At the Centre of Things

Image Source: The Guardian

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Every waking minute of the past few weeks it seems has been filled with some nursery rhyme or the other, so much so that deep in my less wakeful moments, I have caught myself humming along to some tune or another. Chief of them has to be the ten in a bed one where a particularly bossy kid shoos off the others who end up in a pile beside the bed nursing various bumps and scrapes. Sometimes it has felt like there are an infinite number of ways this can happen, although the mathematics suggest that there is only one way to do that, if that particular order is maintained. All of this is long way to say that L is very much at the centre of things with sleep, if I can go out for a run in the morning and other such mundane things very much dependent on what state she wakes up in.

I would like to think that being the well adjusted, finely tuned primate that I am makes me the very epitome of a caring parent but the truth is that there are days when all I want with every fibre of my being is to ignore whatever plea for help is emanating from her crib and get some extra precious minutes of sleep, particularly on work days. Most days I don’t yield to my internal lazy boy but what I will admit is that I have begun to look forward to my forty-minute commute to work on the bus. That has begun to feel like an island of sanity, keeping the chaos of home away from the madness of work. Small mercies.

42: Rethink

Rodin’s Le Penseur. Image from the US National Gallery of Art

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When I set about thinking about the year of being forty, it seemed a no-brainer that it would be centred around delving deeper. The premise was that as the worst kind of failure is one of depth, actively looking to ensure I had depth in all critical aspects of my life was key as I came into my decade of being forty something. As to why I think failures of depth are the most critical, I think that both the one who fails and the one who is failed are left with the lingering after taste of what might have been. For one, the chance of a lifetime disappears before it even begins. For the other the time and energy expended/ invested ends up being for nothing. Both face the opportunity costs, lost irretrievably. For the year of being forty-one, rebuild better was the key, given COVID and how it had intervened specifically in my life with regards to a new job.

From the vantage point of the present looking back, it seems clear that delving deeper, and rebuilding better took on lives of their own, evolving into a full blown rethink, with no facet of life – from faith, through family and friendships through to work – being exempt from this interrogation. There is a sense in which rethinking follows naturally from delving deeper. For when done right, delving deeper can expose the scaffolding on which our beliefs and behaviours are hung, laying bare the inconsistencies and incongruities there. If intellectual honesty and/or integrity are worth anything to us, we cannot ignore those, hence we rethink. Truly rebuilding on the other hand requires firm and sure foundations, which is how all three themes are linked.

Of all the things that have been touched so far by my rethinking, I get the sense that faith and work are the most likely to be significantly impacted in the near term. I have always considered myself a prodigal not least because my notions of identity – both spiritual and familial – are conflicted. What has changed in that regard is I think I am finally at a place where I am comfortable calling myself a lapsed Pentecostal. I am by no means ready – or willing – to chuck it all out; the things that tether me to that space still maintain their grip, however tenuous they may be. I have however found that paring faith down to the essentials has led me to a framework of a three legged stool of sorts: right beliefs, right practice and right passions, an articulation I am grateful to Preston Sprinkle for.

With work, the tensions are many. On the one hand there is the being an empiricist vs being a theorist, or to slightly rephrase it, being a generalist or a specialist. Moons ago I would have sworn being a specialist was the be all and end all, a nod perhaps to the niche specialty which has fed me all these years. I am however finding that there is a limit to how far an arcane subject, or esoteric knowledge, can take you in the real world. And what use is knowledge if it doesn’t translate into the real world? There is also the small matter of where my future direction lies. There is a ceiling to being a specialist, I feel with more scope for growth in being a generalist. To future-proof my career therefore, it seems to me that broadening rather than deepening is the way to go. Being out here was great for the first year, with all the trappings of the expat life. Now that that is behind me now, the reality of the question of direction now hits home. Is my future inextricably linked to oil? Or are any of the nascent interests grabbing my attention the future for me? I think I would like to have the freedom to work without borders. That and the cachet of the world of data are an attraction that grows increasingly stronger, if I can find a way to make my past years of experience useful in that domain.

L and S are a consideration that weighs heavy on my mind in this regard. The days when I was free as a bird to pack up sticks and take the risk of beginning again are gone I think. Family has its responsibilities and rewards which one cannot take lightly. Just how much that affects the calculus of the future still seems unclear, or perhaps still evolving, the final shape or form unknown at the moment.

Plenty to mull over then, with potentially wide-ranging consequences to decisions and directions. Bring on the year of rethinking. It feels like this will be some interesting ride around the sun!

Still Water…

For The Sunday Muse prompt #180:

**

We come to water
to be washed and be reborn,
this hand cupping the curvature
of the face, the other dipped,
drenched in the very fluid
from which we come, the space
between the fingers of that hand
filled with the water, straining
against the strictures
of the hand.

We come to water
to lose ourselves in the beauty
of the simple things, to see
the dirt of our days and the detritus
of the night loosen, dissolving
until we see ourselves pristine
whole again, the way we
have imagined in our dreams
a lip, an eye, lingering still
in the mirror of still water.

Homecoming…

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #179:

**
The scent of life and of living
hangs heavy on this place,
Here, where the weight
of memory and first things
lose themselves in the labyrinth
of the mind.

First step, first walk, first smile.
First  words – garbled beyond
recognition but finding
the connection between
the proffered body
and sustenance.

First leaving, first returning
then leaving – the first steps
of a  lonesome journey
to a far country, of seeking
the wily welcome of the open world
calling – siren-like – from beyond
the walls that time has built.

The days have their dangers
and the nights their flights of fancy
but in moments of respite and clarity
I find myself here. Home.
Always returning.

System of Systems

In the news this week on the BBC:

Abattoirs have about a week’s supply of gas. It’s a chain: We have constantly got pigs coming out of the breeding herd that need to go in homes. Those homes need to be emptied.

Stumbled on this on the news recently which got me thinking of a couple of my interests of late – systems, resilience and system of system approaches to identifying deep dependencies and potential unintended cascade failures of supply chains. What is a world in which rising gas prices potentially affect the availability of meat via several fertiliser farms having to shut down if not incredibly fragile. 

Becoming…

For The Sunday Muse #178:

**

In the wisps
of the smoke blown
in a moment
of recalcitrance
the man
he might yet be
lurks. The man
he now is
and the one
he once was
yielding in the moment
to the future
better one.
Becoming.

 

 

 

Leaving…

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #176:

**
When in the stillness
of the night, sleep
slips away, slowly –
my eyes heavy
with the weariness
of deferred respite –
I remember the road
from there to here,
how it turns
upon itself, snaking
this way and then that
and then disappears.

I remember that leaving
is for the living –
those who have learned
to gift the blessing
of forgiving
and forgetting
to the past.

Between Theorists and Empiricists

Image Source: Caleb Jones on Unsplash 

**

It seems to me that the central distinction in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest offering – Bomber Mafia – is that between theorists and empiricists. To boil it down to a binary choice is of course an oversimplification, but it is one that helps frame the difference between Hansell and Le May, the two figures from either camp who loom large in the book. At stake here, as it turns out, were the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians who met a fiery fate in the aftermath of extensive fire bombings, topped off by the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Hansell, we have the theorist who believed against the evidence – or bad luck – that precision bombing was the way to execute a war that limited deaths. Le May on the other hand comes across as an empiricist who allowed the evidence lead him down the paths it did, albeit with disastrous outcomes for those concerned.

Outcomes and motivations differ for the theorist and the empiricist. The theorist is wholly concerned with what might be  possible – subject to the constraints of his/her field (eg  Theoretical Physicists who come up with all sorts of currently unfalsifiable claims ) – as opposed to the empiricist or experimentalist who is concerned with finding evidence to prove or disprove the grand, elegant notions of the theorist.

If one accepts that the empiricist follows the evidence down a path that leads to a real world impact and desirable outcomes, there looms the question of what constitutes a good outcome. Is the loss of thousands of lives a good outcome if they are the lives of the enemy/ the other rather than ours? Is a good outcome measured in monetary terms, or is there a way to value non-physical outcomes? These are questions I do not think the theorist worries about too much, existing – at least to me – in that rarefied space of thought.

As I plod along, firmly ensconced in mid-career engineering, these distinctions are ones that weigh heavy on my mind, as they have the potential to inform what steps I take next. I am truly at a cross roads of sort  – the question being whether I follow the head into theory or the heart into real world applications.

Being Seen

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #175, and the shades of that garden it reminds me of:

**
I am dreaming again
of days gone by,
of nights  – heavy
with the weight
of solitude –  lightened
by the joy of discovery,
a light born of tumult
in an age of innocence.
This is what the
glow-worms in their
flitting feel,
each shimmer
of light a whisper
into the night
to see and be seen.

Cautionary Tales…

Image Copyright Sky News

**

Hailing, as I do, from a corner of the world in which colonization has left its mark in more ways than one, I cannot help but see the stark similarities between the Afghanistan story and that of my other country. Two podcast episodes from the Rest is History podcast (a general one and one specifically focused on the First Anglo-Afghan War) provided some context to the history of the country, dotted as it has been with inter-tribal frictions and the burden of being prized as a gateway location. The similarities appear to be more than superficial: both countries have had borders drawn on the back of envelopes splitting tribes between countries, have fairly well established Islamic insurgencies  and have significant deposits of natural resources. There is also the British (read East India Company / Royal Niger Company) connection too, the tip of the spear by which both regions were economically exploited.

The images coming out of Kabul are stark, and speak to a very desperate situation with the Taliban gaining the ascendancy in very short order after the American withdrawal. Inches of paper and columns of ink have been spent on weighing up the pros and the cons, making moral arguments for remaining and framing the withdrawal as effectively ceding control of Afghanistan’s rare earth metals to China  among other takes. Given its reputation for being the graveyard of empires, linked to all the aforementioned interventions which have never really ended well fore the occupiers, it is interesting that the powers that be have never really seemed to learn from history. The human tragedy is huge and, given the attack on the airport, only likely to increase as the Taliban gain ascendancy, which makes for very worrying times for those left behind, the regular folk who do not have the power of being visible working for them. One hopes that the noises being made by the Taliban have some substance, although given their priors, there seems little real hope for that. The question of just why the US and their allies have the right to appoint themselves the policemen of the world is a different one altogether but needs exploration.

The speed at which the Ghani government collapsed would suggest that there is a critical mass that supports the Taliban, for all the noise the public intellectuals make. The irony is that nothing has really changed, not in the last twenty years, and maybe  not by much in the last 200 either. Previous Afghan President Hamed Karzai is a direct descendant of the puppet the British installed, Shah Shuja. The Taliban come from the tribe that brought him down. Now and as it was then, deep fissures remain, and only by understanding the history and the local context can these widespread failings be prevented.

One take away from the two podcasts I listened to was that current president Ghani was a very different beast from Karzai, one that was seen as rude and snobbish, failing to keep the tribal leaders onside. That and the manifest corruption (case in point that  Instagram post) suggests that in the end, failing to make the country work for everyone perhaps made it unlikely that ordinary folk would stick their necks out and fight. A functioning state that cares for the ordinary person and imbues a sense of ownership in the ordinary citizen has a lot more heft than any outside influences propping it up, it seems to me. Given the state of Nigeria at the moment, and the increasingly disconnected ruling class from the ordinary citizen, I can’t help but have a niggling worry as to what fate might lie ahead.