MacDonald Duck Re-Visited: Implications for Culture, Society and Education

by Alan MaleyGISIG Newsletter No. 172005

This article written by the founding father of our SIG puts ELT today into wider social, economic, political perspectives.  It reminds me that my main aim as an educator is to encourage a critical, non-conformist stance in my students.  Encourage them to shake off social conditioning, see the world around them with fresh eyes, question taken-for-granted assumptions, and find personal meaning in the Aristotle quotation: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation”.

Margit Szesztay

Introduction

“If you put a frog in water and slowly heat it, the frog will eventually let itself be boiled to death.” (Handy 1990) This paper sets out to share some concerns about our own survival. How hot is the water for us? How close are we to sharing the fate of the frog – literally, or metaphorically? I shall contend that the combined pressures of Consumerism, Globalization, Media saturation, Trivialization and Speed put us at great risk. Our lives are lived at an increasingly accelerated pace, leaving less and less time for mature reflection and the exercise of independent choice. In the words of the Red Queen, ‘Now here you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.’ The results are burnout, breakdown, and a loss of the ability to direct our own lives. We risk becoming units in the service of a system we no longer understand, rather than the vibrant individuals we are all capable of becoming. More than that, we run the risk of auto-extinction, slowly like the frog, or rather more quickly in the likely event of a nuclear holocaust.(Dixon 1987)

In the first part of the paper, I shall focus on the de-humanizing pressures we are all subject to. In the second part, I shall move the focus to education, and more specifically the role of English and its relationship to those pressures outlined above.

Part I. The Gang of Five

Consumerism

The urge to consume an ever-increasing range of goods and services in ever larger quantities, and the built-in obsolescence which makes it necessary to replace them ever more rapidly is now such a commonplace that it has come to seem natural. It is interesting to reflect that the great 19th century social critics of the ills wrought by the Industrial Revolution, such as John Ruskin and William Morris, were primarily concerned with the de-humanizing effects of mass production and urbanization on a previously rural population, leading to physical debility and the destruction of moral and cultural values. They did not, however, question the desirability of the goods themselves. People actually needed them, and the quality of their lives was enhanced by them.

In fact, the drive to produce more of everything did not at that stage entail the large-scale consumerist apparatus of marketing and advertising as it does now. The acquisition of colonies and the waging of war took care of demand quite adequately until after the Second World War.

In the current stage of late Capitalism however, that is no longer the case. It is no longer sufficient to allow people the freedom to decide what they need or want. Instead needs must be created in order to absorb the rising tide of goods. We are now conditioned, largely through advertising, to see ourselves less as people than as consumers, and to regard this as a normal and reasonable state of affairs. We have been constructed as units for the consumption of the flood of products and services which daily engulf us, whether we need them or not. We exist to consume, and the whole of life becomes dedicated to the fulfilment of this function: a kind of treadmill of glut. The whole culture thus becomes oriented towards consumption rather than towards conservation (in the interests of future generations), or reflection (on the long-term consequences of our seemingly trivial and minor actions), or reverence (for a cosmos of which we form a minuscule and relatively insignificant part).

Globalisation

The ‘global village’ has become the accepted image to convey the inter-connectedness of the 21st century world. ‘During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the rapid blurring and blending of national cultures became increasingly evident as international flows of finance, information, and entertainment – managed by digitalized information networks and satellites – rendered cultural boundaries less important.’ (Rosenberg 1995.)

It is clear that Consumerism rides on the back of Globalisation. Rosenberg’s list of’ flows’ could be extended to include consumer goods (including food) (Lawrence 2004, Strosser 2001), tourism (now the world’s biggest industry by value), air travel, multi-national corporations, organized crime (including drugs and money laundering), and the arms trade. All contribute to, and draw their sustenance from Consumerism, mediated and fostered by Globalisation.

Globalisation has a number of clearly observable consequences: The nation state (especially if it is a small one!) has yielded a good deal of its power to the transnational corporations. This is hardly surprising when we consider that the total sales of Wal Mart exceed the GDP of Malaysia, and those of Mitsubishi that of Poland.( Ellwood 2001:55, Steger. 2003:49). Neither should we be surprised at the views of the likes of Rupert Murdoch who, when asked ‘What is the role of government?’ reportedly replied, ‘In my view, it should just stay out of the way.’ Such transnational conglomerates as Murdoch’s, which have the power, the capacity and the will to influence, select, suppress and subvert information, are increasingly beyond the control of any one nation. In like manner, corporations able to commit or withhold investment to any given country, have influence well beyond any democratic control. Even national currencies can be, and are, manipulated by the resolute action of a small number of inordinately wealthy speculators. To give some idea of the scale of this, in the late 1980’s over a trillion dollars a week of currencies were traded in London, New York and Tokyo – of which 90% was currency speculation.

(Toffler1990: 55) The inevitable result is that decisions which governments ought to be able to take on the basis of long-term principle and interest are increasingly influenced by consumerist imperatives to achieve short-term profit.

One side-effect of this is the globalisation of voter disillusionment. (Kingsnorth 2004a)) ‘…in many nations in the world…you can hear the same complaints about politicians. They don’t listen. They don’t understand us. Nothing ever changes. Voting makes no difference. They’re all the same…In virtually every democracy on Earth, ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ have become almost meaningless terms. Whoever you vote for will have to keep the markets happy or see their economy crushed. Whatever and whoever you vote for you will get neoliberalism. ’(Kingsworth 2004b). Such apathy is just one manifestation of the ‘learned helplessness’ which arises when people feel impotent to affect their own fate in any significant way. (Dixon 1987).

The globalisation of debt, bringing in its train the damaging policies of economic re-structuring, required by agencies such as the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF, further weakens the power of national governments to influence their own long-term future. The example of Ethiopia is a textbook case, where the government of Meles Zenawi, which was presiding over a basically sound economy, was pressured by the IMF to adopt policies contrary to good sense and to its own economic best interests. (Stieglitz 2002: 25-36)

Globalisation of debt entails the globalisation of poverty, which brings in its train a host of other ills, including violence and a flight to extremism. (Gray 1998)

New global lifestyles have brought about the globalization of disease – especially cancer, diabetes, asthma and other respiratory diseases, allergies, MRSA and an explosion of depression and other mental illness in the more prosperous societies, and AIDS, TB, water-borne diseases, diseases arising from dietary deficiencies, malnutrition and malaria in the poorer ones. Further, the globalization of nuclear, industrial, and even domestic waste products is now causing environmental degradation on a massive scale. How to dispose of waste is now a major problem for most nations.

Global warming has now been on the agenda for so long that we again tend to take it for granted. This is almost literally the case of the frog in the boiling water. Yet the social and economic costs of doing nothing far outstrip any short-term advantage. Factors such as water shortage, declining air quality, climate change and rising sea-levels can only be ignored at our peril. Yet politicians routinely do just that, as the recent acts and declarations by Bush and Blair amply demonstrate. Will humankind gasp its way to extinction?

‘Culture’ itself has taken on new meanings. Cultural boundaries have become permeable, and blurred. ‘Under the influence of global finance and the explosion of computer and media images, floating signifiers proliferate, less attached to specific contexts than before. Cultures become more globalised, but also more fragmented and decentred; communities and selves need to be continually reconstituted. From the level of individual psyches to the level of nation states, culture is not stable in the new world, and distinctions between ‘American’ and other cultures blurs.’ (Rosenberg 1995) We are less sure of who we are culturally –‘ fusion’, ‘metissage’, cultural kaleidoscopes constantly re-forming themselves into new patterns, all disorientate us. Our choice may be to go the way of McDonald Duck and surrender our cultures to ‘global culture’ or to find that our cultures have become caricatures, museum pieces or mere tourist attractions, bereft of their original significance. (‘Malaysia truly Asia’?). American culture, a major destabilizing influence, is itself eroded by the tidal sweep of globalised icons cast adrift in cyberspace.

It is clear that the powerful alliance between Consumerism and Globalisation makes it virtually impossible to escape their messages and influence. Short of becoming a hermit or Taoist monk, cut off from all outside contact, it is impossible to avoid the bombardment of information, persuasion and triviality which daily assaults our senses. And the smaller our own culture or language, the more difficult it is to resist.

We have to live with it, suffer it, embrace it, resist it or accommodate to it. I shall return to this in my conclusion.

Media Saturation

The present scale of Globalisation depends on, and is made possible by the ultra-rapid expansion of electronic media of communication. The most significant manifestation of this phenomenon is the extent to which the image, and especially the moving image on TV (and increasingly on the Internet, including the miniaturized images we can now view on our mobile phones, watches-and perhaps soon even our toothbrushes), has replaced the written word as the main vehicle for the transfer of information.

‘Our culture’s adjustment to the epistemology of television is now all but complete; we have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane.’ (Postman. 1985)

This visual medium, which is all-pervasive, the eye which has invaded even the privacy of our bedrooms, undermines the coherence and significance of irrelevant entertainment, so we are no longer able to distinguish what is truly entertaining from what is not.

‘…what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, non-substantive, non-historical, and non-contextual; that is to say, information packaged as entertainment.’ (ibid 1985)

We move effortlessly from pictures of dying children in the Sudan or Iraq to an advertisement for shampoo to the latest ‘reality’ show such as ‘Big Brother’ to mindless soap or chat shows. All are rendered equally irrelevant by their incomprehensible juxtaposition. As Neil Postman has pithily remarked, ‘Thinking does not play well on television.’ (ibid 1985)

Clearly, those who control the media have their own, mainly consumerist agenda. It may well be however, that rather than wanting us to think this or that, they may prefer us to stop thinking altogether.

Trivialization

One effect of the ‘Media Revolution’ has been to trivialize the way we view the world, at the expense of rational reflection. In this world-view, everything has to be fragmented, fast, non-contextual, inconsequential, new, ‘exciting’, and above all ‘fun’.

‘The problem is not that television (or any other electronic media) presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as amusing, which is another issue altogether.’ (ibid1985).

Or as Robert MacNeil puts it, ‘The idea is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action and movement. You are required…to pay attention to no concept, no character, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time…bite-size is best…complexity must be avoided…nuances are dispensable…qualifications impede the simple message…visual stimulation is a substitute for thought…verbal precision is an anachronism.’ (MacNeil 1968) It is enlightening to ponder the results of the recent presidential election in the USA in the light of this analysis.

Triviality is not however confined to television; it has permeated radio, the newspapers and even the messages transmitted by mobile telephones, whether in spoken or text form. And the chatrooms on the Internet are drowning in it. (Crystal 2001) Thinking does not thrive among the polyphonic cacophony of cyberbabble.

As Postman has perceptively observed, ‘What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.’ (Postman 1985)

More: Faster

Whichever field we choose to examine – politics, economics, business practices, technology, communications, fashion… – we shall find an accelerating pace of change. (Gleick.1999). Even our food is now ‘fast’.(Schlosser 2001) And our lives are faster still: our jobs eroding, then devouring, our lives. (Bunting 2004) And when ‘faster’ is married to ‘more’ under the impetus of Consumerism, we are locked into a society of ‘Having’ rather than one of ‘Being’. (Dufeu 1994 :5-12) For many people this constantly changing pattern of innovation is bewildering. They are reduced to a state of trance-like incomprehension: a paralysis of the will; an inability to react meaningfully to the world they inhabit. This ‘learned helplessness’ (Dixon 1987: 268-269) is now widespread. The consequences of it are serious, and I shall address them in the conclusion.

In his book ‘Technopoly’, Neil Postman (1992) argues that the values of the technology-driven culture which fuels this maelstrom of change – efficiency, novelty, speed, expertise, standardization, measurement, management, consumption, ‘progress’, profit – threaten to overwhelm more essentially human values.

‘The world is incomprehensible to most of us. There is almost no fact…that will surprise us for long since we have no consistent picture of the world that would make the fact appear as an unacceptable contradiction… Technopoly deprives us of the social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical or spiritual bases for knowing what is beyond belief.’ (Postman 1992).

The concepts of ‘faster’ and of ‘more’ fly in the face of two insoluble facts: the fact that there are still only 24 hours in a day, and the fact that global resources are finite. As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) point out, ‘Time isn’t really money.’ And the galloping consumption of finite resources can only lead to one disastrous result. There is also a potential contradiction between a theoretically infinite quantum of information, and limited human time and energy to process it. It is hardly surprising that movements have sprung up to defend ‘slow’ (Honore 2004)

Part II. And English?

In this part I shall set out some relationships between the issues raised in Part I and the hegemonic position of English as the global language of communication. (Crystal 1994, Graddol 1998.) I shall deal with these relationships under the same five headings I used in Part I.

Consumerism

The language ‘English’ has undergone an accelerating process of commodification in the past four decades. It has gone through a metamorphosis from a language (which is largely process-oriented) to an item of economic value (that is, a product). There are constant references in the press, and by government ministers and agencies like the British Council, to English as a valuable ‘product’, and to its importance as an ‘invisible export’ worth many millions of pounds per year to the UK economy. There is now a global structure marketing examinations, language schools and universities, and publishing in support of the ‘English language industry’. A little less obviously, the academic discourse community provides scholarly justifications for the maintenance of English as a globally-marketable commodity. (Graddol 1998, Jenkins 2003, McKay 2002).

This shift of English to a product involves all the typical competitive pressures associated with marketing in a global environment. The metropolitan English cultures of UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada compete vigorously in the market for English. One result is the increased pressure on everyone involved to deliver the product faster, more efficiently and more cost-effectively. Teachers, among others, are ‘managed’, measured and evaluated as never before. One result is that considerable time is spent on documentation and evaluation, at the expense of time available for preparation, teaching and student care: just one of the little ironies which an over-commitment to efficiency brings in its wake. This is but one of the ‘revenge effects’ which is built in to innovation. (Tenner1996)

English, then, has become a commodity, and as such, is subject to the same laws of the market as any other commodity.

Globalisation

We are constantly reminded that English has spread into all corners of the globe geographically, and into most of the functional areas of language use. It has become the most widely used language for international business, science, technology, tourism, aviation, diplomacy, publication, the Internet, etc. In short, English has become the communicative vehicle for Consumerism. As such, it poses a moral dilemma for many teachers. How can they justify teaching an instrument of hegemonic control for the powerful interest groups which manipulate demand? The effect of global English on other cultures and languages has been widely documented and critiqued. (Phillipson 1992, Pennycook 1994, Canagarajah 1999

There are other, perhaps less obvious, problems for the teacher of English. As English becomes more international, it becomes less ‘English’. English no longer belongs to the English-speaking peoples when it is spoken as a second or other language by a majority of people in the world. This makes it more difficult for teachers to pronounce on issues of correctness, appropriacy, etc. and thus undermines the teachers’ omniscient authority.

The globalisation of English has also raised its status as a tool of opportunity. The dispossessed tend to see it as a passport to economic success. However, although English is in many ways a necessary condition for economic or career advancement, it is by no means a sufficient condition. What is becoming clear is that English tends to reinforce the power of the already powerful, so that we can witness the rise of what might be termed ‘the English-speaking classes’- those internationally-mobile, financially-savvy, ‘economically-enterprising’ people whose success is bolstered and extended by membership of the exclusive ‘English-speaking club’. Entry to that club depends not only on proficiency in the English language.

Media-saturation

Teaching English is still remarkably traditional in terms of the media it deploys. Despite rapid advances in multi-media and computer-based materials, the English teaching business still relies most heavily on books. But in a consumerist society there are more and more of them, as well as the rising tide of multi-media products. Teachers are faced with superchoice, which is almost as much of a problem as no choice at all.

The application of technology to language learning is not without its problems in any case. All too often, technology is seen as a magical solution to the problem of learning. This leads to a misapplication of technology. The wrong question is asked. Rather than asking ‘Here’s a lovely new piece of technology. What can we use it for?’ The better question would be ‘Here is an educational need: how could we use technology to fulfil it?’ (Kramsch. 1997) These facts are unlikely to deter the forces which create demands for the consumption of technology-led learning, but they should be a healthy reminder that the person who does the learning is the learner, and that learning is an internal process which is largely unobservable, and only partially manipulable.

Trivialization

The triviality of language teaching materials is well attested. As Ruth Wajnryb (1997) has scathingly pointed out, the content of most published materials is devoid of all the aspects of our lives which make them significant to us. By contrast, English language teaching materialspresent a largely non-problematic, bland, uncontroversial view of life. Packaging has become more important than content. Indeed, many course books are virtually indistinguishable from each other. One sad result has been the ‘risk reduction’ strategies of publishers, who work to the LCD of learning rather than to the HCF.

Another aspect of trivialization concerns the language itself. In the contemporary world of the sound-bite and the slogan, words have lost much of their value. We no longer take pleasure in words, relishing them for their sounds and meanings. Sub-text, the understated and inarticulate manifestation of underlying context, has taken over. From the weary clichés of politics and the media, to the hyped pap of advertising, to the reduced, lego-like portfolio of ready-made vocabulary of teenagers (of all ages), we are exposed to a thin linguistic gruel. The sap seems to have gone out of the way we use language. (Rodenburg 1992) Language teaching methodology has gone the same way. The ‘Communicative Approach’, which is the current paradigm, has been in a sense an accomplice in this impoverished use of the language. It has been accepted that accuracy or precision matters little as long as we can ‘communicate’. But this version of communication is a trivialization of what it really means to communicate significantly. It used to be said that under the old, traditional language teaching methods, students would emerge unable to order a cup of coffee in English. We are now in danger of producing students who can order a cup of coffee but who are incapable of much else!

In singling out English for attention in the overall context of this paper, I do not mean to imply that it is part of some global conspiracy to anaesthetize its users. That would be absurd. However, English now snugly fits the global / consumerist paradigm, and serves it. English may not be ‘guilty’ but it is certainly implicated. Values are communicated in unique ways by different languages, so the fact that so many people now view the world through English language spectacles has an inevitable effect on values. In view of this, all users of English, and ,more particularly, those who teach it, have a responsibility to at least become aware of what is happening through English.

Conclusion

This paper has been something of a jeremiad, and no one likes to be reminded of unpleasant facts. The frog would not have thanked you if you had told him he was allowing himself to be slowly boiled to death. I make no apology for the unpleasant reminder, given that our very existence as a species is at risk.

But what can be done, given the scale of complexity of the issues? Typically, people will react in one of two ways: they will retreat inside themselves, or they will take action outside themselves.

Faced with such mind-numbing problems, the first option is most often chosen. Positively, it may mean people taking refuge in spiritual practices: learning to live with ‘what cannot be changed’. Negatively, it often means a retreat into apathy, or ostrich-like behaviour, as in Raymond Briggs famous cartoon story, ‘When the Wind Blows’. (Briggs 1983)

The second option, action, can also take one of two forms. The negative option is to retreat into some form of extreme behaviour in response to the frustration provoked by impotence. Unhappily, the spread of religious fundamentalism (both in the USA and elsewhere) is one form of this. The globalisation of terrorism is another.

On the positive side of action, the resources appear puny compared with the scale of the challenges. They are however worth considering carefully:

We can become more aware of what is happening around us. Awareness is a preliminary to considered action.

‘The way to be liberated from the constraining effects of any medium is to develop a perspective on it – how it works, and what it does. Being illiterate in the processes of any medium leaves one at the mercy of those who control it.’ (Postman and Weingartner 1965).

We can, consequently, develop a critical perspective on everything which impacts on our lives. We need to develop what Postman and Weingartner term ‘crap detectors’. We need to ask ‘why’ more often, and not simply to accept things at their face value.

We can start to take back control of our lives in a number of ways: most particularly control over our time and how we choose to use it, and over our money and how we choose to spend it.

‘Time stress has become one of the most popular complaints of the day. But, more often than not, it is an excuse for not taking control of our lives. How many of the things we do are really necessary? How many of the demands could be reduced if we put some energy into prioritising, organizing, and streamlining routines that now fritter away our attention?’ (Csikszentmihaly 1997: 127). What Csikszentmihaltyi calls ‘autotelic’ people, resist pressure better. ‘They are more autonomous and independent, because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside.’ (Csikszentmihaly 1997:117)

We can join others who share our concerns, taking strength from solidarity. This is one area in which the Internet can have a positive effect by facilitating contact with associations and organisations seeking to combat the negative effects of many of the phenomena mentioned earlier in this paper.

And if we are teachers, we have enormous power for positively influencing our students. Students do not only (or even) learn the subject matter we teach them; they learn their teachers. It is the values and attitudes they learn from us that they will carry away with them into their future lives.

‘Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes…may be, and often is, more important than the lesson in geography or history…For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.’ (John Dewey 1997)

To close, let me cite Edward Said from the new preface to ‘Orientalism’ (Said 2003)

‘We still have at our disposal the rational interpretative skills that are the legacy of humanist education. Rather than the manufactured clash of civilizations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other and live together, but for that kind of wider perception, we need time and a patient and sceptical inquiry, supported by faith in communities of interpretation, that are difficult to sustain in a world demanding instant action and reaction.’

References

Briggs, Raymond (1983) When the Wind Blows. London: Penguin.

Bunting, Madeleine (2004) Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is ruling our Lives. New York/London: Harper Collins.

Canagarajah, A.S. (1999) Resisting Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly (1997) Finding Flow. New York: Basic Books.

Crystal, David ( 1994 ) English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, David. ( 2001) Language and the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Dewey, John (1997) How We Think. New York: Dover Publications inc.

Dixon, Norman, F. (1987) Our Own Worst Enemy. London: Jonathan Cape / Futura.

Dufeu, Bernard (1994) Teaching Myself. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellwood, Wayne. (2001) The no-nonsense guide to Globalization. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications.

Gleick, James. (1999) Faster: the acceleration of just about everything. New York: Vintage Books

Graddol, David (1998) The Future of English. London: The British Council.

Gray, John. (1999) False Dawn: the delusions of global capitalism. London: Granta Books.

Handy, Charles (1990) The Age of Unreason. London: Arrow Books.

Honore, Carl (2004) In Praise of Slow. London: TSP

Jenkins, Jennifer(2003) World Englishes. London:Routledge.

Kingsnorth, Paul. (2004a) One No; Many Yeses; a journey to the heart of the global resistance movement. London: Free Press.

Kingsnorth, Paul. (2004. Democracy is Dead. New Internationalist 373. 1 Nov. 2004 : 34-35.

Kramsch, Claire (1997) Language Teaching in an Electronic Age. Language Classrooms of Tomorrow: Issues and Responses ed. Joyce James. RELC Anthology Series 37. Singapore: RELC.

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Postman, Neil (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death. London: Methuen.

“ “(1992) Technopoly: the surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. (1965) Teaching as a Subversive Activity. London: Pelican Books.

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Stiglitz, Joseph.(2002) Globalization and its discontents. London:Penguin.

Toffler, Alvin.(1990) Power Shift. New York: Bantam Books.

Wajnryb, Ruth (1997) Death, Taxes and Jeopardy; systematic omissions in EFL texts, or why life was never meant to be an adjacency pair. Sydney:ELICOS Conference Proceedings.


Alan Maley has been involved in ELT for over 40 years and has lived and worked in Yugoslavia, Ghana, Italy, France, PR China, India, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. He has published a number of books and articles in the field, and is series editor of the Oxford Resource Books for Teachers. He is a founder member of GISIG and maintains a lively interest in the preservation of life on our planet. The article is based on a plenary talk given at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in 2004.

amaley (at) globalnet.cp.uk

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