TV dinners


not-a-TV-dinnerI think about far too many things.

My neurons fire at will and so often that thinking too much will be my terminal condition. It would be so nice to switch off all that chatter once and for all, but I fear that particular state of bliss is not mine.

One line of thought that began with a thought about banana pancakes [find the recipe here] led me to an especially odd food related suggestion, namely…

Has the TV dinner been a bigger destroyer of family life than the TV itself?

Along with many others I have always thought that TV watching rates — a little over 3 hours per day for the average Australian — have compromised us all. There is no time to talk over a bottomless cup of tea, to enter impassioned discussion of irrelevancies or to simply sit in each other’s company when in an average lifetime 18 years worth of daylight hours are spent in front of plasma.

The other day we sat with the kids [all now young adults but as parents we still cling on to their youth] and asked questions from Gary Poole’s book “The complete book of questions”. It was amazing how much engagement we all enjoyed as the TV wore a blank hangdog expression in the corner of the room.

It didn’t even matter that after a while the youngest son fell asleep. We all revelled in the discussion that is killed when the TV is on.

All this is well-known. We have had the research to prove that human interaction is an essential that no amount of TV can replace. And anyone brave enough to turn the TV off with more than one person in the room will confirm it to be true. The TV kills our biggest asset — the ability to communicate.

Except my question was really about the TV dinner.

In our house we have cream lounge furniture and were forced to ban eating on the couch. We also turn off the TV when dinner is served. The process of eating together without distractions is too important.

Yes, we eat together. Not only that but we eat the same food.

This is not some trendy new age thing. Everybody used to do it and Italians still do. Sharing food was critical to the bonds that kept us alive for as rather puny mammals we had little chance amidst the cut and thrust of the savanna without trust in each other.

Rather than foster that trust with talk as we share the products of our modern hunting and gathering we have let the TV dinner decide. Kids first, parents later — chips for them and something marginally more wholesome for us.

Produce is now so plentiful that it comes in pre cooked packages that only need the microwave. The dinner requires no preparation and no need for discussion. It can be warmed and consumed right there in front of the box.

The news and current affairs shows make lame substitutes for our own brains as we sit and chew our way to obese oblivion.

So here is my thought…

The TV dinner will bring on the end of the world as we know it.

Not the end of the earth, for no amount of human arrogance and negligence will bring that about, but the end of our current time of plenty.

My logic is this.

We sit and eat in front of banal reality TV where bachelors find love, cooks become chefs and big brother watches random individuals misbehave. This menu eats the time we could use to share experience and understanding, to communicate and think about issues of the day. This lost time of mental plenty will see us starve for solutions when we really need them.

Consequently, the TV dinner will bring on the end of the world as we know it because everyone will die of mental starvation.

The alternative is that we all succumb to smart phone neck.

Either way we are doomed.

Ingenuity rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News travels fast

Sydney Opera HouseSome things in life are awful. Accidents can cut down anyone, even the most gifted. Illness and disability cannot discriminate. But when innocent people die from the violent act of another such as happen recently in Sydney and Paris, words fail us. We are left searching desperately for ways to console those most affected.

When the violence is intended to intimidate we also need to console ourselves. And we do. We support each other in the extreme times.

Ways are found from putting out cricket bats to pavements spontaneously full of flowers with the word spread far and wide through social media.

The good is rapidly mobilised to cancel out the bad.

Today everyone knows about the extreme events as they happen. We are so in touch that we feel close, almost part of the unfolding scene. Before long we are posting and commenting our thoughts and feelings. It is like a fire blanket thrown to suppress the flames.

And it works.

The recent siege in Sydney was a terrorist act but not about organised terrorism. The authorities figured this out quickly and refused to lay blame until they had more evidence. Experts came onto the television news and said the same thing reminding us that it is never smart to make assumptions. And so it was, for the perpetrator was not representing anyone but a disturbed self.

So when irresponsible media sensationalised for their own ends the blanket smothered them. We don’t want to assign any credit by association so those who did looked like chumps. Social media called them on their stupidity and shamed them for trying it on.

Hopefully they will learn. For today new travels fast and in crisis we are connected every which way. We can mobilise collective goodwill in the blink of a tweet and it is a powerful force.

The curious thing for a hyper-connected world is what will make the news. What will call up the soothing powers of the social blanket?

Tragic or shocking events should continue to ignite the response so long as they are local enough and not too frequent, for the blanket is likely to be fickle. The fourth of fifth coffee shop siege might not bring out the ire and goodwill. Would the public response towards ISIL be different if there had not been two major wars in Iraq already? I am not sure.

What I do know is that the issues that should awake the collective connectivity are not going to make the news; the Food & Agriculture Organisation conclusion that 40% of the world’s agricultural soils are degraded for example. Or another FAO prediction that world food production will need to double by 2050 but is currently growing at 1% per year. Do the math. We are 2% per annum shy with a declining resource base.

Forget the Sydney housing bubble. What about the average farm debt that is now over $2 million?

These diffuse and future issues will mean the blanket risks catching fire and disintegrating into ash before it is deployed.

Post comments. It can’t all make sense.









The subtlety of risk

Driving in BotswanaMany years ago I lived in Botswana, a country with new wealth found in two large diamond mines. One benefit to the people of this windfall was a sudden increase in car ownership as anyone in regular employment could get a government backed car loan.

The car dealerships made bucket loads and road accidents skyrocketed. Alongside copious fender bending, the rate of deaths per kilometre driven rapidly became one of the highest in the world.

Although famed for its law-abiding populace, crime increased too. This included the ‘borrowing’ of vehicles for the lucrative markets for stolen cars and spare parts across the border. This meant that drive around for long enough and you would experience a ding with near certainty and pray loudly for nothing more serious.

Given these circumstances car owners who failed to take out insurance would seem negligent at best or more likely just plain dumb.

Except that premiums on comprehensive policies were exorbitant. Sensibly the government had created a third party safety net scheme using a premium charged on fuel purchases — in principle you could claim for someone else dinging you, but not theft or solitary misfortune. This combination brought out the risk appetite in car owners.

Many decided that money in the pocket was better than payment to mitigate something that might not happen and refused any commercial insurance policies. Stay lucky and you’ll be thousands better off.

Others couldn’t sleep at night knowing that if the dog failed to scare off thieves their car would be in Jo’berg by morning leaving them violated and broke. They paid the premium.

There were those that took the risk and rode their luck. And there were those that paid the premiums and were never visited in the night. For those less lucky the net benefits of insurance became apparent. Over time you would expect that more car owners would spend time on the phone with the Mumbai call centre and fork out the premiums.

I paid up of course but also remained lucky. Not even a claimable ding. A close friend chose to wing it and also avoided any car problems. Tragically and without warning he developed a tick on his face and died of a brain tumour within three months. Vale Gunther, I still miss our intellectual roughhousing.

This story is told many times over in one flavour or another. The human condition is a precarious balance of risk and opportunity that sees us trying to suck in peril and security in the same breath.

If we never took a risk the changing world would swallow us. And if we hadn’t forced some stability we wouldn’t have stayed still long enough to build culture and commerce.

So why mention this obvious requirement that we know humans have retained and exploited to the limit?

I have a hunch that we might be squeezing out the risk takers. There is no shortage of personal risk opportunity, especially for the agile. Youngsters can bungie, pill pop or train surf away youthful adrenaline. But the risk that decides on an insurance policy is different. It is subtler because it also holds some responsibility. It is framed in personal risk but there are consequences beyond me. And this more collective risk is what made us successful as a species.

The mastodon could easily trample early hunter, only there was a personal and collective benefit beyond the thrill. The first crops were sown to benefit the farmer and his family, and soon after the village. As the adrenaline fuelled courageous acts, the risk taking had a collective benefit.

I am not sure that we teach this subtlety of risk. And I am sure that we are squeezing it out of everyday life by making risk taking personal.

Post comments. It would be great to hear your ideas.





What to do with grumpies

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you are of a certain age you will be familiar with a lessening of capacities. The muscles ache a little more than they should, the hair is grey or gone and the boobs are sagging. And no, this is not sexist — just have a surreptitious gander at a few middle-aged men next time you’re about town.

For grumpies this is the time of life for reflection, a pondering of why time steals faculties. And for some it is a time of crisis.

Needless to say I plumped for crisis. What else would you expect from a wannabe writer and career risk taker? It is inevitable that once the energy of youth is spent there is little left to fuel the courage needed to absorb uncertainty. Almost overnight we want life to be simple, predictable and safe.

The time for dream chasing is replaced with rounds of golf and coffee after yoga class. But even this is not enough because the ego suddenly realises that it might not be needed if all you are going to do is relax and sip lattes. It rails at its impending redundancy and makes you feel like a failure.

Before you know it, sagging pecs are the least of your worries.

At this time in the world’s history the towns and cities of western economies are replete with people of this certain age. A quirk of demography, nutrition and the wonders of modern medicine have made it so. There are lots of folk pondering and trying to come to terms with their depleted courage.

Some of them are still in boardrooms and in parliament where they stumble onto decisions that reflect their mood and what got them there — the status quo. The time for radical risk and innovation is long passed for there is no courage left for such things. Instead the obvious is to conserve what we have by doing more of the same. After all, it worked didn’t it. At least that is what President Obama just told the State of the Union.

When you add up more of the same what you get is growth. More of everything got us here, so yet more of everything will see us through any crisis, personal or otherwise.

Does this mean we are addicted to growth? No, probably not. It means we are mentally lazy and lack courage. And these are two of the inevitable properties of a certain age. And being of that certain age myself, it freaks me out.

The obvious solution is to replace all the grumpies with newer models — energetic, courageous types with an idea or two and a spring in their step. Only this takes time for the system first makes youngsters jump through enough hoops to use up all their sprightliness. And if we fast tracked them they’d lack all the life experience that is an undeniable benefit of being a certain age.

No, the solution is this. Reenergise at least some of the grumpies with a dose of certainty. Give them permission to spend a decade at the end of their careers revisiting the ideas of their youth. Allow them to discuss way out notions and suggest possibilities without fear of persecution at the polls or on Facebook. Let them feel free to give it a go.

Who knows what will happen. It cannot be any worse that the leadership vacuum we are in.

Stumps makes you dizzy

When I was a student we played a drinking game called stumps. There are variants on it everywhere but ours was a cricketing homage involving two teams of equal number. Ideally it was my mates lined up in single file on the outfield against the opposition we had just bowled out in their chase of our out of sight total. Each team member has a pint of beer in hand.

The first in line downs the pint and inverts the glass over his head to prove the point and then runs to a cricket stump in the ground 22 yards away. Sliding to a stop he places his forehead on the stump and then as fast as is humanly possible circles it 10 times without lifting his head. At the ten count he stands and runs back to tag the next teammate. The first team with all beers downed, stumps circled and last man across the start line wins.

Now there is no real reason for the beer. This game is hilarious when played sober for standing and running are relative concepts in a dizzy state.

Most people have a great deal of trouble staying on their feet let alone making it back to their line of cheering comrades. No amount of brow furrowing or steely gaze makes any difference as they make their acquaintance with the turf.

Nearby bushes simply add to the amusement.

When beer is involved, fast drinking is just an additional skill that can determine the outcome of the race. In tight finishes drinking can be replaced by pouring the beer over your head. More than once this has saved enough time to secure the win.

If drinking games are now just fond memories [thankfully] then suspend your reflex to berate the youth and give the game a try without the beer. It is truly funny to see determination on faces as they come crashing down.

It is also quite a metaphor.

We genuinely believe that we can control anything with our will.  And whilst we accept that luck might send external forces for good or evil our way from time to time, we can always rely on ourselves.

Our trust in control often defines us.

The lunacy of stumps cheerily explodes this myth. It is why it’s so funny.

The athlete, the nerd and the boofhead use their determination to the max visibly forcing out control over their bodies only to fall over.

It is a true leveller.

Postscript on spin

The thing is if you spin around enough times and then try to reach a destination the chances are you will fall over and look very silly.

I think that Petr Cretin suggested that this game would be a ripper to play and Tony Abbott agreed.

Sure enough he looks very silly.


Golf scores

Springwood Golf Club 10th green

How retentive is this?

For the last 5 years each time I come home from playing golf I have recorded my score on a spreadsheet.

If that wasn’t bizarre enough I plot the scores, handicap calculations, number of puts per round and even the consecutive times I can keep the over par score in single digits for 9 holes [133 is the record].

The longer this habit goes on the harder it is to break. Every time I try to ignore my score, I make a mental note of it and later open the spreadsheet to enter the numbers.

Why do I do this? The scores have no bearing on competitions, as I haven’t played in one for a decade. I don’t even have an official handicap. The numbers only make comparisons against myself.

I could put it down to the weirdness of the human condition or perhaps that I am nuts. Both unsatisfying explanations I think. Here is another.

What if it is about satisfying a deep the need to know what has gone before, so as to help predict an uncertain future? If I have a record of what has happened, the more confidence I will have in future events. And the longer the past record the more reliable is my prediction of the future.

This satisfies my left-brain dominance and the logic confirms that I cannot be nuts.

Except that it is not true either. The only reason I write down my golf scores is to make me feel good. It fuels my ego by working as a record of achievement. Even if there is a bad score, better ones can follow. My egoic self revels in the contest… against myself.

This is classic pleasure and a pain. It sets up and fuels an internal conflict and pampers the very thing I want to loose. It is definitely not the path to enlightenment.

Todays score was a 38 on the back 9 with 14 putts.

Gross national happiness and the truth about policy

snakeMy wife is scared stiff of snakes. The passing of a large python along our back deck one evening had her stomping down stairs to the laundry for months. She still carries that wariness with her.

Just as seemingly continuous sweeping around the African rondavel meant you could see the mamba before it could strike you, so a general fear of slithering things has a survival benefit.

Fear of snakes makes perfect evolutionary sense. Those with the ability to avoid such dangers will survive longer than the more blasé. Often this trait can translate across to a fear of nature in general on the logic that snakes, mosquitos, siders, scorpions, wasps… just about anything that bites, stings, or looks like a critter that bites or stings, could be under any rock.

It is a surprise that nature in the form of woodland and forest equates to happiness and could become part of the ‘GDP plus’ approach to measuring national well-being — the elusive gross national happiness index.

The survival instinct that took us away from forests into man-made buildings with fly screens is tempered by an emotional connection to the trees for their nurturing quality. A gentle breeze through the trees as the birds sing and the blossoms waft their scent across our senses has a calming effect — a counterbalance to the fear. Not to mention the sustenance from the deer and berries.

But give 1000 people a choice between either living rough in the forest for 30 days or living in an all expenses paid 5 star resort at the beach for a month and I would put money on 999 of them choosing the beach.

This creates an interesting conundrum for GDP plus.

If people prefer the hotel to the forest but are supposed to be happier in the forest, what should governments do? They could promote economic growth to give more people the money to stay at hotels or focus on retaining the forests that might otherwise have to make way for the hotels and money-making activities.

Put in these terms the choice seems far too simplistic yet it actually goes to the heart of policy making. Policy has to understand values and then decide on trade-offs among them. How much more should economic development be valued over the protection of rainforest is a question of values. Building new hotels is a decision to trade commercial and comfort values against the benefits of the wind in the trees, the filtering of air and water, and the odd forest product.

What the policy makers must remind themselves every day is that the values traded are inseparable. They exist together in each person. The 999 folk who chose to go to the beach also value the forest even if they don’t choose to go there, even for a visit. It is true that our value for nature and its nurture are often buried deep enough in our psyche for us to deny its existence, but it is there.

Policy is not actually about keeping enough stakeholders happy to ensure future election victory. It is about understanding where the real value trade-offs happen, inside each person. Even the ones that are buried or smothered by those from instant gratification.

People are frightened of snakes for good reason and yet deep down they also remember that nature is good to them too. Sometimes they even think of this as they sip cocktails by the pool.

What policy has to do is remind them of this truth.

$42 million

eveI was told that the recent ‘break the internet’ image of Kim Kardashian’s rear netted her a royalty of $42 million. A tidy sum that brings new meaning to a woman’s assets.

Now it is important not to believe everything that you hear or read on the damaged interweb. So I doubt very much that the fee was as bootilicious as the behind.

All we can be sure of is that the butt was not revealed for free and mere mortals will never know the actual amount of moolah exchanged.

When my brain had had enough of curvy bits I began to think up things you could do with $42 million.

Here are a few of them…

  • Pay one years salary for 17 premier league soccer players
  • Cover 10% of the bill for hosting the 2014 G20 summit in Brisbane
  • Buy roughly 6 months supply of coal for a 500 megawatt power station
  • Purchase a skinny latte for every man woman and child in Belgium
  • Fly first class around the world 8,400 times, or once with a lot of mates
  • Get a broker to secure a couple of 50m long luxury yachts
  • Acquire 68,000 ha of agricultural land and grow 300,000 t of wheat each and every year and donate the produce to famine relief charities [that is enough to meet the wheat consumption for 3 million people]
  • Purchase and make available first line anti-retroviral drugs for over 360,000 aids patients — 20% of the aids patients on Zimbabwe

If you had a famous behind, what would you do with $42 million?

Post comments.

Doors closing please stand clear

passenger trainIn life there are opportunities everywhere. It is possible to start a revolution, a company or a friendship almost anywhere at any time. All you need is enough energy and commitment.

It is a marvel of the human condition that the societies we create mostly facilitate this desire for opportunity that is in all of us. We even pen a plethora of self-help literature on the back of this universal potential. Books on positivity that show us the glass as half full to overflowing only sell because they catalyse our innate desire for opportunity.

Fair enough you say.

Such a hippy-dippy worldview may be upbeat but it is only part of the truth. There is the downside too.

The cheats, naysayers and greed infested abound to ruin many an opportunity with their negativity. The world is nothing if not two-sided. It always has enough ying and yang for everyone, even those with a library full of Tolle tomes.

I agree. Opportunity does exist for us all but so too does misfortune. Both are a heartbeat away.

Here is the thought. I suspect that those who cheer their way through life easily coping with misfortune and insatiably seeking opportunity know one crucial thing…

Doors closing please stand clear

In other words everything is transient. The opportunity will not be there forever any more than the misfortune. The doors will close on both so that new doors can be opened.

The human condition is honed to this flux.

We intuitively know that when an opportunity comes along it will only be there for a short time. Our chance at it is likely to be brief. We either act to grab the chance or we watch it pass by and say ‘better luck next time’.

In day-to-day life the loss of an opportunity is rarely life changing. There will be stories of the record producer who passed up the Beatles or a soccer manager who said no to signing Lionel Messi, but these are rare anecdotes. The frequency of opportunity in everyday life means that misses do not matter that much.

Not so with nations. They move more slowly and are less nimble in both recognising and taking opportunities. Leaders of nations must be much more alert to see opportunity on the horizon and position themselves and their constituents to be ready.

Australia for example has done very nicely out of wool and then minerals, especially iron ore and coal. It took these soft and hard commodity opportunities with both hands and has become wealthy as a result. Only to keep the wealth coming it needs to ready to grab the next opportunity. Current leadership seems to be doing the opposite and holding on tight to the past.

It’s a poor choice.