News travels fast

Sydney Opera HouseSome things in life are awful. Accidents can cut down anyone, even the most gifted. Illness and disability cannot discriminate. But when innocent people die from the violent act of another such as happen recently in Sydney and Paris, words fail us. We are left searching desperately for ways to console those most affected.

When the violence is intended to intimidate we also need to console ourselves. And we do. We support each other in the extreme times.

Ways are found from putting out cricket bats to pavements spontaneously full of flowers with the word spread far and wide through social media.

The good is rapidly mobilised to cancel out the bad.

Today everyone knows about the extreme events as they happen. We are so in touch that we feel close, almost part of the unfolding scene. Before long we are posting and commenting our thoughts and feelings. It is like a fire blanket thrown to suppress the flames.

And it works.

The recent siege in Sydney was a terrorist act but not about organised terrorism. The authorities figured this out quickly and refused to lay blame until they had more evidence. Experts came onto the television news and said the same thing reminding us that it is never smart to make assumptions. And so it was, for the perpetrator was not representing anyone but a disturbed self.

So when irresponsible media sensationalised for their own ends the blanket smothered them. We don’t want to assign any credit by association so those who did looked like chumps. Social media called them on their stupidity and shamed them for trying it on.

Hopefully they will learn. For today new travels fast and in crisis we are connected every which way. We can mobilise collective goodwill in the blink of a tweet and it is a powerful force.

The curious thing for a hyper-connected world is what will make the news. What will call up the soothing powers of the social blanket?

Tragic or shocking events should continue to ignite the response so long as they are local enough and not too frequent, for the blanket is likely to be fickle. The fourth of fifth coffee shop siege might not bring out the ire and goodwill. Would the public response towards ISIL be different if there had not been two major wars in Iraq already? I am not sure.

What I do know is that the issues that should awake the collective connectivity are not going to make the news; the Food & Agriculture Organisation conclusion that 40% of the world’s agricultural soils are degraded for example. Or another FAO prediction that world food production will need to double by 2050 but is currently growing at 1% per year. Do the math. We are 2% per annum shy with a declining resource base.

Forget the Sydney housing bubble. What about the average farm debt that is now over $2 million?

These diffuse and future issues will mean the blanket risks catching fire and disintegrating into ash before it is deployed.

Post comments. It can’t all make sense.









Pure genius #3 Milonga

Husbands take note. You will win many brownie points if you take your significant other to a show. The theatre is always good, a musical if that’s her thing, or, for the serious, performance dance.

Now the prospect of 90 minutes of wicked contortions is about as inspiring to us blokes as the footy is to the ladies, but wait. If the dance is the tango, the dancers seriously hot [male or female take your pick] and the music enthralling, then everyone wins.

We found such a performance in a Saddlers Wells production called Milonga, an exceptional and mesmerizing display of what the human body can create and convey.

Talent, sensuality and emotion combined into pure genius. Nice.

Here’s a snippet.

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The subtlety of risk

Driving in BotswanaMany years ago I lived in Botswana, a country with new wealth found in two large diamond mines. One benefit to the people of this windfall was a sudden increase in car ownership as anyone in regular employment could get a government backed car loan.

The car dealerships made bucket loads and road accidents skyrocketed. Alongside copious fender bending, the rate of deaths per kilometre driven rapidly became one of the highest in the world.

Although famed for its law-abiding populace, crime increased too. This included the ‘borrowing’ of vehicles for the lucrative markets for stolen cars and spare parts across the border. This meant that drive around for long enough and you would experience a ding with near certainty and pray loudly for nothing more serious.

Given these circumstances car owners who failed to take out insurance would seem negligent at best or more likely just plain dumb.

Except that premiums on comprehensive policies were exorbitant. Sensibly the government had created a third party safety net scheme using a premium charged on fuel purchases — in principle you could claim for someone else dinging you, but not theft or solitary misfortune. This combination brought out the risk appetite in car owners.

Many decided that money in the pocket was better than payment to mitigate something that might not happen and refused any commercial insurance policies. Stay lucky and you’ll be thousands better off.

Others couldn’t sleep at night knowing that if the dog failed to scare off thieves their car would be in Jo’berg by morning leaving them violated and broke. They paid the premium.

There were those that took the risk and rode their luck. And there were those that paid the premiums and were never visited in the night. For those less lucky the net benefits of insurance became apparent. Over time you would expect that more car owners would spend time on the phone with the Mumbai call centre and fork out the premiums.

I paid up of course but also remained lucky. Not even a claimable ding. A close friend chose to wing it and also avoided any car problems. Tragically and without warning he developed a tick on his face and died of a brain tumour within three months. Vale Gunther, I still miss our intellectual roughhousing.

This story is told many times over in one flavour or another. The human condition is a precarious balance of risk and opportunity that sees us trying to suck in peril and security in the same breath.

If we never took a risk the changing world would swallow us. And if we hadn’t forced some stability we wouldn’t have stayed still long enough to build culture and commerce.

So why mention this obvious requirement that we know humans have retained and exploited to the limit?

I have a hunch that we might be squeezing out the risk takers. There is no shortage of personal risk opportunity, especially for the agile. Youngsters can bungie, pill pop or train surf away youthful adrenaline. But the risk that decides on an insurance policy is different. It is subtler because it also holds some responsibility. It is framed in personal risk but there are consequences beyond me. And this more collective risk is what made us successful as a species.

The mastodon could easily trample early hunter, only there was a personal and collective benefit beyond the thrill. The first crops were sown to benefit the farmer and his family, and soon after the village. As the adrenaline fuelled courageous acts, the risk taking had a collective benefit.

I am not sure that we teach this subtlety of risk. And I am sure that we are squeezing it out of everyday life by making risk taking personal.

Post comments. It would be great to hear your ideas.





Fork in the road

Photo FOTR Gandalf Mines of MoriaIt is dark, damp and there is an eerie silence as Gandalf the Grey leads the fellowship into the Mines of Moria towards the Halls of Durin. Among the countless bends and criss-crossing paths he loses his way.

Gandalf stops at the entrance to two tunnels at a loss. Which way to go?

Must he lead into the blackness on the right or the blackness on the left? They cannot go back. The wizard must make a choice.

After a long time he decides on the one with the least noxious smell. He smiles and the fellowship quests on.

Gandalf was lucky. Not because he managed to choose correctly after using about as much logic as a coin toss, but because he had the choice to make.

It was tremendous good fortune to know that there was a fork in the road. And even though the choice was difficult and required a gamble no more sophisticated than a guess, a choice was made.

The real world can be a challenge too.

Sometimes on the freeway the voice from the satnav in the car tells me to keep right. It insists on me keeping right even though there are no exists or forks in the road. The only choice is to go straight ahead. This is especially disconcerting and feels worse than missing a real exit or a concealed entrance on a country lane.

Being told there is a fork where none exists does your head in.

When my GPS tells me to keep right when there is no right to keep it feels like have relinquished control of both outcome and process for no reason. All I can do is ignore the instruction and proceed with the only option the road offers me.

There are many stories of people who failed to ignore the sultry voice of the satnav and driven into a lake, so I suppose I did make a choice of sorts. I ignored the obvious software error.

All this is about control, that ubiquitous fundamental of the human condition. Gandalf had no idea about the correct route he made the call anyway because he had to. And even though the outcome was out of his control, the process of choosing was his to command. And like all true leaders he made the choice with conviction bringing his companions along with him.

I wonder though how many real and metaphorical forks in the road are taken without any serious choice. How often do we crawl, run or scream through life without thought for the consequences of not taking the left fork?

Clearly this cannot be retrospective. In life the forks are often once only options. Like the fellowship, the journey is forward and missed paths remain so. And just as Gandalf found, many of our own forks are a puzzle without a solution. We simply have no evidence or experience for how to decide.

Perhaps this is the point. It means that we must grasp what we do have, the process of choice. Be thankful for the ability to make a call even when we are not sure it’s the right one.