Australian Government's budget was $290 million in the year 2006-7 and for 2007-8 an additional $703 million was allocated to be spent over the next four years. Therefore at the end of the 2008 financial year the amount poured into that enterprise would have been around $466 million.
By the middle of 2008 Australia's population has reached 21 million. If the government had not engaged in those two wars and today suddenly decided to hand over the money to every Australian man, woman and child they all would have received $173 in their pockets. (Given the cross-over of timelines you might say that's playing with figures, but the fact is the money, as it turns out, has been used after all)
If $173 doesn't sound like much take the overall view: the government would have had an extra $3.6 billion at its disposal to be spent on its people.
Let's say someone approached the prime minister with a proposal that required almost $4 billion to be implemented. There must be pretty good reasons to prevent being shown out the door there and then.
But marketers know this is not how it's done. You don't tell a customer, "Come and spend a thousand bucks!". You lure them into the shop on the premise of buying an item worth a fraction, and hope they spend enough time to get enticed into filling their trolley as they walk through the aisles.
It's a form of progression lock, the phenomenon of an event continuing through its paces because the preliminaries have been set. It happens with shopping, with urban planning, with large-scale contracts. Start at a convenient point and progress from there, because eventually the costs of retracing your steps outweigh the expenses piling up.
Nevertheless, some consideration must have been given to the ultimate viability of implementing an idea that involved moving into a place like Iraq or Afghanistan in order to remodel those nations. Had the initial evaluation involved the Otoom model the data gleaned would have painted a critical picture. In the case of Iraq see the notes on a US report and its British equivalent.
As for Afghanistan, its history alone would have given pause for thought. Here is a region that for centuries was beset by tribal warfare and conflict. Every now and then a strong-man regime was able to subdue the factions but it never lasted more than a few decades. Apart from Asian expansions the British tried during their Anglo-Afghan wars in the 18/19th century, more recently it was the Russians, and now the US and its allies are at it once again. None of them succeeded since firstly, although an army may achieve a military victory that does not translate into societal assimilation in the long run (even the ancient Romans learnt their lessons in this regard, and they too build a lot of infrastructure throughout their colonies). Secondly, the demographics of this world differentiate themselves through their respective customs and their rigidity, their religion and its pervasiveness, and their degree of intransigence when it comes to side-stepping the traditional links between family and tribe. If those factors were negligible an invasion would not have been necessary in the first place. And if they are not what is the point of invading unless the reasons are only temporary and sufficiently pressing?
Yet Iraq did happen, and then Afghanistan. The conventional approach would have entailed military-style reasoning, the spectre of terrorism, and, in the absence of a comprehensive means to analyse the cognitive/societal conditions on the ground, a considerable amount of optimism stemming from good old-fashioned projection: we are happy with our Western democracy, so why can't they be?
The information based on the Otoom model had been around since late 2003. Why it struggles to be taken seriously here and there is a topic in itself. Quite apart from any personal frustration the damage covers more than useless and damaging wars (as if that wasn't enough!) - there is also the question of diminishing oil resources.
If the issue of peak oil would really be taken seriously the huge amount of fuel necessary for the Iraq and Afghanistan adventure alone should ring the alarm bells.
One can argue about the precise figures marking the gradual disappearance of that resource. One could even question the original premise, the Hubbert peak theory, even though it proved itself correct already.
What cannot be argued with is the stark difference between the rates of creation and consumption of oil. In addition the onset of scarcity gives rise to speculation and perception which in some cases can evolve towards panic. Against these latter factors the amount of oil still in the ground somewhere recedes into the background.
Long before the actual volume of remaining oil reserves will appear in the media, long before the number of countries struggling with supplying their own population has risen to double-digit figures, the perception-induced panic will have surpassed a few demonstrations here or there. At that point we can either retreat into 19th century novels or wake up to the inevitable consequences of disregarding the realistic analysis of demographic mindsets under precarious conditions.

Friday 6 June 2008

World crisis: food and oil

In his opening remarks at a press briefing after the UN conference in Rome on the international food crisis Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the world to adopt a series of reform measures. According to him the initiatives will cost as much as US$15 to $20 billion a year once the process gathers momentum.

Also at the conference the use of biofuels had come under fire. Once heralded as one answer to dwindling oil supplies it now emerges as a major concern for countries which see the issue from a different perspective.

On the previous Wednesday the UN World Food Program announced it is providing an additional US$1.2 billion in food assistance to help the tens of millions of people in more than 60 nations who are most affected by the crisis.

Take Ethiopia as an example. As the figures from the International Food Policy Research Institute show, agriculture makes up about half of the country's total goods and services, and at least eight out of every ten workers in Ethiopia are involved in agricultural activities. Only 24 percent of the population have access to safe drinking water, 47 percent of children under the age of five are malnourished, and for every 1000 children born there 174 will die before their fifth birthday. At the same time Ethiopia's population is expected to increase from 67 million to 100 million in less than 20 years.

Now shift the focus to Madagascar. In a paper studying the link between agricultural performance and rural poverty Bart Mintena and Christopher Barrett point out that higher rates of adoption of improved agricultural technologies and therefore higher crop yields also make for lower food prices. Improved agricultural production is seen as an important aspect in reducing the high poverty and food insecurity currently suffered by that nation's rural population.

On to Australia. In this first-world country the rises in the price of food and oil are causing the spending habits of people to change [1]. Suddenly many goods are seen as luxuries one can do without. In Queensland retail clothing sales are down by 20 percent, domestic appliances and recorded music sales are down by 7 percent, and watch and jewellery sales decreased by 20 percent. As the chief executive officer of the Queensland Hotels Association is quoted as saying, "the mood of the nation has changed".

Whenever overall conditions change significantly the response comes firstly from the general population; the ruling class follows later. To what extent it responds (if at all) depends on the force of the mindset pushing for change as well as the severity of the conditions themselves. Be they issues such as relating to sustainability, climate change, or civil rights, governments are beset with inertia.

On the other hand, if the new conditions are sufficiently stark that their effects are impossible to hide behind the official curtains, even governments begin to act. Hence the increasing number of conferences dealing with the world's dwindling food and oil resources. It will only be a matter of time when in the West the initial reluctance by individuals to spend will have moved across to official policy.

Over the last decades various pressure groups have managed to persuade their governments to formulate laws which address their specific concerns. From the readiness to provide compensation for the results of irresponsible acts, to upholding the morals of self-appointed guardians, to throwing cocoons around dysfunctional demographics, they all found their way into the public environment implicitly approved by and resourced through Mr. and Ms. Citizen.

The effects can be seen on an almost daily basis. They could manifest in needing to finance an additional 255 paramedics by the Queensland government to take care of the expected increase in calls for help, where over 100 nuisance and hoax calls are made to the 000 number every week [2].

They could further exacerbate the pressure on the federal government trying to deal with the escalating costs of child care, with carers caught between the need to provide an income and the obligation to rear their children [3], a situation induced by feminist idealism and national wealth.

They can also be seen in the activation of the New South Wales police and court system in response to complaints about a Bill Henson exhibition showing photographs of naked boys and girls (that's nothing - wait until Caravaggio's works hit a local gallery).

For every law that exists society bears the costs of the executive and judiciary. The final ledger entry comes from the prison system. In New South Wales for instance the yearly costs of its prisons amount to over A$530 million, in addition to another $90 million for building and upkeep. Such numbers are not insubstantial, and when they represent a steady increase over the years it becomes obvious something has to give sooner or later.

Or take sport. A holy cow in Australia conducted under auspices which reflect more the ideological side behind rather than a serious attempt at elevating the fitness levels in young and old. According to figures provided by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare for the year 2004-05 hospitalisations for all the football codes alone numbered 14,147. The costs for the same category during the same period amounted to $43,931,202.

Over the coming years a realistic and objective re-assessment of how and why we spend our money will become paramount. Even years ago people at a rally in Berlin protesting against the moralistic selectivity by the Catholic Church carried placards that read, "Kondome nicht Dome" ("Condoms not cathedrals"). Now the scope has widened considerably.

As the tables of the top and bottom 20 countries selected according to general living standards show, the single common denominator deciding a nation's place is its adherence or otherwise to ideological mindsets. It matters whether a general population insists on what it regards as traditional customs or whether it is capable of stepping outside those bounds for the greater good. The analysis of agricultural practices in Madagascar mentioned above demonstrates the point in one area. Regarding East Timor the focus was on that country's birth rate, now one of the world's highest, when the idea had been raised in a Senate Estimates hearing to provide aid money for abortions [4]. Only 1 percent of men there use condoms and the reproductive health of women is very poor.

Such an issue acquires further poignancy when considering that the suggestion was made under the umbrella of improving the treatment of women in developing countries, but would also encompass the strict rule sets by which these women are forced to exist in their societies. If implemented these kind of policies have consequences at the local level. Nevertheless, could this be one of the future relationships between developed and under-developed nations?

On a larger scale still it is yet possible for the US presidential candidate John McCain to suggest that US troops could be left in Iraq for 100 years [5]. To even articulate such a number speaks volumes about the man's general perception. (On that note, if the Otoom model had been known to certain decision makers the necessary analysis ahead of the invasion would have taken no more than two days, with the result that the plan would have been abandoned there and then)

The ballooning constraints imposed by the scarcity of food and oil and its resultant upheavals around the planet confront the social unrests on one side with the very real prospect of being unable to follow through with the intended aid programs on the other.

For a prediction of the future in another 40 years see "2050: Age of the Silverback", but the beginnings of global reorientations are already with us. The coming years will demonstrate how well they are being managed around the world.

Further references:

1. Courier Mail, 5 Jun 08, "Luxuries off radar as spending wanes".

2. Courier Mail, 5 Jun 08, "Hoax callers face triple-0 crackdown".

3. Courier Mail, 4 Jun 08, "Daycare worries hit Swan".

4. Courier Mail, 4 Jun 08, "Abortion aid plan".

5. Courier Mail, 5 Jun 08, "Now for the real economy - Iraq".