When in doubt start a new business

When in doubt start a new business

What I learned lately about… risk

I have made a career out of avoiding the safe options in favour of not knowing where the next contract will come from. On and off for over a decade I have worked for myself.

It means being your own boss and that is supposed to be good. But it also means you are your own marketing director, project manager, sales staff and tea lady.

There are times when so many hats sit real heavy on your head and you sag. It all gets too much.

The thing is the risk is addictive, probably in the same destructive way that gambling can be. So when doubt mushrooms out of the compost the solution is to take on more risk and start another company.

Here is the website.


Realising what you think

Realising what you think

Recently I was asked, rather politely as it turns out, to be part of a clinical trial. It involved an interview and then an allocation to one of two subject groups. One group had access to an internet app that logs your medical numbers, allows you to set targets and activity reminders all around a dashboard that lets you know how you are tracking. The other group didn’t get the flashy app.

At random, I got the app. Lovely.

As it happens my medical numbers are pretty good for a bloke of a certain age. My BP readings always bisect the middle of the range, my cholesterol is under control and I have never smoked a cigarette in my life. Not even a drag on one. I do, however, have a genetic predisposition to furry coronary arteries.

The flashy dashboard reminds me of this with the needle on the dial resting at a sobering 25% chance of heart disease in the next 5 years.

Now if I set some goals, such as reducing my bad cholesterol levels by a third I can get my percentage chance down to, wait for it, 23%.

Now some people might want to put in the hard yards and the statins to gain that 2 percentage points of benefit. But I work with probabilities and I know that all the dietary effort and the mind-numbing statins [cholesterol reduction does affect the brain because neurons are sheathed in the stuff] are not worth it for such a modest reduction in what starts as a one in four chance.

And then I got to thinking.

Since my bypass surgery, I have been careful with myself. I eat well and exercise often and my slightly overweight body has tipped the scales under 90 kilos for 30 years.  I am also very careful not to talk about my arteries to myself or anyone else. Most people I know have no idea what has happened.

This is not denial. I know what it was like to be close enough to smell the end. It was real but I choose not to give it any more energy than it soaked up at the time.

Once the rehab was through and my annual check ups come and go, the episode and its legacy are out of my mind.

Of course, I am fortunate. The surgeon’s skill and  few complications mean that I am actually healthy,  fit and strong. Not everyone with a heart condition is so blessed.

But I contend that not agonizing or constantly reminding myself of what happened has made a difference too. Remember the mind has trouble distinguishing a thought about something as positive or negative and the only way to stop it running away with thoughts is to not have them. So for most of the time, I don’t.

Now, of course, I have an app designed to remind me all the time and I don’t like it. In fact. I think it will be psychologically damaging for me.

I doubt if the researchers who designed the app and the trial have thought about this. Their objective would be to deliver more responsibility to the patient and, with luck, reduce their anxiety. The wanted side effect being fewer visits to a healthcare facility.

Only I was not anxious, at least not until I got the app.



What I learned lately about… profit

Profit is still the bottom, and only line

You know the old saying ‘if push came to shove’ means when things get nasty and extremis arrives this is what you would do.

Well, where the corporate world is concerned, any shoving results in action to protect profit. There is, of course, pampering to other values, but the law compels directors and trustees to build shareholder value. And this sets in stone a quest for profit.


Post-truth wins word of the year

Post-truth wins word of the year

It’s been a big year for post-truth, the word, culminating in the prestigious word of the year award from Oxford Dictionaries. Post-truth got the nod over Brexiteer, alt-right, adulating, and, wait for it, coulrophobia, an extreme or irrational fear of clowns.

Post-truth is a noun cum adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

It has spilt from the lips of political commentators for months now as they grapple to explain away the outcome of public votes that defied all logical prediction. People must vote with their heart, not their head, how else could they ignore the obvious facts. It is post-truth.

Four hundred years ago William Shakespeare was inventing words all the time, some 2,200 by some accounts, including manager, addiction, and fashionable. He was a genius of course and used a language that readily accommodated an expanded vocabulary. He also had the knack for delving into the emotional palate of his characters and showing it to us through their speech. He also knew that facts were incidental to this emotional cauldron that was the real source of any story. He would have understood post-truth immediately.

In my day job at alloporus environmental I interpret scientific evidence for people making business and policy decisions. We have so many objective facts available today that interpreters are needed to filter out and explain those that are useful. It is a great job for a process scientist who is as fascinated by how we generate and decide on evidence as by the facts themselves.

So I review scientific literature, crunch numbers into scenarios, do some horizon and solution scanning, and try to present it all in accessible reports. The idea being to make the evidence useful for decision making.

Only there is post-truth.

No matter how secure, comprehensive and truthful the collection and interpretation of facts might be, people do not use them to make their decisions. Almost always they have decided before they see the evidence.

Unlike the juror who has no inkling of the case they are about to witness in court, most people receive facts after they have had an emotional reaction. Their opinions and decisions are formed by the events of their lives. The facts at hand have a hard time in the emotional cauldron.

In his book ‘Thinking, fast and slow’ Daniel Kahneman gives an explanation. Essentially our brains are too lazy to do the hard work of thinking and we default to a hard-wired emotional response. We intuit most things. Only our intuition is not very good at complex thought, especially where we need to analyse for or calculate a result. For this, we have to engage the thinking brain. The only problem is that this type of thinking takes work – real physical work apparently – and we find it difficult.

This makes the brain an energetically expensive organ so in evolutionary biology terms it makes sense to use it sparingly. So the fight-flee-freeze responses saved us when it mattered and left the occasional heavy thinking for evenings around the campfire.

The problem is that the default is still there. We trust our emotional cauldron more than the facts. And why not, it saved enough of our ancestors from the snake, the lion and the Neanderthals.

It is nice that we now have a word for a modern expression of this core product of our evolutionary past.

But be assured that post-truth is not new. It has always been there in our DNA.

People on trains

People on trains

What I learned lately about… people on trains

Train commuters are not real people. They morph

somewhere between their front door and the platform into aliens with few manners and an insatiable appetite for rules.

On Cityrail trains that shunt people in and out of Sydney the powers that be decided to introduce quiet carriages. There are signs in viscous orange that declare talking, music and mobile phones calls are banished to other parts of the train.

If you find yourself by choice or chance in a quiet carriage be very careful, for the aliens are lethal. They will pounce on the slightest noise, exercising their right to enforce the proclamations of the orange signs.

It is something to behold.

President Trump — the shock we had to have


In 1990, Paul Keating, as Treasurer in the Hawke government, famously described the 1990s recession in Australia as “the recession we had to have” to correct a series of excesses through the 1980’s. Keating challenged Bob Hawke for the leadership of the Labor Party in 1991 and became Prime Minister of Australia.

This week the American people, via a slim minority, voted Donald Trump into the Presidency of the United States.

It is the shock they (and we) had to have.

What happened is that a nation of educated folk just put a narcissistic isolationist with little respect for anyone but himself and no experience of public office into the highest position in the land. Is this man really the best person from among the 322 million or so options?

You would have to think not. There had to be someone better, although not the democratic candidate apparently.

So what is going on?

There are a large number of people who now have no faith in the system of government to improve their lot. Median income in the US is now $30,525 up just $1,113 since 2000, less than 4% in over a decade. Average wages for those without a college degree in the US have declined over the same period and the number without a job has increased. Meantime median house prices have doubled to $304,800.

A xenophobic return to the old days was a message people wanted to hear.

There are some bigger picture numbers too. A growing disparity in wealth due as much to concentration into the few wealthy as to the loss of earnings among workers. A high risk of GFC 2.0 despite the national debt ballooning to $19.8 trillion raised ostensibly to stave off such a catastrophe. A law making establishment that is out of touch.

Check out the US national debt clock

But these individual and economic symptoms are best seen through the lens of what brought them about. Slavish adherence to the market and its fixation with growth, neo-liberalism it’s called.

Ironically Trump is going to be the messenger that demonstrates this slavish adherence is untenable. Because he will not be able to deliver on most of his promises. Given the debt, wealth concentration and stagnant growth, the system cannot afford his tax cuts, wall construction or restricted trade.

Imagine halving corporate tax when the country carries more debt than its GDP.

If he insists on keeping his promises the fragile economy collapses. If he relents, the people are let down (again). Either way, there is a jolt to the system. An opportunity is created for genuine progressive change.

There is a reason this feels like much more than trying to find a silver lining in a dark misogynistic cloud.

On the night before the US election I attended a public function in Sydney under the 100 Resilience Cities program. The theme was ‘Is Sydney ready? Working together for a resilient city’ and even a confirmed skeptic like myself would have to say, yes.

Because for the first time it became clear to me what resilience is. It is the ability of people to connect with each other across the barriers we all erect to find common ground and support. Throughout the evening there was evidence of people doing this more and more. Just the recognition that resilience is all about people is huge.

And this is the real change that can truly help those who voted for the orange guy. Where people actually talk to each other, find things they agree on, accept the things they cannot agree on, and build things together.

It will happen.

Donald is the shock we need to make it so.



We change as we age. Like a fine wine we mellow, become fuller of body and readily laid down. This is the privilege of longevity bestowed only recently on humanity.

Our ancestor’s time was consumed by finding enough food and water. Life was tough and short. Very few made it to dotage or had the luxury of getting there via retirement. Dither and the tribe left you behind in the snow.

Even after the invention of agriculture and much later the steam engine, life was tough. Starvation, water born disease, conflict and the sheer grind of everyday living cut many down early.

Life expectancy in 1900’s Europe was just 31 years.

Today things are very different. Now almost everyone has long enough to mature. Most of us will have time to contemplate after all the rushing, getting ahead, and procreating is over.

But it is a scary time. Many end up in crisis or at the wheel of a red sports car.

Slowing down is most uncomfortable when we are used to speed; presumably this explains the red sports car.

So here is my suggestion.

There should be slowing down classes.

A compulsory online course that people take at some time in their 40’s that teaches the theory and suggests skills practice for distressing your life. This could be combined with free yoga and meditation sessions or, for the less trendy, walks in the countryside.

This would be the human equivalent of laying the wine down so that by the time we reached our vintage we would be worth drinking.

What do you think?



Dancing in the living room has its risks

Dancing in the living room has its risks

What I learned lately about… dancing

It was 1979 when the 2-Tone bands appeared on the UK music scene and reinvented skanking; a lost art of bouncing around to ska music looking like a complete dork.

I passed many a happy hour at Madness, The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter gigs catching the energy and sympathising with the anti-racism messages to Rudi.

So no surprise at joy remembered when ‘On my radio’ by the Selecter came up on iTunes radio after 30 odd years.

Blasting the sound in the living room and attempts at basic skanking dance moves ended in a busted Achilles tendon and six months of healing and rehab.

Funny enough it was almost worth it.




Joel has been in a wheelchair all his life. He is 32 years old and his parents have looked after him since he was born. They are worn out.

It is impossible to know how they feel about Joel.

He is their son who requires their attention for just about everything he does. They have been there for 11,680 days of dressing, showering and bowel movements. Between these days they didn’t sleep through on half the nights.

This is not a normal life.

Joel not only has physical disabilities he has mental issues too.

He couldn’t learn to speak and, according to numerous psych analyses, is not aware of where or who he is. Yet he seems to know what he likes and he gets scared and upset, even if very few people can tell the difference. The best care can see Joel comfortable and safe but no one knows if he is content.

Who speaks for Joel?

He is of legal age with an identity yet he cannot sign or speak his own name. He thinks for there are responses to likes and dislikes but no obvious capacity to discern. His smiles and cries and shouts are unfathomable to all but his parents and his sister. Often even they are not sure what he wants or what he means.

Those with a normal life cannot know how Joel feels or thinks.

His parents want to speak for Joel. They have provided his care, sacrificed much to be there for him and know him better than anyone, perhaps more than Joel knows himself. In the world of the rational they could, perhaps should, be his voice and decide what is best.

It just happens that Joel is aware of his sexuality. Whatever wiring his brain missed it developed the signals for procreation. He cannot speak his desires but   Joel obviously likes girls, especially the good-looking ones.

His parents see this. On occasion, it embarrasses them.

Only they believe sex is reserved for marriage and they cannot see Joel being married to anyone. It is silly to even think of it.

They do not even consider that Joel might want to have sex. Nor do they see that this fundamental human experience is what Joel the person might desire and even deserve.

However kind and dedicated they are, on the matter of sex Joel’s parents are clouded by their own preconceptions. They cannot truly speak for him.

It is likely that Joel will be denied any sexual encounters his whole life. His parents have a right to their worldview and are unlikely to change what they think about sex before marriage. They are also unlikely to change their devotion to Joel and his care.

There is an inevitable compromise in meeting Joel’s dependency. At some level, the caregiver decides and Joel must lose his voice.

It is a truly wicked conundrum.