Infinity and Before!

15 November 2008

The Profound Possibilities of Impersonal Beauty

Thank you my friend, by Janusz I, with Creative Commons licenceBeauty, we so often say, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s personal, a matter of perception. But what of those things we can’t exactly perceive? Consider first the limits of personal beauty.  The old Shakespearian saw still holds true in our thinking: “that which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet”. We tend, far too often, to limit our conceptions of beauty to the finite and knowable. If we can imagine its essence, name it in one way or another, limit it and presume that we can know it, then an object can be beautiful to the highest degree, or awesome when we are less inclined to emphasise adoration over other, less comforting, impressions. And we are so very often inclined to extend these limits to the inspiring infinite.

If we believe in the Christian God, who should be a vast and mysterious presence that transcends our infinitesimally bounded experience, we point out his characteristics. Compassion, vengeance, love, even omnipresence – all these rubrics define as purposefully as they limit. And things unusual, notions grand beyond our reckoning, become little more than tawdry, usual, restrained.

This unfortunate turn of perceptions often applies to our understanding of what other people have made possible, even when we don’t really understand their logic and would struggle to follow their words. I’ve been reading a great deal about Albert Einstein lately, largely to understand the background of a little-mentioned episode in his life. I’ll discuss more of that in a post soon, but for the moment I want to consider reactions to what he achieved.

For most of us Einstein is the quintessential genius, an emblem of the possibilities explored during the Twentieth Century that we’ve dragged lovingly into the Twenty-First. Amongst other things he gave us the equation E = MC2, using different notation but still meaning that an object’s energy is equal to its mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. This boils down to the observation that a small mass can hold nearly unlimited energy.

Welcome to the nuclear age.

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The Teacher as Token

12 November 2008

A Lesson in Communication

Sms, by Pixel Action, with Creative Commons licenceCommunication is an abstraction, regardless of how we look at it. Writing, reading, talking, listening, waving, frowning – these are all immediate actions that convey information. Communication is but the rubric under which we usually group them, the point at which hindsight dwells on their similarities rather than their differences, considers the sum rather than the parts. A teacher, for instance, communicates in a number of different ways: pointing, talking, pausing, walking. Together these actions constitute not only the lesson in action, but also the way in which meaning shifts from one mind to many. There is a certain symbolism in them all and the teacher becomes a token, at once surface alone and substance entirely, imposing order and challenging the structure of existing thought.

Having spent time lecturing honours students about academic writing at a Hong Kong university recently I’ve had time to ponder the multiple meanings of the token as a concept rather than an artefact. At the most obvious level a token is a souvenir, a small reminder of something. In that sense I’ve been nothing but a presence, reminding 70 students that their classes are compulsory, that something must be said between the start and finish of each lesson. This is the teacher’s role as an authority figure, and with students in their third year as undergraduates the figure is a little more obvious than the authority.

We begin, then, with a sort of restrained communication, which is really closer to tokenism.

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The Contours of Language

29 September 2008

On Possibilities and their Problems

No language is purely descriptive. Each shapes our world in its own manner because it allows us to understand life in a particular way, defined not only by personal inclinations but also by vocabulary, grammar and syntax, those things that tell us we can say this but not that. All languages generate limits that we push against, borders that we find difficult to cross. We might think that all things exist before words, for instance, but some don’t and that holds us back.

Consider the phrase ‘premenstrual syndrome’. Before it became accepted terminology women suffered isolated symptoms, often misunderstood or denigrated. Afterwards it allowed an understanding of the complex ways in which the menstrual cycle affected the rest of the body, including the brain. In its generality it described anew, it created something that could be held against existing descriptions to prove them wrong at worst or inadequate at best.

Where once lay untroubled plains of life now rose hills and crags, a difficult geography that challenged just as much as it confirmed.

Language has that sort of capacity to both exceed and disturb only because people are willing to look beyond what is and consider what might be. Some brave souls travel outside the general conversation, turn aside from the conventions of words piled against each other, and then return with new ideas that become new words that describe age-old things. Discontent is their condition, and we’re lucky that they’re so troubled.

But in our more common grappling with language we open new territory far less often. We’re more likely to stumble over words, weigh ourselves down with presumptions rather than possibilities. Much has been said about the capacity of English speakers to shift rather effortlessly from ‘ought’ or ‘should’ to ‘must’, from describing an action that is morally or ethically correct to insisting that the same action is necessary. That we must do it, now. Instead of exploring new terrain we simply fall back on a familiar landscape of old ideas and comfortable words.

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Defining the Local

31 August 2008

On Being and (Not) Belonging

The act, or at least the assumption, of being local is a defining element of human identity. Unlike other animals, we characterise ourselves not so much by where we are, but by where we might belong. Being local is about limits instead or exceptions, probabilities instead of possibilities. I grew up on the coast of Queensland in northern Australia, but the locals never forgave me for the audacity of birth in Victoria on the southern coast. My two youngest children were born in Hong Kong, but can never hold Hong Kong passports. One day they may become permanent residents, but never citizens – the Basic Law limits that privilege to ethnic Chinese.

You know, the locals.

Why is it so hard to fit in, to become a local? Language and culture play their roles, but something else is at work. We’re often told that globalisation is redefining the distinctions between the common and the specific, and we even have ludicrous terms like glocal to delineate the interactions between global pressures and local resistance. Seen as a system of competing influences, the world becomes a series of sites at which universal values are reshaped and re-prioritised deep down in the dirt around the grass roots. But beyond that rhetoric of change, insularity is still the norm.

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You Will Believe!

17 August 2008

The Economist on Marx

Every publication needs a conceit, a sort of literary attitude that extends across issues, separates believers from the heathen, occasionally flows into a full article, but more often manifests in a well-placed quip or a scornful remark. Wired has its peccadillo for predication, and the New Yorker its disdain for the drudge of popular culture. The Economist is a little more sophisticated, but no less enthusiastic in its construction of a bête noire. It has Karl Marx, and it just won’t let go.

Consider last week’s issue of the magazine. Buried in a leader on the failed intellectual “heirs” of Russian literary dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the grand old rag of English conservatism slipped in a warning that “ideas should not be suppressed, but nor should they be worshipped”. In the context of the article that wasn’t a particularly significant statement – the problem of co-opted intellectuals, of ideas held rigidly in place and manipulated by the state, was its central theme. So why bother to distil the argument into a single sentence at all? Because it set up a strained comparison of Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalised condemnation of Soviet excess, the Gulag Archipelago, and the Communist Manifesto.

Of course Karl Marx and Manifesto co-author Friedrich Engels weren’t named in the article, all the better to maintain Solzhenitsyn’s status as a “great man” and underscore his well-known opposition to Marxism. But more than a simple genre-hop in pursuit of easy political points, the comparison pointed back to a long-term illogic in the magazine’s stance towards communism in general and Marx in particular. An illogic, I should add, that is very likely to comfort its core of conservative readers.

The article mentioned that “in 1848 two well-meaning intellectuals published another powerful indictment of a system, and their ‘Communist Manifesto’ went on to enslave half of mankind”. In the broadest possible sense, taking the words not at their literal meaning but as a loose pointer towards a series of documented historical events, you could say – on the balance of probabilities – that this is an adequate observation.

But if you think in more precise terms, the statement is clearly illogical. A book enslaved half of mankind? No, a political system did, or might have done depending on how you define ‘enslave’. And when you consider how that political system – wherever it was localised after the Bolshevik revolution – started at precisely the point at which the Communist Manifesto ended, with the dissolution of the old state, then the argument is little more than wasted ink.

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On Freedom

6 August 2008

For Yayah and Beth

What is freedom? That seems like an easy question, but it can never be answered without equivocation, the implication of limits to protect some-one or something else. We tend to think of freedom as an absolute, as unconditional liberty, but who would be prepared to grant free choice over life and death, the freedom to harm as well as to help? At the dawn of the Philippine Revolution against Spain a new word entered the Tagalog language to capture this ambivalence, to speak both of liberty and obligation. The word was kalayaan, which implied cooperation for liberty and its rewards.

Freedom is a fundamentally social concept, with tension between the individual and the group, or between the group and yet other groups, always at its core. By their very nature groups contain, condense and consolidate. In doing so they force their members to relinquish something, even those members who have the greatest influence over others. A group needs a focus at best, or an alibi at worst, and not all members are prepared to accept that under all circumstances. Ultimately, some members attempt to negate the compulsion to belong, which is as often born of necessity in one form or another as it is of coercion.

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Tread Warily, Fair Traveller

23 July 2008

A Socioeconomic Journey into Vengeance

The world of economics is a curious domain, beset by mathematics, often at odds with the reason of everyday life, but enormously informative should you traverse its difficult terrain. I’m reminded, each time I enter, of J.R.R. Tolkien’s perilous land, the enchanting realm of Faerie wherein lie “pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold”. But I doubt another place could offer the governance of pirate crews and longevity of nuclear deterrence both to illuminate the human condition, still speaking of interest rates and supply matched mostly to demand.

Economics has taught me that much of what we assume is in no way actual, and that logic other people can’t understand is no less logical for it. So now I venture there again, to look around, to shout BEWARE! and to marvel at the concepts that lie in wait within.

The National Bureau of Economic Research in the US recently uploaded Naci Mocan’s working paper on vengeance. Yes, you read that correctly – vengeance. Those of you who, like me, have spent a while in and around academia might be tempted to think first of departmental politics, but not this time.

Mocan’s paper is a very carefully argued study of statistics drawn from the International Crime Victim Survey conducted by the United Nations, covering the responses of 89,000 interviewees from 53 countries. To cut a very long story short, it’s about what is likely to happen if your colour television is stolen that the perpetrator caught. How are you likely to feel?

That doesn’t seem entirely within the realm of economics, but it is given that Mocan finds different attitudes prevalent in different places, and according to different income levels, including per capita levels for the whole country. People from lower socioeconomic groups, and in poorer countries, will want to send that TV-stealing thief to jail for longer, and sometimes even for life.

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The Grand Conversation

20 July 2008

Featuring Our Cognitive Surplus

One of the ironies of blogging is that in pursuit of the grand conversation, the epitome of Web 2.0 togetherness, writing often takes precedence over reading and the chance to comment on some-one else’s blog dwindles with each new post. Those of us who work professionally as writers and editors feel this the most, partly because we read so much in our line of work anyway, but also because a small distraction in a day can set a project back by hours. And if it’s not done by six o’clock, you just have to keep working into the night. Or on the weekend. So as I try to do from time to time I’m using this post to highlight a blog that I really should be commenting on, Greg Sadler’s new effort, Our Cognitive Surplus.

Many bloggers are sceptical about new blogs, wanting evidence of longevity before the initial burst of enthusiasm can be evaluated. But my opinion is that silence never encourages, and that enthusiasm grows with enthusiasm returned. Greg left a couple of very pertinent remarks here earlier in the week, on both my rudimentary (and yet to be tested!) comment policy and my recent consideration of Roman historiography. They struck me as intelligent and meant very much in the spirit of conversation, so I visited his blog to see what else he’s been ruminating about.

Greg writes from Canberra in Australia, and while his focus is by no means on the city, he does capture its essence in one brief burst – his comments on being accosted by evangelical Catholics in Civic had personal resonance for me, having lived thereabouts for six years. Canberra is very often a city of extreme and contradictory opinion, thrown about without much consideration for whether anyone is listening. Greg’s also perceptive in his assessment of the encounter, considering the importance of beliefs expressed even as he rues the lack of an internally functional paradigm within much religious debate. In other words, reason flies out the window all too often when dissent dares object to the received wisdom.

You might not agree with everything Greg writes, but that’s the whole point. He wants to start a conversation, and disagreement is inherent in any dialogue. So Greg, if you’re reading this, I will reply to your comments soon and I’m sure there’ll be much more to talk about. To everyone else who cares to converse, pay Our Cognitive Surplus a visit. It’s just beginning, but there should be a great deal more to come.


Abuse is Cheap

16 July 2008

Or, a Rudimentary Comment Policy

Although it seems so much like a cliché, to say abuse is cheap is the most satisfying response to irrational and irresponsible comments left on blogs. Thankfully, Greetings Earthlings has only ever attracted pertinent comments, many of which have made me think again about important issues. Some – especially my exchange with Patrick Lambe about knowledge management – still have me thinking. But today the other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, received a ranting, possibly delusional comment about my wife and two close friends who have been working with me seeking justice for Vicky Flores and her family. So it’s time to reflect on invective, and think about what might pass for a comment policy here.

What makes someone rant at people who have given countless hours of time, significant amounts of money and sent themselves almost to exhaustion to help others? Jealousy could nail it, or derangement if the logic slips enough, but neither are particularly satisfying. Obviously the Internet offers convenient anonymity from which to fire barbs, although relatively few people realise just how simple it is to track down the IP address and thus location of a bitchy commenter. No, it’s not about ease of use. It’s got something do with quality.

Regardless of what else I could be accused, I pride myself in writing well, not only because I want people to read and agree, but also because I value ideas and their articulation. Not everyone sees things my way, but at least they can see what I’m getting at. Blog flamers, in contrast, really have no idea. Just as words strung out sequentially don’t necessarily constitute a sentence, a scattering of insults and wild presumptions are unlikely to comprise a comment.

As I mentioned earlier, abuse is cheap. Not only is it worth little in one sense of the word, but it’s also sleazy, both degrading of its context and demeaning for its perpetrators. And I intend to save abusive commenters from themselves.

So here comes what will pass for a comment policy on Greetings Earthlings. Any personal abuse of me or anyone else, including public figures, will be deleted. Attack my ideas or those of other commenters if you like. Attack the blog’s layout – criticise my choice of images if it pleases you – but I ask you to do so from a rational perspective.

After all, logic is everyone’s friend in this truly puzzling world.


A Question of Money

5 July 2008

Is the Allure of Remittances Fading?

? by Stéfan, with Creative Commons licence

Questioning orthodoxy is often the hardest, least rewarded task. Everyone hates a whiner, and even the most artful of dissenters rarely appreciate the value of their own kind. But only by pushing and prodding can we expand our understanding of the way things are, always with the aim of shifting them towards the way things should be. When J.K. Galbraith coined the term ‘conventional wisdom’ in the 1950s he did so in the belief that there was “a persistent and never-ending competition between what is right and what is merely acceptable”. He wanted to root out and analyse ideas that were popular only because they could be understood within a broad social consensus, regardless of their content. They were persistent because people built on them, using the same or similar methods to produce slightly different explanations.

I’ve written about money sent home by overseas workers to the Philippines before, but allow me now to consider recent comments by others to put the issue in perspective. When I attended the opening forum of the International Migrant Alliance in Hong Kong not long ago, the most credible of the speakers had an interesting tale to tell. Sonny Africa is an economist with the IBON foundation, a left-leaning think tank in the Philippines. He argued, very much against the conventional wisdom, that remittances might well be propping up individual households in the country, but there was no hard evidence that they were encouraging anything but low-level investment. Most importantly, he said that remittances were not beneficial to long-term economic growth.

Africa’s position sounds like sour grapes in a country that received a staggering US$17 billion in remittances last year, second only to vastly more populous China at $US25.7 billion. But other economists have been questioning remittances recently – not dismissing them, but asking whether their beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

YouNotSneaky, an economist blogger far more perceptive that the name suggests, has argued in much the same way as Africa that the benefits people think come from remittances are actually from the transfer of money within households. The overall economic benefit, he argues, comes not from the remittances themselves but from the entire process of labour migration. Reviewing the post at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen agrees that “the gains are to be found in the immigration itself, not the subsequent transfer. Beware double counting.”

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Connecting the Commonplace

3 July 2008

A Podcast on Possibilities

Neon mic, by fensterbme, with Creative Commons licencePrivilege is an under-rated word – it tends to convey a sense of unwarranted wealth and power when it can more easily be a synonym for honour. The two concepts are diametrically opposed but together can produce a synthesis of sorts, with the honour perhaps just a little undeserved. In that sense I had the privilege earlier today of speaking to Dave Wallace and Mike Seyfang on their Extraordinary Everyday Lives Show. Along with Kent Newsome, the pair host occasional podcasts that range across the spectrum of technology, networking, people and ideas. Much of our focus today was on the work I’m doing with domestic helpers here in Hong Kong, especially in relation to Vicky Flores’ disappearance and death. But the concepts shifted from the significance of Creative Commons licensing to the nuances of activism and on to technical solutions for networked text messaging.

As I say, a privilege. You can listen to the podcast at the site, or download it to listen at your leisure.

Dave Wallace has featured here at Greetings Earthlings! a few times now, first as a commenter and then as the inspiration behind ideas I’ve reworked or reinterpreted. He describes his Lifekludger blog as an “ecosystem for enriching human life”, and his capacity to identify connections that other people might just barely notice is only really apparent when you speak to him in person. Or as ‘in person’ as a connection between Hong Kong and Adelaide will allow.

Mike Seyfang, a self-confessed “IT-git”, is also a pleasure to speak with because he digs into concepts and shakes their entrails. He’s particularly fervent about the possibilities of open licensing for intellectual property, and has featured at the Creative Commons wiki. He also blogs at Learning with the Fang, which I’ll be visiting a great deal in the near future.

Meela & freedado, by pierofix, with Creative Commons licenceTogether the pair made me think more about the intersection of people and technology that’s becoming more commonplace, and indeed more liberating, as new possibilities move from fertile minds to people on the street who are busy living, learning, working and laughing. And from that everyday activity, other ideas move in the opposite direction.

It’s like an ecosytem, as Dave would say, or a merging of memes. Most importantly its about people meeting people regardless of the distance between them.


All Mixed Up

29 June 2008

Further Thoughts on Racism

Change my world ... by CARF, with Creative Commons licence The best ideas are at the edge of reason, always pushing at accepted practice, redefining the unspoken hypotheses by which we live. Definitions should be of the moment, often unsettled because new ideas push out old and explain life in more precise, more realistic ways. In a recent post on racism I upheld the Wikipedia definition as the best we would get, given that it encompassed race and discrimination in a manner that reflected us, humankind, in all our bitterness and complexity. But I’ve been thinking more about this stain on our self-consciousness lately and there could well be definition still to add. Not incidentally, the many editors working on the Wikipeda article think so too, but they’ve confused detail with explanation in a retreat from the way things are.

First, let’s consider the changes made to the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia article, which is the touchstone for the ideas contained therein. The original paragraph read as follows:

Racism has many definitions, the most common being that members of one racial group consider themselves intrinsically superior to members of other racial groups. Racism inherently starts with the assumption that there are taxonomic differences between different groups of people. Without this assumption, prejudices against different peoples would be categorized as being prejudices related to national or regional origin, religion, occupation, social status or some other distinction.

As I mentioned in my initial post, this is by no means a precise definition, but it settles on racism not as a matter of fact but as a matter of opinion. In other words, racism is a contestable act of judgement.

Yet the new definition struggles to remove the inherent choice in such a position. It claims that:

Racism, by its simplest definition, is discrimination based on the racial groups people belong to. People with racist beliefs might hate certain groups of people according to their racial groups, or in the case of institutional racism, certain racial groups may be denied rights or benefits. Racism typically points out taxonomic differences between different groups of people, even though anybody can be racialised, independently of their somatic differences. According to the United Nations conventions, there is no distinction between the term racial discrimination and ethnic discrimination.

The first sentence is clearly just a clumsy re-write, seeking to add ‘discrimination’ where it really isn’t needed, which allows ‘hate’ to slip into the sentence that follows. Clearly this is a more emotional definition, and it offers examples such as institutional racism and the United Nations definition to limit the scope of what people might imagine racism could be. But most interesting is the third sentence, which has been shifted from a discussion of presumed taxonomic difference (a difference of type underlying racist beliefs) to merely ‘pointing out’ inherent somatic differences, whether or not those differences in physical appearance make any difference at all.

What difference, by moonpies for misfits, with Creative Commons licence What these changes obscure is that the new definition staggers towards indecision – what once described complexity is now ruled by equivocation. The anonymous ‘217.44.210.7 points out similar problems with the definition in the discussion page attached to the article. I’m left with the feeling that someone has wanted, but not quite managed, to write that all observation of difference between people of varying physical appearance is racist. That would be as ludicrous as claiming races are strictly definable when inter-relations between ethnic groups have been inherent in the very expansion of humanity.

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