Diverse ways of making a stand

Poise and balance are very important in taking a stance, whether literally in martial arts or croquet, and more figuratively when sticking up for yourself or others. This week’s blog ranges from childhood experience, across a couple of events this week to an anecdote from my time as a consumer advocate at CHOICE. My conclusion: The power of conversation is one of the true sources of real power.

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Who knew that there could be so much to simply standing still? That has been one of the ongoing lessons from my Tai Chi sessions each week.  Your toes, your knees, your hips, your chest – relax from the hip, shoulders, arms, hands.  Stance is so important to all that follows, standing poised so that your body is relaxed but stable; still but prepared to move; flexible but able to withstand pressure.  I have certainly found the ability to assume such a poised stance very useful in playing croquet, where the stability of your stroke has a great deal of bearing on the accuracy of your ball placement.

There is also a sort of metaphorical utility in this thinking, in the sense that people often want to know where you stand on an issue … what your stance toward a given topic is. Here too poise and balance can be very important.  A suitable palette of topics was on offer when I went along to my usual monthly Sydney Facilitators Network meeting the other night, which was held on the topic of “Facilitation for Diversity & Inclusion” facilitated by Carli Leimbach & Vivien Sung from their start-up, Diversity, Amplify!

The aim was to better understand diversity (gender, race, culture & thought) so that we might disrupt tribalistic mindsets and become more inclusive facilitators. A central concept to the work was the idea that we are blind to our blind spots. Two decades of Harvard research was presented as confirmation that we have hidden biases that we carry from a lifetime of experience with social groups (gender, race, age, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, social class, religion, status or nationality).

Pre-work for the meeting was to engage with the Harvard research website – Project Implicit – and take one of their tests which are a method for measuring implicit or automatic attitudes toward race, gender, disability, age. You can try it for yourself by going to the Project Implicit website and take the test on race bias.

Apparently I slightly prefer Anglo American faces is over African American faces – although I must say I suspect there is probably an implicit cultural bias in the test, in that as an Australian I encounter very few African Americans and I can’t help feeling that lack of familiarity might have influenced the result.  The important point at the workshop was that we can all have some degree of bias and by recognising this we can correct for them. After all what is important is not so much the bias as the behaviour or action based on it.

One of the methods to improve inclusiveness suggested was to “call out” (to use a contemporary Americanism) instances of bias leading to unfairness or less inclusive practices – in other words to take a stand. An exercise we undertook was to briefly share with a partner a time when we might have felt excluded or victimised. My relevant experience was a childhood spent being overweight, with the associated name calling and attempted bullying. I say attempted because as I recalled in conversation with my partner, one aspect of my response was to ensure that anyone who picked on me lived to regret it.

That didn’t always foster inclusion but it did instil a degree of caution in my peers. My weapon of choice was not physical but rather verbal – perhaps the chief legacy of that aspect of my childhood is that I have actually spent a good deal of my adult life walking back from my capacity to use words to wound.  Early in my working life I took to heart the counsel of a wise co-worker that more flies are caught with honey than vinegar!

But I certainly retain the capacity to stand up for myself when needed. I vividly recall the evening when as a consumer advocate with CHOICE (aka the Australian consumers Association), I was introduced to the then Attorney General of Australia, Philip Ruddock. Smiling a politician’s crocodile grin he shook my hand and said in a low voice something along the lines of really not liking CHOICE as an organisation.

I won’t recount the entire conversation but I gently queried him about why he had this view. It emerged that he did not consider CHOICE to be sufficiently representative.  I urged on him the suggestion of us being representational rather than representative, and pointed out that he had only actually been directly elected by the constituents of his electorate and yet he was the first law officer of the land for all Australians.  In any event by the end of the conversation, which I think he was a little surprised to find was sustained, he muttered something about not being quite sure what had worried him about Choice in the first place. I counted that as a win, crossing swords and standing up to probably the most powerful person I was directly confronted by in that work.

A funny thing power, especially the ways it is signalled in polite society. Remember when wearing a tie was a power statement? I realised times had changed a few years ago when I glanced around the boardroom table and noticed that none of the senior male executives sported at a tie while the tie wearers were predominantly junior staff anxious to impress, to get their paper approved or to advance their careers.  At that point I thought: “Hmmm, which team am I batting for?” and rapidly ditched wearing the tie! Which was a pity because I actually wore ties because I liked to do so and had a large collection of rather beautiful examples to choose from each day. But that wasn’t something I found it necessary to make a stand about – sometimes power politics does win.

Next evening I went to another event, “The future of journalism: Building independence, audience and influence on Twitter”, co-hosted by the Walkley Foundation and Twitter at the Twitter offices in Sydney.  Various presenters explored the benefits and responsibilities of putting yourself out there, global best practice for staying competitive and standing out in the right way, and practical tips for safety on Twitter.

20180515_180144.jpgOne of the most interesting things I learnt was how Twitter is taking a stand against some of the hateful and distasteful material that finds its way onto the platform. The filtering tools they employ don’t actually address the content of the messages but rather the behavioural characteristics of the messenger and the context in which they are sent. So for example robotic rapidity and repetitive inclusion of irrelevant material would be key flags for the content to be given lower priority for viewing. So as for bias, it’s not the ‘content’ that matters but rather the behaviour – I found that an interesting similarity.

20180517_124412.jpgAs a kind of sartorial experiment I wore a suit and tie to the event – not as a power statement but simply as a change of pace from my current life of rather casual dressing. I was certainly the only person wearing a tie and there were only a couple of other suits in the room. The outcome was surprising in the sense that the tie attracted a number of positive comments and was instrumental in sparking a couple of interesting conversations. It intrigues me that the tie, that erstwhile symbol of power and privilege, functioned as a talking point to enable interaction with diverse people.

Which is one of the primary reasons I go along to events such as these. When I started my Charles 6.0 reinvention, I identified the absence of work colleagues and the opportunity to interact with younger people, and those with different professional backgrounds, as something I would miss. So going along to these occasions provides invaluable opportunities for collegiate style conversations with a diversity of such people.  The power of conversation is as a space where the differences of diversity can become manifest, where fundamental similarities can be recognised and, sometimes, creative and collaborative outcomes to be realised.

Which seems to me to be one of the true sources of real power.

So, now that we have established the power of the tie as a conversation starter, which do you think I should give an outing to next?

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Thinking about trees for a change

Recently I have been enjoying one of the later fruits of parenting: conversations with your children on topics where they have more expertise and experience than you – you can learn interesting things. My eldest is a librarian and therefore a very well informed young man with whom I have had interesting discussions on matters of science and obtained some valuable tips on science fiction to enjoy. He also did us a marvellous service reprogramming our internet router after a minor hacking incident.

My other son is an arborist, who periodically imparts fascinating stuff about trees. He often makes the point of how trees are very different organisms to the animal world.

The most recent thing I gleaned in my amateur tree apprenticeship is that trees do not physically heal in the same way as our bodies do.  They initially seal wounds using chemical walls that fend off pathogens and can ultimately grow a physical wall of bark to further close a breach – but the wound will continue to require active defence for the life of the tree. This is important because as the tree ages, maintaining these active wound defences requires it to spread the starch energy derived from photosynthesis ever more thinly, and ultimately it becomes insufficient to maintain those defences and the tree can / will become sick and eventually die.  This is why as arborists they discourage pruning and loping trees, and when necessary it needs to be done in ways that mirror the natural ways in which trees manage the necessity to periodically discard limbs … if you want to know more ask your favourite arborist!

Following our talk I have looked at trees and the man-made wounds etched into their bark with new eyes and these slide-show images capture a few observations of fresh wounds, wounds at various stages of sealing, and one that will never seal and will presumably be an ongoing source of stress to the tree down the track.

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It also struck me after our chat that this failure to heal seems to resonate with the processes of the human psyche or mind. We often hear people say that you don’t recover from loss or grief but that you learn to live with them. We can wall off mental trauma or actively learn to live with it but it seems extraordinarily difficult to eradicate, and in that sense to heal, in the way that a physical wound can.

It is only an analogy I know. But it is consistent with the idea that our mind is something quite different to a physical organism and is not simply part of our ordinary mammalian body.  I then discovered I had set myself an interesting and difficult problem, because this starts to sound a lot like an endorsement of the philosophical mind-body split, which I do not find useful – in fact I tend to agree with those that maintain it is a false dichotomy and was in fact misstep in the development of Western philosophy and thinking. It seems quite clear that our mind and our body are heavily interdependent and mutually constituted but nevertheless it is also clear that the world of the mind does seem to have a distinct existence in its own right.

As I thought this through, I found the analogy of the mind to a tree very useful, particularly when you bear in mind (as my son advises) that the tree is a very different life form to the animal body. Thus perhaps the mind grows in the fertile substrate of our bodies.  The tree of our mind grows dense virtual foliage in our heads and through the community of language flowers through our verbal and visual imaginations into the symbolic forest we call culture. We understand now that the roots of the mind run deep into our body – the vagus nerve connects the brain, and therefore the mind, to the influence of the rich microbiome of our gut.

Indeed it struck me that this tree analogy represents a way of re-embodying the mind without reducing it to a product or indeed by-product (as some thinkers see it) of the physical body in which it happens to reside.  It may be that the growth dynamic of the mind is more akin to the network rules governing tree grows than the genetically blueprinted growth of the organs in our body. I was reminded of the tree-like patterns displayed by network connections of neural networks and indeed of the physical synaptic connections of the brain, as shown in this image (from The Cell Image Library) of the dendritic tree of a mouse brain cell.

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[Creative Commons License: Attribution Only]

Another chunk of arborist wisdom from my son is that trees don’t stop growing: a tree that has stopped growing is dead.  In a further similarity healthy minds are always growing the mind is never complete, fully formed, or ‘done’. Perhaps the most practical application of this rather speculative line of thought is the necessity to keep your mind active and growing. I was reminded of a cartoon of executive pot plants that I collected early in my career, as I glimpsed at least one aspect of the working life to come.

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At times I’ve definitely felt my function was essentially decorative and now that I’ve retired it seems to me that I can usefully spend time to embrace my inner tree.

So maybe I’ll just sit here and quietly photosynthesis a while – not dead yet.

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The power of the pattern

I have been musing a fair bit recently about the critical role that pattern recognition and manipulation plays our thinking, planning and actions.

Very often when we learn something new we think that what we are acquiring is a body of knowledge or a set of rules. In actual practice we are exposing ourselves to new patterns of behaviour. Absorbing and following the pattern is the key to learning how to do something, not following rules and applying algorithms.

This was apparent to me the other day as I worked to instill a key croquet strategy into a relative novice player. The four ball break is a fundamental building block for advanced play and it follows a basic pattern of establishing a pilot ball at the next but one hoop, then using a more or less centrally placed pivot ball to navigate to the next hoop, itself previously loaded with a hopefully well-positioned pilot ball. Successful repetition of this pattern around the lawn can lead to a run of as many hoops as desired. Describing it in words only gets you so far – apologies to those struggling with the above.

In the end you have to play the pattern to get the pattern – and so I was using the coaching approach of alternate stroke play, to demonstrate and embed the various stroke choices required to make the lawn mechanics work. It comes down to a matter of muscle memory, rather than semantic or logical description of the process.

I noted the same dynamic in our Tai Chi session this morning, as we ran through, and then extended, the pattern of movements we have been learning. Again verbal instruction and visual illustration by the group leader only gets you so far – in the end it is only by enacting the routine and getting a feel for what is needed that you can gain some sort of confidence that you understand what is required. Interestingly as the movements start to flow you find that your arms, hands, feet etc. seem to land in the right place almost automatically.

When I first started I very rapidly lost track of where my hands and feet should be and I felt like nothing more than an approximation of a human windmill. Then over time I started to remember what I was meant to be doing, but it felt awkward and jerky. But quite recently and with some private practice I have found the movements flowing and I have felt more and more in tune with the general idea. I have digested and absorbed the pattern, although it must be said in this case at an elementary level. But that’s often what’s interesting about a learning experience: both what you learn and what you learn about learning.

Speaking of learning and teaching, I took part in a novel learning environment at the UTS Hatchery the other week. It involved what was styled as ‘speed mentoring’ in my role as Chief Reinvention Officer of Charles 6.0.

I spoke separately for 15 minutes (strictly to time) with about 8 cross-faculty groups of students engaged in an entrepreneur development program, to help them develop their project proposal. The topics were many and varied, the enthusiasm was palpable and the conversations were interesting. I flatter myself that I was able to add value for many of them, drawing on my varied experiences, which found sometimes unexpected points of contact with their thinking.

The theme of cross fertilizing insights continued the next evening, again at UTS, but this time in what was called a ‘Creative Jam’ held by a group called Imaginate (which happens to be a product of last year’s Hatchery program) in which a mixed group of students and industry participants pondered the question of how to bridge the gap in organisations between ‘creatives’ and so called ‘non-creatives’.

As readers of this blog will be aware, creativity is a topic in which I take some interest and so once again the conversation and considerations were interesting and stimulating. One important point to emerge from our discussions was that the distinction between ‘creative’ and ‘non-creative’ often boiled down to dealing in stereotypes.  We use stereotypes as rules of thumb to save on thinking time and energy – we think we detect a pattern and act on it.  But the pattern does not reflect reality particularly well and so like most shortcuts they are generally not useful at best and downright misleading or mischievous at worst.

The short cut that stereotyping circles back to my theme of patterns. The utility of patterns in human thinking is speed – but we still need to get them right. We do not algorithmically compute a model of the world around us but rather we hold a map or pattern of the world in our brains which we update periodically, amending it with new or refreshed patterns to better reflect our perception of reality. That can range from an urgent update about the tiger emerging from the jungle (which it is really good to get right, and fast!) to more leisurely updates about Tai Chi routines or improved croquet tactics.

The other insight for me from our creativity jamming was the idea that developed of a ‘creativity stack’ … the idea that the individual creative act in organisation generally sits a project setting, which has itself required some creative thinking, and projects are usually found within a strategic envelope or vision created by general management. So creativity is needed at various levels of an organisation and is not confined simply to those that wield specific artisanal creative skills.

I think creativity can be usefully seen through the pattern lens I’m using in this blog. If you can see the pattern you can use the pattern. With practice you can shape the pattern. Over time you can help the pattern emerge. You can see how patterns in one domain overlap with patterns from another.

Being able to generalize between different pattern sets is a major source of creativity from higher levels of the creativity stack. As I have mentioned in previous blogs I am quite intrigued by potential overlaps between the patterns of Tai Chi and those of croquet. I indeed think that certain elements do cross over, with Tai Chi practice informing improvements in stance, balance, focus and smooth hitting – not necessarily highly creative, just very useful.

With increasing mastery of a particular pattern domain you can devise new patterns or ways of seeing and then for a few the opportunity may arise to devise the patterns of entirely new domains – and that’s a whole new game.

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Success and staying in the game

Thinking about what success actually means in the context of croquet, blogging and social media, academic achievement and a minor brush with fame … my conclusion is that staying in the game is perhaps the ultimate success.

We celebrate success, we enjoy success, but periodically I wonder if we understand success. It certainly one of the more meaty topics with which a modest blogger can engage.

Thinking about the topic was prompted by my recent croquet handicap change. I won’t try to explain the intricacies of that system, but simply put it involves the weaker player getting extra free turns. The number of these free turns is decided by the difference between handicap numbers, which in turn is decided by the number of competition games won and lost.

Recently my handicap number triggered to an 8, which means that when playing a relative beginner in a competition (who would probably be a 20), I would give 12 free turns – a daunting prospect for both of us actually, since using free turns effectively is its own challenge. We often say laughingly that by the time you know how to use free turns, you no longer get very many of them!

It also coincides with the observation I sometimes make that croquet is a game which takes 5 minutes to learn and 20 years to get any good at … I think I’ve been playing about nine years now and my handicap is about halfway up the scale, so that joking remark is proving quite accurate at least in my case.

It also provides an index of sorts to assess my progress as successful. I have known some to advance much more rapidly in their handicap and on the other hand know others who hover at a particular rank for extended periods, never really advancing beyond it. For those latter folk it would seem simply participating and playing is a measure of success – something which I think it is important to recognise as part of the complexity of labelling success.

Nevertheless, I think most of us tend to use success is one of the judgements we make of other, whether we admit / like it or not. And we frequently qualify that judgement with assessments about whether a success is justified or well-earned; whether it is expected or unexpected; whether it is resounding or perhaps rather run of the mill. In these terms we are treating success as something that is objective, but as I suggested it has an important subjective dimension – such as participation.

So are you successful if you just think you are? Perhaps so, but maybe the audience celebrating that success with you might be a bit small. I find that question of audience size quite interesting in terms of judging the success or otherwise of activities such as this blog and my recent Instagram experiment.

Social media has been an amazing innovation in terms of allowing people to share aspects of their lives with others (perhaps over-sharing is the current feature of the day). Some have parlayed that sharing into careers of considerable fame and/or notoriety, amassing followers numbering in the millions.

Needless to say dear reader, that index of success does not apply in this case. But nevertheless I value every engagement. Rather than seeing social media as an inferior extension of mass media such as television or print I see it as a rather wonderful extension of the humble telephone or indeed the old-fashioned letter. Rather than being simply confined to one-on-one conversations, we can easily engage in broader communications and conversations. So in that sense engaging with any more than one person is a success in broadening the conversation.

I have published 31 blogs to date (this is number 32) and the cumulative audience for the site reported by WordPress analytics to be over 850 views – the home page / archives around 200, with the most viewed articles being Brevity is the soul of (croquet) advocacy, Regulating your way into paradise? and The specialist generalist with over 30 views each.

Surprisingly views continue to trickle in for blogs published some time ago, presumably search engines point people to the material, and after Australia there are sizable numbers of visitors from the US, NZ and UK. So I feel I am communicating with many more people than if I spoke to a few friends in person or on the phone, or penned personal letters – although I will admit the feedback back-flow of comments and therefore conversation is sparse and I am not sure how to do anything about that.

Similarly my Instagram project releasing a retrospective of  60 street images of urban ephemera had a cumulative figure of around 1200 likes – not a lot in the viral world of celebrity but is probably one thousand nine hundred and ninety five more than would otherwise have ever seen my photographs. Which to me is a definite success.  The most liked images, with over 40 likes each were:

Eye Crackle: The cascade of cracks enhances rather than detracts from the light and shade beauty of the image.

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Negative Track: The street tears into negative space, rendering the image oblique.

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OMG: The grainy shock-horror of the street generates yet another OMG moment.

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There were a few encouraging comments (32 in total).  The most commented image was:

Fire&Ice: The ice queen surrounded by street torn sheets of fire.

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So it is essential to frame success, and ultimately I think also to own it.

There have been a couple of times in my life when objective success has been thrust upon me, and it has taken time and effort to accommodate the subjective dimension. For instance when I re-commenced university study at Canterbury University and submitted one of my initial essays with no great expectation I was stunned to find the professor handing out copies as an example of excellence … trust me there was nothing in my University record to that date that suggested such recognition was likely.

I went on that year to enjoy significant academic success with other work – but here was the thing: I was trouble by that success because I didn’t understand what I was doing differently I didn’t feel particularly deserving of it and found the positive attention in some ways as hard to process as negative criticism. And of course that doesn’t make sense to people how you can not enjoy success which made it hard to talk about.

That episode was ultimately a useful learning experience which informed another experience of accidental success when I joined CHOICE (the Australian Consumers Association or ACA) as a policy advocate in the information technology and communications space. As well as policy development, that role involved numerous media appearances to argue the consumer’s perspective on issues of the day.  On one famous occasion that meant being on the evening news of all five free to air TV channels as well as two TV current affairs shows – not counting a myriad of radio interviews. All this meant I became quite recognisable and therefore had to cope with a very modest degree of ‘fame’. This was personally undeserved in the sense that I was representing the ACA.  But I turned my mind back to that university experience and knew that to deal with it more or less gracefully I needed to own the objective characteristics of success and not to dwell excessively on whether it was deserved or otherwise.

Similarly I will need to process this change in croquet handicap, minor in the scheme of life but important in terms of a challenging activity I spend a fair bit of time engaged with. In terms of the player grades it means I have transitioned from being a silver grade player to a gold player – rest assured that is not the end of it, platinum remains for those who achieved a handicap of 3 or less.

And I think this perhaps embodies the ultimate paradox of success. Not only is success transitory, but frequently bears within it the seeds of the next challenge, and potentially of failure. I will no longer be able to enter the silver events and will become one of the weaker players in the gold events.   For a while least I can look forward to losing a few games I reckon.  So I will need to own the success and also the challenges that come with it – in many respects that is the lesson of every croquet game.

As I observed in a blog (The Zone of Opportunity) last year, croquet is the first competitive sport I have ever played and I have learned a lot from it. For instance it has been very interesting to watch myself learn and adapt to the realities of winning and losing in a sporting context. I think the most important and relevant life lesson I have learnt is from those persistent bronze level players – staying in the game is perhaps the ultimate success.

The present of words

A session at the Sydney Facilitators Network (SFN) meeting in the evening resonated with the mornings Tai Chi group to help produce this blogs reflection on the value of being in the present and the importance of language in helping us see beyond it.

In a blog last year (A reflection on resilience) I remarked how the topic at the Sydney Facilitators Network (SFN) meeting in the evening had resonated with the Tai Chi session from that morning.

Well the same thing occurred yesterday.

The SFN meeting was on the theme of System Dynamics and Organisational Constellations with guest facilitator Sarah Cornally.  Sarah explained the systems principles behind her practice and thinking.  She touched on three essential principles: belonging, exchange and orders or ranking. These three essentials can either be aligned and in balance creating positive outcomes or misalignments between them or within them will generate turbulence and disharmony. This disharmony will create signals throughout the organisational system.

We then did a fascinating experiential exercise with what she called a ‘mini-constellation’ to work through an organisational issue from one of the group. I won’t try to describe it in detail but the key component from my perspective was that rather than explore the specifics of the issue, our exercise was structured to examine the systemic organisational signals in terms of what blockages or resource shortages might be impeding a solution or desired outcome.

We did so by having different members stand in to represent the desired outcome or solution, the blockage or resource shortage, and the focus of concern or client.  For instance I was asked to represent a ‘blockage’ in the example I worked in.  The person who had surfaced the issue then became an observer of the ‘mini-constellation’ system, the elements of which reported on the arrangement they found themselves. These reports were in terms of how the member representing that element felt and how those feelings are changed as the system operation was explored – we were asked to listen to our bodies and their reaction to engage and tune in to the ‘somatic’ system.

And this was the point of contact with my Tai Chi experience in the morning. There the instructor consistently asks us to pay attention to how our body feels in response to the various exercises we undertake.  In both sessions insights and learning flowed from paying attention to this somatic layer of information, which we often ignore in our busy verbal worlds, where we can be overwhelmed by words and symbols.  This coincides with the thinking of cognitive linguist Vyvyan Evans which I read about in the New Scientist magazine in December 2015 and had saved the link. He proposes the idea that our minds possess many concepts, rooted in our perceptual bodily experience and independent of language (although language provides a window to explore them).

One of the most powerful distinguishing characteristics of humanity is our mastery and use of symbolic language – so it is much more that a window onto our selves, since it enables our societies, technologies and institutions.  It is how we build culture with others and pass on our learning from one generation to the next.

However paying attention to how our bodies are processing and responding to information steps back to the pre-verbal and can generate make available a different and useful perspective. It is an important part of being in the moment. Since it is primarily through the agency of words and symbols that we access the past and the future, suspending our use of them brings us into the present, which does not require symbolic processing – it simply is.  Animals live in the present, processing and responding to the environment immediately and without symbolic interrogation.

The acquisition of symbolic language and thinking is what has driven human cultural evolution at the pace so much more immensely rapid than genetic evolution.  But our capability to do so is based on our animal heritage.  It is fascinating to speculate (as many have and do) on the origin and emergence of language as the distinguishing characteristic of humanity.  As a consequence of these thoughts above I was drawn to re-read and share what I think is a very important contribution to that question, “On the Origin of Language” by Marcello Barbieri of the University of Ferrara – his conclusion is that language is “… the result of epigenetic processes that operated on animal genes and produced a uniquely human result.”

He proposes that animal processing of environmental signals is based on based on icons and indexes (summarised from pages 210-211):

An icon is associated with an object because a similarity is established between them, pattern recognition and mental categories that are the basic tools of perception – a mental generalization that, for example, allows us to recognize as a tree any new specimen that we happen to encounter.

An index occurs when a sign is associated with an object because a physical link or correlation is established between them – the smell of smoke is an index of fire, footprints are indexes of preceding animals, and so on. Indexes are the basic tools of learning, because they allow animals to infer the existence of something from a few physical traces of something else.

These basic tools of mental ability seem to be genetically hard-coded.  However scientists have searched high and low for some genetic or brain-based correlate of the next important and uniquely human symbolic / linguistic level of sign-processing

Barbieri notes a sign is a symbol when it is associated with an object because a conventional (not a similarity and not a physical) link is established between them. “Symbols allow us to make arbitrary associations and build mental images of future events (projects), of abstracts things (numbers), and even of non-existing things (unicorns).”

His proposition is that symbolic language capability is built, ‘hardwired’, into humans as their brains are re-modelled after birth during the immediately neo-natal period of extreme brain plasticity – but crucially only in a social environment that possess language:

“The genes of language are probably the same genes of the modelling system that we have inherited from our animal ancestors, and their expression is again controlled by the rules of a code, but the codemaker of language is not the single individual brain. It is a community of interacting brains that together generate the rules of a new brain-wiring code.” (P.219)

So when we step back from our symbolic world we are engaging the animal modes of icon and index, which precipitate us into the present and enable us to engage with the signals we process in that way, unmediated by the conventional symbolic associations that may be overlaid on those signs.  It can also be recreational – I realised recently that an important part of the pleasure of games such croquet is that they are not ‘symbolic’ – the game is the game, representing only itself in the moment.

Another way of playing with symbols is by overloading them into abstraction – that is at the core of my recent work with street edited posters and graffiti style images that I released on Instagram using the hashtag #csdzsixty2018.  I collated the 60 #csdzsixty2018 digital photographs into this YouTube video, which compounds them into an abstract collage that hints and gestures at meaning without delivering any narrative, but hopefully also without lapsing into complete incoherence (noise).

However, games must come to an end and while the present is a very useful place to visit, as humans we cannot live there exclusively.  Understanding the past and providing for the future are our special gifts and our profound responsibility, presented to us by the social group that built our brain after we were born!

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Found on the street

This 40 year-old collage experimented with recreating the image layering from the streets. I had enjoyed the ironic contrast of the ornate frame also found on the street!

This 40 year-old collage experimented with recreating the image layering from the streets. I had enjoyed the ironic contrast of the ornate frame also found on the street!

And today I finished the following set of 3 acrylic paintings, based on street art images I photographed a decade or so ago.

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They are part of the collection that I have been releasing as my Instagram retrospective project. I painted them simultaneously, using a common palette, which gives them an additional thematic connection.

On a technical note I was using a ‘wet palette’ for the first time. This device uses a layer of baking paper on top of several layers of water-retaining materials which helps keep the acrylic paint on the palette in a workable state for much longer than would be normal.  It worked very well, keeping the palette viable for days, as opposed to hours or even minutes on hot days.  I think it will prove an essential addition to my toolbox, particularly working with acrylics in the hot summer months of Sydney.

One of the reasons I collected these images was that I wanted / expected to build up a resource as inspiration for future painting, recognising at the time that I really didn’t have the spare capacity to do much then. So I am happy with the work but even more so delighted with fulfilling a vision conceived 10 years ago.

Musing on that longevity of vision / aspiration led me to note that this year it will be 40 years since I arrived in Australia.  With that in mind I popped upstairs and found the diary that I kept that year, 1978 … I did so not solely in the spirit of nostalgic reminiscence but because I recalled that during that time I was also interested in street art. I was intrigued to see what I had recorded on that topic at the time.

Not a lot really, as it turns out. I think at in those days I was both diffident about my art practice and more concerned about establishing an existence and importantly a job in big bad Sydney town!

Nevertheless for June that year I recorded, “My found art has really gone ahead on the Sydney streets – cutting out box illustrations.”  I recall being quite interested in the almost three-dimensional collage opportunities offered by pictures on cardboard fruit packing boxes.  In July there is reference to writing some letters, having a bath, and doing some “cutting and sticking’ – I remember creating single page collage sketches from magazine illustrations. I used one or two of those as the basis for paintings I did in the mid-90s, like this detail.

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Part of my interest in collage was wanting to experiment with / recreate the image layering I saw around me on the streets. In the diary I had stuck a picture which reminded me that I had used a larger version in just such a collage a couple of years later. I had enjoyed the ironic contrast of assembling and displaying it in the ornate frame as illustrated – I also found that frame on the street! So I headed off back upstairs and was able to locate that very work stuck in the back of the attic and literally dusted off  – I have made it my feature image for this blog, with a detail featured here.

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I also noted in my 1978 diary that it would be good to get into some art classes – I wrote “Learn how to paint. These things can be learnt.” I did so some 20 years later in the 90s, with some instruction, self-teaching and a lot of experimentation.  And now I am re-engaging some 40 years later with a very long term aspiration and project, which while it may have lain fallow from time to time, has never actually been forgotten.

In that diary for September 1978, , after seeing a film about his work, I noted thoughts by the surrealist painter Magritte on the superior powers of the painter – he spoke of the expression of an idea, rather than the simple recording of reality.  However, even at the time, I was conscious of the way in which the street edits the images pasted onto it, in often surrealistic ways. I have been even more conscious of this surrealistic aspect recently, as I have studied the accumulated street image collection I have been releasing on Instagram. More or less realistic images are blurred and shaped by the reality they encounter in the environment, and they are then available to artistic interrogation, interpretation, and re-rendering.

I find it a fascinating endeavour.

 

Looking around – or – thinking about the Universe

I observed in my blog last week that one of the signs of aging is when period dramas are set in decades you have actually lived through and remember.  A variation on that theme is reading science fiction or futurist work which is set in a time you are now living in or is in the immediate past.

I have just finished re-reading perhaps a classic example: EON by Greg Bear which was published in 1985. It is therefore set in the final decade of the USSR, like the spy novel that I mentioned last week, Game Set and Match by Len Deighton.  The pivotal action of EON is set in 2005, twenty years in the then future and now more than ten years in the past. I think I first read it in about 2001, so that sets up an interesting collection of intersecting timelines.

 

 

Which, as it happens, is in fact a central theme of the book.  I will not attempt a synopsis. It is a dense and complex narrative that was not very precise in its predictions of 2005 – for which we can actually be very grateful, because a pivotal event is first a minor, and then a major, nuclear exchange between the USA and the USSR, which leads to a catastrophic nuclear winter. It is interesting to recall just how real that threat seemed even as the USSR decayed internally. Of course today the nuclear threat persists and while the threat of thermonuclear catastrophe seems less stark, the geopolitical environment is actually less clearly delineated and perhaps even more unpredictable.

That holocaust averted is interesting to contemplate in and of itself and as such that is an interesting take away from the book. However, for me the enduring value of the work is the incredible construction which is described as ‘the Way’, a feat of future engineering that extends a passage/tunnel from earth orbit to what is essentially infinity. Few people in the novel understand how it was made and so it is not surprisingly mysterious to those of us reading from the outside. However it is an impressive essay on the geometry of parallel universes which continues to align with contemporary physics thinking on the topic, and on humanity reaching to the end of time and beyond. And if that sounds like a big theme it is, and more than competently handled.

And that is one of the great opportunities in the science fiction genre, one which is sometimes intellectually underrated, as observed by Ursula K Le Guin, a prominent sci-fi and fantasy and feminist whose death at age 88 was reported by the Guardian just the other day.  As a a fierce defender of the science fiction and fantasy genres she apparently took on everyone from Margaret Atwood to Kazuo Ishiguro when she identified a sniffy attitude towards the form. “Realism is a genre – a very rich one, that gave us and continues to give us lots of great fiction,” she told the Guardian in 2016. “But by making that one genre the standard of quality, by limiting literature to it, we were leaving too much serious writing out of serious consideration.”

I wrote a couple of blogs ago about ‘The Culture’, invented and described by Iain M. Banks in his science fiction writing, as another example of thinking about what might be described as the deep future, something to balance the ‘big history thinking’ that I mentioned in my blog The narrative necessity July last year, after I attended the NSW U3A annual conference.  A speaker, Prof David Christian of Macquarie Uni, did a fine job which is replicated in his TED talk on the subject: “The history of our world in 18 minutes” with a narrative arc from the big bang to the present ‘anthropocene’– again, can I strongly suggest taking a look?

The best of these fictional (inevitably ‘fiction’ because the future is a strange unknowable place!) offerings provide a way to examine our great but fleeting privilege of being present in the universe and of being conscious to appreciate that privilege. Such writing invites us to contemplate our place in the world / universe, but often in a narrative context which is easier to digest and process than abstruse philosophical tomes or abstract metaphysical musings of gurus and others.

On the subject of time and philosophical musing, I had a conversation the other day about whether it is more important look forward than to look back. My thought was that perhaps the most important thing is to look around.

Certainly what has come before and what we anticipate is to come are important context to what is around us. But learning to see what is in our present is an important skill. Learning to examine, look into, re-frame our world is an essential part of consciousness. The emergence and maintenance of consciousness remains a key scientific and philosophical mystery today, heightened rather than resolved by various AI technological developments. Whether and how consciousness is confined or unique to humans (as currently biologically embodied) is a question that the science fiction genre is and has been well-placed to explore.

Time is as interesting perspective in the ongoing Instagram retrospective of street images I am releasing.  They are impermanent urban ephemera – most of them capture a particular point in the attrition of the image in the face of environmental or street pressures and they are quite fragile – within days they will be different or potentially erased.

ExclusiveCrackle.JPGFor example Exclusive Crackle (16/60) shows an image where the printing emulsion and brushed over glue has lifted off the poster paper in a regular but fragile pattern. It could have been brushed off with a sweep of the hand and must inevitably have been with weathered away perhaps within days. Another rip, another tear might alter the image such that what was interesting about it is altered irrevocably.

Other images show much slower patterns of erosion but nevertheless the decay is inevitable and irreversible – I happened to capture that evolution in these two shots of the same image, separated by about 3 months.

Alternatively the posters might be stripped off wholesale or papered over overnight.  One way or another these street images capture a moment in time which cannot be reproduced, rendering each one unique.

In any event I am learning quite a lot about both how Instagram and its communities work, and gaining further insight into the images I am curating as they consolidate into a body of work. I am refining the skill of hash-tag usage to expose the images to possible audiences, and realised that this is in some ways the reverse of refining search terms, where you are trying to maximise discoverability of the content – similar skills different result.

Speaking of skill development and continuing the tennis theme of the previous blog, I have reflected on the persuasive commentary that Australian hopeful Nick Kyrgios should simplify his game and noted that it is consistent with croquet coaching advice I have received that advanced players seek to play the simplest shot possible because it has the highest chance of success. The skill lies not so much in mastery of fancy shots as it does in being in the right position to take that easy shot. Let’s see if I can practice what is preached …