Warriors beachThe desert bakes the feet of the brave warrior even in the shade of the acacia. A waft of thick air brings a strange scent, somehow fresh and made of vibrant colour. Our warrior turns toward the smell and an urge comes to stride out. Instinct draws feet forward ever faster as clean air banishes the torpor of heat. So powerful is this cleansing that he runs towards the breeze. As beads become rivulets down his temples he reaches the edge of a cliff and is amazed at what he sees, an azure vista full of promise and opportunity. Fatally he stops to think. The view is too much. It calls and repels in equal measure, pregnant with the opportunity of pastures new and yet is far away. His breath hurts and his legs stiffen in fear of further exertion. He thinks again and returns to the safety of the scalded earth.

Away team

StarTrekPhotonTorpedoThe instant a photon torpedo rents the hull of the USS Enterprise, the explosion ejects hapless crew members into the vacuum of space. Red and blue arms spiral over black booted legs into the ether.

It is always a haunting image that mixes death with vast emptiness.

And yet there are worse ways to go. Being hit by a bus or the ravages of a carcinoma seem much nastier.

Imagine the same scene on the Enterprise in super slow motion. In this version nano-seconds become months or even years. Now the torpedo is visible. It takes forever to deliver the inevitable, the fusilage opens without force and the air feels still rather than explodes. It takes a long while for the expression on the faces to change and the reality of consignment to cold emptiness doesn’t seem sink in at all.

You see we  respond to real and present danger with fight, flight or freeze [the last one being a recently discovered ability of our brainstem]. These core instincts trigger when the scene plays in real-time, but slow it down and we just don’t feel the same. Our brain just says ‘get on with it already’ and finds something else to think about.

Now imagine that the developed world is the USS Enterprise. It has been hit by a photon torpedo. Disabled and defenseless, its contents fly into the depths of space. Only this is happening in super slow motion. So slowly that nobody has the attention span to notice. The crew are still blindly going about their business as usual.

We don’t see that there is no leadership, no options or ideas to deal with the situation, and no James T Kirk to save the day. It is all happening so slowly that there is no drama in it and nothing to hold our attention.

It is as though Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Sulu and all the other members of the flight deck, right down to the unknown ensign, have all gone on the away team. The only ones left on the bridge are nameless crewmen who are ultimately anonymous and dispensable making ready for their cartwheeling exit.

We remember Lincoln, Kennedy, Churchill and their ilk because they were leaders. Few will remember modern politicians for they behave like the dispensable extras. Nothing is expected of them.

Our real problem is that we cannot speed up our scene. It is designed to play out slowly, far slower than our instincts can detect. Even the moderating effects of the limbic and frontal cortex of our brains that have helped us to slow things down, to plan and to think can’t see the rent coming. We cannot see the consequences of leadership loss ejecting us into the true emptiness of the universe.

And for this we must be eternally grateful. For if we knew what was coming it would be chaos as we are overtaken by fear. At least without leadership we can stay blissfully ignorant.

Thank goodness Kirk are still on an away team.

Fun with flags

fun with flagsWould Nick Xenophon, the independent senator for South Australia, be in favour of scrapping the market economy? Perhaps he is.

Recently he teamed up with DLP senator for Victoria John Madigan to decry the deplorable situation that the Australian flag flying over commonwealth buildings might not be made in Australia. The senators are to introduce legislation to the Australian parliament that mandates all flags flown above government buildings be wholly produced in Australia.

But what if flags made in China are better quality and cheaper?

In a global economy it is smart to find the best value for money, not just because value makes sense, but because you also want the global economy to find value for money in Australian coal, iron ore, beef cattle, financial expertise and a whole raft of other goods and services. Or not.

Maybe instead we should be parochial and let everyone else buy globally. After all we have no need for a global economy purring along to everyone’s benefit thanks to buying and selling.

But hold on, fans of Big Bang Theory know there is something in the flag issue.

I reckon we should get Dr Sheldon Cooper to stand for election to the Australian parliament. He’s so popular that he’d be a shoe in and then we could get some real fun with flags.

And then I thought…

That the ABC radio news reported this nonsense is amazing; that I wrote a post about it is equally bizarre. That elected leaders don’t have better things to do with their time is a real worry.



Barry O’Farrell resigns as NSW premier

So there we have it.

After 7 years as leader of the opposition waiting for his tilt at the top job, Barry O’Farrell lasted three years as premier. Forced to resign for misleading the Independent Commission Against Corruption because he obviously did receive a $3,000 bottle of wine as a ‘gift’ after all.

This is not what usually happens. In politics there are no lies, there is just being economical with the truth. Politicians usually spout so much waffle and fluff their comments can be cut down to one word without loss of meaning. Consequently a host of dodgy doings and ‘mistakes’ can be erased, buried or simply forgotten.

So why did he resign? Many a politician of every hue has survived much worse.

Clearly it is not about the wine. Or even that he claimed not to have received it. It is about a system that is the epitome of not what but who you know.

We all walk around blinkered thinking that the world is meritorious. We believe that the best athletes play professional sport for our team, the best singers are the ones we download, the best minds are employed to engineer better lifestyles for us, and that the best organisers run our commerce.

We also believe that we elect the best politicians to sit in parliament and make the laws that we live by — yes, believe it or not, politicians are elected to make the laws that we are expected to live by. Not only that, but we believe they do the right thing in selecting the help they need to run things.

Well they don’t.

Barry resigned because he stuffed up. And presumably because he is an honest sort of bloke, felt that the stuff up was irretrievable. Except that by resigning he also took the spotlight off the truth of the matter. The political system is about who and not what you know. People get the job and companies get the tender because they are known. And sometimes to get known you need to send out expensive bottles of wine. It is the way of things. It is not necessarily corrupt but it always comes close.

The premier resigned because he nearly exposed the system for what it is and always has been… dodgy.

Sounds crazy series summary #1

Well in a blink we have reached double figures in the Alloporus ‘Sounds Crazy’ series and, as the headlines suggest, we have covered wild craziness territory.

There is plenty of lunacy out there, especially in the unfathomable worlds of policy, planning and bureaucracy.

The series could run for many more episodes without the need to hire expensive Hollywood writers. This in itself is odd. It’s crazy that we are so crazy.

It got me thinking about why.

I get the human need to be busy and that this overrides any logic of what we are busy at. Add the need to be seen to be busy and we can explain away many a craziness. In the extreme we have the lap dog ‘being seen’ in a $300 Louis Vuitton collar as Monsieur Vuitton laughs all the way to the bank.

I also understand the fear that drives illogical policies that ensure there will be enough people to buy white goods [baby bonus, policy choice] and puts business opportunity above all else [Waiting for the road to dry out, Where to build a house]. The economic growth spiral is as consuming as a black hole and we will struggle to break free of its gravitational pull so long as we keep reproducing at 9,000 an hour.

Reluctantly I understand the fear that drives obsession with human safety [Hidden hazards in the back yard]. Survival is a base instinct after all.

I even accept ostrich behavior [Wild planet] because sometimes we need denial as a handy way to make things go away. We are far more courageous when we pretend there are no sharks in the water.

Then there is the inertia that emerges when we create institutions and the pedantry that they generate [Count your beans].

Only now my tolerance is stretched.

I get the logic of becoming stuck just because there are more than a handful of people involved. This makes sense for force of personality can only hold so much sway. It takes a big ego or considerable oratory skill to sway the crowd.  But this constraint of and by the many should not be an excuse. Some of the craziness of institutions is the craziest of all.

It seems that craziness is in part inevitable [because we all have fear and cannot do without institutions] and in part our choice. We seem to want to be ‘a bit nuts’ — and not just for some light relief — for some part of us may want it.

The latest Alloporus website adventure is Ask Alloporus where environmental issues are explained [including some of the crazy ones]. Most pages on the site conclude with some ‘pragmatology’, our attempt to both invent a new word and provide some pragmatic understanding of the environmental issue.

Yet even this sounds crazy. Why should we expect that some pragmatism can help the craziness go away?

Here are the links to the Sounds Crazy series to date…

  1. Where to build a house
  2. Waiting for the road to dry out
  3. Baby bonus
  4. Logging of native forests
  5. Carbon price forecasts
  6. Policy choice
  7. Hidden hazards in the backyard
  8. Wild Planet: North America
  9. Bandwidth
  10. Pest control means getting on with it

Sounds Crazy #9 | Bandwidth

Back in my academic days we were not allowed to spend any University money on coffee and tea. I would ask politely why I couldn’t create a more convivial workplace by providing free beverages for my postgrad students and research assistants only to be told it was not allowed. Even in the department tearoom there was an honesty box to cover the cost of the milk.

I never understood this and used to think it was just the system being stingy. And being me, I railed, often taking my team out for coffee even though we had a perfectly suitable coffee room next to the labs. The first thing that happened when I converted our research into a company was the purchase of a kettle followed swiftly by a water cooler.

What upset me back then was the assumption that productivity was all about the number of hours at the desk and how expertly one counted beans. It obviously had nothing to do with how happy people were at work.

Research is repetitive stuff. In our case there were many hours of routine sample processing every day. This meant taking regular breaks was essential to our sanity. The irony is that these days we would be instructed by the OH&S officer to stop peering down the microscope and go to yoga class — but I digress.

What got my goat recently was a report on the front page of the weekend paper telling us that the new Australian prime minister has decreed that all travel by politicians and Federal bureaucrats must have permission.

Mr Abbot requires that government ministers sign off on travel requests from civil servants and that he himself must agree to any travel that costs more than $50,000.

Now I don’t know about you, but I always thought that members of parliament and the senior staff that support their efforts were there to develop, debate, design and implement public policy.

Instead Mr Abbot wants them to be travel agents.

I would rather have the finite daily energy allocation to the brains of national leaders and their staff to be used furthering the public good.

I want them thinking about policy and figuring out the endless machinations of delivering it effectively. Not wasting valuable mental bandwidth as travel police.

Next they will be buying their own coffee.

Sounds crazy because it is.

That’s Africa

Okavango Africa.jpgLast Wednesday night I tuned in to the ABC News24 coverage of the memorial service for Nelson Mandela expecting somber reverence or perhaps the kind of party that only Africans can do.

I should have known it would be something else.

The start was delayed by the requirement for every dignitary to make his or her own special entrance aided by typically inept African organizing but, conveniently, heavy rain could take the blame.

And nobody seemed to mind.

Filling in the airtime was anther matter. The ABC wheeled in a former activist who had struggled against the apartheid regime and then escaped [long before Mandela was released] to become an Australian citizen.

Unfortunately he was sadly bitter. His deep hurt and anger had travelled with him and he still had it in spades. His comments ran as though the oppressors were still oppressing and Nelson Mandela had not existed.  This attitude of hatred and recrimination was exactly what Mandela knew he had to diffuse. The miracle was that through courage and compassion he did it for a nation, but sadly not for this exile.

Quickly we abandoned the ABC and its disrespectful commentator and streamed the coverage.

You had to laugh out loud at the antics.

There were the random guys in the foyer as the dignitaries arrived. These are the traditional ‘hangers around’ that are everywhere in Africa, who obviously had nothing to do but hang around. Presumably they had security clearance… presumably.

There was an extraordinary performance by a gospel cum rap singer trying desperately to energise the crowd to God by being energetic himself. As his antics became more and more exuberant another random guy assigned to hold an umbrella over the singer was finding it more and more difficult to complete his assigned task. He was stoic and hugely comical as he did his best.

Then there was the huge amusement of Ban Ki Moon claiming the applause of another African dignitary as the latter ascended the stage to be embarrassingly ignored by the UN Secretary General.

President Obama showed how to calm the restless crowd with an impassioned speech that closed in on the truth of what Mandela gave us. Cleverly he still managed a sly dig at the current crop of African leaders who cannot hold a candle anywhere near the father of the nation. Only he spoilt it later by helping the Danish PM take a selfie — and we thought only Kevin Rudd did that.

And there were the boos for President Jacob Zuma. Not, as I thought at the time, because there was politics even at the memorial service for one of the world’s greatest, but because he had not made the day a public holiday. Fair enough, he deserves a slap for that.

Then we ran out of steam and let the remaining hours of the ceremony go.

The bit we watched was classic Africa, full of cheer, cheek and irreverence layered over famously sloppy organization. It rained and was obviously cold, went on for hours, and still the people danced to celebrate a great life.

I reckon Madiba was watching all the antics as proud as punch with his famous smile lighting up the heavens.