What I learned lately about… courage


stormy seaCourage is priceless

First of all I am not talking about the winning of a Victoria Cross. For me that is bravery, you either have that or not as it emerges unbidden in extremes. Nobody really knows if they are brave until they face a clear danger head on.

Courage is subtler.

We need it every day, sometimes only in small amounts as it fuels the success and enjoyment of our days. Courage is what gets us out of bed and allows us to engage with the world and each other. It lets us believe in good and cope with bad.

Without it we would all be lost.

Move to the next car if you want to have chat

train-carriageAh yes, the quiet carriage.

Sydney has banished raucous commuting. On suburban trains half the carriages are designated quiet. Mobile phones must go to silent, chitchat is prohibited and music cannot leak from ear buds.

Woe betides anyone who flouts these rules.

Whisper above the ambient ‘clickety-clack’ and a death stare will burn the back of your head. Carry on talking and there will be an indignant tap on the shoulder from an angry passenger about to shower vitriol on your flouting of the rules.

Not far under the surface of everyone is an authoritarian. Barely hidden is an alter ego itching to call chancers to task — to meet out justice onto anyone who fails to conform. The gusto with which this persona breaks out will scare more than the horses.

Harmless looking women of a certain age explode at a blip above a murmur. Anyone daring to select Powderfinger on their Bose’s have no idea of the terror that awaits them in the quiet carriage.

Stares and shoulder taps are just the beginning.

In a few bars they are hounded into submission. It is a wonder to behold.

Shame nobody called to task the hefty dude who fell asleep on the 06:44 to central.

His snoring had no place on the quiet carriage.

What I learned lately about… cooking

pavlovaAnybody could cook but not many can.

The other day I threw together a green vegetable curry and it tasted pretty good. I winged it from what was left in the fridge, a can of coconut milk and the dregs from a jar of curry paste. It helped that we had a lime, some cane sugar cubes, long green chilli and plenty of fresh coriander.

Also this week I diligently followed a recipe for lemon rice that went beautifully with some left over chicken that the real cook in the house made the day before.

And now I think I know who can cook.

It is anyone with their mind in and on the food.

Ingenuity rules

Hardwood timber, ManokwariAre you ever amazed at human ingenuity? I have been staggered by it lately.

Thanks to my time of life, or some internal dormant desire, I have been spending far too much time watching Youtube videos. Given the endless topics that people are prepared to make videos about you could spend many a lifetime on this medium watching Russians do crazy things, animals being cute and a two year old dropping the f-bomb in the ice bucket challenge.

There are also a multitude of channels by random dudes [and the occasional chick] displaying the intricacies of dovetail joints, router tables and fast drying shellac.

Yes, it’s time to build your own wood shop. A place where a middle-aged man can retire to make things that nobody wants and often look crap but satisfies a curious urge to create.

Thanks to the interweb you don’t have to buy magazines or books to figure out how to cut a cove with a table saw. You can watch Matthias Wendel do it. He’ll even figure out and show you what you have to do to the saw blade to make the cut cleaner.

Even though the hours of instructional videos just the prelude to making a bedside table — as with most things action can be avoided if you see there is someone else already doing it — the instruction is not what has captivated me. It’s the problem solving skills.

Anyone who has worked at all with wood, or house renovations for that matter, knows there is a wrong way to do something and several right ways. It is possible to cut a board straight with a table saw, a circular saw, a compound mitre saw or any number of hand saws. Each will do the job given a level of skill.

These woodworking gurus are all about finding the next best way. They revel in the problem solving and in the engineering that takes. Why cut a tenon with a saw when you can do it with a panto-router, or much better, a home made panto-router?

So this is what they do. They find new ways of doing things.

They even admit when the new way has flaws and then post another video showing how they fixed them. It is actually refreshing and uplifting to watch.

It also explains how we came to be so successful a species. We really know how to fix things. In fact we can find 10 different fixes for any given challenge even of there is already one that works perfectly well.

We really did take tool use to the next level. It truly is amazing what you can do with a router.

Recognising what we know

There is a very funny scene in an episode of the Big Bang Theory where Penny asks Sheldon and Leonard trivia questions about famous American rock bands. Needless to say they are clueless. Not even Sheldon’s eidetic memory could rescue him. Penny’s infamous smirk was never funnier.

So now, do you know what this is?


Don’t worry. A thousand people chosen at random from the population probably wouldn’t know either.

Most folk would be able to tell you that it was ‘some science shit’ and a few of them might know it was an equation for something.

Just one or two would recognise the mathematical notation for the third law of thermodynamics that states all processes cease as temperature approaches absolute zero.

But if more than two out of 1,000 people knew this you would suspect that the sampling was far from random. Perhaps it took place in the coffee break of a theoretical physics congress attended by Dr Coopers.

Now, of course, if you did sample 1,000 delegates from said congress, not all of them would recognise the equation. But I digress from my main point, which is this…

Each of us can only know a tiny fraction of what is known.

Even the eidetic can only remember what they have seen or heard. And for those of us who forget all the time, then our fraction can be small indeed.

The curious thing is that rather than get to know a little about a lot, people specialise. Either by choice or just as a default from our experiences we focus. After a while we all know quite a lot about something.

There are people who know more than seems possible about the cutting tolerances of a lathe or the rules that govern a financial balance sheet. There will be someone who can recite by heart the poems of Keats and someone else who can quote the test batting averages of all players in the current Indian cricket squad and then proceed to tell you why many of them should never have been selected.

This accumulation of specific knowledge is very useful. It gives us great depth in technical and practical matters. How else would an accounting firm provide services or repairs be made to a faulty MRI scanner? Not to mention brewing a decent coffee.

We need people who know the details.

What has struck me of late is just how specialised we have become and how little this means we know when presented with material outside our expertise. Just like Sheldon and Leonard, we are easily at a loss.

And yet we also take for grated what we know.

Because I have been in the guts of ecological science in research, teaching and my consulting practice for far too long, I take scientific knowledge for granted. For example, I can easily see the link between grazing management and soil carbon — graze too hard and soil carbon declines — and the net environmental benefits of changes to grazing practices that stop or even reverse that soil carbon decline.

What I can’t do is assume that a specialist in financial assurance will see or believe that such a link exists. She needs evidence. And as the language and logic flow falls outside her expertise she will need some persuading.

This is usually not a problem because ecology and accounting speak happening in the same room is about as rare as a female financial specialist. Except that they are about to collide.

The next decades will require that food production doubles or a lot of people will go hungry. Hungry people are not easily or righty ignored and the only way to feed them will be to invest in more efficient food production, distribution and storage systems.

It will be a time for specialisms to be recognised and respected. Times approach when the lion will lie down with the lamb… and come to some agreement.

This will only happen if expertise and depth of knowledge is respected. If we have to spend all the time convincing each other we actually know stuff then the solution will slip away.

So be grateful that someone among the 1,000 knows the formula for the third law of thermodynamics and don’t dismiss her for being odd.

It will be smarter to listen to she has to say.