“Sod this for a game of soldiers”

“Sod this for a game of soldiers”

Humans are exceptional. We have large brains, opposing thumbs and binocular vision. We can speak loudly and in many tongues. We have extended our family units into tribes, societies, and global systems of trade and commerce. We went to the moon and invented popcorn.

And all this happened in the blink of an evolutionary eye.

Then, by some quirk of fate, many of us developed an equally exceptional trait. We discovered cognitive dissonance.

We learnt to bend our brains to mentally justify shortcomings when faced with a problem, therefore separating oneself from the problem.

Take a moment to think just how useful this is.

You can know virtually nothing about a topic but can still claim expertise in it. This might be mouthing off in the pub with your mates on what Tiger has to do to win another major to berating the leader of the opposition in the highest chamber in the land.

It can allow mediocrity to have more influence than is ever justified.

You can ignore the fact that $3, the price of the coffee you just bought at Uptown Baristas, is an amount that over a billion souls must make stretch to cover all their daily needs.

Once everyone is separated from a problem it can be duly forgotten. The truth is easily lost in the cloud of dissonance. After a time the cloud clears, as most do. There, basking in the sun’s rays is the problem, smiling sweetly.

We have done this with almost all the really serious issues of our and future times: water resources, food security, wealth inequality, super bugs, pandemics, and a host of environmental issues.

It could be that it’s just all too hard for our thinking brains — the thinking fast and slow argument. Certainly, dissonance is a lazy solution to problem solving. Except that problems are not resolved they are just ignored.

Whilst this is at least partly true. We are lazy and lack courage to resolve truly difficult issues we can be brave. In the moment the extraordinary is possible. Actions in wartime trenches to random acts of kindness prove we are capable and exceptional.

So here is a suggestion. Let’s say ‘sod this for a game of soldiers’ and banish cognitive dissonance from our lives.

All we have to do is become aware when we hear ourselves or our mates or our leaders lurch into a justification.

Then make a mental note that says, “A justification is like most things on the internet, best ignored”.

Then we’d get to see what happens next.

 

 

 

Five percent

Five percent

What is 5%?

Well apart from being a proportion, here are a few things.

  • 5% is one in twenty
  • 5% is an arbitrary threshold value considered significant in statistical analyses
  • 5% is half the current rate of GST in Australia
  • 5% is a pay rise almost worth having
  • 5% is less than the percentage increase in US military spend under the Trump administration

5% is quite the conundrum. It is not very big and yet it can be big enough to be noticed. You would not want food prices to increase by 5% but they have, roughly every two years or so in most mature economies.

You’d like a 5% pay rise over no pay rise at all but in the US rust belt, many workers have waited over a decade to get it, only for it not to really matter that much.

It seems that 5% is an awkward, niggly kind of proportion. Always a bit on the cusp of significance — one in twenty is surely just chance. Give me one in a hundred and I’m listening.

The other day a friend of mine, also a fellow science nerd, told me that 5% of the hip pocket dollar is spent on the environment.

One in twenty of the dollars in the average wallet ends up as an environmental expenditure.

Now this bald statement that could take a bit of unpacking. What’s in the hip pocket? What is the environment in this context? Would the 5% spend include food or the council waste levy or just donations to the WWF?

In most of the developed world food counts for around 8% of household spend. There is an environmental levy in my own local council but I pay that in my rates, part of my tax spend. And my hip pocket has a whole heap of unavoidable bills from utilities to the mortgage.

We could be here all day figuring it out, so let’s just say that, on average, people spend 5% of their after-tax dollar on something environmental.

That’s $5 for every $100 that arrives in their bank account, at their discretion.

So is this enough? Is it significant?

People die if they don’t eat and have access to clean water. They need somewhere safe to stay and the opportunity to build a meaningful life with some fun in it. These primary needs would use up most of the $100, most of the time.

Add in the inevitable unexpected cost when the boiler bursts, the roof leaks or a family member needs hospital care and there may rarely be 5% left over.

$5 is significant if the cost of living has already allocated the contents of your hip pocket to the necessities of life.

This is where the thought usually stops.

The cost of living is unavoidable. If it eats up all you can earn, then the environment is not even a thought.

Only think a little longer. The environment is where the food, clean water, timber for the house, sand for the mortar, clean air, space for fun, among many other key necessities comes from.

Ignore the environment and it is used up, polluted and dysfunctional for these key goods and services.

Fail to pay anything for these things and they stop.

We should be very scared that we spend only 5% for there is no point in investing in ourselves if the foundation for many of the vital things we need is eroding away beneath us.

Another take on the quiet carriage

Another take on the quiet carriage

The quiet carriage is a relatively new and popular phenomenon on the commuter trains of Sydney. Half the carriages are designated as places where noise is supposed to be muffled on pain of public outrage and abuse.

Today I travelled on a noisy carriage. It did not have the quiet designation so the hubbub, chitchat and eardrum bending headphones were free to decibel away without fear of retribution.

No matter. The carriage choice was mine. I could have taken a few extra steps to enter a quiet one.

The thing is that hearing is but one of the senses.

All was well for nearly an hour. There are few travellers in mid-afternoon and my tip tapping was only occasionally distracted by a cough or a ringtone.

The train stopped at Parramatta. Several passengers entered the carriage and a young woman sat across the aisle from me. In her hand was a Styrofoam box.

At first, nothing happened. She made a call and spoke briefly in modest tones that she might even have got away with in the quiet carriage. Then she settled forward, put her phone away and stared at the box.

She opened it.

There is a brief moment when a cat is let out of a bag. You can see the cat, it is going to leap away to freedom and nothing will be fast or agile enough to stop it. Only for a moment, it is just there, a cat frozen in time on the edge of an open bag.

This cat was a burger and chips.

It stared then slithered out of the box without a sound. Once into the air, it permeated with a predators intent eyeing unwary nostrils.

Reaching mine it pounced.

Acridity of vegetable oil heated and reheated more often than is natural, but pungent as though the oil was still warm from the vat.

It was intense.

The assailant was as devastating as a lorry in a library. Any tranquillity from regular smells slapped away into next week.

It was a rare stink.

Now I suspect that the success of the quiet carriage is unlikely to transfer to smell free carriages. After all, who can decide if the smell of burger and chips at three in the afternoon or an over application of Delta by Delta at seven in the morning should be restricted to the smelly carriage? And indeed who would enter a carriage not designated as smell less?

There would be a rush on the odourless zones.

So there we have it. The ears have protection but I fear that the nose will be hit hard by whatever is let out of the box.

As for the eyes, best we not go there.

One million people

One million people

Consider a city of roughly 1 million people, Adelaide, Australia for example — Calgary, Canada; Bonn, Germany; Tuscon Arizona; or Bristol in the UK would do equally well.

Adelaide has two Australian Football League teams, a pro soccer team, two professional basketball teams, three Universities, a cathedral, numerous hospitals, many shopping malls, around 440 schools, an International airport, and a zoo.

There are over 400 suburbs arranged around a CBD that has high-rise office blocks that provide a common destination for a metropolitan public transport system that includes a fleet of over 1,000 buses.

There are doctors, dentists, lawyers, Artisans and actors; and enough skilled tradesmen to build or engineer almost anything.

In short, Adelaide is a self-contained community surrounded by enough farmland to feed everyone.

If it were possible to gather all the people who live in Adelaide into one, standing room only location it would be quite a spectacle. It is hard to imagine what it would look like.

There would people as far as the eye could see. Lay them down head to toe and the line would stretch 1,800 km — 400 km further than a road trip from Adelaide to Sydney.

Stand them in single file and the line would be 30 km long, similar to the queue at the post office.

Now having conjured the image of so many people in your mind’s eye put them all onto commercial aircraft.

Because 1 million is roughly the number of human beings who are, at any one time, airborne in commercial airliners making vapor trails around the globe.

This is both staggering and scary at the same time.

It is enough just to illustrate the scale of the challenge to provide life support to all the people we have made and still retain some environmental integrity.


First posted on LinkedIn

Post-truth wins word of the year

Post-truth wins word of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only there is post-truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joel

Joel

 

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

It is impossible to know how they feel about Joel.

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

This is not a normal life.

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

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

Who speaks for Joel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a truly wicked conundrum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And we’re back

And we’re back

As you know Alloporus has been down for a few months, mentally and electronically. Now, suitably rested, ‘ideas for healthy thinking’ is back.

I’m not sure what will come up in this reboot because during the break some competition for the ideas bandwidth has emerged.

Over at afterbefore we have an updated site that includes a new blog with thoughts on the future of agriculture. Feel free to add comments on our 10 big things we need for global food security.

Alloporus environmental is also getting a new site that will feature posts on natural resources and evidence. More on that one soon

Explanations of how to use evidence have continued on LinkedIn with a series of posts for the professional audience.

I’m guessing that this blog will become more commentary than content and maybe a little clogged with cross-postings.

If you get bored, there is always the archive or a binge watch on Netflix.

May the thoughts be with you

M