Bizarrely it was about templates or more strictly the lack of them.
A document I had prepared got scrunched when transferred from Google Docs to Word because the system I was using wouldn’t let me use the obvious PDF route. All the tidy layout, fonts, headers and footers went haywire. What I needed was a neat template with a standardised look and feel that despite bucket loads of resources the organisation had not provided.
After decades of trying to make things look good on the smell of an oily rag, this imposed dagginess just pushed my buttons. I got loud and went a little red in the face as my complaints bounced wildly around the room.
I mean it doesn’t take much to get a consistent internal look and feel.
These days you can get an Airtasker to do it in a jiffy. Large organisations with their own Comms units just have no excuse.
Not a happy camper.
Calmer now, my curiosity asks why?
What is it about tidiness and a neat layout that is so important?
Well, the obvious answer is that I like documents to be very different to the inside of my car. I want them to be neat, professional, elegant even. Achieving this is much easier with a template.
A good template makes for consistency of message and that makes perfect sense.
I certainly don’t like the optics of viewers seeing a scrappy document and assuming the author can’t even find their way around a simple Word layout.
But this whinge is a sign of deeper trauma.
Ever since I was out of diapers I have strived to high standards in order to fit in, to be liked and accepted.
This need stems from a weird upbringing where I felt like an alien among the local inhabitants. It can happen when you are raised in the church, the Salvation Army in my case.
Achieving accepted practice in the real world was a way of making sure that I wasn’t tainted by all the religious weirdness. A template and a consistent look and feel suggest professionalism.
I like the skill, good judgment, and polite behaviour that is expected of a professional. I knew that if I had these things then it would be much harder for the real world to reject me.
I did say it was deep.
And I was right. I learnt how to be skilled in fitting into real-world situations by learning quickly what it took to do well. It didn’t matter if it was cricket, soccer, or undergrad assignments, I went for it with passion after first finding out what the standards and code of conduct looked like.
This was handy of course. The qualities of professionalism bode well in modern society no matter your background or motivation. What was different for me was that its absence became a trigger.
Somehow I assumed that everyone would be just as motivated as I was to do the job well.
When they are not or just display an amateurish approach I get annoyed. No suffering of fools.
My early career was in the academic world where accepted practice dominates the discourse, sets the hoops, and decides if you have jumped through them. Silly things like 30 refereed publications by the age of 30 was an unwritten standard that was worth achieving as it made careers. I came up just shy with 28 papers. Peer review, learned argument and being well-read in your discipline were similar codes and qualities that mattered to academics.
I thought this would be true everywhere.
Sadly it isn’t.
It is not about the absence of a simple Word template, although there is no excuse for such sloppiness, it is the lack of passion to do the job well.
To have even half a chance of fixing the many challenges that humanity faces in the coming decades we all have to find the template and become professional.
If you have five minutes, why not read another Alloporus post
The other day my youngest son, now in his late-twenties, was very proudly telling me how he was living within his means. He had an account for all his various bills, one for unforeseen expenses, he had his play account and… Basically, he’d bucketed his money.
He felt he was saving and was asking what I thought would be the best type of investment given his age and where the world was going. He had of course already decided how he was going to invest in a combination of cryptocurrency, shares and eventually, his gold standard, property.
And good on him.
It was a proud moment for a father to hear his son getting his shit together. Particularly after several years of it looking a bit dodgy as to what would happen.
That notion though, of living within your means, is rarely extended beyond our personal affairs.
A COVID opportunity
The pandemic has given many people pause for thought. The time to think about their own personal means and for many, it’s been a horrific and very scary time.
Job losses and uncertainty around income causing problems for families all around the world.
What we haven’t done yet, but we should, is to see what this pause means for jurisdictions and countries living within their means.
Why can’t we extend the concept to whole economies?
The kneejerk has been to assume when COVID is over that the old normal will return, as though we’re all just desperate for it to be like it was before. You know, a life full of problems and constraints and difficulties and working all hours God sends just to pay the mortgage. As though that situation of stress is the one we want for the new business as usual.
Meanwhile, governments rack up debt levels never before seen, not even in wartime, and whistle along as though printing money was actually what they had in mind all along.
In Australia, the politicians are desperate to return to pre-COVID neoliberalism. They are planning everything as though it’s what everyone wants, even to the point of ignoring the opportunity to ramp up structural change to energy, agriculture and what to do when the country can’t sell any more iron ore, coal or gas.
The immediate challenge is not so much what an alternative normal should look like, more that leaders don’t seem interested in looking for alternatives. Or even imagining what those alternatives would be. And yet this is essential if we are to move forward.
This is all at a time in human history, the first when resources do not match demand, when we’re already living way beyond planetary means.
As one measure of this overreach, the day on which the renewable resources of the world are used up for that year has been creeping earlier and earlier for decades.
All those severe lockdowns when most of Europe stayed at home, global travel came to an abrupt halt and tourism tanked, changed the date for overshoot day 2020 by just three weeks.
Despite a pandemic slowdown we still need 1.6 planets worth of natural resources to get us all through the year.
Self-sufficiency for countries
Perhaps the numbers for earth overshoot day are too daunting.
More realistic perhaps is to extend the personal means test to countries or jurisdictions, a city or a county for example. These smaller, more compact economic units should be easier to handle and have more autonomy than the global economy.
Attempts at country level self-sufficiency start with a mindset of wanting to live within means. This will require a shift from a growth model to something that is more about what happens if we didn’t try to live within our means. Collapse is the extreme but shortages and strife are nasty precursors. There has to be a desire to mitigate these risks.
Next would be the inventory of needs and necessities together with the current modes of delivery for goods and services. Then some thoughts on the efficiency of these modes asking what sort of changes would be required? What resources are essential, what resources are a luxury that we could easily live without? Resource use decisions would also require a focus on what is understood by well-being.
Much of what happens in the West is unnecessary for human well-being. We are over-consuming and stressing out whilst failing to think about and utilize the resources that we have. We don’t imagine resources being the limiting factor because the only limiting factor is our desire and our greed.
The conversation about living within means requires a shift in thinking away from what we could potentially have, the yacht and that 10-story apartment block bringing in enormous amounts of passive income to fund the luxury villa on the coast.
Instead discuss and decide on a semblance of what we understand by well-being, especially how well-being can be enhanced by being people rather than consumers.
Any discussion on economic self-sufficiency quickly ends up at the individual. It is self after all.
It may be that a top down sufficiency is not possible, only from individuals can a collective living within means happen.
Please share or browse around on the many other posts with ideas for healthy thinking
Think back to October 2020, a few weeks before the US presidential election. According to the polls, the Democrats nominee has the upper hand. In a normal election cycle he would be a shoe in. Instead the media is in a frenzy in case the polls are wrong given that they fooled everyone the last time.
There’s discussion of what would happen if the result is close and contested or the sitting president chose not to leave even if the voters said otherwise. The US is on tenterhooks and the whole world wants to know what is going to happen.
The normally politically lazy Americans would turn out in numbers that would again favour the Democrats, however, it also means the rusted on Trump supporters will be out in force as well.
Then a few of them took over the citadel.
I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out what makes a ‘rusted on’ Trump supporter. What thinking makes a person vote for a candidate with no ethics, no morals, no substance, no empathy or sense of fairness and has broken every rule there is and got away with it?
It’s what we used to call back in the day ‘dodgy brothers’, the kind of person you would keep well away from your daughters.
And yet there he is, the sitting President, running a campaign of disruption and division in order to get voted back in again. Relying on that rusted on core to put him back in office. Arguably, despite the impeachment ruling, inciting them to violence and to deny the result of the democratic process.
What is it that allows that to happen? When does humanity wake up and say ‘no, this is not the kind of guy we want to lead us into our future’?
Well the Americans did, just. But the divisions are still there, painful and as rusty as ever.
It could be the power of the fear and loathing that exists in people prepared to back a person who will go against everything rather than build confidence, partnerships and forward thinking. There was a quote just before the election to the effect that there is this man high on steroids and should any foreign jurisdictions be listening, to keep well away lest they spark something that they didn’t want involving red buttons.
More scary than funny.
Leadership gets more than its fair share of posts on this blog.
I think I’ve always assumed that we look towards leadership that is progressive and inspires confidence. Leaders pull people together so we can become more than the sum of the parts.
Such individuals need talent, a lot of energy, commitment, and balls. It takes courage to bridge tribal divisions and innate prejudice from all sides.
It’s much easier to be a leader who divides and conquers. This has become common practice (Trump, Johnson, Putin, Bolsonaro, Modi et al) but a relatively easy practice. The only real skill needed is to identify the points of difference between people and then just accentuate them. And you have to admit Trump knew exactly the points of difference and played them like a fiddle.
So my vision of leadership, the egalitarian bringing people together for common cause and making the sum much more than the parts, is not everyone else’s vision of leadership.
It seems that there are a lot of people who want ‘us against the rest’ leaders, the guy that supports me against them, whoever ‘them’ might be.
Historically humanity has often fallen for these leaders. Us against them is the main paradigm in wars of conquest. So perhaps what’s ‘rusted on’ is our limbic requirement to fight. And you can’t fight unless there’s something recognizable to fight against.
I can’t fight time. I can’t fight the planet even though we try. I can’t fight the weather. These are too big and brash to take on, but I can fight my brother. I can fight the neighbor. And I can certainly fight those funny dudes with their crazy religion across the water.
And maybe I am naive to think that leadership on commonality and of gathering together is our default. It is not. Our default position is exactly what we’re witnessing around the world, the leadership of us and them. The only way that the leadership stays in office is if you have slightly more of us than of them.
Where do we go from here?
All this begs the question of where humanity goes from here? What type of leadership is possible if everyone is battling a limbic system that wants to fight, flee or freeze?
At one time I thought the best option was to raise awareness and move people beyond their limbic thinking. Encourage the majority to become more aware, more understanding of the consequences of their choices, and so take more responsibility, especially when they place their ballot.
I even wrote a book about it, Missing Something, on the premise that a raised awareness would help understand all the various problems that humanity faces including political leadership.
Self actuation is a huge challenge in itself, especially when it is so comfortable to live off basic instincts. Political leaders understand this and trigger the instinct all the time. Trump is the quintessential embodiment of the approach. He locks onto base fears and fuels them all the time.
Other political leaders recognise the base instinct and then bend it to their own ends often through authoritarian even military methods. Humans are easily manipulated by our slavery to base instinct with the stick and the carrot.
Just saying ‘raise awareness’ is naive. Even if it would work, making it happen is daunting and likely not possible..
Whilst awareness helps bring people to a heightened sense of self, we need something more.
The leadership humanity needs to give us a reasonable chance of survival can’t rely on scented candles and incantations. We have to play a ‘Trump light’ game that latches onto limbic responses for the political leverage needed to make progressive changes.
This sounds horribly like moving to the right rather than the centre left. I am hardening towards the draconian on some of these things. Responses to COVID-19 show that it is possible to impose strict rules on society and get away with it in the public interest. It’s a small step to a benevolent dictatorship that could tackle the equally huge issues of inequity, food security, and a stressed environment.
The risk in forcing people into decisions that you believe they’re not capable of making due to their basic instincts getting in the way is a slip of the tongue away from control for nefarious purposes. Blink and we are in the dangerous territory of the end justifying the means.
Horrid as it sounds, such control must be part of the conversation because the limbic system in human brains has got us this far. It will be part of what comes next.
Please have conversations about leadership and benevolent control. Whatever comes next it must be better than populism.
Scientists are expected to be objective. After all, we are highly trained sceptics using our curiosity to unpack the problem, ask the right questions, and find evidence for the best possible answer.
This process of enquiry was honed over the generations into the scientific method. Our philosophy colleagues have mulled over and chewed to the point that most of them agree that the deductive method is our best approach to evidence.
So when a scientist gives in to emotions, it’s intriguing, given we are trained not to. Right from the start scientists are told that emotions are rarely objective and our job is to be objective and deal only with evidence..
In a recent essay in response to Australia’s recent Black Summer of unprecedented wildfires, Joëlle Gergis decided to go against this principle. The fires that burnt through an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres; 186,000 square kilometres; 72,000 square miles) of mostly forest and open woodland were some of the biggest in recorded history. Fire destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes) and killed at least 34 people. As we all lived through this event it was hard not to be emotionally affected.
Dr Gergis is an award-winning climate scientist and writer based at the Australian National University. She is a lead author of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment report and an expert advisor to the Climate Council.
Here is a flavour of her essay
I’ve gained terrifying insight into the true state of the climate crisis and what lies ahead. There is so much heat already baked into the climate system that a certain level of destruction is now inevitable.
And then later…
Australia’s horror summer is the clearest signal yet that our planet’s climate is rapidly destabilising. It breaks my heart to watch the country I love irrevocably wounded because of our government’s denial of the severity of climate change and its refusal to act on the advice of the world’s leading scientists.
And her conclusion…
As a climate scientist at this troubled time in human history, my hope is that the life force of our Earth can hang on. That the personal and collective awakening we need to safeguard our planet arrives before even more is lost. That our hearts will lead us back to our shared humanity, strengthening our resolve to save ourselves and our imperilled world.
It’s an essay, a medium that allows a certain normative tone. What is interesting though is the level of emotion in the piece — the opinion and emotion that went into the writing show the author grieving for nature that she knew well, changing in front of her eyes. A terrifying insight indeed.
No matter that the dance of evolution on the planet has been continuous for three and a half billion years. Or that fire is just part of the choreography, an immediate disruption that is detrimental only to a certain worldview and, of course, open to projection and blame, towards politicians especially, for not preventing it.
Part of me is disappointed in this kind of thinking. And part of me is empathic for her situation and why she would want to write such things. It would make her feel better to have communicated the truth from her soul, rather than what her profession would have her do, that is to present only the facts.
It is unfair to be critical because in these challenging times we all need an outlet to process change that we couldn’t have seen coming.
However, it is impossible to go back to the pre-industrial era and say “no, we won’t use coal and then no we won’t use oil”. At that point in human history those energy sources were a miracle. They fuelled the engine behind what everybody at the time wanted. And if you were living at that time, you’d want those things too.
Industrial development eventually improved food security, job security, the opportunity to grow yourself and your family. The privilege of the wealthy for a long time did trickle down to the masses thanks to the cheap energy from coal and oil.
Saying fossil fuel use was a bad decision is very easy in hindsight. But the counterfactual wouldn’t have happened. People at the time would have found another way and would have ended up with coal and oil anyway. Lamenting or criticizing the current for consequences that no one could have prevented is disingenuous but perhaps necessary in emotional responses.
Maybe this was a good thing for this particular scientist. Express feelings in this way for a reset and then return to objectivity.
But this begs two bigger questions.
Can scientists be objective and ignore their emotional selves?
Unlikely. Arguably an emotional response will kick in at some point no matter how objective we try to be with our day jobs. Scientists are people after all.
Is it a good thing to try and be objective?
Perhaps the emotional response is a requirement to get the message across. If we fail to tap into our normative selves then the messages lack passion. To actually make a difference, people need to believe the message.
For me, it’s more about knowing that these two sides of us exist. The process is I think from the science through my emotions to an objective point of view. Compartments certainly but also to know when to mix them together.
At times objectivity must speak for itself without any emotive words. And at other times emotions must be out for a full account of feelings. And then there are important moments, perhaps the critical ones, when the two come together. When objectivity is fueled by emotion and feelings.
In other words, scientists should use emotive words and let feelings and passions spill over to promote evidence. Embrace emotive capability to engage people with the evidence and then let the evidence speak for itself.
This is a nirvana that many scientists would love to be in. We do feel deeply about many of the issues that we study. Otherwise we wouldn’t be interested in them in the first place. So to arrive at a situation with no emotion. No empathy for this for the consequences is unrealistic.
But in these challenging times, the evidence must also speak for itself.
Please share on all your platforms. It would make me feel good!
Back when I was a bushy-tailed research student, life was a breeze that flew by without a thought.
It was a time of naivety disguised as the fearlessness of youth.
There were times I had to make some decisions but, fortunately, most were trivial and few animals were harmed in the making of them. In my case, this was a quirk of the University ethics committee. They decided that the invertebrates that were the subject of my experiments were not animals.
My research that I imagined was significant, attempted to build evidence for the importance of competition for food in the population biology of woodlice. Yes, staggeringly important information destined to change the world order and make a fortune for its finder.
Well no, neither was ever the intent, for all that I wanted at the time was to stay at University for as long as possible. It was such a cool place.
I justified this want by claiming to myself that my motivation was part progress up the academic ladder and part avoidance of the real world. And to this day, a stroll through any university campus easily confirms the prevalence of the latter. There is a heap of real world denial in the ivory towers.
But I digress.
The point here is that woodlice are animals and they are important decomposers.
As they consume dead leaves and other detritus, they recycle organic matter and make nutrients available to plants. They are members of an army of organisms we cannot live without.
In my research, woodlice were model organisms used to test the ecological theory of density-dependent competition. It is as nerdy as it sounds.
The idea is that competition for food is one of the mechanisms for natural selection that ecologists have tried to prove ever since Darwin first put a name to it. The recycling credentials of woodlice and their soil animal cousins I studied later. At the time of my research degree, I needed a way to test if woodlice compete for food to add some more evidence in support of evolutionary and ecological theory.
To do this, I had to make a decision on how to manipulate the availability of food on the assumption that it was a limiting resource. If the assumption was correct, theory suggested there would be competition for high-quality food and the woodlice would respond through changes in their patterns of growth and reproduction.
One manipulation option was to exclude (that is to keep out) rabbit grazing from an area of our study site. Rabbits! Where did they come from? Even the ethics dons would say these were animals. In the chalky grasslands of eastern England where woodlice are abundant, rabbits are crucial to the supply of high-quality food to detritivores, the woodlice.
Rabbit grazing alters the structure of the grassland. The attention of many thousands of cute bunnies grazing on the grasses keeps the coarse grasses from taking over. Grazing opens enough light and space for forbs and herbs to flourish. Exclude rabbits, and tough grasses soon dominate in a thicker, dense layer. Dead herbs are the preferred high-quality food of woodlice so when the rabbits are first removed there is a spike in the availability of high quality detritus. A bonanza for the woodlice. Later when the thicker grasses took over the herb and forb food source was reduced, so, in theory, the woodlice would become food limited and compete with each other.
So a rabbit-proof fence was constructed around part of the habitat and, sure enough, the grasses grew at the expense of the herbs and forbs sending through the pulse of high quality woodlouse food from the dead herbs and forbs. The area of rabbit exclusion became the Weeting Heath exclosure experiment. The driver we wanted to control was excluded.
Ecological research often works this way. In order to understand one species, you have to change things up with another, apparently unrelated species.
But this was only part of the evidence needed to test the density-dependence hypothesis of food limitation. I was keen to find out what would happen if we increased the numbers of woodlice in habitat with rabbits. The assumption here was that crowding them out would force them to compete for food.
In the second experimental option, rabbits would crop the grass and maintain the supply of herbs, but there would be an artificially high number of woodlice. Would that make these small critters compete for high-quality food?
This experiment is different.
It required an increase in woodlouse numbers. Such manipulation is not easy to do over large areas. So I decided to create enclosures to keep high numbers of woodlice together with woodlouse proof fences. The fences had to be low enough to let the rabbits in to graze down the grass, high enough to stop the woodlice escaping, and surround an area big enough for the woodlice to behave normally, more or less.
The fenced-in areas became the Weeting Heath enclosure experiment. Here is what it looked like. The rabbit-proof fence of the ‘exclosure’ is in the background.
Keeping things out (the exclosure) and keeping things in (the enclosure) was an obvious solution to an experimental manipulation conundrum — two different ways to manipulate the supply of high-quality food for a wild population of woodlice.
And just to be sure in some of the enclosures I added extra high-quality woodlouse food in the form of ground up leaf litter from alder trees. They love that stuff and grow exceptionally well on it.
Here you can see the darker colour of the grass in one of the enclosures where the extra food was added.
Here are two of the conclusions we published in the Journal of Animal Ecology
(5) When an experimental exclosure was erected which prevented rabbit grazing, the availability of high-quality foods increased. Isopods within the exclosure grew larger, became more fecund, and consequently increased in density.
(6) In isopod enclosures to which high-quality food was added, growth rates of isopods also increased. In other enclosures to which sub-adult A. vulgare were experimentally added, growth rates of new recruits decreased.
Hassall, M., & Dangerfield, J. M. (1990). Density-dependent processes in the population dynamics of Armadillidium vulgare (Isopoda: Oniscidae). The Journal of Animal Ecology, 941-958.
In less jargonese, the woodlice were bigger, reproduced more and their numbers increased in the exclosure without rabbits.
Adding food in the enclosure also got the woodlice to grow faster but they grew more slowly when they were crowded.
Amazing, just the confirmation bias we were looking for and here is how we summed it up in the journal article
We conclude that intra-specific competition is important in regulating the density of this population and that populations of this macro-decomposer are more likely to be regulated from ‘below’ by competing for limited food than from ‘above’ by natural enemies. The relaxation of competition at low densities with the consequent positive effects on natality rates provides an effective ‘floor’ which-reduces the probability of population extinctions.
This is all a little grandiose. It initially seemed remarkably that these animals are sensitive to food supply but as every organism is the idea seems trite. Proof of sorts was worthy of a formal statement.
What I learned from exclosures and enclosures
Ecology is a messy subject with many challenges to the principles behind the scientific method. Experiments are never easy and here will always be criticism of most attempts.
My woodlouse attempts at experimentation were pseudo replicated, failed to measure controlling variables (food availability in the exclosure) and needed a much long run of observations. Just three obvious criticisms.
But I learned a great deal about these innate complexities and the difficulties of real world experiments. That was, after all, one of the reasons to take on a research degree.
I also learned that the theory holds. Organisms can be food limited with consequences for their survival, growth, and reproduction. Homo sapiens take note.
Mostly though I found that scratching intellectual itches is great fun and immensely satisfying, so much so that I have kept doing it to this day and am unlikely to stop until my faculties do.
What a blessing it is to have an enquiring mind.
Comment below if you feel the urge and please share with your online folks
Driving along a freeway the other day I passed some roadworks dutifully slowing down to the snails pace speed limit. By the side of the road was an excellent example of standing around.
A worker was leaning up against a vehicle and it was clear that he’d been leaning for some time. He readjusted his ass and then sort of went back into an expert level hanging around position.
It was quite remarkable.
My buddy Chris suggested this guy had certainly completed the ‘Hanging Around Workshop’ with a special session on shovel leaning, perhaps even the ‘Advanced No Shoveling’ diploma.
Chris then lamented the challenge he has as a small business owner to find folk who work at his pace. “If I could do all this work myself I would. You know I do twice as much work as anyone else.”
I’m good with slow if that is the best that a person can do. Slow and steady can win the race. If a person is steady and consistent then that is enough, unless they are on a checkout of course.
The shovel leaning is not the same. It’s avoidance of the work that needs done. Training done for that purpose.
I get it.
Some work is tedious and any opportunity to take a break and have a yarn is taken whenever offered.
Some work is just physically demanding. It is not possible to shovel all day every day.
But some work just has to be done, ideally in the shortest time possible. Most workers could get their week’s work done in three normal length days.
There is a thing. Why not move to a three day week.
We would all be happier with the extra time off, the work would still get done and a heap of time would be saved on the shovel courses.
Except that we might not be happier even if the salary stayed the same.
Much of that shovel leaning is to pass the time more pleasantly than the options offered back in the family home where there are noisy kids, chores and an irritable spouse. A guaranteed reason why many women find solace in the workplace.
Lockdown has produced the prospect of an epidemic of mental health issues in part due to restricted shovel leaning.
I always feel guilty when my own version of standing around, too many meaningless Youtube videos, and I’m back writing or reading some science publication before too long. However, retirement has been suggested.
If I am to achieve that I will need to enroll in a few workshops.
We all have triggers, emotional buttons that people can push to set us off.
Many relate to nasties locked away in our closet that we don’t want anyone to see. But something said or done eases open the door with a creek and lets out the monsters. Those nasty gremlins that play with our emotional balance and throw us off, sometimes into the abyss.
One of my buttons is incompetence.
Whenever I come across it I cringe and my equivalent of road rage takes over. I become angry and depressed at the same time. The older I get, even modest incompetence pulls the trigger. And when it’s really bad, I seem to come over in a massive funk that affects me for several days.
I have long been curious to know what relic in my past was setting off this frustration at people unable to do their job properly.
An anecdote from my backstory might shed some light.
When I was 10 years old my parents moved the family to the north of England from south London. The coastal town of Hartlepool famous for, well, famous for being a coastal town where they used to build ships.
I had to quickly learn a new dialect and a new accent so as not to sound like a complete southern ponce, a handy skill as it turned out.
Young enough to still be in primary school, I was enrolled in the little brother of the local grammar school. I have no idea how my parents managed to get me in there. Probably their status as local preachers had something to do with it. The old firm clubbing together.
At the time there was an exam that all 11-year-old schoolkids in England sat to decide whether they went to the posh grammar schools or the dodgy comprehensives. I took this ‘Eleven plus exam’ and, much to my astonishment, I passed and ended up at the grammar school proper.
My feelings at the time were incompetence and inadequacy digging their heels in while surprise tried to lighten the mood. Passing an examination that, in my mind at least, I had no hope of getting through was a shock that I never really got over. I reconciled it as… inadequate I may be but I got through anyway.
As it was, I remember very little about that grammar school other than that I couldn’t play rugby. After one outing I would never consider that crazy game again. Soccer, the pastime of the hooligan comprehensive set, was my thing.
Within a year my parents were off again, back down south where I had to start all over again. This time at an even posher grammar school a short step down from the paid private schools.
I was instantly bottom of the class but it turns out that being bottom of those chosen to be at the top pulled up my academic socks. What it didn’t do was give me any confidence. That only happened when, again by some miracle of the universe, I made it to university.
Inadequacy begins at home
After many years of reflecting on childhood experiences, as you do, I figured my sense of inadequacy, and its related incompetence trigger, was inherited from my parent’s attitude to life.
At home there was never enough money and whatever there was had to stretch to cover all contingencies. My parents did remarkably well. Whilst we never went to restaurants or cafes or own a car and some of the smaller things in life were hard to come by, there was always food on the table and uniforms to wear to school and all the elements to make it look normal.
What wasn’t quite so normal was the lack of confidence in the household. A giving to religion sucked up all the energy in the room, all day every day. The church took control over our lives and made all the major decisions. The lord provided and took any sense of self in return.
And for me, that translated to feelings of inadequacy in myself but also in my folks. It became a trigger that persists to this day nearly 50 years on. When I see people performing poorly I rail at myself while smiling politely. Later I will fall into a funk brim full of cynicism and negativity.
I’ve often thought of how to come out of such a malaise, I mean people are people. The world over there are folk who are good, and not so good at what they do. It’s a law of nature – the raw material that allows diversity to exist. Without variety, there’d be nothing to choose from in the next generation. And I think that’s part of the story too. This idea that everyone needs to be good at something to persist into the next generation, to deliver on their genetic promise.
Even though I can accept the logic of averages, when I see people who are not very good at something or bluster their way through without the skills and all they are is below average, I’m disconcerted.
Often it’s not that they’re poor at a task or lack certain skills. I think it’s the realisation that so many know that they’re not so good but have no desire to get better.
My response to childhood feelings of inadequacy was to become self-sufficient.
I learned to knuckle down and do what I could and worked at that self sufficiency by doing what was in my control.
This resulted in a narrow zone of confidence and a certain naivety about how the world really works but I felt adequate some of the time. As it turned out the academic sphere likes this kind of narrow focus and I carved a career in science despite being bottom of the class for all those years.
Even now I have to remind myself that I am good enough. I can do a lot of things and I just have to choose well among the many things that interest me. Those that are appropriate to be doing at the time. And focus on those and be comfortable.
It doesn’t stop the triggers.
Rationalization cannot protect against an innate emotional response. It also doesn’t make ineptitude a good thing or even an acceptable response. We should all be striving to be the best we possibly can be.
We won’t all be tall poppies. But if everyone is striving to grow, the true tall poppies would be even better than they are now.
In these ever more complex and challenging times, humanity must tap into its skill base to extend itself. And that means individuals not accepting inadequacy and not accepting incompetence, but promoting quality, wherever we can find it.
Maybe this is the best way to beat inadequacy, to embrace the best, grow the tall poppies and try to catch up with them.
If you enjoyed this post or even if it made you cringe, post about it. I don’t mind.
This north of England expression, although probably also Welsh, is said to emphasize that people sometimes behave in a very strange way.
We were bonkers before lockdown and now, well, just check out all the fails on Youtube.
‘Yes ma’am, there is a battery in the car, not just the one in the key fob’.
Our blissful ignorance is so complete that it is a miracle that we figured out how to make a car in the first place.
Thanks in large part to this capacity to be ignorant, there is another famous quote first attributed to Mark Twain in his 1897 travel book titled “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World” where in chapter 15 he writes
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar
Pudd’nhead Wilson was the name of a fictional character in a novel Twain published a few years before the travel book.
However, in 1823 Lord Byron published several cantos of his epic satirical poem “Don Juan” wherein the one-hundredth stanza of canto 14 included the lines
‘Tis strange—but true; for truth is always strange,
Stranger than fiction: if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!
How differently the world would men behold!
So we have known for a long time that people are the source of much craziness, more even than can be conjured in the imagination of great writers of fiction.
And nothing has changed.
We are as mad today as ever and it looks worse for our attention span is that of a gnat.
We are only interested in the bizarre or peculiar or some poor bugger falling off his skateboard onto his gonads.
Then, of course, we believe everything we hear or see, especially online.
Our common sense left the building with Elvis and no matter how unlikely the scene it must be true given that truth is always strange, stranger than fiction.
Does it matter?
If we are entertained and no animals were harmed in the making of the film, then presumably it doesn’t matter.
We can be entertained by fact or fiction in equal measure. The important thing is that we enjoy it so that we click the like button.
Of course, if there is contention or opinion involved then we are in, for human beings are addicted to drama. Just a brief look into any family will tell you that. And we are much more likely to want to argue with each other than we are to agree. Just for the pleasure of something to argue about.
This requirement for entertainment and drama has fuelled a whole industry that in its modern form is open to anyone with a smartphone and some botox or the aforementioned skateboard.
Ask an evolutionary biologist about this phenomenon and she would say…
“Sure, makes perfect sense. We are designed to notice the unusual because that gave us an advantage in finding food and water. Our curiosity also helped us develop smart ideas and solutions to no end of problems back before agriculture. Youtube is an obvious extension of that instinct”
Ok then, that is interesting.
It means it is instinct to like boat ramp fails and crazy Russians overtaking at 120 kph on an ice-bound road.
It is also ok if the clip is true or made up? I’m still just following instinct.
“Well yes,” says the biologist, “only along with the curiosity and eye for the unusual goes the ability to test. No point in picking out a purple fruit if it is going to give you stomach cramps. We added the ability to understand if unusual was useful. We learned how to understand if what we had seen was of any use to us.”
Ah, so the unusual is put into context. That makes sense.
Presumably, the truth matters now in order to establish the context. What might start off as amusing because it was different or odd becomes the subject of investigation in case there is something in it for us, an opportunity perhaps.
If the truth is that there is nothing, it is actually just an idiot on a skateboard with more bravado than skill, then the laugh is enough. No problem, move on with a chuckle.
Russians killing themselves and innocents is more serious, especially if you live there.
Our biologist again.
“What should happen is that we make an instinctive call as to how much attention to pay and when to engage in finding out more. We learn when to let curiosity be added to what we already know to explore the odd coloured fruit. There is a knowledge base we tap into and add to that keeps us safe.”
This seeking knowledge is critical.
Around the world, people have lost sight of what actually made us humans in the first place, this ability to understand unusual things and put them into context.
Current knowledge per individual is remarkably weak.
Most people seem completely unaware of the realities of how life works. What delivers things to their doorstep how it comes about and the consequences of decisions that they make.
Disengagement with the truth of matters is a problem. But not the only one .
Inability to discern truth from fact.
Inability to pay attention to anything other than what will fuel our need for drama or amusement.
Inability to stay with something that requires more than 15 seconds of attention.
Inability to give something some serious thought.
It is time to do something about these inabilities because they play into the hands of people wanting authoritarian power rather than anything to do with our best interest. This is where the truth matters. When the democratic process is undermined.
We still need to eat the odd coloured fruit and celebrate the wonderful weirdness of folk.
Comment below if you feel the urge and please share with your online folks
There is no progress without persuasion, and there is no progress without active listening followed by compromise.
Katharine Murphy, Guardian columnist
How should I persuade you?
I could present a powerful argument based on facts and evidence in a way that you understand, whether that be through words or mathematics or graphical presentations, perhaps even an animated video.
I can talk to you once, twice, five times about this topic presenting more and more facts each time, gently persuading you that the evidence is in favour of my argument.
Alternatively, I could lie.
I could present my argument in the same way through words or mathematics or various engaging graphics that are completely fabricated or bent a little to fit my purpose. I could fib or lie through my teeth and still persuade you that my argument was sound.
Sometimes we call this ‘spin’.
You, on the other hand, listen to my material and decide if I am serious, that I am worthy or just another snake-oil salesman.
This requires active listening because chances are something I said didn’t sound right. The hint of a porker requires that you understand when I am being truthful, pulling together evidence that exists, and where I’m fabricating everything for my advantage.
The onus of the persuasion is on me.
The onus of listening and whether or not you can be persuaded rests entirely on your shoulders.
If you are well-versed in the fine arts of scepticism, then my job will be tough.
Unless I have powerful evidence and excellent communication skills I could fall short. Any falsehoods and half-truths will be sniffed out and undermine all my efforts.
Even if I am convincing, you may not accept my argument.
Perhaps you have access to additional facts or an alternative interpretation that you believe fits the facts more precisely.
I may need to persuade more forcefully with my ninja-level spin. You will smile and tell me to take a hike.
Katharine Murphy’s quote embodies these two features of human interaction. Persuasion on behalf of the person interested in getting their opinion across and scepticism through active listening on the part of the recipient of the information. What Murphy calls progress is when those two things come together.
It seems that humans need advocacy as much as they need scepticism. The balance between the two has kept us more or less honest for centuries.
In modern times, however, persuasion has grown in power even without evidence.
All of us are accessible via any number of communication tools plus we remain vulnerable to emotional tugs and attention spans are short. Few have the time to pay all that much attention. Skilled persuaders can hoodwink and dupe easily because most people do not actively listen.
And when we do listen, many of us don’t have the skills to unpack the truth from the fiction, often believing in the character played by the actor and not the actor. Our scepticism skills fail us.
Persuasion is not progress
It is also true that the fine art of spin is in our DNA.
I can hear the first farmers peddling their bushels of ancient grains in the market place with claims of how their crop will store much better through the winter because of its lighter colour.
The modern version began in earnest in the 1950s with the arrival of advertising. Persuasion to purchase has been honed over the decades into something that is almost unassailable.
Fruit loops are good for you because they have fruit flavour.
But persuasion is not progress.
Scepticism is necessary
Scepticism appears throughout the history of philosophy as the thinker who decides that what he’s hearing is not actually how the universe operates.
A sceptic is not afraid of sacred cows or conventional wisdom but is always asking if the opinion presented fits the facts and looks for alternative views of the world that are more consistent with the evidence.
The sceptic can focus on the facts and place them into context. This is both a skill and a task.
Making decisions through a sceptical view of the evidence presented through persuasion is powerful. When the sceptic listens the evidence must be strong enough to both convince and not get corrupted by spin.
Compromise in this way will be as close to evidence-based decision support as we are going to get.
Progress through compromise
That progress comes from a compromise between persuasion and scepticism is an exciting idea. It is the pointy end of how evidence is used in society, where decisions are made.
It means that spin can be taken a little more seriously for what it hides than what it intends.
Suppose I want you to eat more sugar because I am growing it in abundance and the market price is tanking eating into my profits. You are sceptical because the evidence points to refined sugar as a major cause of obesity and related health issues.
You are forced to look closely at the medical evidence to evaluate my persuasive spin and reveal my motives.
The compromise is that you vote for the progressive party that will pay my ecosystem service payments to transition my production from sugar to regenerative agriculture with multiple crops.
In other words, spin can be useful. It can help the listener know when to be sceptical and when to gather or evaluate evidence.
There are times when you find yourself reminiscing about the old days.
It is a natural response to age and probably quite a healthy pastime so long as it doesn’t wander off into regret.
I used to remember my time in Africa almost every day.
The smells, sights and sounds of the savanna are indelible, you cannot forget them even when they are in the distant past.
A little musty scent, with a hint of acrid talc in the nostrils.
Chirp, babbles, and, if you are lucky, a morning boom in the ears from a hornbill the size of a turkey.
From these feelings, the memory lands on specific events such as when I laid down on my belly next to a python because I was naive enough to think it would not strike or when I looked up into a leadwood tree to see a Wahlberg’s eagle with a genet dangling from its talons or the idle chit chat on the banks of a shallow pool rudely interrupted buy the hippo that almost leapt from the water with a white water wake worthy of any man-made craft.
Ah yes, those were the days.
Wonderful experiences fondly remembered as privileges, blessings even, that I am happy to have as times in the past that fill my soul with gratitude.
I do not remember these things every day now.
Just occasionally when triggered by an image, a conversation, or when there is the smell of dryness in the morning air.
Recently I was required to go to the bush here in Australia and wander around farmers paddocks to eyeball patches of remnant vegetation. Instead of inspiring, I rather dreaded it. It has been a while since the scruffy jeans, long-sleeved shirts and robust boots have appeared from storage under the house. They needed a wash to remove the smell of underemployment.
There was a time, of course, when an ecologist would be in the field as often as was humanly possible, quadrat and data sheet in hand, compass in the back pocket, and revelling in the rugged look that is only possible after several days without showering.
But not any more. For some reason, not entirely obvious, it doesn’t happen much these days. I don’t get out and about into the wilds at all.
Why is that?
What changed that stopped me from seeking out natures wonder? There are no real obstacles. I live in the Blue Mountains of NSW within spitting distance of some of the best bushwalks in Australia. I still make my living advising on environmental matters that presents any number of opportunities to spend time outside. But I prefer to stay at home. The nearest thing to nature I get is my regular walks down the first fairway.
The recent trip was sanitised of course. Room and board in between the gentle site visits arriving in an air-conditioned vehicle with no time for the fine dust to adhere its protective qualities onto any exposed skin.
There were no clipboards or quadrats or data of any sort. Just some ramblings from local experts. Most of the time I was clicking my heels or wandering off to find some bugs to admire.
My enthusiasm level was chronic.
Was I suffering from shifting baseline syndrome?
Shifting baseline syndrome
In psychology, SBS is where each generation grows up being accustomed to the way their environment looks and feels, and thus, in a system experiencing progressive impoverishment, they do not recognize how degraded it has become over the course of previous generations.
SBS occurs when conditions of the natural environment gradually degrade over time, yet people (e.g., local citizens, natural resource users and policy makers) falsely perceive less change because they do not know, or fail to recall accurately, how the natural environment was in the past.
Now I have limited recollection of a past for Australia as I have been here for 25 years, a short period relative to the rates of environmental change.
But I do recall Africa, often in vivid detail. And I am subtky tempted to make comparisons that shift my baseline.
Causes of shifting baseline syndrome
SBS results from three major causes
lack of data on the natural environment
loss of interaction
loss of familiarity with the natural environment
Well, I am not short of data given that I play with environmental evidence for a living.
I have lost interaction. In Australia, my passion for the bush has been a fraction of what I had in Africa not helped by fires, heat, and floods. Somehow lions, hippos and donkeys on the road seemed far less of a threat.
Mostly, I am not familiar with the environment. I don’t know very much about it.
This sounds strange even as I write for I do know more than average but I don’t feel that I have ever known enough about this strange land.
My baseline is Africa.
Everything is compared to it.
Sights, sounds, smells… presence. It’s all based on what I felt for a decade starting in my mid-20’s.
Physically I moved on and with time I accepted that those heady days would not be repeated but there is a powerful legacy, an incomparable baseline that cannot be restored.