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.

Disturbing dream that might help

Disturbing dream that might help

Photo by Gabriel McCallin on Unsplash

I don’t know whether it’s COVID or Trump or time of life or stressful work conditions or all of the above but I’ve been having the weirdest dreams lately.

For a long time, I would have only one dream. The theme was that I had a lot of luggage and a plane to catch. The problem was getting to the airport with all that baggage and getting it on the plane without outrageous excess charges.

Only in the dream I rarely made it to the airport. First-year psychology students could figure out the meaning of that one.

Last night I had a different, rather disturbing dream.

I was in a written exam, something I haven’t done for four decades and the subject, English. The questions on the exam paper were difficult to find and impossible to put into the correct sequence.

It was the weirdest experience as the questions were on different kinds of paper and the words were hard to read. What the questions were actually asking seemed obscure.

I tried and I tried and I tried and in the end, failed to complete the examination.

Me, the ultimate nerd, failing to complete an academic task. It felt like the most incredulous thing ever. After some time deciding whether or not I did actually complete the exam or if I did enough to pass the test, maybe I could reset the examination later on, maybe the next year… After all of that trying to recover from disaster, it was clear that I had failed the examination and would have to deal with it.

Part of the psychology around all this would be that in the real world I have been pushing myself to do more writing and thinking, maybe, I should go back to my educational roots.

The obvious explanation is such a change is frightening. There is something about receiving a comfortable salary that influences your way of being even if you don’t enjoy the work that you’re paid to do.

But it got me thinking about our general state of mind.

Especially how easy it is for people to become unsettled. And there’s no doubt that the COVID crisis is extremely unsettling. Anyone with an eye to global politics or with even a passing interest in American politics has just gone through a terrible and settling period and it’s still going.

Anyone who cares or concerns themselves with equality and egalitarianism is easily in strife because of the continuing racism, misogyny and concentration of wealth that we talk about often.

Given all these stresses on top of the many immediate ones that are part of daily life, there is no doubt that mental health is new cancer. It will affect everybody when they least expect. And, if we were smart at all, then we would be building capacity to help people through such times.

We are helping each other a little. If you go on social media feeds and let the algorithm do its work, having chosen a few inspiring quotes and videos, you can see there are a lot of people engaged with positive messages and this is very powerful. Such grassroots, bottom-up approaches are essential. Empowering the positive messages, maybe with a share or two, is an easy way to help.

Then there is the harder work to make sure that politics can catch up. Maybe something like what Margaret Thatcher did in the first episode of the latest season of the Crown. When she was hounded by the old school, stupid white men, she got rid of them all, replacing them with young white men. So she got halfway there, at least.

Sidenote though, the Johnson cabinet is young, inexperienced and widely considered to be totally incompetent.

Thatcher’s motivations were not pure but that ‘getting rid of the old school’ is something that is imperative in our political systems. We need young imaginative ideas. And it’s time to get those. They’re there, all we have to do is empower them.

But back to my slumbers. Bad dreams are part of life and they send subliminal messages.

Throughout my career, I’ve tried many different obscure paths, and the odd blind alley, only to end up in a very traditional workplace. So in a way, I’m challenging my own response to being innovative and to support the changes that we have to make. Dreams have the uncanny knack of pointing it out with a poke around in the dark corners in the closet of life.

Obviously, to learn is the key.

And in this instance, I think the dream is giving me the courage to pursue this return to education. And to try and pass on some of my experience to the next generations so that they can forge their own paths with a little more confidence.

And obviously to ban all forms of academic examination as they really don’t help.


Thanks for getting this far, a share would be fantastic.

Bravery or courage

Bravery or courage

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

I have this hunch that people in modern society can be very brave. They would jump in front of a bus to save a child or beat off a shark from attacking their mate on his surfboard or chase down a thief to retrieve an old lady’s handbag or any number of dangerous gestures.

Only I think they lack courage.

Brave but not courageous. Let me explain.

Way back on 14 August 1861 one hundred years almost to the day before I was born, the New York Times published an article entitled Courage and Cowardice in which the reporter wrote

A man may be brave, absolutely fearless, and yet lack courage; not moral courage, but physical courage of the higher kind. Indeed, the man who does not know the sensation of fear (and there are men so constituted) can never be truly courageous

The idea here is that bravery is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous without any fear, most often because the fear is unknown or not felt.

This can be instinctual such as hitting a shark on the nose or somewhat calculated when running after the thief. Either way, it is an ego-driven response, more instinct than rational.

Courage is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous despite any fear.

This means there is usually time to think through the consequences and to know that they are likely to be painful or contain a risk that should be avoided if possible.

This distinction suggests that the brave soul is somewhat blase, maybe not sure what is coming and yet will jump over the rim of the trench into the enemy fire. The courageous soul is fully aware of the impending doom and is scared shitless but goes over the lip anyway.

Now suppose that the prevalence of bravery is greater than courage.

More people are throwing themselves fearlessly into the fire than those who hesitate before they do.

What does this look like for a society?

The brave souls

The brave souls do not understand why the courageous might hesitate. They do not see why they should be fearful. All they need is some bravery for goodness sake.

Anyway, what is there to worry about? There is nothing to fear. The fearful are weak, namby-pamby types who pretend there is something to be frightened about just so they can claim they are courageous. God help us. That will never get anything done. If we were fearful we’d never have left the forest for the savanna or Africa for the riches of the world.

And anyway, when the heat is on, courage fails so many. I mean they just land in a heap of quivering blubber on the floor or try to hide on the inside of a huge tub of icecream too frightened to move.

No, we need brave souls, the fearless warriors, the ones who give victory and can come back to sing of their heroic acts.

The courageous souls

Well, bravery is certainly useful. But courage is the purer attribute. It takes more self-control, more to overcome, and, well, more courage to be courageous than brave.

What is coming is known or the possible consequences are, especially the likelihood of pain and suffering and the feelings of that pain. This is not an easy thing to overcome. It takes great personal fortitude to do it.

The courageous souls have looked fear in the eye and done it anyway. The brave cannot claim such a conquering of fear. They have not even seen it. They still have to face fear, still have to deal with that horror confrontation and so, despite their actions, they are actually fearful creatures. They are often consumed by fear with reckless acts as their only salve.

A society dominated by the brave may win wars but is unlikely to gain much empathy or decide a social safety net is a good idea or even introduce a universal income.

A society dominated by the courageous could still win the wars after exhausting all the possible alternative solutions to avoid conflict and much more likely to introduce social policies.

More importantly than this, the courageous know themselves. They have looked at the fear and freaked out. They have panicked and been shaken to their boots. Then they went over the lip into the enemy fire.

There really is something noble in that.

Brave but not courageous

Returning to the origins premise that modern society has plenty of bravery but not much courage is backed up by any number of current laments, many on this blog.

We have populist leaders who commend bravery to their followers in the form of hatreds and tweets that say ‘yes, it’s fine to point that semi-automatic rifle at a protester’.

They don’t ask for too much courage though. To take some pain for the greater good.

We have traditional media that sensationalise everything, the bravery response and make cuts to journalism that analyses and asks pointy questions about the future.

We have social media that is designed for the brave — remember we said they were actually fearful souls — to slander, troll and generally act the macho with no consequence whatsoever.

And, and, and….

So here we go. Let’s get a dose of courage added to the COVID-19 vaccine injections. Have a herd immunity to bravery and get us some of that 1860’s ‘physical courage of the higher kind’.

Who has the right to impinge on my personal development?

Who has the right to impinge on my personal development?

I have been doing what I do for a very long time. Some of my colleagues even think I’m quite good at it.

I managed teams, run businesses, write and, in the day job, provide scientific advice.

Not everyone understands science.

Alloporus has talked about this before, that many people don’t even think numerically even though they might be as trained in the technical aspects of the work that they do. Thinking numerically is an art. Thinking logically is an art. Few people are comfortable with so much ‘nude on a chair’ and not everybody does the whole art criticism thing that well either.

So my skillset of numerical logic and deep understanding of the scientific method should be really useful and, for the most part, it has been. However, it is not the easiest of career choices as people find it very hard to accept what is being said when they don’t understand where it comes from.

I meet with resistance, uncertainty, insecurity, and all the usual patterns of behaviour that flow with those negative vibes. This happens every day in one form or another.

I need to be resilient to the negative emotions shunted in my direction. It is rarely personal but it does happen often enough for it to drain my energy at an alarming rate.

So I need plenty of coping mechanisms. Here are a few of them

  • I play golf
  • I just bought myself an electronic drum kit
  • I enjoy a beer and a drama on Netflix
  • I meditate
  • I have read any number of books on Self Development and the spiritual self
  • I love the Toltec four agreements and try to implement them
  • I even lie on a Shakti mat pretty much every day

Currently, my day job involves working for a large organisation that has taken upon itself the task of educating its management staff in pretty much all of the above — well actually the kindergarten version of the above.

What should I do?

I already do all of what they’re suggesting and then some. Ironically it’s really annoying to be told how to do it all over again from the beginning.

Should I just smile — also a key tactic for resilience — or switch off.

Should the workplace impose itself on my personal life?

This is actually a much bigger question. And at this time in our history when our leaders are useless and morally bankrupt and we are faced with real crises of the material and monetary kind, it is a vital one to answer.

I don’t believe it should.

I don’t think the workplace and the organisation behind it have the moral right to my spirituality even if they claim it will enhance their bottom line.

In fact, I think this leakage across people’s lives makes it very hard for them to understand boundaries.

And most of the time it is the breakdown of the boundaries that causes stress for individuals and inefficiency for the organisations. If people kept their uncertainties and insecurities in check, I would be less stressed when I’m trying to explain to them the intricacies of science.

So my contention is that the workplace should just butt out. Keep the spiritual personal development stuff personal.

Just a thought.

Post comments to the contrary or in support, curious to know if it’s just a me thing.

How opinions become facts

How opinions become facts

Our becoming emotionally wedded to our opinions mutates them into indisputable facts. That’s when they become dangerous. When our beliefs possess our feelings and we cement them as truth, we start to exclude, judge or dismiss the beliefs of others. Undue feelings of superiority take hold. And in that condition, it’s impossible for actual truths—even provable, scientific ones—to get in.

Partrick King

If Patrick King is right then opinions readily become ‘facts’ even without proof. When we are invested through a feeling our minds and hearts begin to narrow our world view and make it our immutable own. We start to believe our own thoughts, notorious for their flights of fancy, and consolidate them into our truths. Add to this any number of powerful forces in the modern world that play with our emotions, tapping into and sometimes mutating our core beliefs to fill us up with rigidity. We become closed and, as my own therapist tells me, judgemental and negative. Ouch.

If even half of this is true, we have a serious problem on our hands.

When opinions solidify into cement they corral us into like-minded groups creating the steel reinforcement for the concrete. The really important awareness and empathy suffer and limit our connections to other people. Ouch again.

Before the sky falls in, let’s back up a little.

Opinion is defined as “a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”. We all have them because we use judgements to help us navigate our lives.

It helps not to have to think things through from first principles all the time for that would be tedious and inefficient. We need the thinking space saved for emergencies. And if there are no crises to resolve, then thinking can be used for creative outlets. Not having to think until we want to is powerful support for opinions.

Facts are defined as things that are known to be consistent with objective reality and can be proven to be true with evidence. In other words, they are objective.

Facts come from a logical process of proof that the proposition (or belief) is true or valid. This involves observation or the creation of information through an agreed process that goes beyond the individual and is repeatable. It should also be agreed that the logic process and the information reflects reality. This is all a bit technical and not touchy-feely at all, far more Mr Spock than Captain Kirk. Most people would rather be Kirk than Spock.

Given these definitions, we can see that opinion is easy to come by for all we have to do is attach to our core and run with what it tells us. Facts are much harder to grasp for we must understand the logic process that generates them in order to accept them as proven and following this logic is hard work.

As far as our minds are concerned, opinion is easy, facts are hard.

There is an evolutionary advantage to the easier, lower-risk path. So it should be no surprise that judgements that are easier to come by and yet are still useful will persist.

This makes the first premise, of mutation of emotion into facts, logical even likely, especially for the pleasant feelings; such as being above average for example.

If they continue to work for us then their persistence makes sense too. The reinforcement of the good vibes that this brings will make the next premise likely too… “we start to exclude, judge or dismiss the beliefs of others.” This is the genesis of dogma. Fine when it is mutually beneficial (conservation of elephants is fine aspiration) and not so good when it is not (my religion is better than yours, in fact, yours sucks). This is bad enough for it creates any number of opportunities for conflict as people join their tribes and disagree with the opinions of other tribes.

The final premise is the one that really matters. Excluding others and feeling superior make it… impossible for actual truths—even provable, scientific ones—to get in. In other words, our opinions become very hard to change even when the evidence is strong that they are wrong or nonsensical.

As a scientist this is challenging. It is already difficult to explain scientific facts to the non-scientist who is not familiar with the logic revolutions of the renaissance or the technical details of your subject. They believe your white lab coat more than your statistical explanation. If we are also up against an evolutionary pressure — the easiest path will lead the genes along it — then we are in serious strife.

Donald, on the other hand, is laughing.

Where do you come from?

Where do you come from?

I could answer this by saying Croydon in south London where I was born. Only my parents moved from there before I had any memory of the place. They lived for a time in Herne Bay on the Essex coast where my sister was born but unlikely she would remember that place either because we were soon on our way back to south London, Hern Hill this time. Then from there to Hartlepool in the frozen north where a different language must be learned in a hurry, and then back to London, this time to Palmers Green in the posh northern suburbs.

So you could say I come from London… ish. Not a true cockney of course and sufficiently messed with accent wise to give the game away.

When people ask, that is what I say, I come from North London, mostly as I can remember that place.

When I was in my mid-twenties I got on a plane and moved to Zimbabwe.

Clearly not satisfied with the vagrancy of my youth, I opted for a big getaway that ended up lasting nearly a decade in Africa and is still going in the Antipodes. Almost before the plane touched down among the blossoming jacaranda trees of a vibrant Harare in its 1980’s livery that still worked for most of the people, I felt something homely. A sense of place.

At the time I put it down to youthful enthusiasm and excitement for the adventure. When it kept coming I noted it. I did feel comfort here. It was more than the friendly people and the stunning nature that was a European ecologists fantasy. It was a feeling in your gut that you were close to the truth. Near to something very important.

I travelled to the bush as often as I could and in the Brachystegia woodlands or among the leadwood and apple ring acacias on the banks of the Zambezi River or the majestic granite dwalas of the Matopos, the feeling kept coming. A sense of calm and peace that became a sense of belonging.

All the while I was reminded of the reality of my temporary status. A year-long residence permit with a renewal process that took six months did not even cover the postdoctoral research contract. There was very little pay and the tension of a struggling economy still limping after a decade of sanctions was starting to hurt folk. Most of the cars were older than I was and there was always one failed rainy season short of a food shortage. Yet even though I was alive to the reality of being a temporary guest, this feeling of place grew stronger.

After a couple of years of this delight, I moved again. This time to a more stable situation in Botswana, the next country along. This time the two-year contract was a little easier to renew and the salary was generous enough for a very comfortable life.

On one of the first explorations of the drier yet still magnificent acacia shrub of the granite sands, mopane woodlands in the north and desert grasslands of the Kalahari, I went to the easternmost arm of the Okavango Delta past Mababe village into a place of lush grasslands and mature acacia trees known as the Mababe Depression. This is a place where the water from the delta sometimes goes when the flood is strongest. It is a wilderness of the finest style, impala and sable and even roan mixing it with giraffe and elephant drawn to the water and the sweet grasses, a place to know where you come from.

As I got out of the truck and stood on the sandy clay in awe and gratitude that feeling came to me like never before. A powerful vibrancy in every cell just telling me that this is the place. This is where you are from. And for a moment I wasn’t in my body, I was in the grass and the trees and the impala grazing quietly in front of me.

It all sounds a little fanciful as I recount it now, but it was very real at the time. I knew there was something very special about the earth in that little far away corner of Africa. Only twice more in my life have I felt so connected to the greater universe and one of those occasions was after bypass surgery.

Mababe was truly special.

Fast forward a few decades and I come across a report in the Gaudian on new research from Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney that used analyses of mitochondrial DNA to find where we all came from.

The claim is that “The swathe of land south of the Zambezi River became a thriving home to Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago, the researchers suggest, and sustained an isolated, founder population of modern humans for at least 70,000 years.”

Here is the map I borrowed from the article and added the location of the Mababe Depression. Surprise, surprise it is right there where the founders lived.

There is conjecture as to the veracity of these DNA results and the interpretation but this time I’ll take it.

You see my cells knew.

They vibrated to the energy of ancestors that started it all. That founder population that stood there and contemplated how to catch the impala for supper.

Why integrity and scepticism are inseparable allies

Why integrity and scepticism are inseparable allies

Scepticism | a sceptical attitude; doubt as to the truth of something

doubt, doubtfulness, dubiousness, a pinch of salt, lack of conviction; disbelief, cynicism, distrust, mistrust, suspicion, misbelief, incredulity; pessimism, defeatism; raredubiety, Pyrrhonism, scepsis, minimifidianism

Integrity | the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles

honesty, uprightness, probity, rectitude, honour, honourableness, upstandingness, good character, principle(s), ethics, morals, righteousness, morality, nobility, high-mindedness, right-mindedness, noble-mindedness, virtue, decency, fairness, scrupulousness, sincerity, truthfulness, trustworthiness

Recently I have been asking myself a lot of questions, some of them pointy.

What is going on in the world? Why are we blind to the impending right-wing takeovers? Why is history repeating? Why do we believe lies? How did I get here?

This is partly a time of life thing and partly a WTF triggered by the state of the world, the country I live in, and my profession. Meantime some workplace nastiness has stalked in from the field and to hit me on the blindside.

In short, I am stressed out.

I have turned to my favourite supports. The butt skyward frame of the downward dog has provided solace, likewise, the gifted Mary Maddux from Meditation Oasis has been a huge help.

Meanwhile, my friends and loved ones have blessed me again and again.

I am starting to feel better.

This time around though my malaise was deep. The forces of the dark side gently yet steadily messing with my balance. I felt like I would fall over at the slightest push.

In this situation, there is only so much the supports can do. They can lift me up each time I fall but they cannot always be there for protection when the winds blow even as they show me how I can be more robust to the gusts and bend more easily. So this time I also sought out and benefited from some professional help.

Therapy is still a little shameful.

It suggests weakness because at the time you are. The point of talking through your inner emotions with a trustworthy stranger is because you need to build or rebuild mental strength. So, yes, I am weak right now. I need help and time to regain my fortitude.

The first couple of sessions went deep. This surprised me a bit. Maybe my subconscious was ready for it, more like ‘screaming to get out’ I think, and one word kept cropping up both during the sessions and as I processed and the therapist listened.

I became fixated with integrity.

My initial conclusion — initial because I suspect that this exploration has only just begun — is that honour and honesty mean a great deal to me, chased closely by character and morals. Integrity is a word to catch deep feelings in a jar and close the lid.

Then I realised that my profession of applied scientist embraces the qualities of integrity, of course, but it demands something else. My work also requires scepticism — the seeking of truth by applying doubt, then displacing it with evidence.

Scepticism is good, at least it should be. Scepticism is the foundation of science and is what separates science from opinion and lies.

As a seeker of truth, you have to question what you hear, see and smell. Even what you touch can deceive and so you apply logic to these things. This is the best way we know to convert information into evidence. My hand smells of lavender because I grasped the seed head of a lavender plant in the garden. The hand wash has the same smell but not necessarily because it had anything to do with a lavender plant.

Integrity and scepticism.

A huge ah-ha arrived when I put these two words together.

Scepticism is a huge threat to integrity.

Integrity functions as a given. You cannot test for it or prove it. Integrity appears through your words and your actions. It is hard to earn and maintain and is lost in a split second. Question a person’s integrity and you wound him. It matters not if there is no foundation, just to ask the question is wielding a weapon.

Yet sceptics cannot help but ask a question for this is what scepticism is, the asking of questions.

It appears I am trained to wound myself.

This is my interpretation and my current landing. My therapist did not suggest this and bears no responsibility other than what can be attributed to gentle prodding and a listening ear. I have decided that I have created a contradiction in myself.

I am latched onto integrity as a core value, if not the core value in my life. And yet all the time I go around questioning almost everything. In the simple act of scepticism, I am wielding a powerful emotional weapon, and just like anyone who would wield a real lightsaber, I am at constant risk of injury.

So far this realisation of self-harm is raw.

It is not really helping me given that I can’t relinquish integrity any more than I can give up scepticism. Both are integral to who I am.

A conundrum must exist. At least I know that now.

Needless to say, I immediately applied my black and white mind to this conundrum in search of a solution. I could give up integrity or scepticism or perhaps both. This would be difficult as a new persona is never easy to build and I would need a new career. Suggestions are most welcome.

Alternatively, I can figure out a better way for them to coexist.

I guess the real problem is that even Master Yoda must have singed a hair or the end of an ear in his fight with Dooku.

When does speed and certainty overide accuracy?

When does speed and certainty overide accuracy?

“…ours is a brain that is programmed for a combination of speed and certainty, not accuracy. Acting decisively in the face of a speeding truck can save your life, while trying to determine truth can leave you a splatter on the road.

Patrick King, The Art of Clear Thinking

Do you feel the truth in this? We are so easily a splatter on the road if we let our thinking brains slow us down.

So we don’t. We prefer speed for our own safety.

The instant we realise, getting out of the way of the pouncing lion is imperative. Instinct triggers the impulse to leap (speed) as a proven option for giving us a chance to escape (certainty). Given enough time to think about the lion, our brains would come up with any number of smart options to manage predator exposure in the first place, such as deciding who should be the lookout with sharp eyes willing to stay awake (accuracy).

Accuracy takes way too much time and effort so in the human brain opts for speed and certainty.

Daniel Kahneman talks about this as thinking fast and slow.

Accuracy that requires us to weigh up options, think through options and make evidence-based decisions just takes too long and too much effort on our part for the majority of everyday decisions. If we did it all the time we would grind to a halt from inertia. So the fast brain takes over. This gives us quick options and makes us intellectually as well as physically nimble.

In human evolution, this was essential and perhaps one of the things that made us so successful. We are fast thinkers. Our speed and certainty of thought give us a competitive advantage over most creatures, other tribes, and even human rivals in our own team.

Once we escaped the lion and were relatively safe around the campfire, so then we were able to ponder, remember and weigh up our experiences and, through language, share our ideas with others. This time to ponder set us up for big innovations and future successes that made evolutionary sense of having both thinking mechanisms.

It also gave us connections with each other. Slow thinking helps deepen the connections that allow us to build trust and organise the lookout roster.

All good so far.

Patrick King goes on to say…

In the absence of threats to your life, truth should always be the end goal, and opinions should be formed only after making an honest effort to pursue it.

Patrick King

This is a laudable suggestion. We would all do well to heed it for even if we are just aware that we have two modes of thinking that is a great start. And even if the longer one takes effort, the accuracy if offers should be attractive enough for us to use it more often. No matter how fast you think there are times when you will appreciate the heads up from the lookout.

So what happened to all that debate in the pub? Wither the discourse and thought about issues of the day and the future? Replaced it seems by cute cat pictures and a swipe right.

In our modern jungles, the benefits of the slower, more considered mode of thinking seem forgotten. Immediacy has again taken over from thought.

Ironically, there are a thousand discussions on this issue of how we became thoughtless and the conclusion appears to be that speed and certainty override accuracy because most matters no longer require serious thought. In the west at least, immediate needs are easily met with fast decisions — pizza or Thai? — the everydayness of everything. It is easy to get by without a nightwatchman.

When there are more serious matters, such as who should get my vote, the choices are lamentable with little payoff from seeking accuracy.

If we combine lack of need with a limited payoff then the call to ‘honest effort’ will ring hollow. Why put in the effort for no reward?

Enough.

If you have read any posts on this blog or anything by dozens of more erudite thinkers then you know this is not even a question. There are 7.7 billion reasons to make the effort and you are one of them.

Everyone has a duty to buck up their ideas, turn their thinking brains on every day, build strong connections, and find some solutions to the multitude of challenges presented by so many souls.

Help a brother by thinking about accuracy.