Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Crazies

There are lots of crazies in this world. Fortunately they do not represent the majority. In the past they did. Fifty years from now we may look back and think that today they do. When I look back 50 years now, I am very glad to live in a world that is less violent, less racist, less homophobic, less sexist and more able to have discussion, be friends with, live with and even marry people who are very different from us.

I like the fact that the crazies are allowed to speak. Free Speech is awesome. If someone is free to open their mouth and say, 'Look at me, I am a crazy.' that lets me avoid them. When someone posts a facebook status update that makes my jaw hit the floor, I can be grateful that I have a little insight into a person that allows me to artfully reduce the time in their company.

There is a fascinating story, I think from Freakonomics, which tells the story of how the response to 9/11 increased the circle around an airport where people would rather choose to drive. Driving is far more dangerous than flying. Road accidents are the 8th on the rankings of leading causes of death, not far behind HIV/AIDS. By increasing security the time it takes to fly from A to B increases. This means more people will choose to drive instead. So they choose the more dangerous method to save time. The increased security ironically leads to more deaths.

Like terrorism, sharks and tidal waves, certain stories scare us more. We aren't wired to look at the facts. I think the same is true with free speech and 'crazies'. Trolls on the internet use this approach to hijack conversations and provoke a response. I think the appropriate response when someone says something dodgy is to quietly suck the air out of the room. Secretly, you can be grateful to the troll for letting you know they are a moron. Trolls do not reflect the majority opinion. Increasing the policing of trolls will likely ironically lead to their opinions gaining more value than they deserve.

Megan asked some interesting questions about the consistency of our criticism of some forms of speech in her guest post 'We need to talk about Charlie'. Another issue that often gets brought up in teasing out difficult issues is the creation of 'Safe Spaces'. I find the idea of a safe space appealing in the sense of making even trolls feel comfortable saying what they want to say. That doesn't mean we need to feed them though. I mean comfortable in the sense of a lack of physical attack. They can feel free to say their stuff though. I would say universities and social media are awesome places to be safe spaces in this sense. I think they are terrible places to be safe spaces in terms of providing trigger free retreats for people who are trying to protect themselves as they recover from trauma.

I do think we can create little protected bubbles to protect holy stories. I don't think these places are the places where ideas change or develop though. They are respites. On Bloggingheads TV, Robert Wright and Judith Shulevitz discuss the ideas of safe spaces, free speech, political correctness and whether or not universities are creating a generation of people that are soft by protecting them too much.

Fighting trolls is feeding trolls.

See the talk at Bloggingheads

Monday, March 30, 2015

More Fridays, Less Mondays

We have a confusing relationship with meritocracy. We can't really believe in it too much or we would have to continually be self sacrificial. Can you imagine an honest salesman who said, 'There are several providers of what I am selling to you. You can look at it in terms of cost and value. We are not the best in terms of either of those metrics, but if you combine the two you get really good value for money. Of the top eight choices you have, I think we are the second best. So you shouldn't buy from us.'

The honest and human salesman may say, 'Our team works really hard at doing as good a job as we can. Things are always changing though so sometimes, in fact most times, I would actually buy our competitors stuff if I was completely neutral. The thing is I need to eat. I have bills to pay and have goals I am working towards. So, I can't wait for you to buy my product only when it is the best. I can promise we'll carry on trying to improve. Please buy from me.' Most of us know that is the real case and so we work with companies we like and deal with people we like. We cut people slack and hope for some ourselves.

Rewards in most fields flow, in theory, to those who are best at what they do. Framed like that, that makes sense and is appealing. We want a system where, for example, someone who isn't that good at their job eventually thinks they could do better somewhere else and moves on. In my experience, the vast majority of people aren't looking to be the best at something or find a job they are very good at. They work largely because they have to. They don't want to be the best. They are happy to help and want to be productive, but would actually be very happy if there was a three day weekend and they could work just in the mornings. It is great to love your work, but what if the things you love aren't really that useful to anyone else? You get a job.

So while a system that rewards the best may in fact lead the best to move and hunt for the perfect job, the big chunk of 'most people' may just be looking for business that is in fact personal. Work they are ok with, surrounded by people that are relatively nice to them. More Fridays. Less Mondays.

So we have competing desires. We want things to reflect skill and effort, but not too much, otherwise if we were being honest, most of the time we would be able to point to someone better than us. There are very few people in the world who can say they are definitely the best at what they do. In a purely meritocratic world, those people who ate the whole pie wouldn't have anyone left to play with.

Good thing we also like to share, and are slowly getting better at it.

Sunday, March 29, 2015


I head off from Christchurch tomorrow. I have really enjoyed seeing the energy starting to take root in a city that is rebuilding itself. People are pretty resilient. We bounce back. In the past, a city would have to be built around an industry. The agricultural industry has provided that core for Christchurch. 

You aren't your hand. If you cut it off, you would still be you. Same goes for your any one of your ten toes. They don't define you. Sometimes we define ourselves by our jobs. A city isn't its buildings. If a city is just a bigger version of us, the industry that drives a city is its job. Sometimes a city gets defined by its industry. What if a city could think of creating muses for itself in the same way Tim Ferris suggests we as individual's create muses for ourselves. We don't have to define ourselves by our jobs. If we can figure out ways to become our own patrons all a modern city may need to do to make itself awesome is to create space for creativity.

After wandering the streets and coffee shops in the first couple of days, I kept coming back to 'Black & White Coffee Cartel'. It only opened a month or two ago and was started by two brothers. The one is a builder and the other is a coffee wizard. Admittedly the free wifi was a big pull for my blogging requirements but I also enjoyed the story telling. A lot of effort has been put into every aspect of the space. I enjoyed getting a Syphon for the first time. It is coffee, but the preparation is a show. It is like a science experiment with the heated water rising into the top bulb, where it mixes with the coffee. When the heat is taken off, the coffee returns to the bottom bulb through the filter once it cools below a certain temperature.

A lot of professionals end up describing themselves as glorified administrators. The better we understand jobs, the more we are able to automate them. Creativity is required in solving a problem, but in reality many problems are repeated and then the creativity required slowly ebbs away. We also require a job to eat. Sometimes we end up having to create noise to justify why we need to work. The noise fakes creativity. We end up working for works sake. In truth, we know the stuff we are doing that matters is repetitive. We are not machines and so it is the non-repetitive stuff that keeps us interested.

I think it is the guys at Black & White and alike that are an indication of where the future lies. We won't be defined by work. Cities won't be defined by industries. Once machines do a lot of the hard work, we get to become storytellers. We don't just drink a cup of coffee. We want to know where the beans come from. We want the waitress serving the coffee to be excited about saving up tips to visit that farm on a continent far away. We want to pause to savour the coffee and train our tongues to distinguish the different characteristics. We also want to do this with wine, cheese, art, music, dance and all the great things that make it awesome to be alive.

The future lies in storytelling. Christchurch will be a big part of that future.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Walk As One

The only thing that is immortal is this moment. We try create statues and build lives that will last, but with the brutal view of a world that moves forward, attempting to freeze anything will leave it inadequate. What you do matters. Who you do it with matters. Doing it together matters. Nelson Mandela is without question the South African who the world is most proud of. This is not reflected in the growing number of streets, statues, buildings, scholarships, bays and cities named after him. It is reflected in his lesson that we should walk. However long that walk is. We should walk. Forward and together.

A friend, Brett Fish, asked for guest blog posts on South Africans who give us hope. I wrote about John McInroy. A few years ago he started the Unogwaja challenge. This involves a cycle from Cape Town to the start of the Comrades marathon (c.170km/day) over 10 days... and then joining thousands of other people from around the world in running the 89km between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. A marathon that symbolises better than any statue the strength of character possessed by people from Africa. And we are all from Africa. Earlier in the year after a few conversations with the man, I agreed to aim to join in next year.

Unogwaja is not at all a case of a few mad people getting together to do something extreme because they have time. It is not a cycle and a plod. It is a way to get a conversation started. A conversation followed by action. The idea that we are separate people with separate stories is a flawed way of looking at the world. The idea of Unogwaja is to raise money to release the potential of those that desperately want to help themselves but are stuck.

A challenge that arises from cycling from Cape Town to Durban is that you need a bike. In many ways that can symbolise privileges to which not everyone has access. It means that you end up riding past people. You can inspire them, but it is tough for them to keep up. John has been both encouraged and haunted by a boy who ran next to his bike shouting 'Unogwaja!' as he rode past. Encouraged because of the shared story, but haunted because he couldn't get to learn more of the boy and walk with him. He was going too fast.

So this year, John in going to get off his bike, and walk. He is going to walk/run from Cape Town to the start of the Comrades. Along the way, he hopes to meet that boy again. This time they will be able to walk together. John would like you to walk with them for part of the journey too if you are able. I am still going to aim to join John in 2016, and like him I am going to put aside my bike and let our statue be our walk.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Releasing Potential

We like, and think in, stories. When things get complicated, it is useful to understand them in terms of things we already know. These models and stories are useful because they give us the courage to act when we are most likely wrong. Money is one of those interesting stories and is actually quite an abstract idea. The reason 'money' can be made up of 1s and 0s or gold is that it isn't actually a thing. Money is an attempt to get things moving. It is a way of trying to co-ordinate activity. It is a measure of potential.

We are getting better at co-ordination problems. Information flows freely. All this should enable us to get better forms of money which basically means better forms of releasing potential. Knowing I was going to be in Christchurch, an artist buddy of mine from Wimbledon Art Studios suggested I meet her sister in law, Ceci, who has a home and studio in Christchurch. She is very much into the 'Sharing Economy' that I have been thinking about recently. She opens her studio up to the community regularly providing a creative space for people. She mentioned how lots of adults get time warped back to their childhood when they come in touch with clay.

Ceci's Christchurch flowers growing from the rubble of the Quake

She also talk about the idea of time banking. The idea of selling time sends shivers down my spine. I have always avoided jobs with billable hours like the plague. I would rather be able to have a cup of tea without worrying whether it will reduce my income by a 6 minute time slot of moola. Time banking is a different concept though. It relates more to the areas that don't get priced well by the market (child care, respite care, language lessons, tutoring, odd jobs etc.).

I am a fan of the disruption being caused by companies like ZipCar and Uber. They aren't really 'sharing companies' though. They are just better at co-ordination of unused stuff. The reason efforts like Time Banking have struggled in the past is that they tend to require someone to do the coordination effort. It requires dedicated staff and this starts creating real costs. This is similar to other charity work where a much of a donation may get chowed by admin. Technology is coming to the party with charities like GiveDirectly allowing you to transfer cash straight to the extremely poor without any fingers in the pie.

Normally altruism works better in small, closed communities. Ceci pointed to the great community work being done in Sumner and Lyttelton. Both are fairly cut off as a beach and port town respectively. I think this is just a case of us growing up and of removing anonymity. We used to only care about people that looked like us. Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Washington, Shaka and Rhodes were not nice men if you didn't look right. It wasn't just our leaders. We weren't nice either. But we are nicer now and we know that where we born and what we look like is a lottery. Technology can help build trust networks.

Old school money is good at releasing old school potential. That is a fraction of the good stuff. We can do better. I think technology is going to help us really get the party started.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Better Banter

I am a big fan of Theatre Sports. 'Whose line is it anyway' is the popular TV version of this entertaining way of being silly, enjoying company and actually learning pretty good life skills. I wrote about how theatre sports ideas had helped me in business meetings in 'Gaps and Elevators'. Banter is another example of real life theatre sports.

Kiwis are really good at banter. Before coming for a visit here, I was already a fan of 'The Flight of the Conchords' and 'The Alternative Rugby Commentary' (ARC) - both thick with all blackness. The idea behind the ARC is that in a country that loves rugby so much, commentators don't need to explain every detail and act as pseudo school teachers. Instead a knowledgeable public are wanting to be entertained. Bro, you should YouTube a few examples for clips that are funny as.

The Jedi from the Alternative Rugby Commentary

I have been enjoying 'The Crowd Goes Wild' sports news. The presenters mock each other in that endearing 'but I love you, kind of, anyway' way. A buddy of mine is a banter king. You can throw anything at Papa Spanner and he rolls with it like a Theatre Sports pro. The worst thing you can do when someone sends abuse your way is empower them by taking offence. The movie 'Pride' is an entertaining look at the support given to the Miner's strikes in the UK by the LGBT community. In it they talk about owning any abuse. They get called Perves and own the word, in turn removing the sting. Call Papa a Perve and you will likely get a cuddle rather than a punch. Although you should probably not leave your sandwiches unguarded around him for a while after that.

The value of banter can also be seen in the series of ads and parody 'counter ads' being put out by Dove and, well.... people who enjoy a laugh. The real ads are moving, but I must admit to finding them perhaps a little condescending. I am not saying that societies perceptions & expectations aren't warping people's views, but there are heaps of very powerful, confident, independent women. I find it interesting that (generalising) guys who see other guys who are looking a little chubby are likely to ask them why they ate all the pies and suggest they hit the gym rather than giving (perhaps false) compliments.

Perhaps the ads work well in combination. Banter only really works when it comes from a friendly place with a twinkle in the eye. Otherwise it is just bitchiness. But if you develop your super powers like Papas and Proud Perves, you can turn bitchiness into banter and get on with what matters to you. You are, indeed, more beautiful than you think. Unless you are a guy. Unless you are Papa.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Inhale The Beauty (by Anna Bell)

Guest Post: Anna Bell

There is a balance between the joy of finding new places and the familiarity of returning regularly to places you love. Like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. Although I spent my first day in Christchurch wondering and visiting coffee shops, I have come back to Black & White almost every day. It is an awesome third place with friendly staff. When I used to work in Wimbledon, I visited Cafe Nero most mornings and was greeted by the friendly smile of Anna Bell. She is a Global Citizen from Poland, but living in London, and a great example of the brave people who head off from their home to make a life for themselves. She offered to share some of her story here.

Inhale the Beauty
by Anna Bell

What would the world mean to you without considering your happiness? Let me tell you that it wouldn't matter much to me... grown up in a little village, far from the city and all the amusements it has got on offer for youngsters. How did I spend my time over there? Being creative :) Every morning, something was giving me a new energy to breathe and smile, and ideas to try on days off school. It will be too many to mention but it was so fun being there and doing it!

Authority: Mum, the wisest and happiest woman of my life! Trust me, even ill and not able to move at the end of her days, she was still smiling and never down because of her disability. And believe me or not, she passed away having a smile on her face! The only last words she said to me: "Remember" Whatever you do, be happy with that!" 

It took me a few years to finally realise and understand her words. Yes, she was totally right! I've started looking at life as a journey of happiness. Day after day giving me more and more shine on my face and love to life. How incredible it was to turn all grief to happiness. Waking up every day admiring beautiful life, health and well being and all that I've experienced. Moving away abroad, finding new places and interesting people, working and learning, new days, new ideas, new challenges... learning a new language, finding a job, making new friends, marriage, divorce, relationships... All of a sudden came together as extremely important and valued life experiences. No limits there yet. Still more to come. Did I regret anything? Not at all. Every moment, every hour, every day, every year has given me more and more fantastic opportunities to explore my inner peace and happiness.

Ability to BREATHE! Oh yeah! BREATHE! Inhale all the beauty of nature and life! Such a feeling when you know you're happy and proud of your life.


Life is too short not to make the best of it! Love yourself and give some love to others too :)

In writing a blog about several topics in which I admit to being a complete beginner, I am going to have to rely heavily on the people I am writing for who cumulatively know most of what I am likely to learn already. I would love it if some of you found the time to write a guest post on the subject of happiness or learning. The framework I use for thinking about these things is what I call the '5 + 2 points' which includes proper (1) exercise, (2) breathing, (3) diet, (4) relaxation, (5) positive thinking & meditation, (+1) relationships, (+2) flow. Naturally if you would like to write about something that you think I have missed, I would love to include that too. If you are up to doing something more practical, it would be awesome if you did a 100 hour project and I am happy to do the writing based on our chats if that is how you roll. Email me at trevorjohnblack@gmail.com 

A Frikkin Bone

Cricket is brutal. My friend Rob and I who enjoy leaning deeply into supporting our teams recently started asking each other whether it was worth it. I don't think you can enjoy the victories as much if you prepare yourself enough for the loss. It is just sport right? But there is something great about putting all rationality aside and becoming part of the drama

Every four years these cricket world cup things come along and break you a little bit. In 1992, I was watching on free TV - with a 2 hour delay from the Trevor across the road who had MNET, the first pay channel in South Africa. It was our first world cup and sport was supposed to be a way of bringing a new nation together. Clearly losing together in the harshest possible way is supposed to be part of that lesson. We needed 22 runs off the last 13 balls when rain came. The two hour gap from across the road, that had had people hiding what they knew behind poker faces, became very confusing as everyone started trying to figure out what was going on. First it got reduced to 22 off 7 required. Then 22 off 1 ball. That was my introduction to what would happen every four years for the next quarter century and counting.

Big Mac Bleak Mac

In 1996 we had an awesome team capable of beating the rain. But not Brian Lara. That was a lesson in how no matter how good you are, one chap with a bat can smash your dreams. I refuse to speak about 1999, but if you want to know what happened, just listen outside the room of any grown South African man who is shouting out in his sleep at night in tormented anguish. 

2003 was another dance in the rain and a lesson in knowing the difference between a total and a target. You need one more than the total to win. You can't block. In 2007, we bottled up all the angst of all the previous tournaments and went on red-eyed, steam-through-the-nose attack. It didn't work and we lost 5 wickets in the first 10 overs against the Aussies. I love Aussies. Very much.

But this year? Cool, calm and collected Amla. Wily Tahir. Fiery Steyn. And Captain 'I can see the matrix' De Villiers. We could do this thing.

Not to be. I have always been a Kiwi fan. In my eyes, the land of the long white cloud is the spiritual home of rugby and the All Blacks have to be the greatest sporting team of any code. But cricket guys? Can't you give us that? 2011 not enough? If I had to pick a side in this tournament to take our hearts out and squish them on the ground, it would be the Black Caps. I like the way they have played this tournament and I think they have a great side.

But geez man, throw us a frikkin bone.