Friday, November 17, 2006

In defence of space budgets: Bold steps may accidentally solve humanitarian problems

Maslow's hierarchy of needs A friend rhetorically asked me why humans are still putting great resources into researching and developing weapons, space programs and a plethora of "useless gadgets". It's a point well taken, but I feel like there is a part of the thinking process missing. Let me try to explain it.

From the time of the (European) industrial revolution onwards, the old adage that "need is the mother of all invention" became ingrained in our psyche so we either consider that we should put money into researching something because we clearly need it or that we don't clearly need it so we shouldn't fund it. But I really feel like the rules have changed.

Human needs will always exist so there is always the need for ways to manage those needs. But sometimes it is not necessarily clear how need could be filled, especially for complex needs, such as the need for human rights or the need for self actualisation (as Maslow would put it).

In some cases, serendipitous investments in technological pursuits seemingly worthless in terms of humanitarian benefit have accidentally revealed potential for a derivative technology that would benefit people. I see technologies like Google Earth and the world wide web as examples... (I love any excuse to talk about Google Earth!)

We didn't need the WWW or its origins in ARPANET. It was devised to ensure USA world domination would remain intact in the case of strategic bombing of communications lines – hardly a humanitarian benefit unless you are American, but a military benefit.

Nor did We need Google Earth, although no doubt NASA and the USA defence force had some military need for the satellite photos which sustain it. Yet Google Earth is more and more becoming a tool which is not just a cool web-app, apparently useless in terms of bettering humanity, but a technology which turns out to be very helpful indeed. And let's not forget that if it wasn't for the amount of money originally spent on space programs to put the photograph-taking satellites into orbit we wouldn't have Google Earth today!

In such cases it seems like innovation and invention are the parents of totally new ways of thinking and doing things. And, in time have potential to provide genuine humanitarian benefit.

Ages ago, I blogged about a guy in Italy who pinpointed an ancient Roman ruin by observing the area near his house on Google Earth.

Now, two new stories. The first is of a group of farmers near Mumbai using Google Earth to prove they deserved more compensation from the government who acquired their lands for a state government project.

The second is a bit closer to home. Researchers at Wollongong Uni are using Google Earth to spot the sites of mega-tsunamis, possibly caused by kilometre-wide comets hitting the earth. I'm not sure how if is directly useful to humankind, but I sense that being able to predict the likelihood of a mega-tsunami would save a lot more lives than were lost in the recent Aceh tsunami disaster!

The sky is the limit Any more cool uses of Google Earth for human development or generally helping people, please pop a link in the comments.

But just one final comment from me to see what comes out of it...

It could be argued that the world wide web and Google Earth are here today thanks to a consistently generous budget for the US defence department. Imagine if that generous research budget was instead controlled by the Indian department for agriculture, or another country's department for education or department for environment, or the Australian communications and IT department (I wish)... What inventions, serendipitously useful to human development and wellbeing, could we have expected to see by now?

Maslow's hierarchy of needs image courtesy of blog; Volleyball in the sky image thanks to Hughes.
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Monday, November 13, 2006

Quaint memories of DFAT's "battleaxe spinster"

Don't you call me a battleaxe spinster, mister! Geoff of the RadWaste blog has posted an absolute gem! This is a minute paper from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the pros and cons of hiring women as trade commissioners. Here's a sample of the list (which was almost all cons):
A man normally has his household run efficiently by his wife who also looks after much of the entertaining. A woman Trade Commissioner would have all this on top of her normal work; (source)
I think that for me, and plenty of other cusp gen-Yers and gen-Xers, it's easy to under-appreciate the truly radical shift that occurred in the way the role of women in society was viewed. Because it happened before we were born or were old enough to see it, we kind of have this feeling that women must have been liberated from unwanted/undeserved domestic drudgery and child-bearing ever since the condom and washing machine were invented.

But as late as 1963 — just six years before they put a man on the moon — the value of a woman was still clearly seen to be 99% in her ability to attract men by her charms (and, by default, to "run HIS household efficiently").

Given this knowledge, it's no surprise that the Trade Commission was seeking young women since they pointed out that only a "relatively young attractive woman could operate with some effectiveness".

But the problem with young women at the time was that they either got married...
...most of them [single graduate trainees] would probably marry within five years... (source)
...or that they remained unmarried...
...A spinster lady can, and very often does, turn into something of a battleaxe with the passing years. A man usually mellows... (source)
(That one is hilarious!) Then if all else fails to prevent women entering the Trade Commission, residual misogyny could be trusted to prevail.
...such [a female] appointee would not stay young and attractive for ever and later on could well become a problem... (source)
Germaine Greer's writings suddenly seem so much less loopy and like something that was truly influential in galvanising action at the time!
It's a very expensive process [hiring women], but External Affairs lack courage to slam the door because of parliamentary opinion, pressure groups and so on. (source)
Update: For clearer source images on the National Archives website (thanks to Colin's comment) see PAGE 1 and PAGE 2.

Battleaxe spinster image thanks to Banner generator.
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The prejudice, intolerance and hate common to many religions

Following the "uncovered meat is the problem not the cats" controversy, Ms Fits has highlighted equivalent comments made by a Baptist pastor in Victoria.
Pastor David Hodgens: I confess to being very uncomfortable with the tone and reported content of the sheikh's comments... However, one of the things that seems to have been lost in the ensuing discussion is whether or not the point he seemed to be trying to make... ought to be examined. Is there a link between provocative dress and sexual assault?

Leering at a woman in particularly tight or revealing clothing is wrong but so is dressing in a way that is known, even designed, to entice others to sexual desire. (source)
Religion All we need now is a rabbi to point out the same applies to promiscuous Jewish women and the reality of the problems with common philosophy underpinning MANY mainstream religion becomes apparent. One only needs to consider the effective cancelling of a gay parade in Jerusalem to see that certain abhorrent views such as homophobia are common to fundamentalists of both Islam and Judaism just to start...

Back to the point though. Clearly, the response to Sheik Al-Hilay's comment two weeks ago DID turn into a muslim bashing exercise at the expense of becoming a bashing of the "blame the victim" mentality which exonerates perpetrators of sexual assault by implication!

Apparently it's okay for Pru Goward to call for the sheik to be deported for his comments, but, as Ms Fits points out, the same is NOT being applied to Hodgens. Why? Because it's an extremely stupid, small-minded and illogical suggestion in the first place.

If someone makes comments which challenge our common belief in human rights (well common to some, not all) then it's our job to stand up and point this out, but I don't see how deporting the commenter is in any way helpful. It simply means some other poor country has to deal with this misogynist small-mindedness.

The xenophobic and anti-Islam sentiment that prompted these kinds of calls from Howard and Goward is just as bad as the sheik's misogyny! Let's deal with misogyny, xenophobia and the challenge of religious diversity right here and not offer divisive "solutions" that would simply pass the buck on to a different country.

And there's something else that has been missed in all this. Let's imagine for a moment our PM and sex discrimination commissioner really wanted to help both Australia's non-muslim and muslim population have increased wellbeing, instead of just looking for a way to create more votes for themselves from conservatives frightened of "the other"... A sensible discussion of the issue could have in fact been used to create understanding and bridges between two subcultures in Australia! Let's keep that in mind for next time eh.

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