Early Epiphany

Sunset Panorama

Recently, I had a bit of an epiphany.

Safety II (stay with me…)

I was looking into something called “Safety II”.  Now, as a dyed-in-the-wool system safety engineer, I’m used to the traditional approach to safety.  You think about what ought to happen when you obey the rules; everything else is a deviation, a mistake, or an error: deviation is failure.

Safety II doesn’t look at it like that.  Instead of imagining work done in a perfect world, it looks at work as people do it, for real.  There is often little difference between work that results in a good or not so good.  This leads to a much less rigid way of looking at things.

Functional Resonance (just a bit more…)

My epiphany came when I tried a technique called Functional Resonance Analysis Method, or FRAM.  This is popular with fans of Safety II.  I tried using it to analyse a scenario that I had struggled with for a long time.  None of the other techniques that I tried worked, perhaps because it involved creativity, and the old techniques could not cope with that.  FRAM did cope with it, and how!  From the beginning, I was drawing simple diagrams and learning from them, getting insights into a problem that had eluded me for months, even years.  I am still riding this wave.

Now, FRAM isn’t magic, and it’s not the answer to everything.  It’s not the one method to rule them all, but it did challenge and enlighten me.

Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM): Precise, or Just Narrow?

As an engineer, I’m used to using science and maths to get my job done.  There is a right answer and many wrong answers to every question.  2+2=4, always, without exception, no deviations allowed.  I find that reassuring, comforting even. Correctness, precision, accuracy; I like these things.  But not everyone is like me: shocking, isn’t it?  For a lot of people, precision, rules, one right answer where every other answer is wrong – these things are a big turn off.  Many people dislike the rigidity of science and maths and find it excluding – prejudiced even.

Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not talking about those who chose to deny scientific fact because of some dogma. I’m talking about ordinary people, who are turned off by the rigidity of science.  I guess that’s why we spend so much trying to make STEM attractive to girls, for example.

Creativity

A lot of people feel uncomfortable with this narrow approach. They spend a lot of time being creative, furthering relationships, enjoying music, art and literature: me too. I can enjoy these activities without analysing them, seeing them as problems to be investigated and solved.  In fact, it’s best not to even try.

Maybe I need to loosen up and accept that I can’t have, and don’t want, precision all the time.  After all, fuzzy logic and fuzzy decision making have been used to develop Artificial Intelligence, taking mere rule-following machines and changing them to become…well, we’re not quite sure yet. The point is that thinking, intelligence – from a human perspective, anyway – requires more than logic and precision.  Edward de Bono, a modern guru of thinking, says that real decision-making needs emotion. Mere facts are not enough to make value judgements.

Epiphany

Nor can reduce everything to an equation, or to physical, ‘scientific’ evidence.  I was reminded of this when I did jury duty recently. The judge explained that we had to assess the facts – we should not accept anything presented to us as fact, even if she said it!  We had to decide what was fact and then decide what we could infer from those facts.  In the law, the ‘intent’ of the accused is a key ingredient to be decided. The jury had to infer what the intent of the accused had been, even though we could not see into their heads, and they either would not speak or plausibly denied their guilt.  We had to do infer intent based on circumstantial evidence.  We did.

So this epiphany, this new experience, has helped me to pull together a whole bunch of other experiences, old and new, and discover (create? synthesize?) a whole, new way of seeing things. This way is not as reassuring or simple as 2+2=4, but I like it nonetheless.

So that’s my epiphany.  I know it’s a bit early – not quite right.  Sorry.

Invictus – are you a winner?

Recently, I was lucky enough to go to the Invictus Games in Sydney, Australia.  One of the events that I saw was a men’s 1500 metres race, featuring six veterans with a range of disabilities – some had two legs, some had one leg and a blade, and one guy had two blades.  Later that day, we saw the TV coverage of the race, and it showed the few seconds when the Australian ran across the finish line to win.

The Athletics Track.

But that wasn’t the real story

On the first lap, the competitors were bunched together, with an American guy at the back.  He had lost both legs above the knee, and he had to move his blades with a side-to-side gait that looked like really hard work.  But this guy was big and strong, and he never looked like someone struggling to keep up, he looked like someone who was biding his time, waiting to make his move.  On the second lap he did so, and on the straight, right in front of the crowd, we went wide and overtook the pack to take the lead.

He didn’t just get in front but got 10 metres clear of the rest of them and stayed there for most of the race. He looked unstoppable and it was thrilling to see him go.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t quite keep it up.  As he tired, the Australian veteran, who had been in second or third place for the whole race, made his move on the final lap.  He crossed the line well in front of everyone else, and sadly the brave American guy, who made such a bold, gutsy run, didn’t finish in the medals.  I admired the Aussie for running such a clever race, and the American for his strength, guts and big heart.

That wasn’t the end of it.  After the guys who won medals crossed the line they went back to encourage and support the others across, including the guy in last place who been lapped by everybody else earlier on.  That story, that drama, never made it onto the TV screen.

Missing the Point

The next morning, we watched the news summary on ‘Sunrise’ an Australian TV program, which reported the results from the athletics event of the day before.  Some Australian athletes were named, for example, one guy who “won gold in the 100m, gold in the 200m, gold in the 400m, and gold in the 1500 metres”.  The only reporting was of those who were winners, who were champions.

This completely missed the point of Invictus.

The joy of the games was watching people compete.  Watching the teams go nuts as they cheered on their comrades (I never knew that Danes could get so excited).  Watching people come first or in the middle or last and being wildly cheered and celebrated no matter how well they did.

The point of the games was it that it took men and women who were broken, who lacked meaning in their post-military lives and gave them purpose.  It turned them into contenders, even though their bodies may never be whole again.  Invictus gave them something to focus on and a goal to aim for.  It restored a discipline, which had ordered their lives and given them direction in the past.  (These are their words, not mine.)  Hopefully, these men and women, whether they win a medal or not, will go on to apply this new sense of purpose in other aspects of their lives, after Invictus.  Many already have.

The exception to this reporting was the ABC evening coverage of the games, which did a great job of getting the ethos of Invictus across.  Thank goodness for public service broadcasting.

Lessons

There are probably two lessons here. The obvious one is that there is no substitute for being there; watching something vicariously, through a screen, or hearing someone else talk about it just isn’t the same.

The less obvious lesson is about the Australian tendency to celebrate winning and winners to the exclusion of all else.  This puts pressure on our sportsmen and women to win at all costs.

I suspect that it was this pressure that caused the Australian cricket team to indulge in ball tampering last season.  I can’t help feeling that the huge wave of anger directed at them had more to do with the fact that they were caught, not because they had done something wrong.  They had failed at what they were required to do, which was to make us all feel like winners.  They were supposed to maintain the illusion that one can win all the time, without cost, without compromising one’s principles.

Winning at All Costs

Malcolm Turnbull
Malcolm Turnbull

When the ball tampering scandal hit, Malcolm Turnbull, the then Prime Minister, said he was more concerned about sledging.  (For the uninitiated, “sledging” is where players verbally abuse the batsmen, to put them off.)  I think Malcolm had it right. If sledging is a legitimate part of the sport, then what age do we teach kids to say “I shagged your wife” to another sportsman?

When we first came to Australia, we were shocked at how the media tore into the cricket team if they didn’t win.  The TV news would talk about any old billy-bollocks first, and then mention in passing that Australia was losing, or “looking to come from behind for a win”, as they would say!

It’s not just in cricket.  When the Olympic team flew home from London 2012 the medal winners were separated from their teammates.  The winners flew home in business class, and the rest in economy.  It’s all part of our “winning at all costs” mentality.

Invictus – a Better Way

Well, I can say with confidence that, in Invictus, I saw a better way – a better definition of winning, and of what it means to be a winner.  I shall look forward to seeing the next Invictus games, which will be held in The Hague, the Netherlands, in 2020.  I might have to watch it on the TV in the middle of an Australian night, but it will be worth the wait.

Life in Adelaide: a Source of Inspiration for Writing

How is life in Adelaide a source of inspiration for your writing?

My Take On it

Members of the Writers in Adelaide group have been asked to contribute to a ‘blog chain’ on the subject of Adelaide as an inspiring place to write or inspiring me as a writer. I’ve just come back from the UK where every day was hot and sunny, and I’ve returned to a cold wet and windy Adelaide.  There are British programs on the TV.  I’m confused!

A Good Place

Adelaide, Jacarandas, Rainbow, Spring
One of My First Photos of Adelaide

Putting that aside, the Adelaide that I’m used to is good for writing.  It seems an open place to me, as the streets are wide, the houses are spread out and there’s plenty of parklands.  There is room here, room to think – room for my mind to roam and seek big ideas. The climate also helps, because we can keep our houses open (okay, maybe not in winter), open into the garden and the wider outside; we can look around, relax, explore, see the sights, do stuff and meet people.

Connectivity

Adelaide is a close place, a connected place.  Surprisingly for a city of 1.5 million people, everyone seems to know everyone else, usually via two or three acquaintances. I’m constantly amazed at how someone I know is also known by somebody else that I know, with apparently no reason for them to be connected: yet they are.  This is also conducive to writing because it reminds me that good stories are about people, characters and their connections.  A compelling story gives the reader empathy with our characters and their relationships and how they are motivated – driven – to act accordingly.  How we love to discover these connections, especially when the characters would rather they remained a secret.

When I was in the UK writing was a solitary existence, which was fine as I’m comfortable with my own company.  However, when I came here I joined Writers SA and found the Adelaide Writers Group, one of many here, and I haven’t looked back since.  I found a friendly group of people who give me positive criticism and support me, and in return I critique their pieces, learning about writing and growing my skills as a result.  Now, I know that there are writers’ groups all around the world, but I associate Adelaide with this sociability, meeting people down the pub who are also interested (okay, obsessed, let’s be honest) with writing.  Mixed together are earning writers willing to share their knowledge and my fellow amateurs.  Some of them are on this blog chain, and it’s my pleasure to be part of it.

Summing Up

So Adelaide is a good place to write, but it’s also inspiring in itself.  At the start of this post, I mentioned some similarities and differences between Adelaide and the UK, where I’ve spent most of my life, and about half of my writing life.  Adelaide feels like a cross between the UK and USA to me, familiar enough for me to feel at home and different enough to appreciate.  This mix is stimulating, and it’s led me to question a lot of things about life that, I guess, I had just taken for granted.  Coming here has changed who I am and challenged what I identify with.

Let’s hope it improves my writing!

What Others in the Blog chain Said…