Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Human Mind’s ‘Aha!’ Moments

I have long been fascinated by the capacity of the human mind to spark inspiration, giving rise to the ‘Eureka’ or ‘Aha!’ moment. Lord Robert Winston in a 2003 BBC series titled The Human Mind (which has only now made it to Australian television?) explores salient research on brain science, pointing towards ways of improving our memories and accessing our intuition.

Apparently, the ability to memorise 10 decks of cards in order (a series of 520 in toto) within 20 seconds lies with us all. At a critical point of realisation, marked by a surge of electrical activity in the right temporal lobe (as measured on an electroencephalogram or 'EEG'), we exhibit the exhilaration of complex problem solving. Research undertaken by Dr. Jung Beeman et al, published in PLoS Biology, points to the process of insight and ‘aha’:

‘We observed two objective neural correlates of insight. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (Experiment 1) revealed increased activity in the right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus for insight relative to noninsight solutions. The same region was active during initial solving efforts. Scalp electroencephalogram recordings (Experiment 2) revealed a sudden burst of high-frequency (gamma-band) neural activity in the same area beginning 0.3 s prior to insight solutions. This right anterior temporal area is associated with making connections across distantly related information during comprehension. Although all problem solving relies on a largely shared cortical network, the sudden flash of insight occurs when solvers engage distinct neural and cognitive processes that allow them to see connections that previously eluded them.’

The documentary stated that it is with a relaxed mind that we achieve such insight. It was no coincidence that Isaac Newton was in an orchard when observing gravity, Galileo in church overcome by the swing of incense in the discovery of how to mark time, and Maxwell Planck was at the races when theorising about atomic function. This points to the importance of finding state of flow, as discussed in my first post. Perhaps it really is when we are not threatened by or preoccupied by externalities that we can achieve enlightenment, the self-actualisation showing personal growth and fulfilment to which Maslow points in his 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ in Psychological Review. Motivation lies at the core of my research, so these insights fascinate me. Now I am hoping that there’s an ‘aha’ moment which accompanies them!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

User's Guide to the Galaxy

For the last half hour I have been navigating the constellations care of Google Earth’s new feature, Sky. (It’s highly appropriate that this is release 4.2 ☺) Announced on Google’s LatLong blog, Sky is ‘like having a giant, virtual telescope at your command -- your own personal planetarium!’

The layers panel displays images from the Hubble telescope, showing the effect of gravitational lenses and powerful outflows from young stars. ‘Unusual galaxies’ takes you to star cluster NCG290 in the Small Magellanic Cloud, linking to HST raw imaging data and the NASA bibliographic database. Clicking on red information points provides further explanation of the phenomena. Cosmic dust bunnies will always get my attention. The ‘backyard astronomy’ section will certainly be a boon for kids and enthusiasts everywhere.

Google continues to rock my world, and dare I say it, universe ☺

Monday, August 20, 2007

Fair Music For All

Free Artists + Fair Play = Fair Music

In the realm of intellectual property, what constitutes ‘fair’ is a legally contested notion, decided on a case-by-case basis. Increasingly, how institutions decide the definition, and how ‘those in the market… are trying to avoid any risk of copyright exposure’ (Lessig), is the ground for heated public debate, particularly amongst artists and their adherents. Given recent reforms and strictures, the time is certainly right for the launch of the Fair Music Initiative, which seeks a globally accepted standard for ‘fair music’. Announced to Cooperation Commons by Andreas Hirsch of Electrolyte, the initiative’s manifesto proclaims the following seven aims:

1. Unlimited freedom of musical expression.
2. Free access to musical expressions.
3. Justice of contract standards securing fair remuneration for the artists.
4. Adequate use of technology for a fair distribution of revenues instead of creating new monopolies.
5. Wide support for fairness and justice in the music business as key elements of cultural diversity.
6. Full recognition of the cultural character of musical products instead of limiting them to mere commercial artefacts.
7. A code of conduct for the music business, so that fairness and justice become the norm and not the exception.

Through the project, Fair Music will ensure that the artist receives their ‘fair share’ of every CD bought and every song downloaded, whilst maintaining complete artistic freedom of expression.

By aggregating recent discussions surrounding the effect of copyright laws on innovation and remuneration, the initiative is clearly seeking to light the path towards an emancipation of artistic practice. The maintenance of cultural diversity looms large on the agenda, the importance of which my colleague Andrew Garton often eloquently and passionately illustrates.

The site points to Good Copy, Bad Copy, a recent Danish documentary which I viewed via Second Life at the iSummit ’07, as well as Before the Music Dies, a title with fair warning to us all. Personally, I can’t envisage a world without (what my artistic friends term) ‘noise’ - beautiful, diverse, profound, and above all, fair to all concerned. Get involved and sign the petition and contribute your thoughts about a free culture future.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Momentum: Igniting Social Change

Whilst reading Robin Good’s excellent, prolific blog on Web 2.0 and associated technologies this morning, I was drawn to a recommended book titled Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age. Naturally, being involved in philanthropy, I am intrigued, and have put in an urgent request to our ever-helpful QUT librarians. More on libraries soon!

Going by the blurbs, and hopefully reader comments before too long!, author Allison H. Fine (blog) presents strategies for ‘connected activism’, examining tools and techniques to facilitate positive social change in this connected world. She examines and as sites of social interaction which carry huge potential. Preferring many-to-many exchanges to top-down hierarchies, Fine sees the future in social networks. Citing the Cluetrain Manifesto, two authors of which I’ve recently met at the Berkman Center, Fine sees many connections between citizens and activists at the Web 2.0 level. (I am unsure whether she uses the term – it’s interesting to see how it’s been adopted by NGOs.) I am hoping to see a list of effective guidelines for employment of social software to reconnect to causes that matter in ‘inexpensive, accessible, and massively scalable ways’.

I look forward to writing a review when the book comes in!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Skypeless to Seattle

Ok, sorry for the bad title. It’s been a couple of days now since I logged problems with Skype on my Facebook status. At that stage, I didn’t appreciate that it was a global phenomenon – I’m used to tech stuff having problems around me at critical times. Fortunately, I don’t rely on Skype, and can easily reroute most of its functionality. It’s a timely reminder about reliance, and taking stuff that’s ‘free’ for granted.

, one of my QUT colleagues, pointed me to the heartbeat post by Joosep pointing to the problem:

UPDATED 14:02 GMT: Some of you may be having problems logging into Skype. Our engineering team has determined that it’s a software issue. We expect this to be resolved within 12 to 24 hours. Meanwhile, you can simply leave your Skype client running and as soon as the issue is resolved, you will be logged in. We apologize for the inconvenience.
Additionally, downloads of Skype have been temporarily disabled. We will make downloads available again as quickly as possible.

Subsequently, Brad Stone at the New York Times reported on the issue, identifying a software bug at the heart of the issue which had amazingly lain dormant since the start of the Skype service in 2003. And yes, the mention of conspiracy did arise, but I’ll leave the rest of the blogosphere to contemplate that.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Queensland Judge Appointed to High Court

Queensland citizens and advocates today celebrate the appointment of Justice Susan Keifel to the High Court of Australia. Justice Keifel is the third female to be appointed to this position, and will share the bench with Justice Susan Crennan, appointed in 2005. Her Honour replaces Queenslander Justice Ian Callinan, who is retiring on 31st August, one day short of his 70th birthday.

In an interview conducted with ABC television news, the Honourable Paul de Jersey AC Chief Justice of Queensland commented that it was important for Queensland to maintain its position on the High Court, to illustrate the on-going role to be played by the State in federal affairs.

Moreover, this appointment, albeit widely considered to fit with the Howard Government’s conservative agenda, illustrates the importance of female presence on the bench.

Justice Keifel famously left school when 15, going to work as a legal clerk at a ‘prominent law firm’ Messrs Fitzgerald, Moynihan and Mack. Keifel gained no ordinary legal training: in 1984 she was awarded a Master of Laws from Wolfson College, Cambridge, with the CJ Hamson prize in Comparative Law. Excelling at her bar exams, she was the youngest female to make silk in Queensland in 1987, whereupon she was appointed to the Supreme Court of Queensland in 1993, and to the Australian Federal Court in 1994.

At a recent lunch-time address to the Australian Academy of Law, of which she is a foundation fellow, reported by The Australian, Keifel J stated:
"Perhaps the time has come for judges to give detailed consideration to their concerns and articulate them. I am not sure solutions will be obvious but clear statements about what is unacceptable in presentation must be a starting point. Case management is not itself the solution."

We wish her all the best for her appointment.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Tools for Humanities Researchers

Yesterday several heads of research gathered at QUT Creative Industries to discuss tools for humanities researchers. This discussion follows an ARC-funded national survey administered by the Australian Academy of the Humanities to acquire detailed knowledge of the current practices and future requirements of researchers in Australia. Questions asked encompass:

‘What kinds of technologies do you use in your research? How do you use them? What is the impact on your research? Does technology change the kinds of questions you can ask? Why don’t you use more?'

As a corollary to this Learned Academies Special Projects linkage program, the Academy is about to conduct a digitisation scoping study to identity materials most useful to have digitised for researchers in the humanities. The aim of both projects is to compile a substantial evidence base to identity resources and tools to guide investment in these areas.

My contribution to the discussion is as a recent participant in the Oxford Internet Institute Summer Doctoral Programme, held at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. Being involved in Internet studies, researchers often confront the problem that there aren’t established ways of undertaking qualitative or quantitative analysis. We are always already bricoleurs, mashing previous methods and modes of study to innovate when and where required. (On ethnography, Bryman (2004) comments that it is ‘generally recognized that the method entails a wide range of methods of data collection and sources’ (p. 292).) Do we still need a composite suite of tools to facilitate easier data collection and analysis? Those who are tracking the blogosphere appear to be saying so – colleagues have variously used IssueCrawler teamed with Technorati rankings, but feel that further tools could facilitate analysis. Some have been inspired to work on their own tools, such as OII SDP guest John Kelly, who presented interesting visualised slices of the blogosphere at Harvard.
English-language Blogosphere
A much–referenced portal is, which lists over 500 projects, filtered into ‘pattern recognition’ and ‘social networks’, amongst others.

Here is a selection of other tools currently being employed by OII SDPers:

* A useful blogging bibliography tool from Ismael Peña-López, as a database employing two main classes, ‘Contacts’ and ‘Works’, to which five attributes are attached, ‘categories’, ‘types of authors’, ‘types of projects’, ‘languages’ and ‘countries’.

* In the Psych domain, Ralph Lengler of (recently rated highly with TED) introduced Tools for Internet-based data collection, and the Web-Experiment-List.

* Daithí Mac Síthigh employs YEP as a Mac-based (and unfortunately not-yet FLOSS) file management tool for pdfs, in which documents can be tagged and annotated. Note the subsequent alert to Skim! which appears to have improved annotation capability, to appease my concerns.

* Peter Ryan introduced TAPoR, a text analysis portal for research based at McMaster University, from a project contributed to by six of the leading Humanities computing centres in Canada. In particular, Peter spoke of HyperPo, a text analysis tool to examine the frequency and senses of words. I believe it outputs nice graphic distributions as a visual model of authors’ arguments.

* One way to track information online is through, started with the vision of allowing users to extract and reuse data from nominated sites. Two services employing dapper are blotter, which graphs a blog’s popularity over time, and snag, a social network application which aggregates a user’s presence across the net.

* Marcus Foth mentioned two tools which have been of great use to him recently: dopplr, which displays colleagues’ travel plans, recently reviewed by the Guardian as a British dotcom to watch, and LinkedIn’s capacity to request connections.

* Alla Zollers, given her interest in tagging, commented about ma.gnolia, opining that it has a better interface than and emphasises the power of social networks. That said, there are probably more people using, and for that, the wisdom of the crowds may be… wiser? over there?!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

IceTV Baby

In a decision handed down by Bennett J of the Australian Federal Court, Sydney’s IceTV has succeeded in proving that its electronic program guide (EPG) ‘does not reproduce a substantial part’ of the Nine Network’s program guide. The decision supported Nine’s claim to ownership of the copyright, but upheld that IceTV’s guide was compiled independently. From the instigation of proceedings in 2006, IceTV had asserted that ‘IceGuide is independently compiled by the company from a suite of sources in the public domain.’

This decision allows users to continue to schedule television recordings on a number of devices, including PCs, video recorders, and mobile phones. The IceTV service currently has 6500 fee-paying subscribers and an additional several thousand on a trial basis. The service is pitching itself as a viable alternative to TiVo, whose official introduction into Australia still remains unclear.

The Sydney Morning Herald observed that many viewed these actions as a traditional media vs. new media battle. Undoubtedly, the service will see increased success in the wake of this decision.

Moliyo MMORPGs: Blood Sports?

There is apparently a worrying exchange being suggested in China this week: players of the MMORPG ‘Cabal’, owned by Moliyo, are being asked to donate half a litre of blood in exchange for accounts. True to the name ‘cabal’, meaning a group of secret plotters, approximately 120,000 gamers were recently caught hacking the game in an attempt to enhance their status and were subsequently blocked. Through a blood donation, this block would be undone and they could continue their quest. New players could also open accounts in this fashion. The company has justified this move in saying that it is seeking to illustrate the importance of civil behaviour, of public responsibility and the significance of social welfare.

Photo attribution: 'I Wear Pink With Pride', CC BY-NC 2.0 by Cayusa

Research (Frey & Jegen, 2000) surrounding the exchange of goods for the undertaking of philanthropic acts, such as blood donation, suggests that there is a ‘crowding out’ effect which occurs: counter-intuitively, motivation decreases for acts of public responsibility when something is offered in return, as though the bargain is tarnished by the suggestion of profit. Since 2002, the Red Cross in China has sought to adhere to a Voluntary Blood Donation Law, with branches in Tianjin, Jiangsu, Fujian, Gangxi, and Shandong giving awards, rather than cash, to outstanding individuals and units in recognition of their donations. The quest for blood has been an ongoing battle, however, given that there have been a series of scandals in relation to the contracting of AIDS through blood donation to Chinese hospitals. This has been attributed to inappropriate medical staff training leading to poor collection techniques. According to the US Embassy site:
‘Truly voluntary blood donation is unknown in China. Even where blood donation is ostensibly voluntary, in practice blood donation is expected by the work unit and often rewarded with two or three weeks of paid leave. Some people who earn money by giving blood are in poor health. These blood donors sometimes include drug addicts and prostitutes who may have STDs or other blood-borne diseases. Contaminated blood products, diseases transmitted to blood donors by dirty needles and other poor medical practices have spread the HIV virus and other illnesses.’

The Chinese Red Cross must therefore respond urgently to the suggestion that gamers are being induced to give blood. This follows in a tradition which speaks of coercion and unethical practice through incentivising social responsibilities. The only way to guarantee a steady supply of blood is to make the process safe, and to ensure that the benefits are clearly communicated independent of fiscal reward.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

In his 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, director Kirby Dick (Twist of Faith, 2004; Derrida, 2002) rails against the all-encompassing hold of the Motion Picture Association of America, the MPAA. Despite the conventional format of this film, the script is based on a decidedly brazen move: the documentary itself has to be submitted to the film review panel which Dick seeks to expose for its ‘shadowy practices.’

A Brief History of Censorship

As an organisation founded in 1922 after a US Supreme Court ruling in 1915 stating that motion pictures were not covered under the First Amendment (a decision subsequently reversed in 1952), the MPAA operated according to production code (the ‘Hays Code’) guidelines which stipulated that:

General Principles
1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

The MPAA Production Code Administration required all filmmakers to obtain a certificate of approval before the distribution of their work. In 1966, Jack Valenti became head of the MPAA, and set about introducing a ratings system upon the violation of the existing code by MGM and Warner Bros with their respective films Blowup and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Operating under a schema of G, M, R, and X, there have been certain shifts of classification over intervening years, culminating in the creation of the NC-17 label in 1990.

It is the effect of being rated ‘NC-17’ that is the focus of this documentary: far from transparent or accountable, MPAA wields this status as a political tool to disable the distribution of content it deems to be inappropriate for American youth. How the MPAA Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) goes about their decision-making process, likened to censorship, is closed to scrutiny – until Kirby Dick hires private investigators to get to the identity of those who rate films. In true Hollywood style, Dick gleans information from trash cans, hidden cameras, and reconnaissance trips in order to uncover the demographic who makes these decisions.

The stakes are undoubtedly high: receiving an NC-17 rating, where children under the age of 17 are not admitted to a screening, rather than ‘R - Restricted’ where patrons 17 and under must be accompanied by an adult or guardian, means that a movie cannot be openly advertised. Hollywood studios refuse to promote these films, most cinemas won’t play NC-17s, and large distributors Wal-Mart and Blockbuster refuse to stock DVDs with this classification. Clearly, this may mean the difference between box office success and failure. Stigma would also attach to the suggestion of content deemed unseemly by the parents of America… whoever they may be. In whose name? is a question which resonates in the denial of an official response, given the diversity of ‘youth’ tastes and interests. This is a clear insight into the shaping of the monolithic American mainstream.

Actor Maria Bello, most recently of The Cooler, comments on the inconsistency of the rating when you look to comparable content of more mainstream Hollywood films (think American Pie, for one!). What exactly is gratuitous? All evidence suggests that there is an assault on the depiction of female pleasure, and anything deemed to be ‘queer’. To clarify: no-one is arguing against the utility of guidelines for viewing decisions; rather, they are questioning the lack of consistency and transparency of their application, as well as a seeming vendetta against independent thought. Suggestions that professional child psychologists and independent media experts sit on the panel were rapidly quashed:

MPAA maintains that the identity of ratings board members must not be disclosed because of their supposed sensitivity to pressure from lobby groups; however, it is clear that close bonds are formed between Hollywood and the committee, given the detailed feedback provided to amend to an R, versus ‘it’s the film’s overall feeling’ and ‘we stopped making notes’ for the independents. How one addresses such generalities before a closed appeals tribunal is also up for consideration. Dick reveals, however, that the board is constituted by members of the major studios, and in appeasing religious-minded lobby groups, two members of the clergy. In addition, Jack Valenti unashamedly courted statesmen and US Senators for support of his ‘impartial’ decision-making body.

Opinion on the independence and fairness of the system is sought from prominent American filmmakers who have endured the NC-17 branding: John Waters, Kevin Smith, Mary Harron, Matt Stone, Kimberly Peirce, Darren Aronofsky, and Atom Egoyan. This process is also witnessed in meta-text, as Dick is subjected to the scrutiny of MPAA for the present film. Stanford law professor and rights guru Lawrence Lessig weighs into the debate on the front of copyright and piracy and the encroachment on the public sphere and free thought. In a beautifully appropriate moment of irony, apparently the MPAA pirated copies of the film to distribute to their executives. Let us hope for a wide release for the film in Australian cinemas.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Exteriors: Suburbia's Subtle Satirist

Howard Arkley Retrospective
Queensland Gallery of Modern Art

Nick Cave (c) Howard Arkley 1999, Commissioned with funds provided by L Gordon Darling AC CMG. Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

The airbrushed lines of Australian artist Howard Arkley (1951-1999) reveal an urban landscape in which multiple layers converge to portray a darker side to the duplex and its dainty décor. Arkley does not shatter the suburban surrounds in the manner of David Lynch (no ears in the grass Blue Velvet style), but there is something decidedly unhomely in the homely. In a repetition of roofs and kempt corners familiar from real estate catalogues, Arkley employs a palette that is slightly overemphatic, skewed, to emphasise a different perspective on the domestic. Despite their instant pop appeal, his works reward the ‘slow look’, an examination of colour and form, pattern and patina which surrounds us on a daily basis and may otherwise be overlooked.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s comprehensive retrospective of Arkley’s work opened at the Ian Potter Centre in Melbourne’s Federation Square in November 2006, and has now reached Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) (6th July – 16th September 2007). The exhibition coincides with the launch of John Gregory’s monograph Carnival in Suburbia: The Art of Howard Arkley. Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Art and Design, Monash University, Dr Gregory presumably has great insight into this subject, in being Howard’s brother-in-law.

The curation of the exhibition, undertaken by Jason Smith, chronicles the early fascination of Arkley with the tools of his trade, showing exercises which work through the different effects to be achieved with the airbrush. We progress past the intricate iron work of front doors, ruminating on Guimard’s Parisian Métropolitain gates, to extensions into the ‘real’ in 3-dimensional seating which plays with perspective, form, and function in inimitable style – what is real, what is model? how do utilitarianism and art coincide? The outside walls of the exhibition explore Arkley’s exteriors (his ‘bloody house paintings,’ said in a moment of exasperation that this would be his legacy), and his fascination with masks. The inside walls perhaps mirror his concerns more closely: the interiors show different settings on the familiar, along side his famous, and thought to be autobiographical work on heroin use, an addiction which brought about his untimely death in 1999, months after world-wide recognition at the Venice Biennale, La Biennale di Venezia.

The centrepiece of the exhibition could be said to be the collaborative piece ‘Blue Chip Instant Decorator’ (1990/1991), completed with Juan Davila for an exhibition in Tolarno Galleries, South Yarra. Whereas Davila’s politics are brutally obvious, Arkley’s are embedded, folded in the patterning and vanishing behind the veneers. Yet, there is a clear statement about commodification of art here and the evacuation of all socio-cultural meaning at the hands of art dealers.

We circle in recombinations and reorderings across a range of visual stimuli in this exhibition, where types are elaborated upon and memes mesmerise. Arkley offers a panorama of immersive entertainment and enlightenment as settings unsettle. These are the landscapes of the twentieth century, where we reflect upon identity and belonging. Arkley positions us to re-evaluate the great Australian dream, served over tea and scones. The back corner is dedicated to a powerful industrial landscape which will no doubt find particular resonance with those who think globally. What is it to be local? As politicians wend their way through marginal electorates, now is certainly the time to recast our gaze.