Quirky experiments: be curious

In 2018, on my request, my grandfather wrote a letter to my wife to celebrate a milestone birthday.

It was a one-page handwritten letter filled with a goldmine-like numbered list of observations about life that he had gleaned along the way. In his typical understated way, he said “it is not a worked-out system but rather some random things that I approve”. After I read the letter, I thought much of it in the coming weeks and days.

One in particular thing still stands out to me: “give way to quirky experiments”.

The one and the same avocado!

I thought more about it and realised that Grandad is one of the most intellectually curious people I have known. He has always had some sort of experiment on the go – whether it was building something, planting or growing something, or simply reading about a new area.

Notably, I turned up at their house one day (well into his retirement) to discover a giant telescope sitting in his study. It turned out that he had picked up a book about stars, taken an interest in astronomy, and started stargazing from suburban Brisbane.

I’ve tried – to varying degrees of success – to adopt this advice.

Around the time of his letter to my wife, I grew an avocado tree from seed (pictured above). I tried painting (this was not a success). I’ve enjoyed baking bread. I grew a sourdough starter. I brewed beer with a friend. I’ve tried to grow various seeds or try new food combinations.

Many of these experiments failed; most barely lasted a week. But I can recall many of these quirky experiments – especially the ones shared with friends – because they added welcome trivia my life in a way that the ‘ eat / work / eat / sleep / repeat’ cycle cannot.

If all you are is the sum total of your work (and, dare I say, religious) life, then you are probably – frankly – a bit boring. If nothing else, your quirky experiments make for good pub conversation-fodder… “Did I tell you guys I’m growing an avocado tree?”

 

What makes something “interesting”?

Fair warning: this post is sheer pontificating.

A couple of years ago I was having dinner with a psychologist friend. We were talking about what we wanted to do in the future and suddenly she stopped and said to me “when you talk about the things that you want to do, you use one word a lot – ‘interesting'”.

I have thought often about that conversation since then. I have particularly thought about what it means for something to be “interesting”.

I still don’t know the answer. It can’t be merely that an “interesting” thing is new. Something can be new and thoroughly boring (backyard soil composition analysis, for example).

Perhaps our brains are so increasingly wired to be frenetic and distracted that “interesting” just means “new and sexy and shiny”, in the sense that we think “right, I understand that now, let’s move on”.

But I can’t help but think that it is deeper than that.

I think that perhaps “interesting”, for me, refers to something that is stimulating and also consequential.

It must involve both an engagement of the brain and result in some form of output.

The engagement without the output would be a hollow exercise. Without the output, the engagement is entertainment, not true interest

(or “meaningless!” As the author of Ecclesiastes darkly put it)

So – perhaps the word I should really be using rather than “interesting” is “meaningful”.

(Everything must be meaningful? My Gen Y tendencies are leaking through here)

In a work context, something is “interesting” if it combines problem solving (engagement) with a resolution (output). At home, it might be conversation (engagement) that and moves life or relationship forward (output).

In down time, it might even be a video game stimulating the brain (engagement), giving one a different sense of self (output). Interesting study on this here.

…another distinct possibility is that I am overthinking this, and an interesting life is just one consisting of stimulating conversation over good wine with smart people (preferably without insufferable lawyers trying to define everything).

In praise of non-partisanship

Political scientist and professional LinkedIn provocateur Ian Bremmer recently quipped:

I’m nowhere near confident enough about the universality of my political preferences to announce that I’m a liberal or a conservative. I wish more people felt that way. ‪Not because it’s “right.” ‪But because I think we’d be happier.

Mr Bremmer is, of course, right; we would be happier. But the quip belies a deeper truth: partisanship is killing the development of good policy.

Democracy is, to some extent, built on a marketplace of ideas. Ideas are formed, the principles are debated, the details are massaged, the framework is drafted into bills, and the laws pass through the legislature.

Partisanship stifles innovative policy thought; our ability to develop and pass creative solutions to complex problems becomes limited by whether it is associated with a particular agenda or party. Identity politics often play a key role.

Hyper-partisanship and petty point-scoring is a particular feature of the American system, but it is increasingly being felt elsewhere, from Britain to Brazil (though Brexit has been the exception which proves the rule, with ‘remain’ centrists from the Conservatives decidedly uneasy with the change agenda, and ‘leave’ socialists from Labour all-too-eager to be done with the European experiment).

So what is the remedy? Realistically, an element of partisanship is always going to be a feature of parliamentary or representative democracy. But incrementally shifting from purely partisan thinking in policy development should allow the space for better policy.

Think independently: Each of us can take a step back and consider ‘do I really think this, or do I think it because I think this is how I am supposed to think?’ (Sorry. Read that twice). Realistically, very few of us have views that are perfectly aligned to the party who we may be voting for. So why not say so? Slavishly following party lines is what has got us into this mess. If you vote for ‘Party X’ but think that their ‘Policy Y’ is bollocks, say so! Why fight about it with your mate from ‘Party Z’ just because you feel it is your duty? It is not ‘right’ simply because you happened to vote for them (or worse: read their affiliated newspaper. I’m looking at you, Daily Mail).

Policy institutes: Strong independent policy institutes and think-tanks can help. That said, the role of dark money funding these institutes in accordance with political and economic agendas are always a watch-out. A wider role for law reform commissions could be an important feature of a de-partisan landscape.

Grand Coalitions? Minority or coalition governments from both Australia and Britain have shown that sensible and practical policy decisions can be made and passed by minority or coalition governments (e.g. Australia’s NDIS was formed in minority government and with cross-party consent). The rise of third (or minor) party forces in parliaments may result in better decision-making; certainly breaking a party duopoly (even a little) should help.

Citizen initiated referenda? Sometimes an uneasy fit with representative democracy, and not always the most considered path to good policy-making, but citizen-initiated referenda can be a way to break through the partisan deadlock or stale dialogue.

Select and elect more independently-minded parliamentarians: This may be pie-in-the-sky stuff, but the shift from hyper-partisanism to considered policy-making requires individuals whose commitment to good policy is higher than their loyalty to their party. This one is probably too idealistic for the short term – but a guy can always hope!

What I’m Reading: At Home by Bill Bryson

I could read Bill Bryson all day. Who couldn’t? It’s like having a good chat at the pub with a life-long mate, who happens to be strangely well-informed and articulate.

91w+3DAuHpLBryson’s writing tends to meander off into strange specificities and peculiarities; an engaging collection of facts told in a jovial way. At Home is no different: it is through-and-through Bryson.

Loosely set as Bryson walks through his home, a former parsonage in the English countryside, each chapter deals with a different room and how that room has shaped by – and been shaped – the private life of humans.

“Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”

As is inevitable for Bryson, a large part ofthe tale is not just of the home and of humans, but of America and England. Development in the home is often (rightly) framed within greater geopolitical shifts (and vice-versa, in the case of the nineteenth learned clergy he spends time extolling at the beginning).

Each room gives us a glimpse of how we got there, and how we changed along the day – including in our diets.

“One consequential change is that people used to get most of their calories at breakfast and midday, with only the evening top-up at suppertime. Now those intakes are almost exactly reversed. Most of us consume the bulk–a sadly appropriate word here–of our calories in the evening and take them to bed with us, a practice that doesn’t do any good at all.” 

At Home has a lot going for it, but it did take me a while to read. The narrative structure works well as a way of bringing the facts together, but it did mean that it lacked a collective theme (except in the very broadest sense). At times, you have the sense that you were being led taken on a very long walk for no reason other than the very long walk.

However, each chapter stands on its own. It can easily be set aside and enjoyed in bite-sized chunks.

Approached with that in mind, it may well have been a more enjoyable read – just take your time and stroll through the house slowly.

What I’m Reading: Fayke Newes by Derek J Taylor

For anybody with even a passing interest in democratic institutions, it was jarring to hear the American president describe the free press as the ‘enemy of the people’.

‘Surely’, I thought, ‘surely we have now shifted the Overton window to a new extreme!’

It turns out that I was dreadfully wrong. The ‘Media’ and ‘the Mighty’ have fought for centuries with mud-slinging, lies and aggression (and counter-aggression).

Fayke Newes cover

With a delightfully irreverent cover, a title of faux-medieval origin and the (current) American president in Henry VIII’s garb, Derek J Taylor’s latest book immediately invites us to place modern ramblings about ‘fake news’ into their rightful historical context.

Taylor begins the tale with the Western world’s favourite serial husband (Henry, not Donald). And with his decidedly Trumpian cry of ‘false fables and tales’ against an opponent, Henry VIII is an excellent place to begin.

Charting his way through Tudors, wars and revolutions (of both the bloody and industrial persuasion), Taylor’s mapping of the relationship between those who make the stories and those who tell them (or both, simultaneously) is an engaging read. Their co-existence appears to be a form of uneasy symbiosis; the mighty providing the fire, and the media, the oxygen (or does that make it antibiotic?).

A particularly engaging part of the book involves the suffragettes. Emmeline Pankhurst and her WSPU did not gain real traction – despite serious action – until the media picked up the story (one way or another). The sheer starvation of information or recognition meant that there was no real engagement… until a turning point. And with the media attention came real reaction from the mighty – to the press and to the suffragettes. And so the cycle continues.

A lengthy historical tome this is not. A salutary lesson: more likely.

Fayke News is published by the History Press. Additional details and vendors available here.

One of my favourite places in London is a graveyard

The opening line is unashamed clickbait, but it’s true – Bunhill Fields is a gem of London’s history.

It is part-burial site, part-park and part-monument. It is like a microcosm of the things we antipodeans-cum-Brits find charming about the UK; a messy mix of history, faith and flora.

The City of London estimate that it is home to some 120,000 human remains. Its role as a formal burial site dates back over 350 years, but with bone disposal likely occurring much earlier, to our friendly Saxons. It may have even been a plague pit at one point.

This makes Bunhill (or ‘bone hill’) Fields really rather old and really rather interesting.

20180109_154447-EFFECTS

The final burials on the site took place at roughly the same time that my own home town – now a city of 4.8 million people – was still being established.

Unconsecrated land, the site was popular as a burial site for non-conformists – believers who practiced their protestant faith out of communion with the Church of England. We can find John Bunyan, of Pilgrim’s Progress fame, resting here, along with Daniel Defoe and William Blake. The grave of Dame Mary Page has an enigmatic inscription alluding to her final years:  “In 67 months she was tap’d [tapped] 66 times, Had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation.”

After the closure of the fields to new burials, and further damage from the Blitz, parts of the area were converted to an open park. At least one local vagrant lawyer (yours truly) is known to eat lunch there.

It is a magnificent place to watch the seasons pass. The site provides respite from summer, with the tree canopy providing peaceful cover. Autumn shows the very best of London colours, blanketing every surface.

In winter, the headstones complement the reality of British winter; bare trees, cold winds and a slight sense that all hope has left the world. But all that sets us up beautifully to find that the very best has been saved for spring. One can walk through the fields every day throughout Spring to discover that something has changed overnight. The daffodils will poke up, followed by an array of different flowers, ever-changing, with the greenery forming back to life.

Bunhill Fields is a joy and well worth the visit. More than once. Every day, even. You might even run into a vagrant lawyer.

PS: It’s got a great pub just outside.

20170824_184411_001

Further reading:
https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/green-spaces/city-gardens/visitor-information/Pages/Bunhill-Fields.aspx

https://flickeringlamps.com/2014/06/25/the-hill-of-bones-the-story-of-bunhill-fields/ 

The Gown

Susan extended a hand towards the powder, carefully dabbing the blush around her high cheekbones.

“Still beautiful”, she said aloud, admiring herself.

Tonight was important. They had to see her winning.

As she applied her lipstick, she caught sight of a tiara hanging from her mirror. She smiled, drawing confidence from a memory of victory.

Finally dressed for the occasion, she arose, sweeping her gown behind her.

She took her beloved Albert’s hand and departed.

Arriving, she haughtily gazed upon the crowd, as if a queen accompanied by her prince.

She was there to be seen, and, indeed, she was seen. The other attendees exchanged sad, knowing, looks.

“The poor thing has truly lost it”, murmured a burly orderly to Albert, Susan’s nurse, as he slopped mashed potatoes onto her paper plate.

Her residents’ gown gently rustled as he pushed his plastic food trolley past them.