Sunday, 25 November 2018

Black Saturday

On 7 February 2009 a series of bushfires blazed across Victoria killing 180 people and destroying over 2000 homes and a million acres of land.  An extreme heatwave of mid-40c temperatures and dry high winds created the right conditions for a rapid and extensive blaze. While some of the 400 fires were caused by accident - such as lightening or felled power lines - others were caused by arson. A Royal Commission investigated the fires, the response by authorities and the controversial 'stay or go' evacuation policy.

Australian author Chloe Hooper's latest book is The Arsonist (2018), subtitled 'a mind on fire', attempts to discover why someone would deliberately light such a debilitating fire. Hooper follows the detectives, the lawyers and the trial of the accused arsonist.

The Churchill fire in Central Gippsland began in a pine forest with two seperate ignition points 100 metres or so apart. Within days of the fire investigators knew it was arson and quickly honed in on suspects. By 12 February a local man, Brendan Sokaluk, was arrested and charged with arson causing death, intentionally lighting a bushfire and various other offences.

Sokaluk claims he was disposing of a cigarette and accidentally started the blaze - a scenario which is disputed and disproven. Instead, it is claimed that he deliberately lit the blazes and then went home and sat on his roof to watch the inferno which killed eleven people.

Sokaluk is not a cunning criminal mastermind - rather he had a terribly hard life growing up with undiagnosed autism. He was consistently bullied and found it hard to make and maintain friendships. His personality quirks and child-like behaviour caused problems at his maintenance job. His only friend is his beloved pet dog Brockie. Sokaluk's Legal Aid team find it hard to get him to understand what was happening to him and are continually wondering if he knows the magnitude of what he has done.

Hooper is a gifted writer, describing the fire as an incredible, devastating beast.  With the same investigative skills she employed in The Tall Man (2008), Hooper conducts extensive research to understand bushfires, and interviews people impacted by the fire - police, victims, emergency services and more. Reminiscent of Helen Garner's investigative work (like This House of Grief), Hooper is a keen observer and attempts to understand the 'why' of what has transpired by sifting through the ashes. While its writing, pacing and gripping story made The Arsonist and easy read, the subject matter is not easy at all. The stories of the survivors and those who were lost are devastating. Hooper tells these heartbreaking tales with dignity.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

The Brothers Bright

For months I have had the release date of Jane Harper's latest novel, The Lost Man (2018), in my calendar and I actually schedule time in my diary to acquire and read it. My excitement over this new release was based on my admiration for Harper's two previous novels, The Dry (2016) and Force of Nature (2017).  I inhaled her latest page-turner with the same eagerness and delight.

Set in outback Queensland, the three Bright brothers - Nathan, Cameron and Bub - live on isolated, neighbouring properties. Somewhat estranged, Nathan and Bub come together when their brother Cameron is found dead at the landmark Stockman's Grave. What was Cameron doing there, in the middle of the desert, in 40-degree heat, almost ten kilometres away from his vehicle? The car had not broken down, was fully loaded with water and other provisions. With all of his survival skills, why would Cameron venture out on his own?

In trying to determine what happened to Cameron, we are introduced to his wife and daughters, his mother, backpackers and workers on the land. Each one has secrets and as the mystery unravels we learn that there is much more going on here than first appeared. It is a place of hard living in an unforgiving and brutal land.

Much of the story is told through the eldest brother Nathan. Since childhood, he and Cameron never quite got along and their estrangement only grew. Nathan spends most of has days fixing fences and his only interactions are every six weeks or so when his online delivery of provisions arrive. His teenage son Xander has come home from Brisbane for the Christmas holidays and Nathan finds it hard to connect when they have such different lives.

While reading this I often thought about Rick Morton's memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt  about growing up on a large station in outback Queensland. He described a similar childhood of School of the Air, social isolation and a complex, brutal upbringing.  Harper channelled this completely in her novel. She has the ability to lure readers into the environment and make you feel as though you are there among the heat and dust. Her evocative descriptions of the harsh landscape and the weather allow you to immerse yourself in the story. She has also created vivid characters - particularly Nathan, Cameron's daughters, and Xander - and doles out clues to the mystery in such a way that keeps readers guessing.

Harper's previous novels featured Detective Aaron Falk, a character I have grown to love and hope to hear more from. I knew that he would not appear in this book and I was admittedly a bit apprehensive. While I greatly enjoyed The Lost Man, Falk was definitely missed and I long for his return! Will have to wait for the her next novel, which judging by her annual release pattern, is only a year away.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

My WOLWeek 2018

The week of 12-18 November 2018 is International Working Out Loud Week. Held twice annually in June and November, the week is designed to promote the practice of working out loud - sharing work in progress.

John Stepper, author of the book Working Out Loud (2015), describes working out loud (WOL) as follows:
'Working out loud is an approach to work and life. It helps you achieve your goals and feel better about your work while you discover more possibilities.'
I got interested in working out loud while being immersed in the learning and development profession in a previous role. I had the good fortune of coming in contact with brilliant WOL advocates and practitioners like Simon Terry, Helen Blunden, Michelle Ockers, Dr Jane Bozarth and many more. In previous WOLWeeks I tinkered around the edges, working out loud in a very limited, quiet, safe way. This year I took a leap forward, well out of my comfort zone, with a week of sharing my critical reflections on my work in progress within my organisation.

When not reading and blogging about books, I am the CEO of a children's charity. Over the past 18 months I have been gradually working to shift our organisational culture to bring about a renewed focus on learning, collaboration and performance. Even though I am in a position to make changes, I know I cannot bring people on a journey without leading by example, walking the walk.

Since joining the organisation last year, I have been sending out fortnightly email communiques to over one hundred employees in which I share what is happening across our organisation and what I have been working on and learning. Once our Intranet was created in early 2018 (yes, 2018!) I began blogging and starting conversations about our work on Sharepoint. The take up has been slow, as our organisation has been late in adopting technology and is still a bit Sharepoint-shy, but I am starting to make headway. Although I would often post things without any engagement, I persevered and found that people were lurking and listening. They may not comment publicly, but they would tell me privately how much they valued my sharing and what they got out of it. I knew I had crossed over in September when I attend a major industry conference and I tweeted and blogged about what I learned there. I was pleasantly surprised by the feedback from diverse staff who would stop me to discuss my learnings as I travelled through our organisation. People were listening and eager to engage and share.

In the weeks leading up to this WOLWeek I started telling colleagues about it; planting a seed. Then on 12 November I began to blog daily following the 'Seven Days of Working Out Loud' without really knowing what to expect or how far I would go.

On day one I shared my purpose, talking about why I have chosen to spend my career in the non-profit sector, what I am passionate about and why I chose to work at my organisation. The next day I talked about how I built a network, connecting to diverse people despite being an introvert. For day three I wrote about my contributions and those who have contributed to my work with shoutouts to those who have helped me in different ways.  On the fourth day I took an even bigger leap sharing my imperfect work in progress on a Strategic Plan project I am developing, inviting feedback and involvement. For day five I talked about how it is okay to ask others for assistance and how I have overcome my own reluctance to seek help. On day six I talked about gratitude and finding different ways to show appreciation. On the final day I summarised my WOLWeek experiences and invited my colleagues to continue on the journey with me through joining a WOL Circle.

Each post I wrote ended with a handful of reflective questions, an invitation to provide feedback and a genuine offer of any help I could give. A couple of colleagues responded to my posts on Sharepoint and others commented in person - each one contributing ideas and paying it forward. While it wasn't exactly a tsunami of a response, it was enough to make me feel that what I am doing is worthwhile. I am happy with the tiny ripple in our little pond and have confidence that one day a wave will begin to form.

In writing this WOL blog I opened myself up to my whole staff team, sharing my work and how I approach it. I shared stories of my successes and failures, exposed my fears and vulnerabilities, and spoke of my aspirations for myself and my organisation. In doing so I may disappoint some colleagues who think leaders should be infallible and know all the answers - I'm not and I don't - but I am okay with that. I have put myself out there and even surprised myself by how much I was prepared to share. My whole organisation can now hold me to account - which is, admittedly, a bit scary. WOLWeek has reminded of the necessity of critical reflection in my professional life and given me momentum to keep moving forward.  I can't wait to be part of what happens next...

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Matterlightblooming Phenomenon

George Saunders won the Booker Prize in 2017 for his experimental novel Lincoln in the Bardo. 

Set in a graveyard, young Willie Lincoln, son of the sitting President has arrived and is placed in a crypt. Not yet realising that he is dead, Willie meets Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III and other ghostly inhabitants, all of whom believe they are merely sick, lying in their 'sick-boxes' and will one day recover. Each is disfigured by unfulfilled desires, refusing to succumb to the 'matterlightblooming phenomenon' where they move on to the 'other place'.

Lincoln visits his embalmed son in his crypt, holds him tight and weeps for his loss. His grief is all consuming and told in extracts and quotes from numerous books. These commentators judge the Lincolns for holding a party while their son was ill, and question the President's behaviour.

My first attempt at reading the book was unsuccessful. I found it difficult to read because of the many different characters and the way in which the name of the speaker appears after the text. Reading it in fits and starts on my daily commute, I couldn't get into the rhythm of the narrative and identifying who said what. Frustrated, I tossed it aside, but for some strange reason it still called out to me.

I tried something different the second time around. I downloaded the audiobook on Audible and read alongside. Hearing Nick Offerman, David Sedaris and a cast of over a hundred read the story aloud was so much more engaging and allowed me to appreciate Saunders' language and wit.

This is an ambitious novel. Written like a play or a script, I particularly loved how Saunders would  have a dialogue between Bevins and Vollman and then suddenly have them quoting each other. Bawdy characters, wonderfully dark and saucy, mix with the more serious and serene.

More remarkable were the chapters made up of quotes - real and fake - from various sources. Many of these were voices purporting to be of Lincoln's time - notes from socialites and householders, soldiers and congressmen - who were critical of Lincoln and his politics. The audacity of creating fake academic sources, the setting of the bardo, the characters and the writing style all showcase Saunders' genius as a writer and his willingness to creatively experiment with our ideas of a novel.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a divisive novel - with lovers and haters passionately opposed. I can't say I loved this novel, but I am so pleased that I persevered. 

Sunday, 4 November 2018

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2018

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) took place this weekend (3-4 November 2018) for the first time since 2016. The Ethics Centre event, previously associated with the Sydney Opera House, it is now connected with UNSW Centre for Ideas and has moved to a new home on Cockatoo Island.

I have been attending FODI for years and what I love about it is being introduced to new thinkers and new ideas. In the early years I found the FODI program quite provocative with speakers that would get ones blood boiling. More recently however I felt the program has lost a bit of its edge. Indeed this year I found it hard to find enough sessions I wanted to attend. But I decided to spend a day at the Festival and here's what I attended:

In Praise of Economic Inequality
My first session was a panel discussion about economic inequality. Economists Richard Holden and Judith Sloan joined Constitutional lawyer Rosalind Dixon and journalist Nick Cater to discuss wealth and income. This was an interesting topic and the panel covered a number of important issues.

Looking at entrenched disadvantage, the panel talked about what would best assist a child born into poverty. There was heated debate about school funding and class sizes with Holden advocating strongly for smaller class sizes and Cater stating they make no difference (he's wrong by the way). Sloan pointed out that complex problems need interventions on a range for fronts - housing, health, education - as one approach alone is not sufficient. Dixon reminded us that we need to not take Medicare and education for granted as there are a lot of things Australia does right.

When talking about wage disparity, Sloan suggests that neurosurgeons should be paid substantially more because they have longer to study to enter their profession. Fair enough. But how do you justify high salaries elsewhere - in sports, celebrities, CEOs - where that scale may not apply? Why should a Kardashian earn more than a teacher?

There was a brief discussion on universal basic income which would have been a great debate in its own right. This was linked in to a point about Artificial Intelligence and the loss of certain jobs, which may mean a need for a jobs guarantee. Lots to unpack here and more time would have been needed to do this topic justice.

What If We Are Wrong?
Next up I attended the session of American journalist Chuck Klosterman. I had not heard of him before learning he was coming to FODI and I was interested in his idea of what tomorrow will think of today. Klosterman wandered back and forth across the stage with great animation. As I sat in the airless oven of the conference hall,  I kept thinking of how roasting he must be in his suit and tie. 

He spoke about his book What if we're wrong? and the way in which we often see things in the past as laughable now. He said 'the history of ideas is the history of people being wrong.'
Klosterman also spoke about the way we learn. He said that when his parents were kids everyone had to learn by rote, memorising large swathes of poetry and other texts. Now we have machines that do this for us so we have different ways of accessing memory. Rote memorisation is a huge waste of time. No one will ever do long division again, when they can use their phone.

His presentation was interesting albeit waffly, but the Q&A with Marc Fennell was insightful. Klosterman said in the future people will think many of our current ideas are wrong, citing our treatment of cancer with poisons, our eating meat and our playing of gridiron football as barbaric given the high volume of concussions that occur. This gave me a lot of food for thought. I would add our treatment of asylum seekers to this list.

Privacy is Over
The next session I attended was with American Google data scientist and author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and Turkish New York Times columnist and academic Zeynep Tufekci. They were talking about big data and privacy and had very different views.

Stephens-Davidowitz is the author of Everybody Lies. He spoke about how Google can know that someone has pancreatic cancer three months before it is diagnosed based on your search patterns. He says that big data is worth sacrificing privacy because of what can be learned by government, business and more. He said that companies like Google can adjust algorithms to assist in public health - for example, searches related to depression, self-hard and suicide can yield results to hotlines and support networks.

Tufekci is the author of Twitter and Tear Gas. She said that there is power in big data but that regulation is needed. She says users are not fully informed about their data uses. Informed consent won't work because we don't even know the possible uses of our data.

The two got into furious debate about de-identified data as Tufekci argued there is no such thing when someone can get two or three pieces of data and rebuild a profile. She also said that data cannot be secured and that all data should be viewed as 'not yet revealed as hacked'.

They talked about the use of data in political campaigns to target and even disenfranchise people. This is not new, but as Tufekci pointed out now politicians and business can access your data cheaply, easily and at scale.

There was an interesting question from the audience about recent laws diminishing privacy in the name of combatting terrorism and whether big data can stop terrorist attacks. Tufekci says data is better used for public health as there is not enough good data to predict terrorism.

Kill All Normies
My last session at Cockatoo Island was to hear Angela Nagle talk about the online culture wars and her book Kill All Normies.  She spoke about how users of 4Chan and Tumblr - microblogging and imageboard sites - have been used by the alt-right and ultra PC leftists. Originally on the margins, these have now become part of the mainstream discourse and have real political consequences.

Nagle tried to be both critical and empathatic of the subjects in her book but was attacked from both sides. She said the online culture wars are making us all dumber and crueler, limiting debate to shouting from opposing fronts. She things we are on our way to a point where meaningful debate is no longer possible, but that we need to produce institutions that will nurture criticism.

I was a bit disappointed with this session. Nagle is smart and has a lot of interesting things to say. But the delivery was flat and unengaging. I think Nagle would have been great on a panel with Tufekci and Klosterman.

Without buying a single book (shocking, I know), I left the island for the mainland and the session I was most looking forward to.

The Hitch
The gala session at FODI was a sold out Sydney Town Hall event called 'The Hitch'. Dr Simon Longstaff from The Ethics Centre explained that the late Christopher Hitchens delivered the inaugural keynote at FODI in 2009, a rollicking address which exemplified everything FODI stands for.

In reinventing FODI with its new partner UNSW, The Ethics Centre wanted to honour Hitchens with an annual address. They invited Hitch's good friend Stephen Fry to deliver the  address on the lost art of fabulous disagreement.

His forty minute lecture was warm, funny, erudite and on-point. He spoke lovingly of his friend and how he would go into battle for his convictions. In contrast, Fry described himself as a hailstone - firmer than a snowflake but still likely to melt in the heat. Where Hitchens would thrust into a fight, Fry would hide in the undergrowth and wait for the noise to pass.

Fry hypothesised on what Hitchens would make of today's world and how much we need his help to make sense of Trump, Brexit, and other world events. We are living in Lord of the Flies, he said, as no adults are in charge anymore and there is no Gandalf or Dumbledore to save us.

Fry posed some dangerous ideas of his own. First he said we should all refuse to include Trump in the newsfeed. Neutralise him by treating him as a Dr Seuss character the Trumpelow: 'He swells every time his name is mentioned, so shut up and watch him shrink'.

He then suggested we get rid of human testosterone to end aggression. He referred to two camps on the sides of an ever-widening grand canyon, shouting, pitchforks raised, while the rest of us cower in the valley below. He called for a plague on both their houses. He said there is no way to unite against a common enemy, like an alien invasion, because we have proven ourselves incapable of uniting against existing threats like climate change. So best we just disengage and refuse to be drawn into these opposing camps.

His final dangerous idea was simply to be kind. He said 'when people are acting like assholes, it doesn't automatically cancel it out to start acting like an asshole yourself. Be better.'

Fry is a human thesaurus and at times he could go a bit heavy on the adjectives. But I really enjoyed his self-depreciating, thoughtful and wise presentation. The best part of FODI by far.

Final thoughts
One last thing about the new FODI. Cockatoo Island is an incredible space. I love that we have such an interesting, historical spot in the heart of Sydney. However, I don't think that it is best suited to this sort of event. The cavernous industrial rooms have no air movement and no air con, so on a 32c day everyone was in agony with the heat. This, coupled with uncomfortable seating, made me long for the Opera House again. Plus, being on the island limited my attendance, as I would have been persuaded to spread my sessions over the two days. The ferry ride back to Barangaroo was problematic as we spent 15 minutes circling Darling Harbour as we were too early for the berth. A frustrating end to the day.

My posts about past FODI events are available on this blog: