The shovel leaning workshop

The shovel leaning workshop

Photo by Stephen Philpott on Unsplash

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.

Have a great day and a good lean.  


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Beating that feeling of inadequacy

Beating that feeling of inadequacy

Photo by Luismi Sánchez on Unsplash

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.

Hartlepool

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. 

Beating inadequacy

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.

Does it matter if online information is true or false?

Does it matter if online information is true or false?

Photo by Josh Marshall on Unsplash

Nowt as queer as folk

This north of England expression, although probably also Welsh, is said to emphasize that people sometimes behave in a very strange way. 

No kidding. 

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 .

Growing inabilities 

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

No progress without persuasion

No progress without persuasion

Photo by cloudvisual on Unsplash

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.

Healthy scepticism

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.

It is not at all bad.


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Do we stop learning when we leave school?

Do we stop learning when we leave school?

bantersnaps on Unsplash

Do we stop learning when we leave school? 

Of course not. 

True learning only starts after graduation. It’s then that the real world smacks us in the face and we have to engage our street smarts and tough skins to survive and prosper. The formal learning might stop when the cap is thrown in the air, then our life learning begins in earnest. 

And where do we get that learning from? 

Sources of everyday learning

Our parents have already done their best to impart wisdom through our teenage tantrums and our grunts as the highest form of communication. Now they just want us out the door.

We can ask Google or Siri any number of questions. This gets us realistic answers as factoids and snippets of detail that we don’t otherwise know. This works so long as you ask the robots the right questions.

Then there are the online feeds with factual content indistinguishable from the advertisements and opinion of the bullshit artists. 

Most of us still browse a news media site or maybe still watch the news on the TV. Only these outlets are companies for the most part with no obligation to educate us in the things that are important. They decide what is printed, what is investigated, what is picked up from the distributors to fill the column inches. Their bean counters have only the company’s bottom line on their minds. They think of their audience in ratings and do not ask if they should be providing their customers with a service – eyeballs and clicks are all that matter. 

Hold on though, around the world, there are publicly funded and state-run media. Some of those outlets have more latitude to publish content that is educational. And for the most part they do, along with a set of government-sanctioned messages. 

My experience here in Australia is that the public services must increasingly chase that elusive viewer or else lose more of their funding. 

Then there are all those little videos presented by Joe and Jill public. Some are great and some are awful. They all rely on our judgement to decide if they give us any life lessons or wisdom. Remember that the Tic Tocers and Instagrammers are after clicks too.

Alright so we keep learning and the sources of material for us to consume are endless and require us to be vigilant.

Does everyday knowledge matter?  

Are the topics that enter the conversation via the media the most important to humanity?

Here is one answer.

But the horse race that matters most is humanity’s collective race to defuse the climate emergency. What’s ultimately being decided in these elections is nothing less than whether all of us are going to have a livable planet 20 years from now and beyond. If the press is most comfortable chasing fires and sending reporters into disaster zones, so be it. But newsrooms should know: the disaster is here. It is raging now. Our job is to cover it with the urgency it deserves.

Mark Hertsgaard, Executive Director, Covering Climate Now.

Climate advocates push that agenda of course and they are right to provoke crisis thinking around this problem. It is a huge deal. As I edit this post Sydney is in the middle of a five-day rain deluge breaking rainfall records only a year out from drought and horrendous bushfires. 

The climate change that we’re experiencing is easily sufficient to cause the next mass extinction, particularly as the effects are accelerated by human land use. 

Recall that four of the five previous mass extinction events were climate-related. The dramatic changes across the planet will affect every single one of us. Not talking about climate change is a criminal omission. 

But this is an advocate talking. Why pay attention to climate over other critical issues? If the climate gets the lion’s share of our eyeballs and worry, what about soil, food security, population, sustainability, not to mention pandemics (yes, there will be more than one)? The list of acute issues is a long one.

This begs the broader question of what is essential learning? And, of course, who decides what is important for us to know. 

Knowable knowledge 

The body of human knowledge is so vast now that no one person can be across all of it. Even a slither is challenging.

In my own discipline of ecology, the number of scientific journals and articles published each year has risen exponentially over the last decades. And since I was a postgraduate student, when it seemed possible to get your head around most of the concepts and the literature that described those concepts, nowadays, it seems impossible to even read the systematic reviews. 

Recently we completed our own version of an evidence review on the wild dog problem in New South Wales. This is dogs that are feral domestic dogs often mixed with dingoes into various levels of purity that occasionally predate livestock in the rural areas. 

Farmers respond to livestock losses negatively as you can imagine. Nobody who grows animals wants to see those animals killed or maimed even in small numbers. 

The literature on the dogs though is quite extensive. A Google scholar search on ‘wild dog Australia’ generates 23 research papers with these words in the title and over a hundred related to the topic since 2017. Keeping up with all of this information in its raw form is difficult. 

The media has an important role to play in presenting information in an objective way, synthesized into bite-sized chunks. What it seems to be doing though is sensationalizing everything in order to get eyeballs. 

I believe the media should be telling us about a whole bunch of issues that currently don’t even get any airplay at all. 

Particularly the crisis in the soils. The requirement to grow food and increase production at 2% for 30 years. The notion of the demographic transition, that humanity will peak at a large number of people. And we’ll have to feed that large number for a long period of time before that declines through natural attrition. 

But this is not news in the true sense. It is predictions of the future and news agencies are very wary of such things. The last thing they want is to be shown to get the future wrong, they will say their job is to report the present. They shy away from anything futuristic. 

What about the immediate consequences of longer-term stories? What about the aging farmers or the increased rates of suicides amongst farmers? The debt to equity ratios in rural communities or the number of rural properties operating as businesses that are just not profitable, never have been, never can be. What about the properties that are heading in that direction that were once viable and are now becoming unproductive? 

What about the fact that wild dogs are not really a pest at all? In terms of an economic impact, in the aggregate they are benign. 

What do we know?

I suspect that our desire to learn is a string as ever but I worry we are learning the wrong things and are ignorant of what’s going on in the world around us. We hide in our social feeds that are designed to deliver content that we like. And the youngsters who are trying to live on the edge of their comfort zones are really looking for that early life excitement more than education. 

The thing is when you get to a certain age you realize that education is actually fundamental to what you’ve just been through. And that if you’ve been successful most likely you have gathered about yourself the equivalent of education in various forms even f most of them are informal. 

Then you realize that you should have been doing that purposefully from the beginning. 

And education is not about certificates and grades or being the valedictorian. It is all about building your own capacity, your own level of understanding about yourself and how the world around you works. 

And how you can chart a better course for yourself as part of humanity.


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Slashing the tall poppies

Slashing the tall poppies

Photo by Roma Kaiuk on Unsplash

New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern took her global reputation for compassionate leadership that many of us crave and won the New Zealand election in a landslide.

The Labour Party she represents can now form power on its own without any alliance with minor parties. To achieve this in a small country with a proportional representation voting system is remarkable. It seems the majority of people in New Zealand are not only proud of her and what she’s achieved but want her to carry on.

Curiously then we see in the left and right-wing media in Australia articles that are saying “Oh but she’s got so much more to do”; “It’s now when the real difficulty begins”; “She won’t be able to carry on.”

The classic tall poppy slash. A poppy grows up and becomes tall to shine light and beauty on everyone else. And so we have to chop it down.

What is with this? What is wrong with us? Why are we so obsessed with cutting down success in all but our sporting heroes?

Ardern has shown what can be done, what a sense of humanity and empathy can do in a leadership position. And you’re not telling me that a person can rise to lead a political party in the west in modern times without being a fierce politician. She battled away to that position, just like anyone else would have done. I suspect that in the negotiating room, she’s as hard as the next one.

The difference with Jacinta Ardern is that she seems to remember where her humanity lies. There’s a photograph of her taking homemade scones to thank her campaign helpers. The article presents that in the narrative as though it was a cynical thing to be doing. Not at all. I believe that she actually has that level of empathy and understands that it’s people that matter.

And it’s the little things that you do for people that they remember.

It would be truly splendid if many more politicians developed this level of empathy. But more importantly, the skills to show it. Not only to people one-on-one but also to the rest of us who never have the privilege of meeting them.

I think it’s time we called out some of this tall poppy bullshit and gave people the credit they deserve for achieving great things.

The fact that the flower puts itself up above the rest to attract the insects is a risk to the plant. It takes courage and bravery to become a tall poppy.

That should be admirable.

Instead, the slashers come out.

It’s time that we recognized that courage for what it is and to be thankful that there are some people left prepared to show it.

Sense of humour failure

Sense of humour failure

I used to be funny.

The reason I could get a laugh was that I said what most people wouldn’t. What humoured them was the fact that their repressed thoughts could come out of someone else’s mouth.

Presumably, this is one of the rules of comedy.

I used to be able to read the room and figure out what the tension was, the issue or politically correct motivation that was dominating the conversation.

Once cornered I would point to the elephant or perhaps the pile of steaming dung on the floor and make a few deprecating remarks about how silly it was to be so worried about a fictitious beast that could not possibly be on the 63rd floor of a city office block.

Nervous hilarity usually ensued.

Not so much these days. Maybe the pungency of the dung doesn’t translate on virtual meetings.

I still make my wife laugh, thank goodness.

What a pleasure that is and a true test of a good relationship. I can be myself around her, say crazy things, be a bit wackadoodle and she loves it. Thankfully she is still invested.

For a while now I have struggled along in a very toxic workplace where mediocrity is considered poor form because it might show people up. Everyone is operating way below their capacity thanks to an atmosphere of fear delivering insecurity, all promulgated by the leadership. A nasty situation.

It has sapped my energy and made my normal humour redundant.

Trying to lighten the mood and bring people some levity in their being is vital because most work meetings are not that important after all. Not to say that good governance and its efficient delivery is not important. It is vital to our society. Poor delivery of law and regulation is actually cancer on democracy that will eventually bring it down.

Only without some levity, all sense of proportion is lost.

Nobody knows what really matters or when to be serious or when to make decisions or that it really does not require an hour to decide if we use Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Stress is an extraordinary phenomenon. We are all struggling to cope with a pandemic and ‘that year’ where in Australia, we had drought, heat, wildfire, flood, a pandemic, and runs on toilet rolls.

It’s a challenging time to stay light.

Back in my days in southern Africa, the Zimbabweans always used to say about any grumpy individual that he had a “sense of humour failure”.

I fear a terminal case of that presently.

So I’ve been trying to figure out how to regain my sense of humour.

Meditation helps, of course, as does exercise. And yoga would too only seem to have lost the urge for that. So deep has the malaise become the only thing that seems to keep me sane is writing. It helps to put into words some of these difficult and challenging feelings.

There are days when the lightness returns and some humour is possible. I hope that those days will become more frequent as I come to terms with a difficult situation.

So keep your pecker up young man, your chin somewhere towards the sky. And hopefully, that sense of humour and lightness about the world will come back, even in these challenging times.

See, even if you just talk to yourself it can help.


Don’t forget there is always a little giggle to be had from the aphorisms of the The Confused One

Barracking for the best

Barracking for the best

Photo by Shapelined on Unsplash

When I was a kid, I was a Leeds United supporter. They were top of the league at the time, had the best players, the best team, and I loved their funky logo, very 1970’s.

I painted it on my school satchel.

This was a risky thing to do given that I went to school in North London, a spit and a shove from White Hart Lane, the home of Tottenham Hotspur, the team most of my school mates supported. And, of course, Tottenham is up the road from Highbury, the home of Arsenal FC and the enemy in one of the biggest local rivalries in soccer.

In fact, it was a huge shock when my son who was born in Zimbabwe and raised in Australia turned out to be an Arsenal supporter. What was he thinking?

My excuse for not ‘go you Spurs’ was that I had no sense of association with the area having just arrived from two years in the north of England and then prior to that as a young kid in South London. No affinity for North London at all really and so I aligned myself to the club that was doing the best at the time, the one at the top of the league.

I’ve noticed that throughout my life I’ve always latched on to the team or the player who was the best at the time. I admired that ability to become the world’s best or recognized as one of the best players of a particular game.

These days when I must decide between England or Australia during the Ashes tests, baracking for the best is a problem. As a cricket buff it’s kind of fascinating to want the home country to win or the best team to win which invariably in recent years at least has been Australia. Often I will cop out and follow the players who I think are the best out of those two teams, again most often Australian.

My focus is on high quality wherever I see it and not just barrack for those people but to follow them and to recognize them for their skill and artistry.

When somebody stands out from the pack because they’re genuinely good then I recognize that straight away and become a fan. Interesting to understand why that’s the case, why I’m going for the best team at the time.

Leeds United of course has been in the doldrums for decades. After relegation from the first division they struggled in the championship only this year to return to the Premier League. I have no idea who plays for the many more. I know they have a dynamic manager who’s given them a new way of playing and their current success. And I wish them well and I hope that they do well but I don’t follow them in the same way as I did as a kid.

Looking back a big part of this risk taking – wearing a Leeds United scarf to Stamford Bridge in the late 1970’s was reckless – was me going against convention. I wasn’t following in footsteps or the tribe. At least not of tribalism that has to do with why people support their local teams through thick and thin. For me, it’s about a search for excellence and an insecurity in my own ability.

I want to manage my own sense of inadequacy by looking up to people with talent, recognising high quality and becoming a fan of not necessarily the individual or the team, but the qualities that they represent.

That way, I always have something to live up to.

I find this motivation useful in just about everything that I do. Even when I tried woodworking, which I’m dreadful at, and put together tools and the skills to try to have a go at it. I went to the great training ground of YouTube and found incredible individuals who were able to not just demonstrate skill in construction with wood, from the basics through to some complicated solutions, but we’re good at explaining it. They made woodworking accessible and the skills learnable through humour or an ability to take a process and break it down into its constituent parts. After many an hour across multiple channels looking at the woodwork material I now have a reasonable idea of how to do it, at least not to make a complete hash of it, and hopefully keep myself safe.

My problem, as regulars will know from the sort of post on Alloporus, there’s always a challenge in there somewhere. The challenge of seeking excellence is this.

I have lost the ability to find excellence in the workplace.

Many of you will know that I work in the environmental sciences. My role as an ecologist is to try and understand how the natural world works in order to better apply policy and practice.

At the moment the application is to agricultural production systems and balancing agricultural production with other values that we gain from the environment.

I have struggled over the last decade or so to maintain that sense of who should I barrack for? Who can I see that is demonstrating excellence in this process. Who is really across there portfolio and understands the processes and what’s happening.

To be honest with you, I don’t have those people anymore.

As a young academic I found such individuals easily. They were the senior professors and the prolific academic writers who were able to talk with true depth of understanding. Whenever they said something I would think, ‘I didn’t get that, you know, I need to learn more from what this person is saying’ and off I would go to the library. Maybe I put those people on a pedestal a little, but they were extremely helpful in guiding me forward.

One of the reasons that top academics achieve success is because they’re knowledgeable. They read a lot. They spend hours and hours and hours reading up on their discipline and unpacking the information. It’s not about smarts, more about absorbing and putting content into context. And individuals good at this were never short of an answer or a pearl of wisdom. So I tried to be like them. I tried to gather as much information as I could and I think that, over the years, I’ve been reasonably good at that.

Perhaps my weakness is that I am interested in so many different things. I have more breadth than depth. That is not so good if you want to be an academic but perhaps not so bad a thing if you’re trying to be an environmentalist or to create genuine sustainability outcomes.

Breadth distances you from the main players. A shortage of these well read people in the latter part of my career is perhaps understandable. Those individuals I admired have either retired or have passed away. The youngsters coming through are out of my reach now that I’m no longer in the academic world.

In the applied work I now find myself closer to the operations of the environment on the ground. The quality of knowledge is different. People know about their local circumstances. They know about the local situations they’re dealing with and are not lacking in knowledge. But they’re mostly ignorant of the sort of theoretical and structural underpinnings of their subject.

I have local knowledge too from the many years spent trudging around in the field collecting data. But it wasn’t their fields, Mostly it was fields on other continents. And it creates a gap in the sense that they don’t believe that I understand what they’re talking about because I don’t know their local circumstances.

And they don’t know what I’m talking about because they lack that knowledge of the theory and applying the theory to the practice.

I feel at a bit of a loss to be honest, desperate for the workplace equivalent of the best player and the best teams. I can’t find them, nobody available to latch onto and regain a sense of motivation and something to work towards.

Unless of course, they don’t exist. And so we arrive at the nub of it.

Maybe we don’t have these people that understand the bigger picture. At least in the way that I’ve been trying to understand it for the last decade with breadth rather than depth.

I hope that I am wrong.

Gender reveal

Gender reveal

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Jill is so excited. She has invited the whole family and her besties around on a sunny sunday afternoon for tea.

On the table is a beautiful cream cake.

Her husband Joe joins his heavily pregnant wife at the table along with their son Billy and he announces that it is time to cut the cake. The gender of the unborn baby revealed to the expectant audience.

What will it be?

The excitement builds, will Billy have a brother to beat up or a sister who will run rings around him before breakfast?

In the mother’s belly, the baby is wondering what all the fuss is about and wishing that its mother would stop stressing and go lie down.

The mother and father hold the knife together just like they did all those years ago and plunge the blade into the cake.

Squeaks of delight from all the single ladies while the mothers clip their little Johnnies around the ear for pigging out on the sausage rolls.

A second cut. It is the moment of truth.

The slice emerges from the creamy camouflage to reveal… beige.

It’s a gender-neutral baby.

OMGs all around, what is going on?

Shock and blank stares and a few chuckles from the early adopters.

Joe rotates the cake and quickly cuts another slice, maybe the reveal is sector-specific. He lifts the next slice and the crowd gasps. It is still beige.

This baby has no gender. It is destined to live life on the outer rim of society never fully accepted by any social group.

At this point Joe’s mother-in-law steps in.

She snatches the knife and begins to hack away at the cake as if her hand will obviously find the blue or the pink bit.

But no. There is no colour.

It is either the wrong cake or the baker forgot to add the food colour. The gender of Billy’s bro or sis is still a mystery.

What happens next says everything about the human condition.

Everyone could all have a laugh and do it all again next week with a coloured cake or…

Jill shouts at her husband, bursts into tears and runs up the stairs bawling with embarrassment. She had spent weeks preparing for this only to have a disaster in front of all of her friends. Her anxiety spikes and suddenly the sky is falling in.

The mother-in-law clubs the husband with the phone as though it is all his fault, then calls the cake shop to give them hell as the worst cake shop in the history of the patisserie, only much less politely.

Joe escapes to the barbecue in the garden where a couple of his mates have stashed the cold beers while the guests are left to mill around and come to their own conclusions.

If I tell you that this scene is played out on a YouTube video, then of course we find that funny. We’ll lol with hilarity that the family goes off at an honest mistake and starts to blame those idiots from the cake shop before they realise it’s their own emotions that are triggered.

The scene is entertaining and it gets millions of views.

What concerns me is that the family reacted that way in the first place. Put that situation in front of all the families in the world and half the time you would get the same result with the family suing the cake shop for damages. The other families would have a good laugh about it for years.

Too many of us have lost the ability to put events into context and how seriously to take them.

The disaster that was 2020 didn’t help.

It is a new year.

Let’s smile at the little mistakes in 2021

Have a great one.

Good riddance 2020

Good riddance 2020

The year 2020 is one that everyone will remember and most people would like to forget.

Here are some of what happened to us in the year.

Drought and fire

Our year of 2020 began towards the end of one of the deepest droughts on record in our region. The bush was bone dry. Not satisfied with a deep drought, to the north and the south of us were two huge bushfires with fronts hundreds of kilometers long. The Gospers Mountain fire to our north burnt through an area more than three times the size of Greater London. By the end of the fire season approximately 18,600,000 hectares (46,000,000 acres) of rural land had burned across Australia with the loss of 33 lives including six firefighters, and causing over $100 billion of damage.

The closest the Gospers firefront came to our home was 10km so we got lucky but the smoke was with us every day and along with the tension and our belongings packed up ready to evacuate. Weeks crept along like months. We were locked down in the house with all the doors and windows, shut and the air purifier going full blast.

There is something acute about living under the constant threat of evacuation and genuine danger. Remember we had fire in our back yard in 2013 so we knew what was possible. The stress hormones are produced naturally and you begin to get this level of constant vigilance that drains everything. All our precious goods, packed and ready to load into the car are still stacked in our spare room a year later. We seem unable to bring ourselves to put most of them back to where they normally live.

Along with the fires and the smoke was the heat. The hottest day, January 4th, was 45.1 C with several days over 40 C all through the summer.

Rains

Eventually though the fires subsided as the rains came. And in typical Australian fashion, the drought was broken with massive flooding. We had 214.6mm on the 10th February that flooded everything in the basement but we didn’t care. At least it finally put the fires out. Such relief that finally the fires were not only under control from the extraordinary efforts of the firefighters, but that nature chipped in and a little bit more of normality returned. That it took a deluge was just what we expected.

Relieved now that we were heading towards autumn and winter and out of the fire season when of course, we were locked down again. This time the pandemic, a deeper and wider impact than the fires had been and it meant that most people forgot the summer disasters. No matter that for the first time in recorded history a fire season had impacted not just the rural properties, but also many of the coastal properties and indeed delivered smoke and tension to most of the east coast towns and cities.

COVID Pandemic

We’ve all got our COVID stories.

In our case we were very fortunate, no infections and no need to get tested… yet. The ‘work from home’ directive suited us anyway because we do most of our work from home. And, luckily for the extended family, it was really not much different to normal, save for the mask wearing, no hugging, and shortages of toilet rolls.

The uncertainty early on was debilitating. I recall a particular week when at the start of the week golf was fine, everyone could play, on Tuesday nobody could play and on Thursday you could play with restrictions on how you could go about it. First world problems for sure. Overall we got off lightly.

People worked hard to find the best solutions even when nobody knew what was happening. I think that collectively folk coped with it pretty well. At least in the first lockdown the Australian public seemed to be quite comfortable with restrictions that no government would under normal circumstances even hint at doing let alone actually implement. Essentially a house arrest for the entire population, but we did it and, for the most part, people kept to the rules.

In this household we are in the vulnerable category for the virus so we adopted the mask wearing like everyone in Europe was doing. Not so many Australians were keen on the masks idea and so we got some very weird looks in the supermarkets. People didn’t really get it was to protect them more than the wearer; a civic duty rather than a personal duty.

Crises affect people’s understanding of where things are and what things need to be done for the collective benefit. It also creates a disruption to conventional wisdom. This is a huge opportunity given how entrenched and stale some institutions have become. We will have to wait and see if the crisis brings progressive innovations, especially among our political leaders. Many have gathered considerable political capital with their strong responses to the crisis. There is little point in mentioning the leaders who made a complete hash of it.

Closer to home

Once we started getting used to public health restrictions my year continued with a challenging work environment where what science can offer generates antagonism towards the messengers.

I also stopped doing yoga, put weight on, became very stressed at various points in the year, and so, all in all, it’s been one to forget this 2020.

I was able to continue to write and have produced more material than I can cope with on the editing front. So silver lining perhaps.

We also hired some delightful Chinese guys to lay spotted gum flooring throughout the house replacing a carpet that had done a sterling job but was now tired and ready for retirement… just like me.

The new floor is awesome. Timber really is a wondrous resource.

What about 2021?

The interesting part though is what 2021 will look like. Will it be more of the same with natural disasters, health challenges, and shortages of toilet rolls. Already in the north of the state heavy storms have produced beach erosion and local COVID lockdowns are back.

Obviously normal is not what it was but is now a constant state of flux. Changes happening everywhere. Our focus now is to understand change for economic, environmental and social disruption will be part of our stories for 2021 as the pandemic will continue to play out before a new normality is established. Hopefully we will be wise enough to create population immunity through vaccines or exposure with the least disadvantage to the poor. And by population we’re talking about a global population of over eight billion souls. Maybe some of the political capital could be spent in an egalitarian direction for once.

So we can expect 2021 to be challenging. Best to prepare for difference rather than stability and return to what was normal because it’s not just the virus. We haven’t even touched on the crises that are about to hit us. Here are a few…

  • concentration of wealth
  • peak soil nutrients
  • global food production
  • water use and abuse
  • waste
  • climate change adaptation

These are Alloporus’s favorites, but there are a host of issues that are already huge for the planet is in a state of flux, we really have to get our heads around that reality.

On the bright side

It is best to start the year on a bright note, which of course everybody wants to do as they set their resolutions and get themselves geared up for a fresh start.

There is much to be optimistic about, not least the opportunity created by change. Where one thing falls away there’s a chance for another solution that is better, more efficient, more resilient and dare we say, more sustainable to take its place.

The motto of my alma mater is ‘do different’ and change is a wonderful time to be different, optimistic even.

In 2021 let’s ‘do different’ and try alternatives, embrace change as an opportunity, rather than lamenting the loss of what went before.

I hope you survived 2020 relatively unscathed. We all feel differently now than we did at the start of last year. But let’s hope that we can embrace change and look at opportunity. And engage amongst ourselves to build a fantastic 2021.

Thank you for reading the ‘Alloporus healthy thinking’ blog in 2020. I hope you will stick with me for 2021.

Go well.