Future, AI and phones

Appearing in In The Black magazine, October 2020

What About the Future?: New Perspectives on Planning, Forecasting and Complexity
By Fred Phillips
Springer, 157 pages

Phillips is a respected academic and consultant, and editor of the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change, so he has spent a great deal of time thinking about the future. But he makes clear that this book is not about making predictions. Instead, it is about ways to think about the future, from trend analysis to scenario planning to expert roundtables. All methods have their strengths and weaknesses – and in most cases, more of the latter than the former.

He examines the issues of risk, complexity and uncertainty, as well as the foreseeability of (apparently) unforeseeable events and the labyrinthine impact of disruptive innovations. All this could easily have become a jargon-heavy jumble but Philips writes with admirable clarity and self-deprecating humour. He also has a good time poking some fun at predictions that turned out to be hilariously wrong, mainly due to the pattern of applying straight-line thinking to radical disjunctions. He eventually concludes that the most reliable tools in forecasting are population demographics and long-cycle Kondratieff waves, although even these have problems. Nevertheless, the book is a fascinating read, and makes one think of Churchill’s famous remark, that the future is really just one darned thing after another.

Artificial Intelligence in Practice: How 50 Successful Companies Used AI and Machine Learning to Solve Problems
By Bernard Marr with Matt Ward
Wiley, 352 pages

For a long time AI looked like a solution in search of a problem but this book shows how it is being used to drive efficiencies that flow through to the bottom line. The studies are grouped into the categories of tech trailblazers, retail/CPG, media, financial/healthcare, and manufacturing, and each follows the same format of problem-analysis-solution-results. Many of the companies are using AI to improve the customer interface but some focus on product innovation, and AI is also being used to fight counterfeiting and pollution.

A particularly interesting case is Starbucks, which uses AI to connect global inventory control with granular analysis of local consumer movements. Another multinational giant, Unilever, uses AI to streamline recruitment and onboarding. Viacom has developed ways to build customer loyalty through data analytics and real-time monitoring.

Some readers might find the bite-sized studies to be overly brief and lacking in detail. That is the trade-off that Barr, who has written extensively about emergent technologies, has made: breadth for depth. But he includes reference lists at the end of each section for those who want to know more. He also provides a significant concluding chapter which examines future challenges for AI, including privacy, disruption and data security.

Digital Detox: The Politics of Disconnecting
By Trine Syvertsen
Emerald Publishing, 2020

As Professor of Media Studies at the University of Oslo, Norway, Syvertsen noticed an interesting news snippet: that the current trendy gift in Scandinavia is a ‘mobile box’. It is, in fact, just a box: the idea is that you put your phone into it and walk away for a day or longer. It made her think about how our relationship with our phone is evolving: from seeing them as essential tools and must-have fashion items to annoying distractions that steal our privacy, time and attention.

The research she conducted reveals how people are increasingly looking for ways to disconnect – or, rather, to set their terms for being online. Many people want to feel more “present” in their non-digital lives; others realised that they had forgotten how to have face-to-face conversations. Syvertsen endorses regular disconnection periods, and suggests methods such as offline zones in the house or workplace, removing notification apps, banning phones from beds, and acknowledging that FOMO – fear of missing out – is, well, silly. According to data from Sweden and Norway, periods of digital detox help to increase work productivity and improve overall health.

And as for the ‘mobile box’? A great idea, says Syvertsen. You can order them online.

Downloadable Resources

Looking ahead

The blog section of the Deloitte Australia site has a wealth of useful information, with categories including agility, the economic outlook, COVID-19 responses, leadership and finance. The emphasis is on looking forward, using data from the global Deloitte network. Some of the particularly interesting pieces examine the implications of the COVID-19 crisis for general insurance (under the Financial Services tab), experience as a key aspect of learning (under Innovation), and the connection between skills and wage premiums (under Government). Most of the blog pieces are short but there is usually a link to a longer article or more data sources.

Read at:
https://www2.deloitte.com/au/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/our-blog.html

Skills in demand

The latest Jobs Report from Hays Recruitment Australia shows that Management Accountants, Cloud Engineers, Credit Assessors and SEO Digital Marketing Specialists are the skilled people most in demand at present. But the report warns jobseekers that technical abilities are not all that employers want to see. The key factor is for skilled professionals who, regardless of their role or industry, can demonstrate strong interpersonal and creative skills. Employers also want people who can make data-based decisions, adapt well to change and are continuous learners. This is likely to continue, with ‘soft’ skills becoming prerequisites across all job functions and sectors.

Download from:
https://www.hays.com.au/industry-insights/jobs-report

De-stress

Guy Winch is a psychologist and author, and in this interesting TED Talk he examines how to overcome stress and the problems it leads to. He argues that the real issue is what he calls ‘ruminations’, or the tendency to think about work at home – or, indeed, anywhere and everywhere. He advises setting up clear ‘guardrails’, including specific hours and places for work. Another important step is turning off the computer and the phone. He also has suggestions for people who work from home on setting clear divisions. Breaking bad mental habits is not easy but it can be done.

Watch at:

Sustainability

The Insights section of the site of banking giant HSBC contains a wide range of useful articles and podcasts, and it can be searched by industry sector or subject theme. Recent posts in the Financial Institutions section, for example, look at trends in the securities market and how changes are being driven by regulatory issues. An important article by analyst Lucy Acton asks whether sustainability issues will still matter to consumers after the COVID-19 crisis has passed. She concludes that although the pandemic has presented setbacks in some areas it has accelerated other sustainability trends, such as online purchasing and automation.

Read at:
https://www.gbm.hsbc.com/insights

Change leaders

Innosight is a US consulting firm specialising in helping companies develop and implement innovative solutions. The site provides many interesting articles and reports, with one of the most significant being ‘The Transformation 20’, which ranks companies according to their record on innovation. The report also draws lessons for leaders, noting that the biggest problem for successful companies is often complacency and self-delusion.

The site includes an In Memorium post for Clayton Christensen, a founder of the company who passed away in early 2020. He was one of the key figures of modern management thinking, and the author of numerous books on innovation, disruption, and transformation.

For a summary of the report ‘The Transformation 20’, and a link to the full report, go to:
https://www.innosight.com/

Confidence, C-suite, and sustainability

Appearing in In The Black magazine, September 2020

Perfectly Confident: How To Calibrate Your Decisions Wisely
By Don Moore
HarperCollins Publishers, 272 pages, $65

When does an excess of confidence lead to bad decisions and likely failure? Equally, when does a lack of confidence lead to missed opportunities and personal stagnation? Moore, an academic who has studied both confidence and managerial decision-making, is interested in processes to find the optimal path. In this book he brings together studies from psychology and behavioural economics to define an appropriate level of confidence and how it can be utilised.

He mixes anecdotes and scientific evidence to develop a series of tests that can define choices and focus decisions. He shows how to avoid wishful thinking and to reconsider underlying assumptions. Do not be fooled by the apparent confidence of others, he advises, and look around to see what other informed, rational people are doing. At the same time, understand your goal and map the likely means to achieve it.

Generally, he sees over-confidence as more likely than under-confidence to lead to poor outcomes, and believes that most people over-rate their decision-making wisdom. But he makes clear that risks should not be avoided on principle. The point is to be able to assess risk in an objective, clear-minded way: what Moore calls “probabilistic thinking”. It adds up to a useful, entertaining package.

Crack the C-Suite Code: How Successful Leaders Make It To The Top 
Cassndra Frangos
Wharton School Press, $29, 116 pages

Frangos has extensive experience as a high-level business coach and she draws on it to examine how people reach the senior positions, especially the CEO role, in large corporates. She sees four typical paths, with each having advantages and problems. The most common, The Tenured Executive, is the path of working relentlessly up through the ranks. It means a deep understanding of the corporate culture but the downside can mean a lack of awareness of the external environment.

The Free Agent, on the other hand, is brought in from outside, usually to implement a reform agenda. The Leapfrog Leader, the newest route to the top, is a younger person who is selected from several levels down and catapulted into the big chair, also as a change agent.

The final route is the Founder. The idea is essentially about creating an organisation to lead. The rewards can be great but the risks are high.

Despite the different paths Frangos sees a core repertoire of skills and competencies, albeit in different measures. There must be an ability to manage uncertainty, a depth of resilience, deep sector expertise, networking skills and personal brand-building. Frangos adds another: self-awareness. Without that, she says, nothing else really matters.

Integrated Sustainability Reporting: Linking Environmental and Social Information to Value Creation Processes
By Laura Bini and Marco Bellucci
Springer, $128, 150 pages

Sustainability issues have moved into a central position in financial reporting but so far the approach has been largely additive and piecemeal. This book proposes an alternative, where the reporting of environmental, social and economic issues is sequential, but separate, to financial disclosures. Bini and Belluci argue that a company should explicitly report on how environmental and social issues impact its way of doing business, especially its business model. The reporting framework they present is meant to show the link between sustainability and value creation in a way that is accessible to stakeholders.

Along the way, Bini and Belluci provide a broad analysis of corporate sustainability reporting, including a discussion of the theoretical background and an explanation of why companies undertake sustainability reporting.

They also provide several case studies. The examination of H&M shows both the need for sustainability reporting and the difficulty in connecting it to a business model. The company admits there is a large gap between goals and execution, and acknowledges the need to constantly revise and improve disclosure methods as well as on-the-ground actions.

A bonus of this book is the extensive bibliography, which would be a valuable reference for researchers, students, and others interested in the sustainability field.

Turning point

The Battle of Midway
By Craig Symonds
Oxford University Press

The 1942 Battle of Midway was undeniably a pivotal event in WW2, and it is no surprise that it has been the subject of numerous books and movies. The surprise is that Symonds, currently a professor at the US Naval War College, finds plenty that is new to say by delving into the underpinning cultural and strategic issues.

He points out that the battle took place only six months after the strike on Pearl Harbour. Since that time, the central element of the Imperial Japanese Fleet, the Kido Butai (“Mobile Force”) had swept all before it, venturing as far as Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). It was the Kido Butai – a group of carriers and support ships grouped together into a single task force – that had launched the attack on Pearl Harbour. In fact, says Symonds, things had gone so well that the Japanese could not conceive of failure.

Battle of MidwayAnd therein lies the rub. The strategic purpose of invading and occupying the island of Midway was always dubious – it only made sense as a jumping-off point for an invasion of Hawaii, although it would have been difficult to hold and supply – but there was also the goal of luring what was left of the US fleet into a decisive battle. Carrier battles were a fairly new concept – the recent Battle of the Coral Sea was the first actual case – but everyone agreed that locating the enemy was of crucial importance.  But the Japanese had no doubts that the Americans would do exactly what they expected them to do. Symonds recounts the story of a large table-top exercise aimed at predicting the course of the battle. These things can offer very useful lessons, except that the senior officer who was the arbiter kept changing the rules to ensure victory.

So the Japanese went into the battle with a swaggering confidence, with numbers, experience, and better planes on their side. But the American had some advantages: they had broken much of the Japanese radio code, and their ships had radar.

And there were important cultural elements that found practical expression. Something simple, which turned out be crucial: on the American carriers, when an attack was imminent, the fuel lines that ran around the ship were purged with carbon dioxide. (Give the man who thought of that a medal, someone.) Damage control was practised and there were redundant systems to keep things going.

US doctrine was to keep carrier groups separate. Pearl Harbour had revealed the danger of having too many eggs in a single basket. This meant that it was difficult to co-ordinate large attacks but it also meant that the key assets were unlikely to be taken out in one strike.

Symonds notes that the first US strikes on various parts of the Japanese invasion force were hopelessly inept. The Japanese air cover was powerful. The Americans suffered from repeated failures of technology, with torpedoes failing to explode and bombs dropping before they were supposed to.

The key US ship was the Yorktown. The Japanese were sure they had sunk it at the Battle of the Coral Sea but it had limped home and had been repaired in record time.

Aside from that, according to Symonds, the Japanese suffered from competing priorities: on the one hand trying to level Midway and on the other trying to engage the US fleet. This led to the famous ‘Nagumo’s dilemma’ where he had to choose between arming his planes for a second strike at Midway or load them for an attack on the US carriers. His decision was considered, logical … and wrong. Planes were still being re-armed when groups of American dive bombers arrived. Even worse, the air cover fighters were miles away, chasing a flight of hapless torpedo bombers.

Symonds notes that the US attack on the three Japanese carriers, the Kaga, the Akagi, and the Soryu, is sometimes described as a co-ordinated effort but in reality it was something of a scramble. It took only five minutes for all three carriers to be damaged beyond repair. The American scored only a few hits, but once the interior was alight the fire spread along the fuel lines and ordinance began to cook off. There was no hope.

Even with three carriers gone the Japanese still thought they could win. It as if they could not understand the concept of defeat. If they had withdrawn at this point they would have had enough assets to fight another day. But they pressed on, launching effective attacks on the Yorktown, and they believed they had sunk it.

But the Yorktown proved to be a tough ship. The damage control crews managed to keep it operating, even fighting. The Japanese launched another attack, thinking it was a different carrier. They inflicted massive damage but in doing so revealed the position of the final Japanese carrier, the Hiryu. The American counterstrike was brutally effective, and the Hiryu was out of the fight.

The Yorktown was abandoned but refused to sink. A recovery crew went back on and it was thought that it might be saved – but then a roving Japanese submarine found it. That was it for the Yorktown.

Finally, with four carriers gone, the Japanese commanders admitted that the day was lost and turned for home. Everything had changed on 4 June 1942.

There were some other important consequences as well. The Japanese had lost many of their best pilots while the Americans were able to rescue many of their downed airmen. The Yorktown could be replaced by the growing American industrial machine (the name was transferred to another carrier a bit later). The Japanese did not have the capacity to rebuild. After Midway, it was just a long series of holding actions and grind-down defeats.

For the Japanese, there was only one strategy left: defend a contracting perimeter and hope that the Americans would not be able to bear the costs. It did not work out that way.

What happened? Symonds has a series of answers. For years (even before Pearl Harbour) the Japanese had gone from one victory to another. In hindsight, it is clear that those victories were against weak opponents, or ones taken by surprise. A positive outlook is important, yes, but so is resilience and the capacity to deal with setbacks. A victory mentality only works when there are continued victories.

Yes, the Americans had a good dose of luck, but it was the sort of luck that is underpinned by the right strategic thinking and practical actions. Yes, it could have all worked out very differently. The point, however, is that it did not.

 

 

 

Funny stuff

Apropos of Nothing

By Woody Allen

Arcade, 400 pages, hardcover $50, e-book $25

 

There is a scene in the 1980 movie Stardust Memories where a movie director, played by Allen, encounters a group of aliens. He asks: how can I make the world a better place? They answer: “tell funnier jokes”.

It’s witty, clever, and little bit tragic, and it is the sort of sensibility that informs much of Apropos of Nothing. There is plenty of humour here, mostly in the shape of quips, comebacks, and double-edge observations. This might be a bit surprising, as Allen could justify feeling an abiding sense of bitterness. As a high-profile cancellee of the Hollywood-based Me-Too cultural elite, he has often found himself locked out of artistic circles, disavowed by stars and spurned by the people who hand out various awards. The book was dropped by its initial publisher, Hachette, and was picked up by the small press Arcade.

Apropos of Nothing coverThe cancel-frenzy dates back to 1992, when Allen was accused by girlfriend Mia Farrow of molesting Farrow’s seven-year-old daughter Dylan. In the book Allen notes that these charges have been debunked by several investigations and his own polygraph test (Farrow would not take one). Nevertheless, the charges of paedophilia have been repeated ad nauseum, underlining the point – if it needed underlining – that the cancelers are more interested in accusations than evidence. Allen devotes a good part of the book to this, over seventy pages. Perhaps it is justified, given the seriousness of the accusations, but eventually you want him to get back to the humour.

Yes, it is certainly true that Allen became involved with another of Farrow’s daughters, Soon-Yi Previn, when she was 21 and he was 55, and still seeing Farrow. But he points out that they have been married for twenty years. He clearly adores her, and the book is dedicated to her, which hardly sounds like the attitude of a paedophile. He believes that the abuse charges were manufactured by Farrow, who comes across as something of a dangerous fruitcake, not least to her tribe of adopted children, as a twisted means of revenge.

And yes, Allen has always had an eye for women, and there has been a long series of relationships and flings. His tendency to describe actresses in facile terms becomes grating, even when he is couching it in terms of a compliment. Scarlett Johansson “is not only gifted and beautiful, but sexually she was radioactive”. Léa Seydoux “was a 10 plus.” Christina Ricci “was plenty desirable.” This is not only dated but rather silly. One does  not have to accept the silliness of the Me-Too-ers to see that these sort of comments are no longer appropriate.

In fact, Allen seems a bit stuck in a past era. It is somehow not surprising that he still writes on an old-fashioned typewriter because he does not know how to use a computer. A telling detail: he does not even know how to change the typewriter ribbon, and depends on Soon-Yi to do it. In fact, he depends on her to keep him organised on a daily basis, and it sounds as if she has found her own vocation in doing it (Allen jokes that she could convince the Gestapo to bring her breakfast in bed).

Along the way, since the book is after all a biography, Allen recalls his childhood in Brooklyn and recounts some tales about his family. It was not always an easy environment but he never felt unloved. While he later cultivated the image of the bespectacled outsider at school he says that he was, in fact, fairly popular and pretty good at baseball. His parents were ambivalent about his becoming a writer until they found he could make money providing jokes for established funnymen, and later from stand-up comedy and from making movies. He says that he was never interested in high culture or ‘great’ literature, but – with the help of the glasses – managed to fake it. This theme would recur in a number of his movies, especially the dark comedy Zelig (in which Farrow appears). And far from putting his success down to luck and timing, he has a wealth of talents, including a passion for playing jazz and blues. He sometimes seems to be faking the faking.

He claims to understand little about the technical aspects of making movies, aside from knowing that you should take the lens cap off the camera. This sounds a bit like an exaggeration; many of his movies, such as the melodramatic Interiors, reveal a remarkable eye for image. He admits that some of his movies have hit the public like a lead balloon. He saves some good barbs for the interesting but unloved Shadows and Fog, noting that “marketing tests showed it did not appeal to homo sapiens”. He remains somewhat perplexed about the success of Midnight in Paris, which he sees as good but not that good. In some cases, like A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, the underlying idea was much better than what appeared on the screen.

Is his willingness to laugh at himself a backhanded, ironic way of boasting? If so, the movie business could use a bit more of it. He also likes to ladle credit onto other people, and a large chunk of the final third of the book reads a bit like a roll-call of contributors, actors and backers. There is no reason to think that he is not genuine in his feelings; it is just that after a while it sounds self-indulgent. The book needed a tough-minded editor, but it is unlikely that Allen would ever agree to such a thing.

All this raises the question of where Allen will go from here. He has plans for more movies and shows no sign of putting his feet up. He says: “I’m 84; my life is almost half over.” Another way of putting it is that at his age you stop caring about what the professionally pretentious think about you. Perhaps that is what the Allen really has to say: that the best way to cancel the cancellers is to ignore them, that living on your own terms is the best revenge, and that the key to happiness is, in the end, to find funnier jokes to tell.

Stress test

Appearing on In the Black Digital site, July 2020

 

Tough times: how to cope with stress

Anyone who has done it knows that running an accounting practice can be a stressful undertaking. But the COVID-19 crisis has taken it to a whole new level, imposing unprecedented levels of financial and psychological pressure. Coping with this type of stress is not easy but with the right attitude and appropriate tools it can be done, and possibly the experience of adversity can provide an even greater level of personal resilience and strength.

An irony is that the clients of accounting practices are increasingly looking to their advisers as a voice of stability, reassurance, and control. While there are no firm figures, anecdotal evidence indicates that many practices have seen revenue drop by 30-40 per cent, or even more. Many CPAs have continued to provide services to clients with reduced or no charges, which will help to build relationships for the long term but puts more strain on the short-term bottom line. In other words, the pressure has gone up while the returns have gone down.

Dr Grant Blashki, Lead Clinical Advisor with Beyond Blue, an organisation dedicated to improving the mental health of Australians, explains that people in business need to consciously maintain their mental well-being.

“The usual common-sense approaches to maintaining mental well-being still apply,” he says. “This involves keeping up regular exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep, creating regular routines and making time for friends and family. “Some particular issues that are important during the pandemic are using  online technologies to stay connected with people who are important to you, and being clear about work and home-life boundaries. Don’t let the problems mount up.”

Stress mgt

Break the cycle

Warning signs that stress is turning into a serious health problem include constant fatigue, low energy and disrupted sleep. Other symptoms include withdrawal from usual engagement with work and friends, a noticeable drop in performance, and obsessing about negative themes. There may be a need for professional help, and there should be a readiness to seek it as required.

For people working from home, it is important to establish a routine, including regular contact with colleagues. There are unhelpful behaviours that should be avoided, such as staying up late and then sleeping in, or some form of substance abuse.

Richard Maloney, author of Stress Free: How to Thrive Under Pressure in Unprecedented Times*, and CEO of Quality Mind Global, a consulting firm specialising in mindfulness in the workplace, recognises the pressures that many accountants are under. He emphasises the importance of allowing yourself to de-stress and re-focus. Meditation is beneficial but simply listening to relaxing music can also be very helpful, as can ‘walking meditation’. The aim is to break the cycle of stress.

“You need to schedule time away from work pressure, to clear the mind and minimise negative thinking patterns,” he says. “Another good idea, if pressure is piling up, is to make a ‘gratitude list’ to shift your focus from your problems to the good things in your life.

“If you feel that stress is pushing you into a conflict mentality, try going for 24 hours without saying anything negative. This will make you conscious of yourself and your feelings.”

Taking the pressure off

Dr Blashki points out that Beyond Blue has designed a website called Heads Up**, which provides useful articles, videos and interviews for people in business. It includes a guide for businesses advisers on how they can maintain their own mental health as well as offer assistance to others.

Despite the difficulties of the current situation there is also the opportunity to deepen client relationships.

“There is so much uncertainty in business right now that clients will be looking for leadership, advice and initiatives from their providers – and more than just numbers,” says Maloney. “It’s okay to extend conversations beyond financial issues, and to ask a client how they are weathering this storm at the psychological level. No-one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

A related idea is to run workshops for clients on building mental resilience, and providing resources on mental health as well as business management in tough times. In fact, Maloney believes that helping others is an essential way to reduce one’s own stress.

“If you are more focused on others you are less likely to obsess about your own problems. In the end we are all here to help and serve each other, and we can attain a great sense of accomplishment from doing that,” he says.

Dr Blashki agrees with this theme. “One of the positive outcomes of this pandemic has been a recognition of the fragility of other people’s lives,” he notes. “It has reminded us how dependent we all are on each other. Assisting others, whether with business advice or simply a compassionate ear, can all contribute to a sense of community. That will be greatly appreciated.”

 

* Stress Free: How to Thrive Under Pressure in Unprecedented Times, Richard Maloney, Woodslane, 2020.

** Go to https://www.headsup.org.au/  See also the Beyond Blue documents Supporting small business owners to improve their mental health and wellbeing at work and Actions for small business owners to improve their mental health and wellbeing, available at https://www.beyondblue.org.au/

 

Key points for coping

  • Take regular ‘de-stress’ time, away from work issues
  • Stay connected with family and friends
  • Ensure that work and home-life boundaries are clear
  • Look to available resources on mental health
  • Be aware of warning signs such as fatigue and social withdrawal

Unplugging, wellbeing, and good work

Appearing in In the Black magazine, August 2020

 

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week

By Tiffany Shlain

Simon & Schuster, $30, 256 pages

There is no doubt that cell phones have improved our lives in many ways but Shlain makes the point, in this fascinating book, that they have also generated anxiety, social dislocation, and exhaustion. She argues that regular unplugging from IT, which means not only phones but computers, social media and screens in general can have a profoundly positive effect on one’s life. She has built a successful career from Net 24-6 booktechnology so her willingness to deliberately turn it off for one day out of seven (and extending it to her entire family) might seem surprising. However, after doing it for a decade and she can provide many lessons, including on how it improves mental and physical health, rebuilds relationships and, ultimately, increases overall work productivity.

Shlain examines the Jewish idea of shabbat (a day of rest) and also delves into the underpinning neuroscience and psychology. She emphasises that just turning the phone or computer off is not enough: they need to be put completely out of sight, reach and mind. Breaking the habit of 24/7 connection can be difficult but it is worth the effort, and soon becomes second nature. So try it. You have nothing to lose but the stress.

 

Work Wellbeing

By Mark McCrindle and Ashley Fell

Rockpool Publishing, $30, 224 pages

Here are some remarkable statistics: in a survey of over a thousand Australian employees undertaken for this book, 72 per cent regarded wellbeing as the most important aspect of their workplace, and 83 per cent believe it is up to the employer to facilitate wellbeing. Surveys also indicated that a very large number of employees are somewhat or very unhappy in their workplace, and consequently give only minimum commitment to the organisation.

It does not have to be this way, say workplace researchers McCrindle and Fell, and it should not be. They argue that satisfied, motivated employees should be the first priority of a leader – even more so than customers, as happy employees will lead to happy customers. They draw on their consulting experience to establish the characteristics of a wellbeing workplace, finding that a positive and supporting culture, a sense of purpose, and a realisation of impact are the keys. Leaders have to be collaborative rather than commanding, and be able to communicate long-term goals. Interestingly, this is true even with employees who work remotely. McCrindle and Fell note the need to understand different generations, but a common factor is that all employees want due recognition, meaning, and a sense of community.

 

Advancing the Common Good: Strategies for Businesses, Governments, and Nonprofits

By Philip Kotler

Praeger, $55, 196 pages

Advancing the Common GoodKotler is one of the heavy hitters of business theory, having published dozens of books on branding and marketing. But he has also written extensively about the social responsibility of the private sector, and this book consolidates his views and thinking on the broad subject. Making profits is not the essential point of business, he says, but merely a means: the real objective is to make the world a better place. In fact, in the era of Net-driven transparency and social media a company cannot afford to have its reputation tarnished by irresponsible actions.

Kotler provides many examples of firms that have used their expertise and capital to assist the disadvantaged sectors of the community and reduce overall inequality without compromising the financial bottom line. But merely acting at the margins is not enough, he says. Existing companies have to re-think their entire purpose, and newcomers should incorporate social objectives from the start-up phase. When considering new initiatives leaders should factor in the impacts on the physical and social environment. Kotler admits that defining “the common good” is not easy but he offers some useful metrics and organisational models. His main focus is on US society but most of what he says has universal application.

 

Downloadable Resources

 

Navigating recovery

Consulting firm Accenture has published a number of useful articles about charting a course for recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, and has now consolidated the material to provide advice and insights. The collection looks at the long-term implications of the crisis for business leaders; creating a resilient workforce through training and redeployment; assessing fundamental changes in consumer behaviour and routes to market; rebalancing for risk and liquidity, while assessing opportunities for growth; and re-designing IT systems to allow for business continuity and system durability. The overall theme is how to turn adversity into opportunity through strategic leadership and effective planning.

Download, with links, from:

https://www.accenture.com/au-en/about/company/coronavirus-business-economic-impact

 

IT protection

Foreign intelligence services and cyber-criminals have begun to target contractors as a way of by-passing the protective measures of government agencies, according to the Australian Cyber Security Centre. Its publication Cyber Security for Contractors examines common intrusion strategies, ranging from socially engineered emails to unpatched applications. The publication sets out defensive tools, including applications control, regular reviews and patching, whitelists, and ongoing vetting of employees. The value of unclassified information contained on a contractor’s systems is not always evident but it can still be sensitive, particularly when aggregated. While the publication is aimed at government contractors there are broad lessons for corporations as well.

Download from:

https://www.cyber.gov.au/publications/cyber-security-for-contractors

 

Salary trends

Data from recruitment firm SEEK shows that the finance sector is one of the areas continuing to show solid rates of year-on-year salary growth. Compliance-related roles were especially strong due to a heightened regulatory environment. Within the finance area, risk consulting in insurance and superannuation showed strong demand, and company secretary roles also attracted high salaries.  Starting salaries continue to be strong but there is some evidence that growth is slowing (a trend evident even before the COVID-19 crisis). On the other end of the scale, the real estate and property sector recorded a year-on-year decline, with valuers’ salaries falling most sharply.

Go to:

https://www.seek.com.au/employer/market-insights/australias-fastest-growing-salaries

 

Chart data

Anyone who needs to see at a glance how the COVID-19 crisis has affected the Australian economy, and how the recovery is likely to develop, will find authoritative information in The Chart Pack published by the Reserve Bank of Australia. It summarises macroeconomic and financial market trends, with data on credit and money, banking indicators, inflation, commodity prices, the stock market, trade and GDP growth. There is also useful information about regional and global developments. The graphs are updated monthly and can be downloaded individually or as a package. There are also links to more detailed data available through the RBA website.

Download from:

https://www.rba.gov.au/chart-pack/

 

Team players

Patrick Lencioni is the author of a series of books imparting business lessons through fables, and in this TED talk he uses stories and anecdotes to define the qualities of an ideal team player. The essential attributes, he says, are humility, which means focusing on the greater good; being hungry, entailing self-motivation and a willingness to take the initiative; and being people-smart, which requires being perceptive about others, asking good questions, listening carefully and knowing how to respond effectively. Lencioni emphasises that it is up to the leader to nurture and develop these qualities through example, mentoring and good recruitment choices.

Watch at:

https://www.ted.com/talks/patrick_lencioni_are_you_an_ideal_team_player

 

 

Bad Tech, gender issues, and future work

Appearing in In the Black magazine, July 2020

 

Don’t Be Evil

By Rana Foroohar

Penguin, 256 pages, $35

Don't Be EvilOnce upon a time, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google were like cute little puppies, full of fun and with the charm of innocence. But at some point they grew into oversized attack dogs, devouring everything in sight and snarling whenever confronted. How, asks financial journalist Foroohar, did this happen? How did Google, whose original motto provides the book’s title, and Apple, whose founder Steve Jobs once described personal computers as “bicycles for the mind”, become Big Tech behemoths?

The key is that each company was able to develop systems to collect, refine and manipulate customer data, feeding it back to generate further revenue. With assured cash flow and massive reserves they were able to invest in R&D, corner the talent market, dominate competitors and ensure political protection. Foroohar focuses on Google but the method was similar for all the companies (and Netflix, which Foroohar sees as using comparable tactics). It was not pretty but it was ruthlessly effective.

Foroohar does a good job at keeping this sprawling canvas organised, often injecting a dry sense of humour. She suggests that it might not be too late to control the giants, by reinvigorating anti-monopoly laws and imposing a data-based tax. One way or another, she tells a fascinating story.

 

Beat Gender Bias

By Karen Morley

Major Street Publishing, 208 pages, $30

Morley has worked with a wide range of companies to help them improve gender diversity at senior management levels so she speaks with great personal authority. There might be more women in corporate life than ever before but the overall numbers remain distressingly low, even in companies that talk the talk. The essential problem, she says, is unconscious bias on the part of leaders, even those with good intentions. She offers advice on how to identify and address unconscious bias by reframing issues and asking the right questions. At the same time, leaders have to ensure that women have network opportunities and suitable mentorship. Too often, the number of women in senior positions stops at one or two, and even those usually fail to reach the highest levels.

Morley emphasises that if providing opportunities for women and working towards gender balance is perceived as a zero-sum game, where women are seen as having been given special advantages to take them past men, the program is likely to fail. Instead, it has to be shown to be a win-win situation, with the whole organisation gaining benefits. She readily acknowledges that beating gender bias is difficult but it has to be confronted if leaders want to walk the walk.

 

The Realities and Futures of Work

By David Peetz

ANU Press, 406 pages, $55

It was Churchill who said that the future will be one darn thing after another. This is especially true in relation to work and workplaces, which have seen waves of change in the past few decades. Peetz, an academic who specialises in this area, brings together a huge amount of research, aiming to get past the emphasis on technology that is the focus of many analysts. He accepts the importance of technological change but sees other ‘mega-drivers’, such as demographics, globalisation, and regulation as equally important.

He argues that casualisation and freelancing constitute only a small part of the total economy, and that a fairly traditional employment relationship is likely to remain the mainstay. He detects broad push-back against technology-related downsizing and globalised outsourcing, and believes that unions are due for a resurgence. At the same time, many companies have realised that they need to provide a sense of satisfaction to their employees if they are to survive. The future of work, says Peetz, will not be a single model but a mix of layers, relationships and systems.

This book covers a great deal of ground. It does not provide definitive answers but it offers useful food for thought on where the road is leading.

Realities and Futures of Work

 

Downloadable Resources

 

Managing remote employees

Hays Specialist Recruitment has consolidated a series of articles and resources dealing with managing employees and teams working remotely. The collection covers how to set priorities and timeframes for remote employees, how to maintain the corporate culture, recruiting and onboarding new employees, and ensuring the mental and physical wellbeing of remote employees. A particularly interesting article deals with making a team adaptable to change through encouraging innovation and experimentation within a framework of strategic objectives. The keys to successful management of remote employees are constant communication, clear rules, robust technology tools, and a willingness of executives to trust their people.

Read and download from:

https://www.hays.com.au/manage-from-home

 

Looking to recovery phase

A report from McKinsey, From Surviving to Thriving, examines how companies can take advantage of the post-pandemic recovery. Many companies will have to re-think their business model and those who successfully do so will be well-placed for long-term success. Areas for focus are rebuilding revenue, reconstructing operations, rethinking the organisation, and accelerating the adoption of digital solutions. The report unpacks these, while underlining the importance of recognising how much has changed. So far, those companies that have done best in navigating the crisis are those which consciously developed a shared sense of purpose and a common performance culture, and this is likely to continue as we move forward.

Download from:

https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/from-surviving-to-thriving-reimagining-the-post-covid-19-return

 

CEO concerns

PwC Australia’s 23rd CEO Survey shows a great deal of concern about the medium-term outlook from corporate leaders. Even leaving aside the problems stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, about 80 per cent of CEOs are concerned about economic growth. Seventy-eight per cent identify skills shortages as an obstacle to growth, and 73 per cent predict that technology blind spots will hamper growth opportunities. However, the survey also suggests that there are important opportunities from companies willing to move out of their comfort zone with pro-active strategies, especially when willing to invest in upskilling and technology utilisation, and to collaborate with start-ups and smaller companies.

Download the report or a summary from:

https://www.pwc.com.au/ceo-agenda/ceo-survey.html

 

Stress test

Beyond Blue is an organisation dedicated to improving the Australia’s mental health, and unfortunately it has had a busy 2020. It has put together a package of information about anxiety and stress, including information on symptoms and possible treatments. Everyone experiences anxiety occasionally; problems arise when it persists even when the causes are removed. Beyond Blue provides a number of anecdotal cases to show how anxiety can become embedded in thinking and can have major impacts on physical health. There is also an “anxiety checklist”, information on finding professional help, and a link to Beyond Blue’s e-publication A Guide to What Works for Anxiety.

Go to:

https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/anxiety

 

Trade impact

There is now enough data to measure the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy, and the picture is certainly grim. A package of information from the World Trade Organization shows that global merchandise trade is set to plummet by up to 32 per cent in 2020, with the largest falls in sectors with complex value chains, particularly electronics and automotive products. Nearly all regions will suffer double-digit declines in volumes, with exports from North America and Asia hit hardest. The WTO expects a recovery in trade in 2021 but its strength is dependent on the effectiveness of current policy responses.

Go to:

https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/pres20_e/pr855_e.htm

Victoria’s Other Secret

Red bra 1

 

I

My name is Vicki and I have a secret. Had a secret. It’s someone else’s problem now.

Let me start at the beginning, or at least what might be the beginning. I had just been dumped. This has happened a number of times, often enough for me to have developed a little ritual for coping with it. I would buy some lingerie. I could only afford stuff from the Discount Everything store in the local mall. So here I was.

Dumped for being insecure, being needy, being … me, I suppose. So now I was listlessly looking through a rack of bras. No, no, not that one, wrong size, no, not that colour, no …

Buy me, said a female voice.

I jumped. I looked around. There was no-one close by.

I would be good for you, said the voice.

Actually, the voice seemed to be inside my head. I assumed I was experiencing some sort of post-dump breakdown.

You’re not, said the voice. I’m right here.

Okay, I thought. I’ll play along with the delusion.

Where, I said. Or, rather, I thought it as if I was saying it, on the basis that if I was going crazy there was probably no reason to share it with the world.

Here. In your hand.

I looked at the bra I was holding. It was a rather odd colour, a sort of dark blue. Not my thing, really. No, I looked at it again, and it was an interesting pastel teal shade.

But, wouldn’t you know it, the wrong size. Too big in the cups. I am not a well-endowed girl.

I’m perfect for you. Check again.

I did. Huh, it was my size after all. Guess I mis-read it. I looked at the tag again. There was something else written there. COLD WATER HAND WASH ONLY. And a price, a very reasonable price.

Try me on.

I hesitated. Talking bras are … weird.

Try me on, and you’ll never be dumped again.

How do you know about that.

I know a lot about you. I know you need me. I’ll be good for you.

You’re … a bra.

We’ll be great together. Try me on and you’ll see.

I went into the change room, and put it on. It was comfortable. Perfect fit. Then I looked at myself in the mirror … and gasped.

I had … cleavage! How the hell did that happen?

Told you.

I looked at myself at various angles in the mirror. I did not appear to be any larger than usual in the chest department but somehow the bra, with a decent amount of padding, was making better use of what was there. The result: cleavage. Curvy, eye-catching, fleshy cleavage.

If he could see you now, he would be crying that he dumped you. But you can do better than him. Much better.

I doubt it, I said. I’m pretty ordinary.

But when I looked at my image, I began to think that maybe the Voice was right.

I can give you … what you want. If you buy me. Now.

Well, you know, whether I was going crazy or not, I just had to buy it. Maybe I was imagining the whole thing, but to tell the truth the idea that I might be able to get off the dumping treadmill through the correct choice in underwear was not unappealing.

I took the bra to the counter and handed it to the woman. She looked at the tag. “Odd, I thought I knew all the brands but I’m not familiar with this one,” she said. “WitchyWood, eh? Where did you get it?”

I gestured in a general direction.

The woman shrugged and processed the transaction. I – we – left the store.

We’re going to have so much fun, said Voice.

II

I should tell you about my life. Except there isn’t much to tell. I live alone in a little apartment, I have a small job in a big company, I have some friends but no-one I am particularly close to. I occasionally go out to see if I can find some appropriate company, with very mixed results. That’s it. I told you there wasn’t much, right?

But none of this addressed the concept of a bra that could talk – talk inside my head, anyway. I was not sure if anyone else could hear Voice and I did not want to try any experiments. Just in case other people couldn’t hear it. And just in case they could.

So what’s your story? I said, sitting on the couch with the bra in my hand.

Voice was silent.

How come you can, er, talk?

Nothing.

How did you end up in a store?

Zip.

There was a long pause. Then: we should go out.

Huh. Well, that wasn’t a bad idea. So I went to the wardrobe and selected some going-out clothes.

Not that top. That one there. The silky red one.

That’s a halter. I can’t wear that with, er, you.

Sure you can.

I inspected the bra. Somehow, it had changed into a halter-style.

I can be whatever I need to be.

It had also changed colour, ruby red to match the top. Or perhaps I was just imagining the whole thing.

You’re not.

I looked at the halter top. It’s a bit slutty, isn’t it? I said.

It’s just slutty enough.

Actually, it was hard to say no to Voice. Inside my head, she sounded very … convincing. So I put on the bra and the red halter top and a tight skirt and, believe it or not, I thought I looked pretty good. My hair seemed bouncier. Those little glitches on my skin had vanished. I swear that that annoying cellulite had disappeared. Even my eyelashes looked, well, kind of seductive. I looked like I should be in a television commercial for some sort of beauty product. Vicki 2.0.

So, it being Saturday night, I – we – went out to a nightclub. Now, usually, when I go to a place like this, I went with a little group of friends, a sort of safety-in-numbers concept. I would cross my fingers and hope that I wouldn’t be noticed, or that I would be.

But duly armed with killer lingerie, tonight I felt like going solo, leading with the cleavage and the bare shoulders. The bouncers waved me through and, what do you know, people started looking at me as soon as I entered. I took a seat at the bar.

Before a minute had passed a guy came up to me and asked if he could buy me a drink.

No, said Voice. Not him. He’s C-grade.

What, they come in grades? I said to her.

Voice seemed to sigh.

So I say no thanks to him? I said.

You say, definitely not.

“Definitely not,” I said to the guy.

He looked rather hurt.

Good, said Voice.

I saw another guy checking me out.

What about him?

B.

How do you know so much about this?

Voice said nothing.

I looked around. On the other side of the room was a handsome guy. Well-dressed, blond-ish, just the right amount of semi-shaven panache.

Him, said Voice. Go for the stubble.

So I turned towards him, leaned back against the bar a little, gave him a good view of the guns.

He came over. Yes, he was an A, alright.

“I’m Phil,” he said.

“Of course you are,” I said. Or maybe it was Voice doing the work and I was just lip-synching. “As in, Phil-me-up, is it? Buy me an expensive cocktail, Phil.”

He did. He asked me my name.

“Vic – ” I started.

Victoria. It’s sexier.

“ – toria,” I finished.

He smiled. Wow, Voice was right, Victoria was sexier than Vicki. If only I had known.

Things with Phil went from there. Some drinks, some innuendo, an invitation. To make a long story short, I ended up with a bit of stubble-rash on my thighs. Worth it. Totally.

II

I would not have minded seeing Phil again but Voice was adamant that I should not return his calls. I was not entirely sure why he called me, since I had not really done much in the sex department. Mainly been on the receiving side, which was a nice change and a good place to be. Maybe Voice had got into his head in some way.

Dump him, said Voice.

But he was so pretty, I said.

Dump him, see how he likes it, just like all the times they have dumped you.

I must say that when she put it that way the idea had its attraction. Serves them right. Serves all of them right. Wait, did I actually just think that!?

In any case, when you go to a smorgasbord you don’t have just the one dish. There are plenty of others to try.

Hmm, I said. Well, okay then.

So we tried some more dishes. Alex was next, as I recall. He had a Porsche. Then there was Will. He had his own handcuffs. I forget the name of the next one but I remember that he had a very nice tongue. I have a feeling there was a fellow called Steve in there somewhere. And so on.

Meanwhile, my working life continued to grind away, as I shuffled papers around for reasons that were not entirely clear. Frustrating, because I was capable of doing much more, and I had better qualifications than most people here. But at least my co-shufflers seemed rather more social these days, and the boss of my division seemed to be spending more time than usual hanging around my desk.

One day, the boss said to me: “You know, Victoria, there’s a promotion coming up. Section head. I’ve noticed in these past few months how effective you are in your job, and I feel you should be considered. What assets would you bring to the job?”

Lean forward, said Voice. I did.

Deep breath. I did.

She told me what to say.

“Assets?” I said. “Just the two.”

“Ah,” said the boss. “I see.” He smiled and walked away.

So that’s how you get ahead, I said to Voice.

She giggled. Do you want the job or not? she said.

I thought about it. Eventually, I said: Yes.

A few days later, I was told I had been given the promotion. So the lesson was obvious: all those women who have the good jobs and the handsome boyfriends and the bright prospects … cheat. Maybe they all had talking bras.

IV

The downside of the new job was that I had to take work home sometimes. I was going through a slab of papers when Voice said: I’m bored. We should go out. Meet someone. Bring them back here.

And then dump them? I said. As usual?

That’s the point. You seduce them in order to dump them. Hurt them.

I thought that the point was to have a good time.

You thought wrong. Get dressed. The silver bandeau, I think.

Before I knew it I was in the bedroom, manoeuvring myself into the top. The bra had reconfigured to max the push-up effect.

I don’t really want to go out, I said to Voice. I’m not in the mood.

What you want does not matter much. Now, the black skirt with the slit to the thigh.

I had the skirt in my hand. I looked at it.

No, I said, putting the skirt down.

Yes.

Uh-uh.

The bra began to pinch me a little. In a sensitive area. There was the twinge of a headache at the base of my skull. It began to grow into a throb.

And then I was picking up the skirt and pulling it on. A part of my brain was saying, yes, I did want to go out, pick up some guy, do what I was supposed to do. It would be fun. Wouldn’t it?

The pinching stopped and the headache vanished.

Good girl, said Voice.

V

I’m not sure how but I ended up at a bar called Reboot. I started talking with a guy named Paul, and before I knew it we had been chatting for an hour or so. Voice was impatient, saying that he was just a B. I reminded her that this outing had been her idea, and anyway there were no A-grades in sight.

And he was pleasant company. We had things in common. He made me laugh. I would have been happy to sit and talk with him, and I think he would have been happy to do that too. But Voice was insistent. Anyway, one thing led to another, and a few hours later I was standing by my bed in my underwear, watching Paul sleep. Funny how some guys do that after pretty good sex.

He’s nice, I said to Voice.

He reminds me of someone, said Voice. Someone … someone I used to know … a long time ago … but he left me … after making promises … so many promises …

Is that why you do all this? Because someone broke your heart?

He broke … my soul.

There was a flush of heat in my head. This was some angry lingerie.

They’re evil. All of them.

Be that as it may, I said, I would like to keep this one. For a while, at least. I’m getting pretty sick of one-nighters.

There was a long pause.

Then: Kill him.

Uh, what?

Kill him. Take a knife from the kitchen and kill him.   

I recoiled in surprise, and then horror. I – I can’t, I said. I – I don’t want to – I won’t –

But now I was in the kitchen and I was taking a large knife from the drawer.

I’ll show you how. It’s easy.

I could see a hand holding the knife. Was it my hand?

There was a throbbing in my head, like a raven’s claw twisting in my brain. The bra was tightening around me, cutting into my flesh.

Stop, I said. Please …

Take the knife and put it on his throat and pull it across and then I’ll stop.

I tried to push Voice away, push her out of my head, but she was holding on with a manic strength. I lifted the knife and tried to get the blade under the strap of the bra, hoping to cut it off. But the fabric had become as strong as iron, and now it was as dark as blood. I began to struggle for breath.

My feet were starting to carry me towards the bedroom. I could see the knife in my hand.

You can’t get away, said Voice. You’re mine now. Now and forever.

“No!” I shouted aloud. With a huge effort, I threw the knife across the room.

You will regret that.

The bra was strangling me, squeezing the air from my lungs. The throbbing in my head had become a roar now, a storm of savage anger. I sagged to my knees.

I will make you regret it. I will make you regret everything.

But something scratched at my memory. What was it … I had seen something on the day we had met … something about the tag … what had it said …

On my hands and knees, gasping, I made it to the bathroom. I managed to get into the shower. My breath almost gone, I groped for the tap. The hot tap. I pulled the lever.

There was a gush of water. Steaming, scalding. It hit the bra. Voice screamed.

Cold water hand wash only, bitch, I said to her.

But she wasn’t giving up. The bra tightened even more.

The water was so hot it was blistering my skin. But if it was bad for me it must have been agony for her. I grit my teeth against the pain, against the boiling water and my cracking ribs and my pounding skull. Hold on, I told myself. Just … a little … longer … one … more … moment …

Enough! shouted Voice.

Then get off me, I said.

The bra loosened sufficiently for me to take a breath. The pain in my head began to recede. I reached up and turned the water off. But I kept my hand on the lever.

If I do that, you will destroy me.

I thought about it. Yes, this was a truly homicidal piece of underwear. But we had been through a lot together, and it had been pretty good, up to the final chapter.

I’ll make you a deal, I said. You get off me, get out of my head, and I’ll let you go on your way.

There was a long silence.

Slowly, I began to pull the lever. A hissing drip came from the tap.

Deal.

The clasp unfastened and the straps slid from my shoulders. I was free.

VI

And so the story ended where it began, in the Discount Everything store. After making sure the salespeople were not looking my way, I took the bra out of my bag and slipped it onto a spare hanger. I put it in with a row of others.

I was by no means sure that releasing it back into the wild was a good idea. But I had given Voice my word, and that has to count for something.

I looked around. There was a somewhat colourless young woman sorting through stuff on the bargain table. Huh.

I turned to go.

Wait. Please.

I looked at the bra.

I … I could be good, said Voice. If you would just –

Forget it, I said.

I walked away.

She called after me: Victoria –

It’s Vicki, I said.

 

END

Red bra 2

 

 

I, Viridian: Supervillain

Viridian graphic coverThis is the story of Viridian: supervillain, fan of Shakespeare, owner of many sexy shoes, carefree and irresponsible at the competitive level, bearer of a mystical and powerful gem.

Raised by thieves to be a thief, she was never really a child, or never really grew up, she doesn’t know which. When she washes up on the shores of Oklahoma City, pursued by shadowy forces and an unknown enemy, she links up with a peculiar gang of would-be supercriminals: mastermind Monk, samurai Tantō, strongman Cave, and the remarkable Flux.

And through them she discovers what it is she is looking for: a reason to fight, a reason to stay, a reason to care, and, most of all, a reason to love.

 

Available through Amazon

 

 

Our Town

Our town has long been a place where not a great deal happens, and that is how most of us have always liked it. There are the locals, some of whom have been here for several generations, and an itinerant population of holiday-makers who come here to enjoy our pleasant lake and interesting forest. The two people, a young woman and a somewhat older man, who caused a certain amount of disruption to our little community were in the second of these groups, and they took a lease on a holiday house on the edge of the town, where there was an overgrown path that led down to the lake beach. They had been living quietly there for about a month when word passed around that they could fly.

At first this notion was dismissed as the gossip of those people who spent a bit too much time in either of the town’s two bars, or those who engaged in distractions of a less traditional variety. But gradually the number of claims grew. The local librarian, Miss Hudson, a person of extremely sober disposition, said that the young woman had landed in the parking lot to return a borrowed book. Mr Pearson, who had taken a morning jog along the lakeside beach every day for perhaps twenty years, stated that he had seen the pair sitting on the high branch of a tree that could not possibly be climbed; they appeared to be having some sort of breakfast picnic.

There were those in town who were dismissive of such suggestions. After all, they pointed out, the couple had often been seen walking around the town, holding hands and carrying bags of groceries. Even more, they had been noticed waiting for the bus, which would hardly be expected of people who could fly. True, they were a little odd, friendly enough if engaged in conversation but apparently inclined to keep to themselves. The age difference, perhaps fifteen years between them, was unusual but hardly a cause for recriminations, and our town has always prided itself on its open-mindedness. And finally there was the obvious argument that human beings could not fly. To this group of our people, this constituted game, set and match. End of discussion.

The problem was that sightings of the flying people – sometimes together, sometimes alone – continued. Some townsfolk took to walking around with cameras while looking upwards, in the hope of taking a photograph. Only one photograph was, in fact, taken in this period, and it was so vague and blurry that it was not accepted as solid evidence even by people who swore that they had seen the airborne pair.

The situation became such that one of the town’s police officers, Patrolman Hilda Turner, said that she would pay a visit to the couple and sort the matter out. She did, indeed, set off to interview the couple in their rented house, and returned an hour later, wearing a somewhat puzzled expression. When she was asked whether the couple could fly she answered, yes, I believe so. But she emphasized that she had not actually seen either of them leave the ground. The man was on the roof of the house when she arrived, replacing some broken tiles, although there was no evidence of a ladder or any other means by which the roof might be reached. While Patrolman Turner was engaging the man in friendly if stilted conversation the young woman suddenly appeared beside her, and greeted her warmly, asking if she would like a cup of coffee. Patrolman Turner had not heard her approach, although the ground was littered with dry leaves that made a cracking sound with every footstep.

Over coffee, reported Patrolman Turner, she had asked the young woman point-blank if she and her companion could fly, and the woman had replied, why yes, yes we can, and would you like an oatmeal cookie. Patrolman Turner said yes, she would like an oatmeal cookie, and at that point the man entered the room, saying that the roof repairs were complete. Patrolman Turner asked the man if it was true that they could fly, and the man confirmed that it was. The policewoman asked how was it that they could do something which appeared to defy the laws of physics. The man responded that it was an issue of belief. He had once met someone who could fly and had therefore realized it was possible. When he and the young woman met, a few years later, she had seen him fly and had likewise realized it was possible. So there it was.

Patrolman Turner subsequently returned to the police station where she filed a short report, and later answered a few questions put to her by the editor of the local newspaper.

The resulting article caused, by the quiet standards of our little town, something of a stir, and there was a growing movement for the mayor, Ms Thompson, who ran the popular café in the main street, to become involved. Ms Thompson called a public meeting for that evening, to be convened in her café, where beverages, scones and cakes could be purchased. There were questions as to whether the flying – the allegedly flying – couple should be invited, but after discussions with Patrolman Turner the mayor decided against it, although she left the option open for a later time.

The meeting, as it turned out, attracted most of the local population as well as quite a few holiday-makers. Patrolman Turner was asked to reiterate her report, which she did in such a clear and steady manner that even some of those who had previously rejected the possibility of flying people as a hoax or a series of mistakes began to acknowledge that there might be something in the idea.

The questions and opinions that arose from the meeting fell into several categories, namely:

  1. Could the flying couple be witches, or perhaps aliens.
  2. Was there a way for the business people of the town, always on the lookout for additional sources of revenue, to make money out of this.
  3. Should the Department of Defense, NASA, or perhaps some other agency of the national government, be informed.
  4. If the ability to fly stemmed from the belief that one could fly, was it therefore possible for other people to learn to fly.

A number of people expressed considerable interest in this last point. After all, if gravity could be overcome by simply assuming that it did not exist, then it called into question many concepts previously taken for granted. Several of the younger townsfolk remarked that they would be very pleased to take flying lessons, and would be quite willing to forgo a belief in gravity and whatever else was required in order to get off the ground.

The meeting adjourned without a clear conclusion, although nearly everyone agreed that the flying couple were probably not witches or aliens but ordinary people who had somehow acquired an extraordinary ability. Notably, there remained a hard core of non-believers who argued that human flight, aside from the airplane variety, was simply impossible and that was all there was to it.

The faith of the non-believers was severely tested the next day when, quite suddenly, the couple landed in full view of many people, outside Petrucci’s Famous Pizzeria. They then ordered a pizza, pepperoni with extra cheese, with a side of potato salad, as carry-out.

There were a few people who huffed that descending on a public street in this way was tantamount to showing off but most of the townsfolk were merely curious, and put a series of polite questions to the pair while they waited for their pizza.

Yes, said the couple, we can fly, and have been able to for some time. No, flying itself is not difficult but landing requires a certain amount of practice. Yes, it is a matter of belief. It requires putting aside everything you know, or think you know, about the world and how it works, and instead substituting the knowledge, the sure and certain knowledge, that flying is possible. This leap of faith becomes much easier when you have seen someone do it, said the man. No, we do not know how the first person to fly achieved the feat. The young woman mentioned that, even after she had seen her partner fly, she had spent many hours standing in a park thinking about it. And then she realized that it could be done, because it had been done. And then she did it.

The pizza and potato salad arrived, and the couple ascended to return home. The ascension was, in some ways, not particularly impressive. There was no sudden leap into the air with arms outstretched, Superman-style. Neither was there any magical incantation or puzzling ritual. Instead, it was more like a steady drift upwards, off the surface of the planet, and then at a certain height the couple, pizza and potato salad in hand, turned towards their house. The only impressive aspect of the entire process was that it happened at all.

With the phenomenon of human flight now confirmed, our community grew strangely quiet on the issue. There was an unspoken consensus that, given that the couple had been as forthcoming as possible in their explanations, and seemed to be a pair of pleasant individuals, to notify government authorities might be an invasion of their privacy. Neither was there any further talk of ways to monetize the matter.

And then, one day, they were gone. Their rented house was empty; the real estate agent said that the lease had expired, according to schedule, and they had not renewed it. He did not know why or where they had gone but he said that, when they had returned the keys to his office, they had not expressed any ill-will towards the town or its people; quite the contrary. The most likely explanation was that their extended holiday had simply ended and they had returned to wherever it was they had come from.

But their departure did not mark the end of the story. For several weeks, a number of townspeople could be seen standing on cliffs, or by the lake, or in their yard, looking across the water or into the sky. It was a month after the departure of the couple that the first sightings of flying people began. Since then it has been a slow but steady trickle.

Over time, we have largely returned to the view that ours is a town where not very much happens. Yes, some people can fly, in that drifting, undramatic way; and others can but generally choose not to, for reasons of their own. We accept it because, putting it simply, we cannot do anything else: it is what it is. We do not find it remarkable, and we probably never will.

 

END

Person flying