Friday, January 28, 2005

Ian Melrose and the East Timor Campaign

Ian Melrose, a virtuous soul from the suburb of Booragoon, has funded ads promoting a better deal for the people of E. Timor. He refers people to the Timor Sea Justice Campaign who have an excellent web site dissecting the various ways that Downer and co. have said take it or leave it the East Timorese.
It makes strategically good sense that we should not behave like a beadle when it comes to East Timor which may potentially be our window into Asia in the future if we play our cards right. But for a penny was a pound lost seems to be the truith of this deal.

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Lula flying

They say that great times make great leaders, and that great leaders take their chances and surely that's true of Lula da Silva. Google news 'lula' and no more is needed to demonstrate this fact. No other leader can claim such objective recognition, nor I dare say can one claim as many stories as does the President of Brazil on this sunny summer day down under.
His people can sense their moment of history as they booed him on his way to Davos, surely no reater sign of hope in leader, can be given than this. For the Brazilian population has undoubtedly seized the moment that Lula has come to represent.
Today he is ineffectually papering over the over the outbreak of hostilities between Colombia and Venezeula, the next proxy war for the USA. The problem is that the Columbians went after some FARC commanders in a cafe in Caracas, Venezuela, that is. FARC, aka the Revolutionary army of the Resistance in Columbia, have had a safe haven in neighbouring Venezeulan coffee houses and with Venezeula not exactly in the U.S good books at the moment. Well you see what I mean...

Anyhow Lula's doing the double act at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre and the Davos forum in Switzerland. He got booed at the former and will probably get treated sympathetically at the latter, cause you know what they say when a leader starts going on trips abroad...
Umm.. didn't I hear somethin' about Johnny Howard's itinerary...

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Monday, January 17, 2005

Kinship and masculinity

I was listening to Ted Egan, grand poobah of the Northern Territory on the radio tonight. He was commenting abut how we need as Australians to understand the first people's kinship system. As he put it, they could teach the kings and queens of Europe a thing or to about breeding" The kinship system gaurantees that even in the smallest bands they could ensure that in breeding did not occur. Although it's probably facile to discuss (s)kinship as being concerned with biology, it also dominates traditional thinking about psychology, sociology and ecology. In practical terms the consequences of kinship underlie the economic failure of many aboriginal people. In practical terms many indigenous people prefer the ties of kinship to economic success. The choice clearly depends on which you find the surer.

Geoff Bardon, 'Mr Patterns', in the recent documentary(ABC), talked about his relationship with men in Papunya during the 1970's when he was midwifing the birth of the Desert Art movement. He found the individual relationships he had with the Western Desert men to be profoundly moving and different from any others.
It's an experience that I've shared with him. Adult men are not individuals set against each other in traditional society. Even in a camp distant from your homeland, your place is defined by by sister or brother or mother or uncle. Someone will know exactly where you fit, because the system inherently acknowledges the 'small world' theory of networks.

What this means is that no matter what you do, your family will stand by you and this can be expected of your 'extended' family. It also means that you are expected to behave with a degree of circumspection and avoidance of conflict in the same way that you do in a family. Noongar women from the south west consider their sister's children to be their own and these children will call their maternal cousins, brother or sister, similarly, the word 'cousin' frequently refers to what English people call 2nd Cousins.

But in the traditional world there is not just one family. There are two families, that sit on either side of the fire. Each family provides the other with their spouses. Each side(or moiety) symbolically represents a dualism akin to the Taoist Yin Yang symbol. Symbolically, the crow and the eagle, the sun or shade side are refered to in the kin system.

This dualism in different places by a variety of sub divisions - often based upon intergenerational differences - so your grandfather, grandson are like your brothers and so on. This is at it's most elaborate in the Walpiri/Pintubi system where there are 8 subdivisions. Four within each of the two main family systems. Wife, wife's mother, children, mother, father, grandmother, wife's father,wife's mother. It looks a bit lopsided but the reasons is that there are four divisions on the maternal line and two on the male line. One needs to actually look at a diagram or live with people to fully understand the subtleties. This system spread to other neighbouring communities during the 20th Century.

The upshot of this system is that everyone and everything is related by a s(kin) name. The term 'skin' is used in the Northern Terrritory to refer to people's classification. This means that 1/8 of the world is your classificatory mother, 1/8 are your spouce, 1/8 is your mother-in-law or son-in-law and you must avoid any contact with them at all costs. We don't have equivalent words in English for the skin names, our best approxiamation is to use them as sirnames as in Alice Nampitjimpa, or Bob Tjampitjimpa or Fred Tjungarrayi or Mary Nakamarra. Alice and Bob are brother and sister. Fred is Mary's son.

Traditional people have a complex and subtle philosophy surrounding this basic description. But the most important thing to recognize is the consequence of our lack of 'skin' terms. They define an ontology, a way of thinking, that is different to most modern thinking. In social terms, kinship divides society vertically, somewhat like astrology, rather than horizontally in terms of class or caste. Although the Australian system makes a lot more sense than astrology, astrological signs and the meaning we invest in them suggests that this sort of vertical division makes some sort of fundamental sense to most people.

However, this is not the end of it, since kinship can also apply to a person and a particular animal or plant. This is not based upon the complexities of the desert skin system but on a perceived affinity between an individual and their particular totem. This is similar to the North American understanding of a totemic animal, often being ascribed at birth or early on in life by a significant elder based upon intuition and spritiual signs. People have a particular obligation towards their totemic spirit, usually they cannot eat their own totem and are responsible for it's increase Daisy Bates, wrote that after the Pinjarra massacre of 1834, many of the Murray River people died of hunger and grief, because it was a local tradition not to eat the totem of a recently deceased person. So many people had died that some people felt they could eat nothing.

Although this is a description based upon my own perspective. How the skin system is interpreted is different in every part of Australia not least because of the differing degrees of destruction of traditional society.

In the South West, the matrilineal terminology has remained largely intact, albeit in Aboriginal English, whereas the patrilineal system underwent a hiatus for several generations while English patrilineal sir names were adopted. Today, many Noongar are recovering from old geneologies the moieties and totems of their ancestors.

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Blog therapy

I'm posting a link to Scary Duck on the blog list as a public service. It might just be a matter of taste but I laugh out loud every time I go back to the real world... the next post is about Kinship!

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Saturday, January 15, 2005

Titan in the gloamin'

Stones on Titan in an orange atmosphere

My friend can't see the point. But the little Huygens probe worked like a charm and came to a landing amidst a field of worn pebbles, possibly of ice, worn by rivers of ethane. They mobilized the deep space network in Australia as Cassini passed out of contact with the probe and picked up the telemetry. There was a last minute rush to swing radio telescopes in Europe and Asia into action as it continued to transmit for 70 minutes on the ground. They needed the radio telescoes though because someone turned off one of the two Cassini receivers accidently and they lost a critical part of the data that was to be used for calculating wind speed. Fortunately the data will be recoverable with a some work for the radio telescope feeds. Keep up to date at the Planetary Society's Huygens blog

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Friday, January 14, 2005

Safe as houses, Aboriginal women stranded in the desert's pain.

From the letters column "West Australian" Thursday 13 Jan
Having worked for some time with the women and children affected by family violence in a remote Aboriginal community, I was heartened to learn that the Federal Government has promised legal and support services for indigenous victims and potential victims of family violence and sexual assault.
The Aboriginal women of Balgo Hills have been trying for many years to get funding for a safe house. The only safe place for these women is on my living room floor. Food, clothing and other essentials, such as transport out of the community when necessary, are all supplied from small donations from outside supporters. The nearest safe house is 275 kms away in Halls Creek.
We can only hope that some time soon the WA Government will stop paying lip service to its supposed commitment to "doing something about family violence in Aboriginal communities" and actually provide the funding for a safe house.
Funding is available to "raise awareness", but the women of Balgo Hills don't need awareness raised about family violence and sexual assault, they need a safe house.

Judith Nampitjin Power, co-ordinator, Kapulalangu Aboriginal Women's Association, Balgo Hills.
I remember when women were trying to establish a refuge in Alice Springs in 1981, they used to say that the last 400 yards was the worst, they had to run. The Alice Springs Local Council thought it was being run by witches so they bulldozed it!

The confluence between racism and sexism in Australia is truly the most shameful part of our colonial history. We have yet to seriously address this problem. Where is there a male politician with the courage to speak out. I'll lay garlands at his door.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Back to the drawing board - red shift conundrum

Anybody who thinks that astronomers actually know what's happening out there should see this latest observation shaking the bars of the current paradigm regarding the expanding universe.
A quasar has been discovered within a galaxy 300 million light years away. The only problem is that the quasar has a redshift indicating that it is billions of light years away!
The quasar appears to be affecting the galaxy and there is observational evidence that it really is in the galaxy and not just behind it.
Given that the relationship between red shift and distance has been a core doctrine since Hubble made his observations back in the 1920's this recent discover raises some seriously uncomfortable questions.
Mind you we should wait until there are further observations - another explanation may be forthcoming - the evidence that the quasar is actually part of the galaxy will need to be critically examined for robustness.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Looking down from above

NASA has released a topographical radar image of Australia from it's Shuttle Radar Topography Mission The full size image is on this page . The image is color coded for topography and shaded from the north east. The full size jpg image file is 3.4mB in size so don't click on it and expect it to open easily in your browser! Right click and save it to your hard drive and view it a graphics program. The shading in the full size image highlights the deformations in the bedrock in places like the Flinders Ranges and the South West.

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Monday, January 10, 2005

God amongst the trees, Crooked Timber and the Tsunami

The "Problem of Evil hits the papers" is the headline of the blog at Crooked Timbers and the comments blog is up to 75 not out. That the first 50 at least are worth the read is indicative of the freshness and urgency that this new discourse can create.
But God does not decide who shall be good, God smiles upon our goodness. Here's a song that is 20 years old but seems to speak to the tsunami.
Words like Dvorak strings
pull at the beard of time,
While dreamers at their walls
where every thought does shine,
drunk on every corner,
at every crossing and every line.
Like a soldier drunk on duty
drunk on the edge of time

Oh lord above shine down on me a while
My tears cannot hide your smile

A go-between who needs a poem
A light in the darkest zone
Someone to explain
was it for me
or just a show
that all this life and death
that tears children from their homes
Is that our song or are we lost
or are we just alone?

Oh Lord above shine down on me a while
My sadness cannot hide your smile

Ask me no more these questions.
Leave well enough alone
Against the never ending sky
of nature must we roam.
Like liones on safari
or vultures sucking bones,
the quest is never nearer
than the birthing or the holy stone.

Oh Lord above shine down on me a while
My tears cannot hide your smile

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Sunday, January 09, 2005

Watch the skies!

An exciting time for space enthusiasts this year.
  • We've just seen the mars rovers celebrate their first birthday
  • it's only five more sleeps to go until Hughyens descends on Titan! The planetary society is a good place to keep up with the science and comment on these two missions.
  • and Swift has turned on and is detecting gamma ray bursts(GRB's).
This last satellite probably promises to have the most scientifically interesting results. GRB's are thought to come from exploding supernova,black holes and other energetic phenomena. They are the most energetic particles we can detect. The bursts are usually very short and identifying the source is very difficult. Swift is designed to automatically turn towards the source within minutes once it's fully operating. But it's aready seeing more GRB's than was expected which is good because it's confounding expectations. More power to the unexpected!

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Spatial networks and 'small world' theory

In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals,they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to its lowest members, with a
fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed upon a religious scruple, and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears

Charles Mackay, 1841, "Memoirs of popular delusions"
 The opening paragraph of Charles Mackay's work poses the central question that is at the heart of the 'small world theory' of networks. The mechanics of the 'madness' that Mackay describes are also the mechanics of the coherence of fireflies and crickets all chirping at random to produce a single pattern.

Doug Simpson's review of "Six Degrees:The Science of a connected age" by Duncan Watts provides a concise overview and introduction to the scope of this aspect of network theory.

Ahmed Helmy has taken network theory and applied it to geographic(spatial) graphs such as radio networks which provides for some really interesting practical consequences of utilizing network theory to develop mobile ad hoc radio networks. In an interview for Technology Research News he describes how the introduction of a small number of random links can greatly reduce the path length of messages in these networks. Radio networks are much more highly clustered and limited by distance and energy constraints than informatinal networks traditionally studied in 'small world' theory. As such they represent a more realistic model of economic networks.

In his original paper(.pdf) he shows how geographic networks can be transformed into small networks by the presence of a limited number(0.2 - 20%) of random links with a median distance of 20-40% of the network diameter.

Consider the grid of streets comprising the centre of Melbourne(say) - if there are 10 by 10 streets, then a random single link (1%) stretching across 3 blocks will turn this into a 'small world' network! Interestingly this is almost precisely the size of the network of arcades and plazas that connect the central area of Melbourne (Bourke and Swanston Street to Flinders and Elizabeth Street)

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Friday, January 07, 2005

Oil, Tsunami and Howard

The $1b aid package announced bu the oz govt is by all reckoning a generous commitment and marked change of heart for JH in dealing with the region. But it's worth noting that the prize in the region is the now devastated oil fields of Aceh.

This is just a test post.

Link to South East Asian Earthquake Blog

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