In celebration of running fast

Running fast can be exhilarating and rewarding in its own right, but time spent wandering with friends can also be rewarding and productive. Do both and enjoy the future history that emerges!

Last week I celebrated working my way back to what I regard as my peak fitness, measured by completing two full runs, being 14 laps of the park, including a full complement of 8 uphill sprints.  I was last at this level consistently about a year ago. A couple of minor health episodes back then meant momentum was lost and working had to maintain the habit, I have had to build back, gradually adding laps and then sprints.

I have always pursued my running from the perspective of sustainability rather than performance – so I do not keep track of lap times, and have not entered distance events etc. – I just keep going back week in, week out.  About 15 years ago the doctor observed my blood pressure tending to the high side of normal, despite my regular regime of walking and bike riding established in the decade before that.  So I started jogging.

And start from the very beginning it was, jog a quarter lap of the field, walk a quarter and so on and managed to cover maybe a couple of full laps this way to start.  Eventually I built up my endurance to run 14 laps of the park twice a week where we now run (after initially running with my teenage son, I have been joined in recent years by my wife).

Then a few years ago, at a work-sponsored health check, an advisor suggested perhaps adding some higher intensity elements to the run. I agreed to try, despite misgivings about possible injury – I am not going to bore you with the litany of minor exercise-related aches and issues that I have dealt with over the last couple of decades!

And you know what!? I really liked it … who knew?  I only started jogging to manage my blood pressure, and couldn’t really say I like it much, but it worked and I kept at it.  But as I took off, running as fast as I could up the (not too steep) hills in the park, I found a very rewarding sense of momentum and energy. It is difficult to convey what a contrast all this is to my youth, when I dislike exercise, loathing running in particular, and would go to considerable lengths to avoid it.

My friend Ward and I would walk around the field as others ran, usually conveniently out of earshot of the PE teacher, who basically gave up on us. Most memorably we worked out that we could walk one lap of the yearly school cross-country in the roughly the same time as it took all the others to run the required two – we narrowly escaped the embarrassment of being featured among the place-getters, which would have brought our subterfuge undone!

As we walked we would talk, and seek to unravel the mysteries of adolescence and the world – it was time spent exercising our intellects.  In fact our observation of a particular cumulus formation that resembled the fateful mushroom cloud informed my creation of the following poem some time later.  It is a narrative piece rather than a cry from the heart – a hyper-compressed science fiction story. That said, on reflection I suspect it also captures the impact of living with the more-or-less immediate threat of nuclear war current in the mid-sixties, a sense similarly conveyed by this detail from a collage I made shortly after arriving in Sydney in the late seventies.  Perhaps the poem also unconsciously references the sense of a dangerous adult world awaiting outside the school environment, as confining as it may have felt at the time.

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A Freak of Nature

Two boys play on a field.

On the road, separated from

The school by a tall fence,

A restless spectre stalks.

 

Tall, gaunt, this haggard creature

Of insistent gait paces,

Purposeful yet of arbitrary intent,

Bent to its fatal task.

 

It looks to the sky,

And a gleam fills its eyeless socket,

The reflection of awesome powers

Manifest in one excruciating flash.

 

Opaque with energy, the sun explodes,

Time collapses inwards, dragging the threads 

Of reality into its firestorm,

Tearing warp from weft.

Beyond sharing this as a non-running reminiscence, partially in memoriam to Ward, who sadly I heard died a couple of years ago, I was moved to do so by a sense of technological wonderment.  Having remembered the poem, I located a slightly scrappy type-written copy in the depths of my front-room filing cabinet.  I was then delighted to be able to take a photo of the page, do an optical character (OCR) scan to easily and quite accurately translate it to editable text, all on my phone!

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Now I already knew about OCR, perhaps better than many because I was part of an OCR experiment at the Royal Blind Society when I worked there in the eighties.

We took one of the first commercially available OCR scanners and hooked it up to an equally novel device called the DECTalk from Digital Equipment Corp, supplier of our VAX minicomputer (shown with cat for scale!)

Combining these two boxes gave us a crude text to voice machine – unheard of in 1985 and with obvious application in the world of the visually impaired, but clunky and hugely expensive.  And now all that functionality is combined into a general-purpose device in the palm of my hand, achievable as a complete by-product of its primary purpose – I stand amazed!

The scanner was based on the work of Ray Kurzweil, the principal inventor of the first omni-font optical character recognition flatbed scanner, who went on to develop a dedicated text to speech device for the blind.  Kurzweil has also built a career as a futurist and latterly Google executive.   For some time he has championed the concept of a technological singularity, which is the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization. A further digression, but an interesting fit with the idea of Big History referenced in my previous blog ‘The narrative necessity’ – a conjunction which may bear further exploration in this space …

Anyhooo … we have indeed run a long way here! The bottom line is that running fast can be exhilarating and rewarding in its own right, but that time spent wandering with friends can also be rewarding and productive.  Do both and enjoy the future history that emerges!

In praise of slow cooking

Often times I have encountered what seems like a ‘cult of busyness’, whereby the only acceptable work position is to be frantically busy – or appear to be so. One slightly un-busy thing I have enjoyed in reinventing my days has been the gentle art of slow cooking.

One thing I have noticed to date on the Charles Six dot Zero voyage of discovery is that people keep asking if I am keeping busy. Now let me hasten to say this doesn’t annoy me – au contraire, it is nice that folks take an interest. However, I always feel a little wrong-footed in my response.  I am happily occupied, yes, but should I be busier, perhaps there is more I could try to cram in?

One slightly un-busy thing I have been enjoying in reinventing my days has been the gentle art of slow cooking.  Assembling a meal over the course of several days has a satisfying rhythm, doing a little of what is necessary for each stage, and letting time take care of the rest.

Truth be told I have never particularly worshipped at the busyness shrine, and I certainly don’t intend to start now in my exploration of the ‘third age’ of retirement.

The example I have photo-documented for this blog was a beef and vegetable stew, which started with preparation of vegetable stock, simmering vegetable scraps collected over the previous week in a large pan for several hours and then soaking soup-mix of grains and pulses in the resultant liquid overnight…

20170628_09190320170630_125429Often times during my working career I encountered what I felt was a ‘cult of busyness’, whereby the only acceptable work position was to be frantically busy – or appear to be so.  Sometimes it seemed to me that people shelter from uncertainty and ambiguity in their busyness and need a crammed schedule and impossible work program to validate them and their contribution.

The gravy beef was braised in a heavy-bottomed chasseur for several hours with vinegar and herbs before it was also refrigerated overnight, to then be combined with the vegetable stock and soup-mix.  Sliced and diced winter root vegetables acquired on a quick e-bike trip to the greengrocer provided the final ingredients to complete the process, and generated vegetable scraps for further iterations of vegetable stock making …

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I have usually tried to subscribe to the cult of ‘getting stuff done’; to tolerate uncertainty, discern what is material and relevant in the noise, select what is important and then commit to delivering this in an achievable time-frame.  At the same time, it is important to retain time and space for quiet reflection, essential relaxation and personal recreation.  Personal experience and most work psychology literature indicate that these are the true engines of sustained personal productivity.

The ‘busy work’ stance can be used to justify all manner of slightly bizarre (at least to me) behaviours: over-scheduling, unnecessary rework and revision, inability to prioritise, a diminished sense of proportion.  Rarely did such an approach appear to correlate particularly highly with effectiveness and genuine productivity. Deadlines can tend to get pushed (because there is so much ‘on’), tunnel vision is a constant hazard (because there is so much to do no one has any time to think or to plan), over-promising is rife and too often work is second-rate because people are over-committed and too tired to do their best on work that actually matters.

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The beef and vegetable stew was finally served with a little pasta stirred in and crusty bread on the side, for the full hearty winter eating experience.

I certainly felt validated (in an un-busy kind of way) as I served my partner Roberta the slow-cooked product of several days’ moderate work. It had required periodic attention, but surprisingly little effort – as the old cliché says, it’s better to work smart than hard – the trick seems to be actually doing it!

 

What is risk worth: does assuming greater risk equal greater productivity?

This blog suggests that establishing transparency about who bears what risk must be an integral, non-financial part of evaluating and making policy, as exhausting and inconvenient as that may be!

Well, that was exhausting! Applying for Seniors thingies and squaring away MyGov and the ATO involved phone calls, secret questions, password and mobile number resets, multiple emails, text message codes … but all in a good cause, protecting the security of my information, managing the risk of hacking and data breaches.  What’s not to like, especially as we witness major cyber-attacks such as the WannaCry ransomware exploit and the more recent Petya attack?

Most people find the subject of risk management rather dry and boring (not to mention exhausting), but as my example shows, managing risk is something close to home, and we usually feel good if we are in control.

However, as my example also shows, this comes at a cost, in this case time and effort, and sometimes in money, like buying insurance.  One way of reducing those costs is to wear the risk: to assume a higher risk profile.

The point I have been pondering is whether this is a genuine productivity gain i.e. efficiency that gets more for less, or is it a re-arrangement of the deckchairs which loads the costs forward into the impact if the risk event occurs?  I also wonder about the translation of this question into public policy where governments essentially assume risk on behalf of citizens.

To unpack that thinking a little.

The thread I am pulling has a slightly obscure origin – it is called Baumol’s cost disease (or the Baumol effect), described by economists Williams Baumol and Bowen in the 1960s.  William Baumol died very recently aged 95 and still working …

The basic idea is that services like health care, education and government public administration activities are heavily labor-intensive where there is little growth in productivity over time because productivity gains come essentially from a better capital technology.

To quote Wikipedia, “… the same number of musicians is needed to play a Beethoven string quartet today as was needed in the 19th century; the productivity of classical music performance has not increased. On the other hand, the real wages of musicians (like in all other professions) have increased greatly since the 19th century.”

The bottom line is you either get less symphony, or much more expensive symphony. This seems to be holding true even as computers and information technology have marched in to these sectors.  A current conceit is that digital transformation and even artificial intelligence (AI) will deliver the longed-for productivity increase. I think the jury is probably still out on that one.

But to come back on point, notwithstanding the obscure observations of Messrs Baumol & Bowen, governments have diligently assumed a productivity dividend in their public services, either implicitly or explicitly and demanding that agencies deliver the same (or more service) with less resources.

From a taxpayer perspective what’s not to like: less wasteful public servants, lower taxes even perhaps? However, I suspect what we frequently get is actually less public service rather than more efficient public service.  Sometimes that is OK, particularly depending on how much government you are inclined to think is a good thing.  Deregulation can be a beautiful thing.

But what if some of that enthusiastic deregulation is not so much about reducing costs or producing efficiency and productivity, but rather about assuming a higher risk profile: shifting the deckchairs, crossing your fingers and praying there is no ice-berg ahead?

This was the stuff of the GFC back in 2008 – punters were assured the financial engineering had made dubious investment products safer. But instead the ‘reforms’ had stored risk in all sorts of imaginative places, from whence it emerged with a vengeance.  In another poignant example, while it is still relatively early days in the aftermath, it seems likely that with the London tower fire there is a regulatory, compliance or enforcement failure somewhere in there.  The ongoing program of tower inspections seems to indicate this is a systemic issue. Costs were saved, but these ‘benefits’ were generated not by efficiencies but rather by the imposition of now obviously unacceptable risks on people who were not only not able to control them, but who were simply unaware of them.

One of the great things about money (apart from the fact that it is very handy to let you get the stuff you want) is that it allows you to compare things that are otherwise incomparable – apples with pears, airports with motorways, pensions with superannuation.  Hence the term ‘bottom line’ – money lets you sum it all up and make a call – a blessing for policy decision-makers. But I suggest that risk is another common denominator which can and must be used to inform decisions, and critically, it cannot itself be reduced to money.  Indeed as the GFC demonstrated, there can be risks to money itself. Figuring out how to compare risk profiles and establishing transparency about who bears what risk must be an integral, non-financial part of evaluating and making policy, as exhausting and inconvenient as that may be!

A note on the featured image:

After arriving in Sydney I lived in a bed-sit in Surrey Hills, then a far socio-economic cry from the current hipster paradise. One day on a walk in the rain a poster caught my attention, torn in half by the partial collapsed of the wall on which it had been pasted.  The rain had saturated the paper and the diffuse light lent the scene a soft intensity, amounting to a compelling and slightly disturbing image.  Hot-footing it back to the bed-sit I  grabbed the Polaroid camera I was experimenting with at the time and persuaded a neighbor to come along and hold an umbrella over me while I captured the shots.  Many years later I painted the image as shown as an element in a larger multi-media piece.

The emergence of emergence

Emergence needs a ‘ground’ state from which to appear, and an important part of my current task is to establish a fresh ground state, conducive to creative emergence.

I have continued to think about the nature of emergence as I have sorted through the things I need to do and the list of things I might want to do – a sense of everything to be done, but nothing pressing to be done!

One observation is that emergence needs a ‘ground’ state from which to appear, and that an important part of my current task is to establish a fresh ground state, conducive to creative emergence.

Like all beginnings, as well as fresh ideas and new perspectives, there can be uncertainty and ambiguity, hesitation and fear of false starts. A phrase I recall from the time I spent out of the workforce caring for my young kids was that that a key behaviour is to keep “filling in the form” each day – in other words, take useful actionable steps, even if the grand plan remains unclear. So I equipped myself with a fresh palette of paints and an upgraded hi-tech German-engineering security lock for the e-bike, now that it will be out and about more.

Hi-tech bike lock
Hi-tech bike lock

Another important ‘form’ to complete is getting the thickets of devices/software/services working with minimum friction. Calendaring and reminders as well as sharing notes, images and messages as seamlessly as possible in my personal eco-system – work in progress, but Microsoft OneNote and Google Inbox shaping as key resources.

A reference to ‘emergence’ caught my eye in an Economist review of a recent book “The End of Theory” by Richard Bookstaber (http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21722150-new-book-argues-economists-have-misunderstood-financial-system-predicting-our).

The suggestion is that current economic models are challenged in the face of four things – I would argue these factors are in play much more broadly than economics – I think we see them at work in politics globally as well as in the dynamics of media and communications:

(1) “emergent phenomena” – human interactions in the broad can produce unexpected results that are not related to the intentions of the individuals involved – think crowd behavior or traffic on a motorway.

(2) “non-ergodicity” – in the world of human interactions, probabilities constantly change, while an ergodic process follows the same rule every time.

(3) “radical uncertainty” – people do not [cannot] know the range or probability of future outcomes.

(4) “computational irreducibility”; these factors are so complex that we cannot possibly hope to create models to anticipate the future.

The point that resonates strongly with me is the call to embrace the complexity and to try to understand how the system operates.

I think network theory and analysis are invaluable in this task, and that working in terms of scenarios and their probability is far more productive than attempting to plan for pre- determined outcomes.

So it goes for Charles Six Dot Zero!