September 26, 2008

Community spirit

In common with most mammals and birds, we humans generally prefer being part of a pack.
Groups provide safety, companionship, and economy of effort, with individual members contributing to increase the well-being of all. All such groups have internal conflicts, but with a common goal and competent leadership, the overall community is not threatened by temporary disruptions or difficulties.
In the absence of mutual support and direction, however, the group can easily fragment into smaller factions which have to compete for the same resources.

At this point, astute and/or regular readers (usually one and the same, of course) may assume that I am about to launch into yet another analysis of the often self-defeating management policies at ODP/DMOZ, which relies for its success on a vast and diverse community of volunteers.
No, surprisingly enough this is the last mention of ODP in this post!

One of the ways in which groups can increase cohesion and participation is through non-essential, enjoyable interaction where the goal is not survival but increasing trust and bonding within the community. This is the basis for all those corporate/team-building activities which often make such entertaining documentaries.
I have never been lucky enough to go on a work-sponsored weekend of wilderness camping, abseiling or SCUBA diving, but I have taken part in many less commercial group events, and they were certainly great fun.

Last year I posted about participating in a mass sporting event for charity, and for the last few years I have taken part in the annual community walk down a very scenic abandoned railway line.

This year I added another group event to my calendar: the annual Trek the Trail, an historical walk through native bushland in the steps of early settlers and engineers.
Unfortunately it was not a sunny spring day, but several thousand of us braved an icy wind and constant rain to walk the 7 km down to Mundaring Weir. Local artists displayed craft and sculptures along the way, and volunteer groups were on hand to help with road crossings and provide impromptu entertainment.
Historical markers and descriptions of the wildflowers made it educational as well as entertaining, and there were all sorts of activities for children. It was wonderful to see so many families taking part, despite the weather, and I shall certainly be attending next year.

September 17, 2008

We need square pegs

Conformity rules, by and large. In all communities, both animal and human, the non-conformist is often ostracised, or at best hidden away, ignored, or discriminated against.
A "square peg in a round hole" is one expression used to describe the sort of person who also attracts labels such as "show-off", "trouble-maker", "rebel", "loose cannon" or "maverick". Someone who habitually "rubs people the wrong way" through outspoken-ness, ambition, manner, or achievements.
And yet we know that evolution, adaptations, inventions and advancements are usually the result of one or more individuals not being the same as everyone else. So why penalise those who are deliberately different, who challenge the safe uniformity of our "herd"?

In the non-human animal world, I can understand that prejudice is based on an instinct for survival - the possibility that such an individual will attract unwanted attention from a predator. But what is our justification?
Surely we cannot seriously believe that just because a person does not "fit in", they are a threat? And yet we so often treat them as if they were. Are we so insecure that we have to try and force these people to conform to the social norms that we have chosen to follow? Maybe they do indeed scare us, because when they continue to act outside those parameters, we band together, getting the wagons in a circle to protect ourselves. From what, exactly?

Example 1
This week I watched a television interview with a neurosurgeon, Dr Charles Teo, who has been shunned and publicly derided by his professional colleagues. Not for malpractice or anything like that, but basically for annoying them and not behaving like they think he should. 
True, he is also outstandingly good at his job, and has an astonishing success rate ... but I'm sure that has absolutely nothing to do with his colleagues'  antipathy. 

Examples 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, ...
I have been reminded yet again this week of a particularly counter-productive tendency at the Open Directory Project , where high achievers within the volunteer community are often harried, ignored, or slowly but surely driven away. It is sadly rare for such people to be appropriately recognised for their dedication and contributions, and I believe this is for the reasons I mentioned above: they are "square pegs" - outspoken, or irreverent, or too openly ambitious, or simply seen to be doing too much. 
No, wait, that can't be right. As with Dr Teo, surely it can't be that their achievements make others feel uncomfortable about their own contributions.
That just wouldn't be fair, or sensible, would it.

September 11, 2008

Boom and Blooms

Well, yesterday's "Dawn of a New Era" in physics wasn't quite the spectacular event that you'd expect for several billion dollars, but at least the dismal predictions turned out to be groundless, and we didn't all disappear into a black hole. Now that would have been (very very briefly) a true spectacle!
Rather to my surprise, I have in fact been following the development of this immense project with mild interest over the last year or two, not because I understand the principles, and even less because I care about the potential discoveries. My fascination is with the vast number of people (8,000 of them, according to the report in the Washington Post) who have been involved for so long on such a single-minded project with un-knowable results. How do they maintain their interest and enthusiasm? Certainly, many of them will have worked simply for the money, but there must be a significant number who have chosen to stay on the project because of their belief/hope that it will achieve something extraordinary.
Personally, I've always been more interested in serendipitous discoveries than in massively organised, expensive and ambitious experiments, and it will take more than a little puff of light on a monitor to maintain my interest.*(see below)* I think for that sort of money they could have incorporated a few more satisfying effects, or at least a whooshing noise as the protons went whizzing around the 27km tube.
But I did get a smile from the following quote made by Robert Aymar, Director-General of CERN, who obviously wanted to say something suitably momentous:
“The LHC ... has the potential to change our view of the Universe profoundly, continuing a tradition of human curiosity that’s as old as mankind itself.”
As old as that, eh?

With the Western Australian wildflower season getting into full swing, I'm delighted to be able to start my bush walks once again. I took these photos in 2006 and 2007, but with an almost-average rainfall this past winter, it should be an inspiring display this year as well. I'll take my camera the next few days, and post a couple of photos here to brighten the place up a little.
Added: it's been too wet and windy for a walk, so here are a couple of Spring photos from my garden instead, taken in the last week.

*Update on 20 September: the Big Bang machine has gone kerplonk. Apparently some of the magnets overheated, which means the recreation of the beginning of the Universe is "on hold". I love it!

September 04, 2008

Perspective (4)

I have been confronted by ageing issues this week, although fortunately not specifically my own.
1. As I have mentioned previously, I teach graduate medical students, and yesterday the subject under discussion was how best to manage patients with chronic disease for which there is no definitive treatment.  The idea was that the students would consider the problems of providing support and maintaining a good doctor-patient relationship when there can be little improvement in the condition. I was once again somewhat disappointed to find that their attitude depended almost solely on the age of the patient: 
  • anyone under about 30 would get their full support and be offered an impressive range of alternatives.
  • anyone "old" was expected to understand that some things could not be treated, and that they must therefore "live with it". (They were polite enough not to mention an actual age, out of deference to what they probably see as my own advancing decrepitude. ;))
2. When I mentioned this to a colleague, she told me about a 99-year old patient of hers, who was still well and active and living at home. The patient apparently lied about her age when socialising with other "senior citizens", because she found that being truthful was often seen as boastful. 
In effect, she was a whole  generation older than most of her acquaintances, and found it difficult to make new friends among those "only" in their 70's. 

3. An amusing email belatedly doing the rounds shows a mock-up of the social networking site Facebook as it might appear in 50 years time, when Generation Y (like my students) reach their 70's.
(If that is itself a copy I hope someone will correct me. I do like to give credit to the original source of these endlessly replicated items.)

September 03, 2008

Up and away

"Validation", "confirmation", and  "affirmation" ... individually, they are often annoyingly trite and meaningless expressions, but sometimes they are just right. Words have great power when used carefully and honestly.

Affirmation 1: The surgeon said yesterday that he was thrilled with my recent progress, and congratulated me on my efforts. 
Until then I had felt merely sick and sore and distinctly sorry for myself, but hearing his positive message (after 5 weeks of him looking worried and downcast) did wonders. I can now feel myself getting better.
(For those wisely ignorant of my health saga, I recently underwent additional surgery for a post-operative complication arising from an elective operation a month ago.)

Affirmation 2: Further to my suppressed distress over understandable but unnecessary resignations from ODP/DMOZ, I am delighted that some well-placed and authoritative words of support and encouragement have done their job in at least one case. Definitely better late than never. 


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