Going digital, fighting bias

Appearing in In The Black magazine, October 2021

Digital Transformation in Accounting
By Richard Busulwa and Nina Evans
Routledge, $74, 284 pages

The field of digitisation is growing fast and this book would be useful to anyone in the finance profession who wants to improve their capabilities, even though it is aimed primarily at advanced students. Digitisation adds a new dimension to the finance/IT nexus, opening novel opportunities as well as challenges for accountants.

Busulwa and Evans are senior academics at Australian universities and they keep the Australian experience of digitisation in mind. They unpack the key concepts and explain how traditional accounting information systems can be integrated with digital transformation. They illustrate their points with relevant case studies and finish each chapter with tests and exercises, as well as a ‘Google and reflect’ section.

This is important material but the real value of the book is in the concluding sections, where Busulwa and Evans take a dive into the direction of digital technologies. They examine IoT, machine learning and Big Data management, with a focus on where accountants can add value. There is also a framework for ongoing learning and tools for staying ahead of the curve. The authors write with admirable clarity, so it adds up to a good package, and a timely guide on where the digitisation path is leading.

Unbias: Addressing Unconscious Bias at Work
By Stacey Gordon
Wiley, $42, 256 pages

Building a diverse, equitable workforce is no easy task, as Gordon, CEO of a company specialising in the area, makes clear. But companies that make a point of encouraging diversity tend to perform better, especially in innovation and market response. The central problem is that recruiters and managers, like all people, have a natural ‘affinity bias’ and generally prefer those like themselves in race, gender, background and outlook. In most cases, says Gordon, this is an unconscious process, and there is a further level of difficulty due to managers asserting that they are blind to race/gender/background and just want the best person. That is a dangerous claim, says Gordon, and she suggests way to collect data on hiring and promotion decisions to get the true picture.

This can lead to conversations that are difficult but necessary. It can also mean some painful self-examination for senior executives. Gordon offers a set of tools to guide this journey, including questions to ask and procedures to establish.

A drawback with Unbias is that a good deal of it relates to the American experience, especially with race. However, there are universal lessons here that make this book useful to recruiters and managers anywhere.

Downloadable Resources

Leadership advice

Anjali Sud is the CEO of Vimeo, a global video posting and sharing platform with over 200 million users, a position she took up at the age of 33. In this TED Talk, she explains her views about balancing a formal role with informal communication, especially when providing feedback. The CEO role is more about enabling others than being a ‘doer’, although it is important to have demonstrated outstanding competence in previous roles. Another essential is to appoint good people, including ones who disagree with you. The more power you hold, she emphasises, the more accountable you need to be.

Watch at:
https://ideas.ted.com/want-to-be-a-leader-someday-leadership-advice-from-vimeo-ceo-anjali-sud

Malware warning

Ransomware attacks are on the rise, according to data from the Australian Cyber Security Centre. Corporations are the most common targets but individuals, SMEs and government agencies have also been hit. The ACSC has a section devoted to the problem, with advice on preventative measures and examples of recent incidents. Paying a ransom to unlock your devices or files is very unwise, as it will almost certainly lead to repeat attacks and further demands.

The ACSC site includes a useful video on ransomware attacks as well as practical guides on how to respond to an attack and how to report one.

Go to:

https://www.cyber.gov.au/ransomware

Working women

The Business Women Australia site provides a wealth of information and services. It focuses on leadership, business improvement, professional growth, and networking. Its services include a podcast series, an online magazine, coaching options, and a wide selection of events held around the country. There is an Insights section of articles (connected to the magazine) provided by women with specialist expertise: the pieces on book-keeping myths and supporting remote workers are especially interesting. The BWA emphasis is consistently on the useful and the practical. There is a subscription/membership service but the site offers plenty of advice for occasional guests as well.

Go to:
https://businesswomenaustralia.com.au

Tech hiring

Artificial Intelligence, blockchain and proactive cybersecurity offer quantum leaps in efficiency and productivity. The current problem is finding people with expertise in these areas. Recruitment firm Michael Page and the Economic Development Board of Singapore have released their joint report Humans of AI: Innovations and Hiring Trends in APAC which explores the issues in Australia and south-east Asia.

The report looks at the specific skills needed, noting the need for cross-disciplinary knowledge. Creativity and problem-solving is as important as technical skills. Many companies will need to improve their talent management strategies to locate, recruit and retain the people they need.

To read a summary of the report, and access the full document, go to:
Humans of Tech: 2021 hiring trends in APAC for AI, Blockchain and Cybersecurity

Depth of data

The Australian Bureau of Statistics collects and releases huge amounts of data, ranging from the national accounts to the economic impact of COVID-19. Despite the volume of material the site is easy to navigate, and there are sections dealing with industry sectors and trends. There are also tools such as Microbuilder which allow users to draw off data sets to create comparative tables or graphs. This can be used to add depth to a presentation or research report.

Aside from this, the ABS offers a Consultancy Service where specialised data and information can be requested (although there is a cost).

Go to:

https://www.abs.gov.au

Colour me entertained

Appearing in the Australian/Review – September 2021

The Colour Code: why we see red, feel blue and go green
By Paul Simpson
Profile, $28, 352 pages, ISBN 9781781256268

If journalist Simpson is to be believed, the idea for this book began when he went to work wearing a yellow suit – and was firmly told not to do it again. It started him thinking about where the social conventions surrounding colours came from, and prompted him to take a deep dive into the meaning and mechanics of colours. The result is a compendium of hundreds of stories, opinions and scientific snippets, arranged in eleven colour-coded chapters. It answers questions such as why the sky is blue (a phenomenon known as ‘scattering’, connected to the refractive wavelength of atmosphere, apparently) to where the colouring in lipstick comes from (bugs, mainly) to why white paint often contains a touch of blue (which, paradoxically, makes it appear whiter).

Simpson emphasises that the meaning of a given colour varies across cultures and contexts. In many Asian countries, for example, red is associated with money, luck and prestige. In the West, it often signifies anger, violence and evil. But not always: it is also used to highlight female attractiveness. An academic study (conducted by researchers with too much time on their hands, presumably) found that waitresses who wore red received more tips than those who did not.

Most red dye is based on cochineal, which comes from a parasitic insect found in central and South America. It is used in food, medicine – red painkillers are seen as more effective than blandly-coloured ones – and cosmetics. Simpson notes: “The fact that cochineal beetles aren’t particularly photogenic has helped prolong the trade. Imagine the outcry if pandas had to die to make lipstick.”

Green is now tied to the natural environment but that was not always the case. In the past it was associated with financial failure, and in seventeenth century France bankrupts had to wear a green bonnet. Green boats are widely believed to be ill-fated, although the reason for the superstition is unclear. In the Middle Ages, Lucifer was often depicted as green-skinned, as were aliens in  1960s sci-fi movies. The US currency, the ‘greenback’, was originally printed in green because the colour was thought to denote stability, and because green ink was cheap.

Most pigments originally came from plants, minerals or natural oxides. The first artificial pigment was Prussian Blue, discovered accidentally in 1702. The dark richness of it had a huge impact on the development of art, and Simpson tracks it from European painting to Japanese prints. A variety of other vivid pigments followed, although some had the disadvantage of being toxic.

Blue is the colour that more people name as their favourite than any other, although they usually mean the sky-ish variety. There is disagreement among colour theorists as to why, but everyone accepts that it usually makes people feel good. It is widely used in corporate branding, and the artist Wassily Kandinsky likened blue tones to the notes produced by a cello or double bass.

But strangely there is also the reference of ‘feeling blue’. Simpson thinks this might be connected to the idea of ‘blue devils’ seen during alcohol withdrawal. Blue also has an association with pornography, perhaps because smutty books were sometimes printed on blue paper in the nineteenth century.

Purple, on the other hand, is the colour of royalty, and there are many paintings of kings, emperors, and pretentious princelings in dark purple drapery. But the colour’s insipid cousin, mauve, is a different story. It was once decried as the colour of choice for women trying to look younger than their age, and Oscar Wilde quipped that a woman who wears mauve should not be trusted.

Another variety of purple, lavender, was associated with homosexuality, as a combination of girl-pink and boy-blue. Once used derisively, it was later adopted by the gay community as an ironic badge of honour.

At the other end of the preference scale, few people like brown, although artists such as Rembrandt and Rubens made good use of it. This general antipathy was utilised by the Australian government in 2012 when it decreed that cigarette packaging had to use a drab brown known as Pantone 448 C. Research suggested that it made people think of death, dirt and tar, so it was probably an appropriate choice for an anti-smoking campaign. There is not much evidence that it was successful but the affair underlines the evocative nature of colours.

The Colour Code adds up to an entertaining, surprisingly informative piece of work that might even change the way we see the things around us. And we have Simpson’s yellow suit to thank. But hopefully that garment will stay in the closet, forever. There are some things that the world simply does not need to see.

5 senyru

Overhead

Up there, satellites

Look down at us, wondering

Why we seem so small.

Stairs

Here is something good:

How her ponytail bounces

As she goes up stairs.

Snap

White crane in a stream

Hunting an elusive frog –

One snap!  No more frog!

Rain

Days of winter rain

Even a strong man looks frail

Protecting fresh bread.

Wares

Broken-down market

Broken-down people selling

Pots, bread, fish, pans, life.

Oma’s Secret Story

This is a story that my wife doesn’t know about. It is actually a story – one among many, I think – about her mother. Although Kim Soon-joo is my mother-in-law, my sie omeoni, I have always called her Oma. She is 85 years old and she has lived in South Korea all her life.

The story starts, as much as any story can have a beginning, when we were driving back with Oma after taking her out for lunch. We had been to a place overlooking the Han. For Oma’s benefit I had the car radio tuned to one of the silver stations. A song in English came on. It was called My Heart Cries For You.

From the back seat Oma tapped me on the shoulder. “Turn up,” she said. I did.

I could see that she was listening quite intensely, a faraway look in her eyes. Eventually, she said: “I used to sing this song.”

“To your children?” I said.

She gave a little laugh. “I used to sing in nightclub,” she said. “When young.”

Uh, what? Nightclub?

She glanced at her daughter, my wife Hye-Jun, in the seat next to me. Hye-Jun was fiddling with her phone, not listening. “Najung,” Oma said to me, softly. Later.

We had tea with Oma at her little apartment. Then she sent Hye-Jun to the store for something or other.

She gestured that I should come with her. In her room she asked me to get a box from a high shelf in her wardrobe. I did; it was dusty with age, had not been touched for years, perhaps decades.

She opened it. There were old photographs and yellowed papers. She extracted a black-and-white photograph and handed it to me.

It was Oma, standing in front of a little band: a guitarist, a drummer, and an accordion player. She was wearing a rather low-cut, slinky dress. I have to say that she looked pretty good in it.

I should say that I have only known Oma for about five years. That is, I have only known her as an old woman, white-haired and bent over. I never knew her husband, Hye-Jun’s father, he passed before I came to Korea. But I knew that he had been a colonel who had won medals in the Korean War, especially at the time of the Battle of the Han River.

So it was a shock to see her young and beautiful. And … a singer? In a nightclub?

She pointed to the words written on the drum. The Koala Club Singers. The photo was a publicity shot.

There was a date at the bottom. 1951. Which meant she would have been sixteen at the most.

“Nightclub for Australians,” she said. “Like you. Hoju-saram. But many Korean officers there as well. During war.”

She handed me another photograph. It had obviously been taken in the Koala Club. It was a young Korean officer and a man wearing the uniform of the Royal Australian Navy. They were smiling, laughing, holding empty soju glasses on their heads. Great friends, the sort of friends you can only make under fire.

Oma pointed at the RAN man. “Hoju-saram,” she said. “Australian. From ship called Murchison. It was very brave ship. Sailed right up the Hangang to shoot at the Northerners and the Chinese.”

Yes, I remembered the story, there was a note about it at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. HMAS Murchison was a frigate, it engaged in a series of artillery duels with shore batteries entrenched on the northern side of the river. It sat in a part of the Han known as Sitting Duck and fired everything it had. Took some hits but gave better than it got. Tough ship. It gave the retreating RoK troops and the UN soldiers time to withdraw in reasonably good order. Held back the tide, for a while at least.

I suddenly realised that, when we had had lunch earlier that day, we had been looking at the place where the Murchison had stood and fought. Of course, the river had flowed on. But some things should be remembered.

“His name was Jackson,” said Oma. “Was wounded later, in a battle. On the Murchison.”

I pointed at the Korean man. “Who?” I said.

She gave a smile. “He would become husband,” she said. “He would come and see me sing whenever he could. He wanted to marry me. My parents did not like. But when he came back as an officer, and with medals, they could not refuse. He was on Murchison for a while to translate and assist.

“He said to me, years later, that he tried to contact Jackson in Hoju. But he had died.”

She stared at the photograph for a long time. A little tear ran down her cheek.

“Oma,” I said. “Please sing the song. Please sing My Heart Cries For You.”

She was quiet for a long time. Then, at first softly, but growing louder, she sang, in a sweet clear voice. My heart cries for you.

She finished the song. Gently, she put her hand on mine. I don’t think she had ever told anyone else about this.

Gam sahab nida, Oma,” I said.

Gam sahab nida,” she said.

We returned the photographs to the box and I put it back on the shelf.

From the other room, there was the sound of the door opening. Hye-Jun, back from the store.

“Don’t tell,” whispered Oma. “About nightclub. She doesn’t know.”

“Alright,” I said. “It can be our secret.”

“Yes,” said Oma. “Our secret.”

END

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 beach 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 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 one of the town’s bars, or those who engaged in distractions of a less legal variety. But gradually the number of claims grew. The local librarian, Miss Hudson, a painfully honest soul who had never touched a drop of liquor, 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 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 mainly likely 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, Constable 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 emphasised 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 Constable Turner was engaging the man in polite if stilted conversation the young woman suddenly appeared beside her, and greeted her warmly, asking if she would like a cup of tea. Constable Turner had not heard her approach, although the ground was littered with dry leaves that made a cracking sound with every footstep.

Over tea, reported Constable 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 a biscuit. Constable Turner said yes, she would like a biscuit, and at that moment the man entered the room, saying that the roof repairs were complete. Constable 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 realised it was possible. When he and the young woman met, a few years later, she had seen him fly and had likewise realised it was possible. So there it was.

Constable 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, quite 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 Constable 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. Constable 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 Defence, 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, ham and pineapple, with a side of potato salad, to take away.

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 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 realised 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 monetise 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. It seemed, according to the agent, 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 on the beach, or in their yard, looking out to sea 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

Not Quite a Ghost Story

I woke up one morning and I was dead. Huh. How about that.

I hung around the house for a while, looking at my body. Damn, I really should start working out. Eventually, I dressed and left the house. No-one could see me or hear me, you know the drill. It’s what happens when you are … no longer alive. Apparently.

I wandered around the city for a while, and eventually found myself at a pleasant-looking little church, Saint Someone of the Holy Whatever. I went up to the … thing at the end.

“Hi,” said a plaster statue of a woman.

“Whoa!” I said. “You can see me?”

“Of course, I’m the Virgin Mary. Well, technically, I’m a statue, but I’m sure you get the idea.”

“Oh. Right.” She was actually pretty attractive, in a pale, religious kind of way. It looked like there might be some good cleavage under the robes. And a virgin, you say?

“I can read your mind, you know,” she said. “And your impure thoughts are not improving your chances of getting into Heaven.”

O – kay. I looked for a way to change the subject.

“What happens now?” I said.

“Well, in a while, a sort of tunnel of light appears, and you get drawn into it, and then you go up or down.”

“Really? I thought it would be more … complicated.”

“We try to keep it simple.”

Probably the best thing. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to know how I died, would you?” I said.

“Not off the top of my halo. But what did you eat yesterday?”

I considered. “A sandwich. Chicken. Made it myself.”

“Chicken, eh? After you brought it home, did you put in the refrigerator? How long was it not in the refrigerator? Did it taste funny?”

I thought about it. It was a lot to digest. “Uhh … maybe … a little funny … ” I muttered.

“Well, there’s your problem right there. Death by improper food storage. Happens more often than you might think.”

Hmm. It didn’t seem very likely. But here I was, dead, so it was hard to see that any more proof was needed. Although, to tell the truth, I had hoped for something more dramatic than inadequately refrigerated meat.

“Oh, here comes your ride,” said SVM.

In the ceiling of the church, a glow was forming.

“Where do you think I’m going to go?” I said.

“Have you done anything particularly good or particularly bad?”

I thought about it. Not that there was much to think about. “I’ve lived a fairly good life,” I said. “Well, not a bad one. You know, sort of ordinary. Kind of … well, boring, really.”

SVM sighed. “Doesn’t mean much, as it turns out. In most cases, the only thing that matters is whether you’re Catholic or not. And you’re not.”

“What!? You mean … that’s it!?”

“Oh, if only someone had told you people! Wait, I did! Repeatedly!”

I looked at her closely. “Are you allowed to be this facetious?” I said.

“I’m the Virgin Mary,” she said, “and a talking statue. So I can be as facetious as I want.”

The glow was definitely larger now. And closer.

“Tell you what,” she said. “You seem like a nice enough guy, and I appreciated the cleavage thought. You know, most people who talk to me, it’s Holy Mother this or Blessed Virgin that. You think that your life has been tedious!? Welcome to my world. Anyway, there might be a loophole for you. If you light a votive, you might look Catholic enough to get by.”

“Great! Er, what’s a votive?”

SVM rolled her eyes, and pointed at the row of sagging, burnt-out candles at her feet.

The glow was really close now. And really hot. That was not good news.

I looked around for a church-type candle-lighting device but there was nothing. I fumbled in my pockets for a lighter. Matches. Anything. Nope, not a thing. I’d given up smoking a month ago. If I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be facing eternal hellfire now. Still dead, of course, but … not so much.

“Sorry,” said SVM. “Wish I could say ‘see you’. But I don’t think I will.”

So there you have it. A mediocre death. Dying is the only interesting thing to ever happen to me and I blew it. I shouldn’t have eaten the chicken. Damn.

END

Victoria’s Other Secret

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

The Bear

1

My earliest memory is of the day when my father brought a bear home. I must have been only five or perhaps six, counting by the Korean method, and my brother must have been only two or three, and my sister would have been only a baby. The bear was only a cub, I remember thinking that it looked like a ball of black fur, and it made a strange mewling sound.

My father told us that he had found it when he was leading a platoon of his soldiers on a training exercise in the forest not far from where we lived, which was in turn not far from the military base that he commanded, on the eastern edge of Seoul. He said that the bear’s mother had been killed by hunters – this was not uncommon in those days. The soldiers with him had said that the merciful thing to do would to shoot the cub then and there, it would not be able to survive on its own, it was too young. My father would not hear of it. But he agreed that, yes, the cub would soon be killed by another bear or some other creature of the forest if it was left. So the bear came to live with us.

My mother, needless to say, was not happy with this idea. It is a wild creature, she said. It has claws and teeth and when it gets bigger it will surely have a very nasty disposition. And we barely have enough food for ourselves.

You must realize that at this time, the early sixties, Korea was a very poor country, even in the area around the capital. Memories of the war were still fresh, and even though my father was a respected figure in the military – and as a colonel he had a significant role in the administration of our part of the province – there was often just enough to go round and not much more. Having meat in a meal was a treat, let me put it that way.

But my father was adamant that we would take in the orphan bear. And once my father had made a decision there was not much point in further discussion. He said that he would build a little cabin for it from scrap wood in the backyard, a bit like a cave, and the bear could live there in the warmer months and could eat leftovers.

There aren’t any leftovers, my mother said. But then she looked at the little ball of fur, and it made that mewling noise, and, well, she accepted that we could not simply throw it back into the forest. She shook her head and muttered something about another mouth to feed but the bear stayed. Somehow she managed to find food for it. Occasionally, later on, when my father was not at home, and when the bear could sit up, I would see her feeding it little bits of radish while she was cooking. She would see me watching and hiss that I was not to tell my father under any circumstances.

My father gave the bear a name but I cannot remember what it was. My mother, my brother, my sister when she could talk, and I just called it ‘the bear’. In fact, I believe that the first word my sister could say was ‘bear’.

2

I should tell you a little more about my father, I think. He was from a town that was now in the North, but he had fought for the South in the war, and had been decorated and promoted. His medals and letters of commendation, along with his photograph, are in the glass-fronted case that we bow to on New Year’s Day and other significant occasions.

Like many soldiers he could be very stern and strict, and you could sense the steel in him. But there were times when he spoke in a softer voice. He would tell us stories about the war, about the Battle of the Han River and other incidents. He called MacArthur ‘the American general’ but he used the term ‘the General’ for Park Chung Hee, the man who was now leader of the country. He had been a general but had recently assumed the title of President, and now he wore a suit instead of a uniform. My father knew the General, they had been in the same class at the military academy, we have a photograph of the graduation ceremony that shows the two of them.

I suspect that they also had had something to do with each other in some part of the war, although I am not sure what. In any case, there was some connection between them. I suppose that battlefields create those sorts of bonds.

He often had to stay at the base but I remember warm evenings when he would sit on the porch of the little house, and tell us stories. He would drink soju and tell us about the war, and also about the little village where he grew up, and how they would plant rice and cabbages, and pray that the rain would be not too much, not too little, just the right amount, and that the winter would not be too cold.

The bear would be with us, sitting on its bottom and listening to the stories as well. I remember my sister sitting there but often, since she was very young, she would lean against the bear and fall asleep. I assume she liked the bear’s soft, warm fur. I mentioned this to her many years later but she said she could not remember it. Well, she was not much more than a baby at the time.

3

The bear had a remarkable talent for mimicry. When it heard my mother singing while she cooked or cleaned, in her sweet clear voice, it would make a crooning sound as well. My mother told me that it liked to sit and watch her put on her makeup. One day, she said, she found that the bear had got into her cosmetics drawer and had put makeup on its face. I was there at the time, she told me, although I don’t remember it. I wish I could. A bear with lipstick and powder. Now that would have been something to see!

One thing I remember quite clearly was when my mother took me and my brother into the forest to look for berries and mushrooms. She carried my sister in a back-sling. Of course, the bear came with us. I guess that by this time it had been with us about a year, perhaps a bit more, so it was no longer a cuddly ball of fur. But it padded along behind us, on all fours, happy to eat berries when we found some.

At one point the bear stopped. It stood up and sniffed the air. That was the first time, I believe, that I saw it stand upright.

Maybe it happened and maybe it didn’t. I think that not all the stories about the bear that my mother and father told us, a bit later on, were true. Maybe they were just stories for children. But I like to think that that one, at least, was true.

It looked around. It looked at us, my mother and brother and sister in the sling and myself. Then it looked again at the forest.

Then it went down on all fours again and came over to us. It nuzzled my hand, and I scratched its ears in response, as I usually did.

Someday, my mother said, it will have to leave. It is a wild animal, after all, and one day it will have to leave.

4

The bear had been with us three years, I suppose, something like that, when it vanished. It was not in its little cave-cabin and not in any part of the yard, and not in the house.

My father came back from the base that evening, and I remember my mother telling him, very softly, that the bear was nowhere to be found. My father said nothing.

I was surprised that the next morning a truckload of soldiers from the base appeared at the front of our house, and my father gave them a series of orders as he climbed into his jeep.

He saw me watching. He moved over a little to make space on the seat beside him.

Come on, son, he said to me. Let’s go and find our friend.

So I climbed in and we set off through the forest. My father knew where he was going, and eventually we stopped outside a little cave. My father got out of the jeep, and the soldiers climbed out of the truck and raised their guns. From within the cave there was a low growl.

Father, I said. We’re not going to shoot the bear for running away, are we?

No, my father said. But even though this is the cave where I found the bear, there might be another occupant. So stay in the jeep, son. To be safe.

My father walked towards the cave. He called out the bear’s name.

Being a boy, I did not stay in the jeep. I got out so I could see more clearly.

My father called out again.

The bear – our bear – came slowly out of the cave. On all fours, it went up to my father and nuzzled his hand.

My father stroked the bear’s head. The bear gave a soft growl. My father said something to the bear but I could not hear his words.

They stayed like that for a long, long moment. Then my father turned and walked back to the jeep. The soldiers returned to the truck.

My father saw that I had climbed out of the jeep. He gave a little nod, and then helped me in. He looked back. The bear was gone.

You have to go home, he said to no-one in particular. You have to go home.

5

It was early the next morning when my father shook me awake. Get dressed, he said. Don’t wake your mother and brother and sister.

I did as I was told. Then he took me outside and we climbed into the jeep.

We drove along the road that led to the military base. I had not been here before, or at least I could not remember being here, but I recalled him saying that it had recently been expanded.

We drove to the new section. There was a small helicopter on a concrete pad. My father got out of the jeep and talked to a guard standing near the helicopter. I could not hear what they were saying but at one point my father pointed to his badge of rank. Eventually, the guard saluted and opened the helicopter door.

My father gestured for me to come over, which I did. Together, we climbed into the helicopter.

I had not known that my father knew how to fly a helicopter but obviously he did, and he started the engine. He put a radio headset on and spoke to someone, using the words ‘on my authority’ several times.

Then we were off.

I asked him where we were going.

North, he said. There is something I have to see, and show you.

But won’t the Communists kill us if we go to the North? I said.

It’s not a long way over the border, he said. By the time they get planes in the air we’ll have seen what we need to see and be on our way back.

So we flew on, heading to the North. Soon we passed over a long strip of green forest.

The DMZ, my father said.

I nodded. Perhaps I should have been worried, even fearful. But my father seemed to be entirely sure of what he was doing, and so I was not afraid.

Occasionally he spoke to someone on the radio. Then there was another voice coming through the little speaker, a voice with a different accent. I realized that it was the voice of a Northerner.

I just want to see my hometown, my father said into the radio. This helicopter is unarmed. All I want is to see my hometown, and for my son to see it.

The Northern voice continued to speak, even more stridently. My father turned the radio off.

Then we came to a town. We circled, and came in low. People in the town came out and looked up at us, unsure of what was happening.

My father pointed at a cluster of little houses. That was where I was born, he said. And my father was born there as well. Can you see the vegetable patch at the back? My mother was born at the other end of the town, in that house over there, you see? That one near the ricefield. They were killed in the war, your grandparents, as you know, but … that was where we lived. Before.

It was a town, like many other towns scattered across the landscape of the Koreas. A town like many others, but special. The town where my father was born.

Do you understand? my father asked.

I thought about it.

I understand, I said.

He nodded. He turned the little helicopter southwards. He was smiling.

6

Years later, after my father had passed, my mother told me that she had been very angry with him, but the way she said it made me think that she understood what he had done, and why.

My father continued to hold the rank of colonel but it was made clear to him, according to my mother, that there would be no more promotions, no more medals, no more letters of commendation. I said that it was surprising that he was allowed to stay in the military, let alone keep his rank. She looked at me, in her gentle way, and said: the General.

7

So that is the story of the bear. For many years I did not really think of it, but these days, as I approach the age that my father was at that time, I think of it often. I wonder how the bear fared in the woods, what sort of life it lived. And I wonder if some day I might be able to visit my father’s hometown, to talk to the people there and see the fields of rice. But when I think of this I realize that I do not know the town’s name. My father had never told me, and I had never asked.

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 beach 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 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 one of the town’s bars, or those who engaged in distractions of a less legal variety. But gradually the number of claims grew. The local librarian, Miss Hudson, a painfully honest soul who had never touched a drop of liquor, 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 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 mainly likely 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, Constable 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 emphasised 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 Constable Turner was engaging the man in polite if stilted conversation the young woman suddenly appeared beside her, and greeted her warmly, asking if she would like a cup of tea. Constable Turner had not heard her approach, although the ground was littered with dry leaves that made a cracking sound with every footstep.

Over tea, reported Constable 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 a biscuit. Constable Turner said yes, she would like a biscuit, and at that moment the man entered the room, saying that the roof repairs were complete. Constable 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 realised it was possible. When he and the young woman met, a few years later, she had seen him fly and had likewise realised it was possible. So there it was.

Constable 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, quite 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 Constable 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. Constable 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 Defence, 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, ham and pineapple, with a side of potato salad, to take away.

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 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 realised 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 monetise 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. It seemed, according to the agent, 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 on the beach, or in their yard, looking out to sea 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

Leadership, jobs, responsibility

Appearing in In The Black magazine, September 2021

Unlock: Leveraging the Hidden Intelligence in Your Leadership Team
By Rob Pyne
Publish Central, $30, 243 pages

Many books have been written on leadership, and many on teams. But very few on leadership teams. Pyne, a psychologist who works in the field of C-level training, seeks to fill this gap, drawing on new behavioural research and his own experiences. He believes that most senior teams are under-utilised, missing some of the available talents and focusing on management rather than strategic thinking.

Making a team more than the sum of its parts requires three development steps: emotional intelligence, creative-analytical intelligence, and practical intelligence. The weight given to each can vary, depending on whether the team is new or established, but all three are needed to some degree. Pyne unpacks each of them, providing assessment tools and diagrams. He advises regular ‘pit-stops’ to review the performance of the team, noting that the role of the CEO is to ensure that the process stays on track. The team must remain focused on the goals, and there should be some space away from the daily issues to think deeply about problems, with the opportunity to learn from mistakes and achievements. None of this is easy, but an effective leadership team means the difference between a good company and a great one.

Get the Job You Really Want
By Erin Devlin
Major Street, $30, 227 pages

Devlin is a recruitment specialist with a string of qualifications and awards so she is well-placed to give guidance on finding and getting the right job. This book covers a great deal of ground, offering advice for graduates seeking their first job through to experienced managers looking to move up or on. Devlin notes that career changes are quite common – she began as a ballet dancer – so a key asset is being able to demonstrate transferable skills as well as a willingness to learn.

The essential first step is to understand what sort of job you want, and Devlin provides self-diagnostic tests to establish values and goals. She has tips for writing a CV and cover letters, and the company of which she is MD, people2people Recruitment Victoria, has a series of templates that are available through the book. She also looks at interview skills and the particular problems with virtual interviews, and addresses the necessity of building a professional online profile. Her emphasis is on practical advice, and she includes some interesting anecdotes to illustrate her points.

It adds up to a useful, well-organised package. There is also an appendix of relevant websites, sources, and references for further reading.

Corporate Responsibility in the Digital Age
By Ivri Verbin
Taylor & Francis, $85, 270 pages

Everyone agrees that responsible, ethical and sustainable behaviour from corporates is highly desirable, but for many company leaders getting there is a much harder proposition. Verbin, CEO of consulting firm Good Vision, part of the Grant Thornton group, provides a useful roadmap. He works from extensive experience and links his points to the UN Sustainable Development Goals framework as well as accounting and environmental standards. He believes that responsibility is essential in an era of digital-driven transparency and stakeholder activism, trends that are likely to increase in the post-pandemic world.

His advice ranges from creating policies on resource use to reducing carbon emissions. Engaging employees is crucial, not just with relevant, ongoing training but with good examples from the top. Collaboration with external stakeholders is also valuable, especially when addressing larger social causes such as alleviating poverty.

Verbin has worked at senior political levels – he counts former Israeli PM Shimon Peres as a mentor – and he is keenly aware of the need to balance values with pragmatism. He includes case studies drawn from Good Vision’s client list to indicate how much is possible, so long as company leaders are willing to move outside their comfort zone and embrace positive change.

Downloadable Resources

Teaming up

Survey data in the Salary Guide FY21/22 released by recruitment firm Hays shows that teamwork is the skill that employers value most in employees at present, with 96 per cent of employers rating it to be as important or more important than a candidate’s technical abilities. Significantly, many employees have expressed a desire to work more collaboratively with other people, including colleagues working remotely.

Candidates for jobs should be able to point to instances where they were part of effective teams, explaining their specific contribution, how the time was used, the communication tools, and how the goal was reached.

Read the article at:
https://www.hays.com.au/blog/insights/workplace-teamwork
The Hays Salary Guide can be downloaded from:
Salary Guide Australia | Salary Benchmarking Report 2021 | Hays

Board performance

Dambisa Moyo is an economist who sits on the boards of several large corporations. As the author of a new book, How Boards Work: And How They Can Work Better in a Chaotic World, she is interviewed by Astrid Sandoval, an executive editor with consulting giant McKinsey, for the Author Talks series. She believes that many boards can markedly improve their performance, especially in oversight, by recruiting from outside the C-suite. She also argues that a board has to be willing to use all the available levers to drive change, and to align the company’s strategy with societal values.

Watch at:
How corporate boards work | McKinsey

Anticipating growth

A survey by accounting firm EY, The CEO Imperative, has found that business leaders in Australia and New Zealand are looking forward to a period of solid growth, building on two quarters of good figures. In fact, revenue growth for many Australian and New Zealand firms is higher than the average tracked by EY’s global report. However, the future will not be a return to ‘business as usual’. Digital transformation is the key trend impacting business, although companies are increasingly focusing on purpose, culture, and people management, as well as on closing the gaps between good intentions and effective execution.

Download the report from, and watch a video at:
https://www.ey.com/en_au/ceo-imperative-study/has-adversity-become-the-springboard-to-growth-for-australian-and-new-zealand-ceos

Building trust

Marcos Aguiar is a Brazilian business consultant, and in this insightful TED Talk he lays out a model to guide companies in establishing a reputation of trust with their customers, particularly when casual or contract workers are involved (such as with Uber). The essential points are: standards of behaviour required for employees; a clear contract relationship; incentives to encourage co-operation; a measure of control over employees, which customers can see; transparency, including a system for customer reviews; a process to mitigate errors and, if there is a problem, to address it quickly. Important stuff, presented with a voice of authority.

Watch at:
https://www.ted.com/talks/marcos_aguiar_7_tools_for_building_a_business_people_trust

Why winners win

The Value Creator Rankings is a 23-year series released by the respected Boston Consulting Group, which bases its analysis mainly on total shareholder returns. Despite COVID-19, capital market performance has remained strong, which helped sector leaders move even further away from the pack. The strong performers had invested in digitisation and other technology-based enhancements before the pandemic, and they reaped productivity rewards in 2020 and 2021.

The sectors that performed best were technology, medtech, financial infrastructure, sustainable energy, and mining. The study also showed that investors are seeking companies that look to the long term in strategy and resource allocation.

Download a summary or the full report, with an interactive capacity, from:
https://www.bcg.com/publications/2021/interactive-tsr-value-creator-rankings-2021