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The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Really Are

No one “gets it” like Alan Watts gets it. He summarises “it” in a 160 page book called “THE BOOK: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are” (1966).  This TAG proves the pattern: no matter what I learn in the other fields and areas of scholarship, I can’t help but return to the metaphoric and comedic language of Alan Watts.

These two paragraphs in the Preface to THE BOOK, (almost) captures the thesis I’m spending hours upon hours trying to write:

“THIS BOOK explores an unrecognized but mighty taboo—our tacit conspiracy to ignore who, or what, we really are. Briefly, the thesis is that the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East—in particular the central and germinal Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism. This hallucination underlies the misuse of technology for the violent subjugation of man’s natural environment and, consequently, its eventual destruction.

We are therefore in urgent need of a sense of our own existence which is in accord with the physical facts and which overcomes our feeling of alienation from the universe. For this purpose I have drawn on the insights of Vedanta, stating them, however, in a completely modern and Western style—so that this volume makes no attempt to be a textbook on or introduction to Vedanta in the ordinary sense. It is rather a cross-fertilization of Western science with an Eastern intuition.”

It’s contents includes:

1 Inside Information 11
2 The Game of Black-and-White 29
3 How To Be a Genuine Fake 53
4 The World Is Your Body 82
5 So What? 100
6 IT 125

Reading these paragraphs make me question why I am writing a thesis that seems to take the above two paragraphs and make them a whole lot more complicated?

I guess that’s the process of growth: take things apart, make them more complex, then put them back together, and see if there’s something useful you can add in returning it to the simplicity. Even Watts wrote and spoke at length about “Nothingness”…

I doubt I can add much to the messages Alan Watts conveys so effectively, but given the feeling of alienation of humans from their universe continues, as does the exploitation of our fellow humans and our planet, both which appear connected to understandings of self and world that don’t align with a holistic look at what western science tells us (including evolution, emergence and quantum physics). Maybe my contribution will be exploring how the idea captured in THE BOOK may be put to use in new ways…

THE BOOK is definitely worth a read (or Google the title and PDF and you’ll surely find a free copy) and The Nature of Consciousness (an audio lecture series) is well worth listening to, at least ten times:


Hopefully when my ability to express these ideas improves I will be able to share this in ways that doesn’t simply direct people away from my blog. When one is working over 4-days a week, and trying to write up a long academic thesis by the end of the year, there’s only so much you can do…. I guess it’ll all happen in good time.


Am I a Feminist?

“There are three problems in this world…” Sekai Holland opened her speech “1. men, 2. men, and 3. men.” [1]

“Feminism” is an interesting word. In my ignorance it used to bring to mind images of men-hating women demanding to work, wear suits, and take off their bras. The idea of studying feminism or being a feminist was as foreign to me as studying astronomy and being an alien. Born in 1982 I missed the fight for women’s rights and, without giving it a moment of appreciation, I have reaped the benefits of it.

In time and with education, my understanding of the most successful movement of last century has evolved. I am now filled with gratitude to the courage of feminists: their fight for women’s respect, for women’s right to vote, and for women to have more say in the direction they want to take their lives.

One look at the political and corporate world we see the difference they have made – the scene has clearly changed since the days of Mad Men. Australia even has a female Prime Minister! That being said there’s still the long way left to go – women’s salaries are still far lower then mens, and the % of men to women in roles of governance and corporate rule are still not in a good way.

With these ideas running through my mind, I find myself wondering: am I a feminist?

Given I like men, hate suits, and appreciate a good bra, there’s a part of me that finds this a strange question to be thinking about.

Yet without a doubt when it comes to equality of wages and opportunities, protection from rape, power to choose divorce, abortion, playing sports, and bounds of research has found that the feminine approach to most matters is more peaceful than the masculine, it would seem that I am a feminist. Why then do I feel so weird about this word?

It is most likely inherited from a backlash against feminism via the media re-framing the movement after the war. Bell Hooks talks briefly about it here:


Sure I understand the argument for “traditional roles”: looking after the children, cleaning, cooking – these are important and rewarding tasks for humans. But I don’t think this need be specifically a woman’s roles. I’d be quite happy if my partner were a “stay-at-home-Dad” if it meant I could continue to research and write while he did the housework.

The big problem I have with feminism is that I don’t like polarising men. They’re not all bad 😉 And those that are, it’s not their fault. We have all been “thrown” into this “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” world. It’s not a fixed state, but is changing as I type, and as you read. In the past violence may have the best way to solve conflict, and to maintain peace within a society.

Now, survival of those fittest (as in “best-suited”) for our changing global environment, requires intuitive, long-term, non-violent means to end cycles of violence, get rid of nuclear weapons, and develop agricultural and economic structures that suit our holistic needs as a species. The yin, the feminine, needs to weave it’s way back into the spheres of society that have been too long dominated by yang, the masculine.

So, in answer to my question: am I a feminist? If I’m honest with myself, ignoring the stereotype and the fact that I might be categorised as a humanist, a panentheist, and many other “-ists” as well, I suppose I have to say yes – I am a feminist— I like living in a world where women are treated (almost) equally to men, and the more equal women and men are treated throughout the world, the better a world it will be.

[1] My colleagues were in Zimbabwe announcing Senator Sekai Holland as the recipient-to-be of the 2012 Sydney Peace Prize.



“White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy”

The truth can hurt. It’s a harsh world, and a harsh critique: “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy”. Unfortunately those four words capture a certain truth about our history and prevailing political and economical hierarchy of power.

These words come from American author, feminist, and social activist, Bell Hooks.


Hooks uses the term “white supremacy” above “racism” as white supremacy ‘evokes a political world that we all frame ourselves in relation to.’

They say life is like a lottery: we don’t choose what year, culture or family that we will be born into. After being thrown into whatever world we are thrown, we engage in a dialectic between: (1) the “agency” we have, that is the choices we have power to make, and (2) the “structure” we are in, that is the external factors that limit those choices.

For Hooks, the violence that results from “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” ie racial discrimination, is an issue of institutions not individual relations.

Hooks argues that a proactive sense of agency requires a greater level of literacy

‘I think we cannot begin to talk about freedom and justice in any culture if we’re not talking about mass based literacy movements…. degrees of literacy determine so often how we see what we see… what it means for our lives.’

Hooks suggest that two dimensional conflicts can be transformed by asking: “how can we have a more complex reading?”  The four words put together “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” complicates the issues of freedom and justice.

According to Hooks the solution to combating the structural violence resulting from this structure, or the beginning of solutions, comes from learning to think critically and be critical vigilant of the representations that we come in contact with.

‘The issue isn’t freeing our selves from representations. It’s really about being enlightened witnesses when we watch representations. It’s about being critically vigilant about both what is being told to us and how we respond to what is being told.’

Extra reading:

On looking for a thumbnail (every blog entry needs a pic) I came across a blog entry with this diagram:




RS – Racial and Sexual Domination
Rs – Racial Domination
rS – Sexual Domination






Source: Charles W. Mills and Carole Pateman, Contract and Domination (2007)

Mills writes:

“… though gender [=sex] subordination predates racial subordination, once racial subordination has been established, it generally trumps gender… So the interaction of the two contracts does not produce a symmetry of race and gender subordination, but a pattern of internal asymmetries within the larger asymmetry of social domination. Whites as a group dominate nonwhites as a group, while within these racial groups me generally dominate women.” (pp.172-173)

Taken from blog:

Musings on Marriage

“I obviously support gay marriage under the principle that why should only heterosexuals suffer.” Jeffrey Eugenides.

“In thickening thighs and boring anecdotes, I now pronounce you man and wife…” Kathy Lette.

Watching the Writers Festival panelists on Q&A discuss the question of marriage, I was reminded of some old musings. I thought I’d already blogged them, but discovered I hadn’t…

There are two very different uses of the word marriage, which I think we often confuse: the socio-legal institution and the long-term relationship:

‘The debate about marriage rests on a fundamental confusion. The word “marriage” has two quite different senses. One is the socio-legal institution, which in effect amounts to a tripartite contract between a man, a woman, and the state. The other is the long-term committed relationship entered into voluntarily by people who, because of their affection for one another, wish to pool resources and share the joys and burdens of life… Most people who wish to marry in the second (relationship) sense assume they must do so by marrying in the first (socio-legal) sense.’[2]

In this day and age with prenuptial agreements and high divorce rates, is socio-legal marriage an obsolete construction? In a way, yes. But it still has some uses.

I think most people are more interested in a long-term commitment (though not necessarily till death) than the socio-legal institution. Of course there are others who are more interested in institution, often more so from a religious sense which defines marriage as between a man, woman and “God” (which let’s face it, tends to include a subtext of Church and State).

Why do we continue to involve the State? For the tax benefits, working visas, and security blankets?

Grayling connects the roots of socio-legal marriage to a ‘profoundly sexist financial arrangement’ originating with an aim ‘to constrain women’s sexuality and fertility so that men could be sure they were bequeathing their property to their own offspring.’[3]

I think these days the security blanket (and thickening thighs that often develop under it it) goes both ways, at least in countries where women have rights.

My favourite approach to marriage is a touch unconventional: a five year marriage. I think it should be a legal requirement that marriages need to be renewed every five years. It would mean that no one gets too comfortable and lets their anecdotes get too boring. I actually think divorce rates would decrease as people wouldn’t feel obligated and resentful toward the contract the self of their past once made. It would also mean that commitment phobes would relax, so maybe even the number of marriages would increase.

A good friend who married her German lover to make it easier for him to stay in Oz. Two years on they are still in love. A whimsical, risky, spontaneous marriage, using the socio-legal version for their own benefit. A realistic vow: “let’s see what happens”… If it doesn’t work, what harm has been done?

“I think we need to be more realistic about our wedding vows because usually it’s not, you know, in sickness and health and all that that breaks up marriages.” Kathy Lette continued to suggest. [1] I think it’s more realistic vows would be a big help. There’s only so much that the you in this moment, can promise for the you that will be in the moment in ten years time. You can do your best to honour the promise you made ten years ago, but I think it’s important to forgive one another if the terms of the promise, held in another time, are better to be broken.

As Grayling points out, ‘Marriage as a mutuality of true minds and tender hearts, so long as it lasts, is the happiest of states, whatever the number and gender of the parties to it; and the only effect that marriage in the socio-legal sense has had on marriage in this deeper sense, is usually to spoil it.’ [3]

I guess in my friend’s case the opposite occurred: the socio-legal allowed the long-term commitment to be given a chance.

According to Jeffrey Eugenides (author of The Marriage Plot) part of the problem is the disappearance of “limerence” which are the endorphins that make romance work at the beginning, but which have a used-by-date of two years, three at most. Jeffrey Eugenides notes “then you have to develop some other kind of attachment and if you don’t you really won’t make it together because you won’t have that dizzy, you know, crazy love feel the whole time.” [1] I think there are ways to keep limerence alive, but maybe that’s because deep down I’m a romantic and an optimist, and I don’t want to believe the passion might one day end.

I’m also part-realist. Whether we find more than one kind of attachment will probably be a determining factor when it comes to the Exit from the Relationship Freeway that we choose to take:

Barney Stinson: Freeways have exits, so do relationships. The first exit, my personal favorite, is six hours in. You meet, you talk, you have sex, you exit when she’s in the shower.
Robin Scherbatsky: So, every girl you have sex with feels the immediate need to shower? Actually yeah, I get that.
Barney Stinson: [ignoring what Robin just said] The next exits are four days, three weeks, seven months – That’s when you guys [pointing at Ted and Robin] are gonna break up, mark your calendars.
Ted Mosby: Hey!
Robin Scherbatsky: What?
Barney Stinson: Then a year and a half, eighteen years, and the last exit: death, which, if you’ve been with the same woman for your entire life, it’s like “Are we there yet?”

I already wore my wedding dress – in a Yumi Katsura fashion show in 2006.

[1] Q&A Monday 21 May, 2012 BTW am I the only one that didn’t know Mark Zuckerberg ended up marrying his college girlfriend?

[2] A. C. Grayling, Life, Sex, and Ideas : The Good Life without God (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). pp. 43-44.

[3] Ibid. p. 44.


Modeling Tips: Where to Begin

The way you answer the questions from my last post about the kind of modeling you might want to do, will largely determine the next steps you should take. Here are some tips on where to begin, and how to go about it…

Look for an agency:

Different motivations for modelling and different types of modelling require different approaches. In general you can google the type of modelling eg “fashion model” or “commercial model” or “swimsuit model” or “plus-size model” with the word “agency” and look through their websites for their processes re potential models joining their agency.

Agencies will have various open time casting calls and requirements. Often fashion agencies just want a very ordinary polaroid-like headshot and bodyshot emailed to them first. Try to be natural, with minimal makeup – a blank slate on which others can paint.

The top agencies won’t charge you to join their agency. If they really like you then they will pay for your portfolio, and take it out of your pay. If they are unsure they may test you out with their photographer, but out of your pocket. The more every-day agencies that get extras jobs might charge you an administration fee (I think, I didn’t join any except in Japan where they don’t charge).

I suggest start with the top agency in your city, and if they reject you they’ll give you a list of other respectable agencies to try.

Email or visit?

When I approached agencies in Paris I thought it would be best to visit in person rather than email, to “make a better impression”. It doesn’t really work like that. While the (many) agencies I visited took the time to look me up and down and flip through my portfolio, but the only agency that liked me was the one that had seen my polariods and asked me to come in. Save yourself the hassle of train rides and nerves – just email your shots. If they don’t like them, try a different agency. If that doesn’t work then try again in a year’s time with different hair and when you’ve had more practice in front of the camera. Even polaroids get better when you know your angles and how to use your eyes.

Taking Polaroids

Often fashion agencies just want a very ordinary headshot and bodyshot sent. This is what is often sent to potential jobs to see if they want you to go to their casting (along with a comp-card with your accurate and appropriate measurements).

Here’s an example of mine from 2006:







Sometimes polaroid shots are sent to potential jobs to see if they want you to go to their casting (along with a comp-card with your accurate and appropriate measurements). Take your point and shoot, find a plain wall and some natural lighting (the lighting in mine above isn’t really very good with the shadows, but hey, I was in Japan when my boyfriend took these.

Measurements and requirements

I think everyone has the potential to be a model, but there are industry norms that will limit the type of modelling you are likely to be successful at – for example if you’re 160cm there’s little chance you’ll be a runway model, and likewise if you’re overweight. Measurements are particularly important in fashion modeling because the designers need to know that you’ll fit their sample sizes. Have a look at the Comp Cards on Modelling Agency websites to check out how your measurements compare. Note that often these are fudged around 2 cm in one direction or the other, to fit the market (but no more than that)… On average fashion sizes are: bust 86-90cm, waist 58-64cm, hips 88-92cm. Proportions within those measurements are important too, and obviously in different markets different ideal measurements would apply… eg swimsuit bigger busts and hips; plus size bigger all over.

Tip #1 – Think outside the square.

Different countries have different definitions of beauty, and hence the models that designers and marketing people need will vary.

  1. Australia – international looks, extra young, more striking facial features, less willing to take a risk
  2. Japan – slightly shorter and smaller framed for high-fashion, they love “halfs” ie half Japanese half something else. Also lots of work for “gaigin” (foreigners) in TV, commercials etc.
  3. Paris – more androgynous looks, flat chests
  4. Italy – sexier looks with boobs and long hair
  5. Vienna/Berlin/Barcelona etc – more willing to take a risk, easier to find into agencies
  6. New York – the best of the best, exciting but it may eat you alive (I never tried)
  7. LA – more Californian looks, I think. I didn’t try but I went there to visit a friend and renew my Japanese visa and had a great time shooting with photographers from Model Mayhem.
  8. China? Thailand? South America? Outer-space? Shave your head? Stay around even when it seems dangerous. One of my friends got her big break – a Vogue editorial – in New York just after 911. Who knows what, when or how it will happen!

Maybe (like me) you’ll find an opportunity in a different country than your own, and in the most unlikely manner. I’d never have imagined hairdressers in Japan turning my hair green then purple, leading me to shave my head, might have been my “in” to modeling in Paris.

Tip #2 – Spend as much time as you can in front of the camera.

Have some fun with your camera, test out your abilities and see if you really do want to be a model.

Set up your own point-and-shoot, play with lighting and your expressions in the mirror, and take shots of yourself. Or get a friend to take some. Then connect with some amateur photographers to play with their SLRs with you. Copy poses and facial expressions from magazines. Learn your angles. Train your body to create shapes for the lens.

Do a Buddha: smile with all your organs, from the inside out. Or as they say: “smile with your eyes”. Try to think about something, or someone, to distract you from thinking about the camera. Look deep into the lens and think about your boyfriend, or your favourite food, or someone you hate. Channel a real feeling / emotion.

Act for the camera. Dance for the camera.

Then email your head shot and body shot to an agency you think you’d suit, or turn up to their open calls.

Be confident when you enter. Carefree confidence, not arrogant confident. Know deeply that you are worth everything you believe you are worth (no more, no less). If you don’t get chosen it’s water off a ducks back: shrug your shoulders and when you’re in the mood, try again. It’s all a show! Life’s a game, so play the characters you want to play.

Tip #3 – Network and play.

Models – photographers – makeup artists – stylists … all need to start somewhere to start.

“Test shoots” are practice shoots used to build up your portfolio and skills. Ask the photographer if you can look at the photos so you can study the relationship between you and the camera: what angles work and what don’t, which expressions work and which don’t, how you can create shapes with your body and the environment in relation to the angle of the camera.

A website I used to use a lot is Set up your profile, comment on others’ work, and get to it! I just checked and discovered my profiles are still online, though I haven’t checked my messages in forever (not a good idea if you want to succeed in the industry).

Make lots of friends and don’t burn your bridges – be polite and professional in every encounter. It’s a small industry and a small world – although we live a short life I assure you if you network through these sites one day you’ll run into these people on the street.

My old modelling port is still up: And my photography one: I’m very slack on checking mine so don’t take offense if people you contact do the same.

Do as many test shoots as you can. See if you like being in front of the camera, see if you like the surrounding creative process, and start developing your skills.

Tip #4 – Do your homework and keep your wits

Storm (a top agency in London) has some good tips for staying safe and not getting jibbed.

Look at the top model websites and study the models, the kind of work they are doing, and the shots being used to promote them. eg

Watch FTV and Victoria Secret Shows.

Study magazines and tear out the shots you like. Keep a file of your favourite photographers.

Have realistic expectations about modeling: it is like a never-ending series of job interviews. The jobs themselves tend to last a day or a week at best, and then it’s back to the interviews. Prepare for rejection. When selected as an “option” don’t get your hopes up. Jobs can be cancelled at any time until the day before, sometimes with a cancellation fee but all in all you will learn not to get too excited about anything until it actually materialises.

Most of all, while you might take the research seriously, don’t take yourself or the whole modelling thing too seriously. Keep a sense of humour about it all. Enjoy it for all it’s perks and quirks.

Tip #5 – Prepare an escape route.

If you can be very clear with yourself about what you want to get out of modelling, I think you can go in and get out in a way that it will work for you.

You don’t need to wait to lose weight to start your time in front of the camera. The sexier you feel in your body, regardless of your weight, the sexier you will appear to others (including the camera).

My advice: it’s better to regret something you did, then something you didn’t do. So.. just do it!!!

Best of luck. Feel free to write questions on here and I’ll do my best to answer them.


Narrative as Ethics

After yesterday’s encounter with Mr Moron, I mean, Mr Maroon, a religious fanatic arguing that Atheist’s have no code for morality, I want to take a deeper look at ethics and morality from both a religious and secular perspective.

Given my research into the role of narratives in peace studies, I ask: What is the role of narrative in our ethics?

Mr Maroon was holding up his ethical code – the Christian bible – and asking for Atheists to hold up theirs.

“I have the Bible. Atheists have nothing. Atheists have no moral code. I win. You lose.”

A black and white question like that is hard to respond to. Is it A or B? Well what if there’s also a C, D, E or Z?

It’s like the argument “Jesus must have been a liar, a lunatic or Lord” – it starts from a base full of assumptions, and posits three options that ignore the grey. It ignores the humanity of the writers of the Bible, the contradictions between gospels, the hundreds of books left out of the bible. It ignores the option that Jesus could have also been a great teacher, that the stories are part legend, at times drawing on myth to make points that are more true than literal truth. It ignores the historical context that the stories were told, that the chapters were recorded, and the book was edited and translated and interpreted today. I digress.

No, Atheists do not have a book of absolute, unquestionable and unchanging ethical codes. That’s why they put an end to slavery. That’s why women and children are now treated like people. That’s why philosophers are continue to asking and re-ask: what is the “good life” we are aspiring to? and how can we live the good life with others, in just institutions?

For Mr Maroon, not having one book of unchanging ethics (whether they are cherry-picked from or not) is a sign of weakness, a sign of lacking morality, when in fact it is the opposite.

Ethics are not fixed, and the second they seem fixed then we really must be on guard!

Ethics come from culture, and return to culture, as a result of human evaluation and human mediation. We inherit their gifts, and their debts.

Of course Atheists, in rejecting the narrative of a separate “God” watching over us, haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water. No matter one’s theological understanding, the cultural heritage (for better or worse) remains with us. In fact, critiques of environmental destruction point the finger at secular ethics being too rooted in biblical ethics. That is, the notion of us being separate individuals that will one day die was seeded in certain religious narratives (pre-dating Christianity, mind you), that have caused us to think ourselves separate from the ecological systems we cannot live without. But again, I digress.

The culturally-based notions of ethics and our entire ways of being, were evolving long before the Old Testament and long after the writing of the New Testament, are (lucky for us) still evolving today.

What is ethical and what is not is something we must constantly question, evaluate, adjust and re-evaluate.

The stories that were transmitted orally then recorded in text – histories, myths and fictions – have been, and still are, the basis of our morality, and deeper than that, our ethics. From these stories have sprung some of the most rotten and some of the most ripe fruits humanity has bore. The Dark Ages, the Inquisitions, the Crusades, slavery, war, extreme injustices and destruction, can be attributed to stories gone wrong, that have caused actions with horrible consequences – be they intended or not. Religious, political, fictional narratives contain power to bring pleasures and power to bring pain.

Narratives in books, films, songs, and conversation, allow us to imagine ourselves in different situations and imagine how we would like to be treated if that were us. Narratives of history allow us to see the devastation that not questioning certain narratives can be.

Let’s refer to Mr Maroon’s example of the killing of Jews in WW2: those living in Europe who accepted the narratives of their time and obeyed the law as if it were ethical, played a role in the destruction. Those who conformed rather than caused conflict about them, are the reason that such a horrible things were allowed to occur.


Others, like my Opa who (working in Holland at the time) said “no, it is NOT ethical to give Jews an identification with a big J on it as this will increase their chances of being taken away” and proceeded to work for the underground producing fake-IDs for Jews – was acting far more ethically than had he followed the moral of obeying the law.

As a side-note, given the common misconception, it is worth mentioning that Hitler’s religious views are a matter of dispute. While it is common to think of Hitler as an Atheist, given that before WW2 he was promoting “Positive Christianity” – was a Nazi brand of Christianity purged of Jewish elements – and that his book and public speeches often affirmed his Christian faith… maybe that’s a judgement worth rethinking.[2]

Ok, given all my tangents, let me sum up the above:

1. Ethics are not fixed – they should always be questioned or else bad things can be done in the name of ethics (slavery, murder, …) This requires a learning to think critically, and conflict rather than conform when it is necessary.

2. Atheists, theists, panentheists – people following any theology or lack of – require this constant re-evaluation of ethics and their moral application and implications.

3. Narratives are a useful way for this evaluation via imaginative variations to occur.



Paul Ricoeur’s book Oneself as Another among other books and podcasts on philosophy I’m into atm.

[1] Picture taken from


Debating the Ethics of Atheists at Sydney’s Speakers’ Corner

“Atheists have no reason not to kill other people,” said the man in a maroon sweater who had been quacking too loud for the dude on the podium at the “Speakers’ Corner” at Sydney’s Hyde Park to be heard.

“Excuse me!” I butted in, having excused myself from our mother’s day picnic to see what all the commotion was about. Suddenly all eyes were on me. “What does belief or disbelief in God have to do with killing other people???” I asked, noticing my tone rising to the bellowing nature of his.

“Well tell, me,” Mr Maroon Sweater got louder. “On what basis can Atheists place their understand of right and wrong?”

There are many reactions one might have to such a question. When put on the spot it’s hard to immediately articulate one.

“Well for a start they don’t base it on a book that condones slavery.” I said strongly, feeling my legs feel a teeny bit shaky. I’m not used to confrontation. “Just look at history and the way our ethics and morals have evolved.”

“Evolution is about survival of the fittest. Answer me this: if one Atheist tells you it’s ok to kill Jews, on what basis can another Atheist say that is wrong?” he said.

“WTF?” another three people around me jumped in. “What kind of question is that? …. You arrogant peacock!” That almost scarred him away.

While they conducted their own shouting match, I thought about how I might put into words my more philosophical understanding of ethics – which is not based on religion.

“The basis of most ethics, for atheists, Christians and other religions, comes from the simple fact that when I look at you, I see my self in you.” I started at his tone and slowly lowered my voice. It felt a more civilized to speak rather than shout. “It’s called empathy: if I can imagine what it’s like to be in your shoes, and if I know how I want to be treated, then I have a basis for ethics. And that has nothing to do with religion. You don’t have to be religious to see we share a common humanity.” I answered. Onlookers nodded.

“The Golden Rule, yeah yeah,” Mr Maroon continued. “But… blah blah blahbadidadada blah… blah?”

I could see my family, while entertained by the situation, were wondering when I might return.

“Look, I have to go, but I have to say that rather than generalizing a group of people and attributing their non-religious belief to causing a lack of basis of ethics, maybe you should look learn about where the ethics inside your book have come from and the role that non-religious people and outside influences have played in this process.” Ok, maybe my last comment wasn’t quite so articulated.

This little episode made me feel like I’d gone back two thousand years to where this is how prophets and philosopher communicated with others. We’re all on a journey to ask questions and find out the answers for ourselves, and I suppose we always will be. I guess some things never change.

The exercise left me with three thoughts:

1) the importance of thinking through these things, and knowing what one thinks

2) the importance of learning to communicate with fanatics like Mr Maroon

3) the importance of knowing when to walk away

I’m sure there were hundreds of ways I could have handled it better, but I did alright. It was fun, and so was returning to drink wine in the sun. Mid-May in Sydney – gotta love it.

Hopefully the dude on the podium eventually got to speak his thoughts on global happiness…

Expansion and Contraction

“There are only two movements of energy,” my yoga teacher noted as we arranged ourselves in Shavasana – the corpse pose – ready for relaxation, “expansion and contraction.”

I adjusted my legs, relaxed my neck, and closed my eyes. I observed my lungs: expand, and then contract.

For the next five minutes or so I meditated on this idea. Expansion and Contraction.

It is true that our bodies are constantly expanding and contracting – whether we are breathing, drinking, or eating.

In time we follow the pattern too: growing from tiny babies through our tweenies to big tall adults, followed my shrinking toward other side.

In economics its the booms and busts. The tide, the seasons, the planets – all seem to conform.

The universe is expanding now but maybe in another few billion years it will contract, preparing to start the cycle again.

I thought more about expansion and contraction driving home.

Do our lives follow the same pattern? When I look at my life I see it: when one area expands, another does seems to contract.

Social life expands, study contracts. Work life expands, social life contracts.

Sometimes we spend lots of money, and sometimes we save it.

Sometimes we put on weight, then we lose it. We have good hair days, and bad ones.

Sometimes we’re all go-go-go, but lack of sleep seems to find a way to catch itself up.

Our mind expands as we fill it with ideas, but then we need time process them.

Too much of anything and we burst. Not enough, we become black holes. So I suppose we should enjoy the pattern of the universe – its not like we have much choice!

Expanding to the Eye, looking back at its origins, the place where it will one day return?

A symbolic representation of John Wheeler’s “Participatory Universe”.

Diseases of a world run by MBAs

‘A serious disease has re-appeared at Sydney University. Like tuberculosis, as soon as a cure is found and staff have been inoculated, a more virulent strain emerges. It has been labeled “hyper managerialism” and its symptoms are “efficiency in the name of inexplicable time wasting”, “infinite make-work-form-filling” and “gobbledegook language to organise thinking”. So far no test has been found which might identify early onset of the disease.’  [1]

Sydney University isn’t the only place suffering such an onset of hyper managerial disease. In a world “run by MBAs” it seems that human institutions are less efficient, more clogged up, than ever before. Whether one is applying to get a new scooter licence, get on a bus, or drive to work through 40km school zones, laws and institutions set up for our society’s health are clogging up our lifeways.

The profit motive seems to be bringing a return to assembly lines, hierarchies of authority, middle management syndrome, billions spent on IP lawyers, new logos and merging of departments, and hours upon hours spent filling out forms and gathering meaningless signatures of approval. What happened to the flat management structures ten years ago they were teaching us business undergrads were the best?

MBAs are running the universities, the schools, the hospitals, the governments, the banks, the businesses… the world! The question is: are they doing a good job?

‘A brief case study of one patient’s debilitating experiences may be helpful.’ Stuart continues his story.

‘Four weeks ago while attempting to appoint someone to a part time position in a Foundation which raises its own money and operates autonomously, I was startled by the arrival of forms labelled “permission to hire”, “permission to appoint” plus requests for a job description completed many years ago. Those controls seemed laborious but the germs they carried were not immediately obvious.

Over the next few weeks at least 12 people were consulted, three quarters of them from an office called “resources for humans”, the remainder from management with hyphenated titles who indicated that they were not responsible for the disease and had been isolated from it. I had contracted something dire.

In order to probe the mysteries of my condition, I became a self taught epidemiologist trying to separate the treatment from its cause. In this search, several individuals from the “resources for humans” office said in hushed voices that they were ashamed of their practices and that, although they washed their hands after receiving filled in forms, they had no alternative but to continue to ask for irrelevant information and to request numerous signatures to approve what was in the forms.

These innocents did ask “How can I help?”, an offer which gave the suffering patient a ray of hope. Yet as novice nurses in a stifling system, as soon as responsibilities reached a more senior consultant, usually with a title such as “executive to the executive” or “assistant to the executive to the executive” the helpful noises were replaced by telephone calls neither answered nor returned and emails which disappeared into a bureaucratic black hole.

I was then persuaded that if the appointment of the proposed Foundation employee was to be made before winter arrives — several years ago such a transaction took no more than 10 minutes — the protocols would have to be followed, boxes ticked, questions answered and signatures of approval gathered. For internal and external contacts that might be made by the appointee, questions included “How often does this interaction occur with the main contact and for what purpose does this position interact with the main contact?”

When my pain became almost unbearable I identified the chief of the “resources for humans” office and phoned him in a fit of fever and consternation. I thought the disease was a form of constipation which desperately needed a laxative and inquired as to whether he could kindly apply it to any part of the management anatomy.

He returned my calls, was courteous and gave another ray of hope, “Perhaps this appointment need not have been included in our usual vetting, consulting, form filling, signature collecting system.” At that point I also spoke with a senior academic whose colleagues were in bed, stricken with the disease. He advised that a laxative was relevant but not strong enough: “The whole system needs to be purged.”

Almost four weeks into fevers and hypertension but with the form filling now aided by an “executive to an executive” who put the job description into neat sentences in separate boxes, subsequently followed by constructive expletives from me — “Jesus you must be joking” — the day came to collect signatures from four worthy individuals, one described as a “line manager” which seemed to have something to do with country dancing.

Some of these individuals knew little about the job or the activities of the Foundation but in order to maintain the symptoms of the disease — “create information for the sake of it” — the signatures had to be collected, scanned and sent to almost any administrative officer prepared to check them. One of the signatures referred to “Finance Officer” but no-one in resources for humans knew who this might be, so I volunteered to visit a bus shelter on Parramatta Road and collect the signatures of the lonely looking people who wait there. Most look as though no-one has ever asked them for their autographs so they could have found my request therapeutic. A helpful assistant to an assistant from resources for humans found this suggestion original but unacceptable.

On day three of the fourth week, with the disease at an acute stage, a laxative of some kind appeared to be having an effect. Motion was reported by a personal assistant to an executive director which in effect meant that the appointment could be made on the date requested and would be approved even if it had not been approved. I was enormously grateful for such imaginative discretion but then someone suggested my appointee would have to go before a “classifications committee”, who would be making a classification, who might interpret the results and indicate whether complete health would ever be regained.

Into the fifth week of form-filling, signature-pursuing-trauma, the appointee received her letter of appointment but the offer was for a position for which she had not applied to be conducted in association with a person with whom she will not work. In vernacular parlance — let’s leave the medical model aside for a minute — this is a bureaucratic cock up. The resulting pathologist’s report said, “This looks like hyper managerialism — a form of inefficiency in the name of efficiency prompted by MBA type wisdom.” […]’ [1]

Let’s look at one more example: the efforts to fire 340 academics on the basis of the number of publications from the last four years.

Rather than investing in long-term research, or the quality of the teaching of students, the University of Sydney seems to believe if someone hasn’t published four articles or books in the last three years, they are out!

Quantity is apparently more important than quality.

‘The cuts have provoked an outcry,’ writes Dr Nick Riemer, from Sydney University Linguistics and English departments. ‘With its simplistic measures, how will Sydney maintain research quality, when the finest researchers couldn’t possibly teach and publish consistently at the rate administrators demand? How can management sack staff with classrooms already so crowded?

Sydney’s administrators have not been so different from their counterparts elsewhere. Administrators everywhere are trying to shrink their already overstretched academic workforces. Universities, apparently, just don’t need academics.  […] University technocrats are the equivalent of the regulators whose negligence caused the GFC. Just as markets favoured complex financial instruments far removed from commodities, so too universities have been alienated from their basic rationale by an ascendancy of executives hostile to the principles that should govern academic communities: respect for students and staff; research unfettered by philistine ”productivity” requirements; security of academic tenure; uncasualised labour; low student-staff ratios. These are the ways to guarantee academic ”productivity”, rather than its bureaucratic substitutes. It is the managers who are unproductive. Systemic managerial failures are compromising quality.’ [2]

Given both my research degree is at Sydney University and new position with the Sydney Peace Foundation (yes, Stuart’s article was about me), maybe I should be keeping my mouth shut. But, then, that would hardly be true to my personal ethos nor that of the Foundation.

It takes courage to stand up against those in power. It takes courage to stand up for what’s right. The Sydney Peace Prize recipients and the Foundation’s Council members are inspiring examples of such courage.

What’s the cure to this hyper-managerial disease? I’m not sure. But, like any disease, courage to fight is definitely a part of it.

Read more of Prof Stuart Rees articles on the Sydney Peace Blog and check out the amazing company whom I now work for: Sydney Peace Foundation.

[1] See full article “What’s Ailing Sydney University?” by Stuart Rees first published by New Matilda: New Matilda 23/04/2012[2] “Should unproductive academics be made redundant?” Opinion, Sydney Morning Herald – April 14, 2012:

[3] “Upset over faculty merger plan at Sydney University” Andrew West and Heath Gilmore – Sydney Morning Herald – June 21, 2010:

[4] “Sydney Uni calls time on 150-year Latin love affair” Heath Gilmore, Sydney Morning Herald – February 17, 2010: