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Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Havana Break

Forget the many artists selling their wares in stalls and on the Prado, Old Havana is a living breathing work of art. The cars, the people, the buildings form part of this incredible tableu vivante which cant be described, it has to be experienced.

Every doorway offers a sliver of life, a portal into that which is cuba and an insight into a world which exists alongside that of the tourist but separate from it. The residents do their best to maintain normalcy in the face of the tourist onslaught but its bound to have an effect. To that extent I got the impression that Old Havana is a place in serious danger of becoming a theme park. It is already almost a caricature of itself…although you probably need to have visited the place to understand that last comment is not as cruel as it sounds. I am tempted to lay the blame for this with the boatloads of cruise passengers belched out of the white monstrosities docked at San Francisco, in the heart of old Havana. But that’s just too easy, we are all of us to blame with our Nikkons at the ready and our pesos convertibles.

Earlier this year a young student from Vienna came to stay with me and I marveled at his constant quest for authenticity in his travels. I believe I too was once like this. But later came to believe that the tourist or traveler can never really have an authentic experience…the mere act of being present alters the parameters. Perhaps it’s the ex-pat in me talking, but the more time you spend in a foreign culture, the more you realize that fitting-in and having an ‘authentic’ experience takes a lot more time and is a lot less sexy then your average traveler ever realizes. Still though, deep in the kitsch that is old Havana I found myself thinking about and also longing for the authenticity the Austrian was seeking.

There is magic in the morning light of Havana. My only advice is to get there and see it before it fades.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Chicken or Fish?

(Chicken?) Vs (Chicken or Fish?)

The problem of choice, context and comparison in jobhunting, career, life and everything else….

While jobhunting last year I had a lot of time for websurfing and came across an interesting little TED talk by Prof Dan Ariely, behavioural economist at MIT.

A large part of his talk was devoted to explaining our innate inability to make absolute choices. Anyone with a young child will recognize this phenomenon : its almost impossible to get a response from a toddler to the question “Would you like an apple?”, parents have much better luck on the question “Would you like an apple or a banana?”. It’s a sort of choice that’s a non choice…you ARE gonna eat, it’s a question of what, not if. The decisional aspect has been taken away and it seems us mere humans are much better at choices than absolute decisions.

This made a lot of sense to me in the midst of last years interminable jobhunt. Companies, employers recruiters always need to view a smorgasbord of options in order to make a hiring decision even when they see a stellar candidate in the first interview. I tried to comfort myself that my weird work experience and less-then-stellar interview performance were at least benefiting my classmates during on-campus interviews: by providing a comparable but clearly less attractive option I was increasing their chances of looking good. Rather cold comfort though.

Ariely even shows that having a ‘dude’ or decoy, as he calls it, available we can influence the choice made by the decision maker in a predictable way (whether it’s a choice about a holiday destination, an employee or a sexual partner) due to our preference for making choices between comparable items over making outright decisions. In hiring terms this means that if there are 3 candidates for a job, where two have comparable experience but one of these is less attractive, call them A and -A and the third, B has quite a different background – then decision makers will always plump for candidate A, no matter how attractive B is. In effect B is not comparable, hence the A vs B decision is more complex so the unconsciously move it to a A vs –A decision, and B doesn’t get a look in! All of which is pretty bad news if your career track is not comparable to other candidates.

This human tendancy for comparision continues to haunt me not that I am employed. I now find . After our MBA we were all somehow comparable or at least should have been comparable, so looking at how others have done after school is a hard contrast. I know the theory is to just be happy where you are, but I am not sure that as humans we are particularly good at that. I know I’m not and in general the people who tell me I should be, are pretty successful by anyone’s standards. And so while my colluges rack up frequent flyer miles at the Hilton, I start to wonder if its really good for me to spend time with such friends. Its not their fault, of course, but the comparison makes me miserable.

Arialy’s work touches on this topic too, where he notes that most men’s sense of success was highly correalated to the level of his salary versus his wife’s sisters husbands salary for not other person than the comparison was relevant and easily available. Comparisons an drive us all mad, no wonder those who ‘drop-out’ seem happier with less – I think its probably less about spirituality or a rejection of convention so much as they have simply made themselves incomparable with their peers and are therefore more content.


Somewhow linked to this idea of choice and its function in recruiting is the notion of context. There was an experiment in NYC sometime in the last few years which had a virtuoso violinist busk at Grand Central station at rush hour. The purpose was to see if anyone would stop and listen, and the experiment had some goal related to recoginising beauty in the everyday. Almost no one stoped to listen despite tickets for the concert of this vioinest selling out at several humdred dollars per ticket.

Its possible that in NYC no one who goes to classical concerts or at least who can afford a ticket of 200$ needs to bother with public transport. But to my mind the more important take-away is that you can be brilliant at something or perhaps many things but if you come in the wrong door, your talent will never be recoginised. So much of success depends on your context, its often the only differeciator between a better than average busker and a sold out concert hall.

Friday, 17 September 2010

‘Whats not to like about Switzerland?’

It’s a comment I often hear myself saying when people ask me why I have come back to live here. Nature, efficiency, low crime, high wages, cleanliness…there is no doubt that the quality of life here is extremely high and the Swiss have gotten a lot of things right. Even Obama came shopping here for a Health system.

So what is there not to like about this alpine paradise? Well, any foreigner here, in particular those who are not of the WASPy persuasion, could write volumes about the institutional racism here. On paper everyone is equal, or at least everyone with a Permit B is equal to everyone else with a Permit B, and so on for Permit C,A,L etc. However when a few very Swiss agencies control most of the urban housing markets and the police have the right to stop and question anyone without the requirement of probable cause, you can see some unfriendly trends.

Not living in the Swiss German part of Switzerland, and in a region which has welcomed many migrants, immigrants and asylum seekers , I am normally insolated from the worse rigours of the Swiss mindset. However a recent trip to the German speaking part of Valais for a music festival threw some different shades on my thinking.

Nadja is Serbian and has lived in Bern for some time, having previously lived in the French speaking part of the country. She invited me out for a day’s amusement in a open air music festival. The location was stunning, set in the flatness of the valley with mountains rising to both sides and as far as the eye could see. The festival was also very young, very drunken and very Swiss German. For the first time in Switzerland I found officials who could not speak French and did not seem too happy about speaking English either.

Don’t get me wrong, people at the festival were as friendly as anyone at festivals anywhere…alcohol wil do that…the difference in Switzerland is that however chatty a Swiss person is at a festival, you will never hop that invisible barrier in the Swiss head which seperates you from the friends they have known for 20+ years. In very real terms you are a no one to them and its fairly obvious from the way they treat you. Non-Swiss are generally disposable entertainment for the ‘locals’.

What, I wonder, could have caused this? Is it the excessive tourism? I fail to understand the utter lack of interest the Swiss show in others – others defined as anyone from outside their dorf.

That afternoon I looked around and was transported by the bright sunshine and the beauty of the mountains, only to be brought down to earth rather rapidly by an inebriated local giving Nadja some hassle for not speaking Swiss German (she speaks a reasonable amount of high German). He said something derogatory about visitors, to which I replied that she had lived in Switzerland for 10 years. “Hmp…yes…she is a tourist” he spat back at me.

That’s Switzerland for me, heartbreakingly beautiful and on many levels very livable, but so ugly sometimes what lives in the hearts and minds of its people.

The miracle of music

In my last piece I talked about my love affair with House music. In the way that it was my first love, it will always be powerful but sitting on a train to Zurich airport I am reminded of the incredibly evocative nature of all kinds of music.

I am listening to K&D sessions by Austrian lounge lizards Kruder and Dorfmeister. I have no heard the album for a long time and it immediately takes me back to a period in 2003 when I spent my evenings with two friends, all of us battling our own demons, escaping by kicking back with a good sound system and major amounts of air fresher from Bern.

It not hyperbolic to speak about the sound track of our lives for anyone born from the 1940s onwards. Sound and music are plainly more evocative and words and pictures. Ask anyone missing a loved one if they would rather see a photo or hear their voice?

What if we were missing something in our sounds and music? Vinyl-heads will speak at length about the death of real music since its digitalization and from the little records I ‘d heard, I was tending to think they might have a point. But there have been some recent developments in sound techologies that may reverse this trend.

I was previlged to hear a demonstration of the JMC Luterie soundboard recently. It uses traditional techniques used in handcrafted guitars and violins, with a particular kind of hardwood, and conbines them with the latest digital technology. The physical result is a good-looking wooden ‘speaker’ which can be used with any stereo system. The auditory result is something which has to be heard to be believed.

It makes any other stereo or loudspeaker you have ever heard seem like water for chocolate.

Nearest I can describe it is like suddenly hearing in 3D, after the demo the whole audience fell silent. The demonstration was done with rock music but I cant help wondering how Billy Holiday or Edith Piaf might sound on the speaker.

I rarely get in enthusiastic about consumer products and even less so about those in the luxury category. I never really understood fascination with fancy cars, watches or clothes. But I want this loudspeaker!

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

House and me

“House is a feeling…”

I don’t listen to oldskool very often –its too emotional. Nothing can quite make up for the fact that I was stuck in the West of Ireland in the mid 90s and not in Chicago (ok slightly unlikely at 15 years old) or Manchester (which would have at least been feasible at least) . Not only stuck in the Weset of Ireland but frequenting people who were into the Cure. The fucking CURE?!?

Ok I have gotten over it now, I mean it wasn’t their fault that no one I knew liked the same music as I did. Or that I had to spend hours listening to the British top 100 just to get a recording of the one or two hardcore tracks that made it to the charts – the only way to get at the stuff I really loved.

The mid 90s were our 60s and just as my mum’s generation in Ireland missed out on flower power, I missed that period and that brief feeling that cultural reinvention was possible. Sure there were flashes of it in Ireland during my uni years and later in the party scene of London in the new century. Even then I knew, they were merely the aftershocks of a powerful earthquake that had given people the power to shatter their lives, and to reinvent themselves and in doing so create their own idea of society and socialization. It wasn’t so much tune-in and drop-out so much as it was tune-in, jack-in, go down the rabbit hole, come out the other side and go do your job on a Monday. But all the while knowing you were part of something different, a counterculture within conformity. Like your own personal Fight Club but one where you gave everyone hugs instead of punches. A return to pure love…love for others, for strangers, for music…

If they ever build the time machine, that’s where I will go, to that time, to that place and to the feeling that was early House.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Reconsidering Risk in Rwanda-Urundi

Had I been a boiling frog??

Sometimes when you try something radical to change your life, despite what all the self-help books might have to think, it just doesn’t workout and you find yourself still trawling through central African backwaters. To be precise you find yourself back riding through various hairy traffic situations on the back of a motorbike. Only now the driving seems worse and the near death is flirted with alarming regularity. Every journey seems fraught with danger and every arrival brings a rush of relief. IT never used to be like this, before I spent 2 years back in Europe I was zen as a buddist monk on my motos and boda-bodas. Had my perception of risk so radically altered?

There is a certain theory that if you live with risk of any kind for long enough it becomes routine. This is a necessary adaptation but if I could loose my risk tolarance from time spent in a risk lower risk environment I wondered if we ever truly get conditioned to risk. Just because we have become accustomed to an elevated level of adrenaline, does not mean it isn’t affecting the body in some way. Had my adaption to daily risk contributed to stress and depression?

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Chronic Fatigue of the Brain

Depression has got to be the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or ME or yuppie flu or post viral or whatever you know it as) of mental illness. Just as those with chronic fatigue don’t display any outward signs of a serious disorder, depressed people aren’t displaying mental illness in the way the general public are accustomed to thinking about it.

Thankfully, in most places the image of the mentally ill as psychotic killers and/or the village crazy have abated. The general criteria for ‘sanity’ in modern medicine is the ability to cope independently with everyday tasks and everyday life. Can the patient feed itself? Keep the home tidy? Dress and bathe? Next level is can they hold down a job ? Or maintain stable social relationships?

On this scale many depressed people seem as ‘sane’ as the non-depressed. We can function at a minimal level, we often have jobs and even occasionally get the energy to tidy up or go on social outings or even enjoy ourselves and laugh. But what the non-depressed fail to appreciate is what a fucking effort doing many of these things are…mentally is the equivalent of running a marathon.

If mild depression could be described as “life without the salt”, major depression is like trying to operate with a giant foot bearing down on your chest, crushing you. Everything you do is an enormous effort, even breathing.

With mild depression I remember a general feeling of anhedonia, or the lack of ablity to feel pleasure. Food tasted likes cardboard and I eat out of habit…I socially isolate myself and spend stupid amounts of time watching TV and Movies.

In major depression I feel like I’m sleep walking through my own life, except if that really was the case it wouldn’t feel so painful. I’m tired by the thought of life, I often don’t get of bed for several days and go long times without eating. I beat myself up for being the weak one, the one people worry about and have to support. I cry for no reason and can’t seem to get excited about anything. If I have work to do, I can still function but I find it almost impossible to learn something new or perform on tests. And any work done is exhausting, physically and mentally. Exercise does help but its also exhausting, my limbs feel heavy and without a friend to coerce me, I would never do it.

And yet, from even the most educated of friends, the only consolation we get is to ‘think positive’ and ‘snap out of it’. You may as well tell a diabetic to think themselves into producing more insulin.

When you are depressed you are completely wrapped up in the pain of the present. Any advice or well meaning attempts to tell us that the future will be better or just hang in there will not work – because it does not address the pain of the present. We need encouragement and maybe a little arm twisting to spend some time with friends….it helps even though we may not be the best company. Whereas it does help to talk with us one on one about our feelings we don’t generally like being the centre of attention when with a group of friends. That’s because we don’t like to think that we are dragging down the group, its enough for us to be in the company of ‘normal’ (ie non depressed people) and be around social activity.

So if you are out with your depressed friend and he or she is unusually quiet DO NOT ask continually whats up….in the same way you wouldn’t bug a chemo patient as to why they are not walking around the ward. Don’t let your fear for them interfere in your normal night out. As much as you can, ignore the depression part and deal with the person as normal, making allowances for the fact that they may not be as lively as you remember them.

In most cases this will be a great help, however it would be remiss of me not to mention when you should worry about someone you know who is depressed. If your friend (or yourself) is majorly depressed person and starts to feel like the there is little hope that the future will feel any different its time to watch out. At this point some will start to toy with the idea of a rational decision to die, which is generally not a good path to trod. If that does happen, as a sufferer you think to think about getting help, either in nicely packaged pills and/or a pro to talk to….as our friend the best you can do is try to underline to the depressed person how much they are needed by others and how much they still contribute even when depressed. Many of us are suckers for being needed, we find relief and meaning in helping others because it seems we can’t help ourselves. We need to be reminded that the world would indeed NOT be better off without us and perhaps very gently nudged towards the idea that life could get better. Finally if appropriate, keep us off alcohol and suggest that anti-depressants might be worth thinking about.

For the lucky ones, depression will be triggered by a life event or prolonged stress which then reduces. For those of us unlucky enough to be missing a few choice brain chemicals, it’s a condition that needs managing throughout our lives and we need all the support we can get!