Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mental Health 110 - Taking care of yourself

Way back in 2013 I ran a whole series on mental health which included the tale of a guy named Richard whose depression kept him off work on two consecutive years for over 6 months.

Today I want to expand on that story with some cautionary tales within IT, including some of my own experiences, and some hopes of where we might be able to go from here - not only as an industry but also in making conferences more open, supportive places for those suffering from mental health issues.

This blog post will talk about some of my own experiences preventing burnout, and will touch upon people I've had contact with.  I've spoken to a lot of people within IT about this issue over the years.  In this post I'm going to talk a little of stories I've encountered, but aim to protect everyone's anonymity.  Any names I'm using here are not real names.

A few years ago I had a problem.  I was on a project, that was having difficulties.  In truth they needed double the number of BAs and testers to get the project 'over the line'.  We didn't get paid overtime, but we were so passionate about where we worked we were putting in the a lot of extra hours to try and keep up, and not be 'that person who says we can't do it'.

We kept forcing ourselves to work these hours because others were doing them, and we daren't be the weak link that let everything down.  Besides, this wasn't going to be forever.  So we'd sometimes leave at 11pm, or even midnight, knowing our manager had booked a 9am progress meeting with us.

I know I started to get tunnel vision, my testing became weaker.  I was lucky, I got really irritable, and both my wife and a friend at work challenged me on this, and I realised I had a problem.  Oh I didn't at first, and got really angry they were picking on me.  Which kind of helped their case - I was glad they challenged me.  These things aren't easy things to recognise or deal with.

I took it very seriously, I was feeling tired all the time, my head couldn't focus like I'd like, and being snappy didn't help.  So I went to see a counsellor, which helped (first line of mental health defence).  I'd not reached breaking point ... yet. I could ease up a bit and the sessions helped, but I couldn't go on like this forever.  But it was only for a couple of months right?

They suggested I try a monthly mental health group to 'mentally check in' and keep aware if it was becoming too much.  I wasn't really sure about the idea, but thought I'd give it a try.  I turned up quite early and from nerves very nearly bottled out.  I thought of every kind of Hollywood cliche about how this wouldn't be healthy.

But I managed to go in, and what I found was really helpful.  Very much like my experience with Violet, a group or circle are peers with various experiences just trying to support each other.  We'd go around the circle and 'mentally check in'.  We'd talk about how the last month was going, and how we felt.  We could ask questions and give support to the person speaking, and we had a facilitator to try and keep the conversation positive.

Hearing other people's stories really was enlightening, and having a monthly place to check myself was useful when the inevitable happened.  At work, we were trying to maintain ourselves just to get something over the line.  It seemed a relatively near goal, but our deadline was pushed further and further out, but the expectations on us remained.  We were now trying to maintain a sprinting pace over a marathon, and although I was better at setting limits for myself and living with the consequences if someone said I'd disappointed them and let the team down, I was seeing cracks in one of my colleagues, Samantha.  [For the record, I was still working extra hours, just not as many of them as before]

To be clear, Samantha didn't have mental health problems, but she'd a medical issue which had been an issue the year before.  Much like Richard in my previous story, there were a lot of warning signs, but she admitted in hindsight she was ignoring them, hoping to just get the project down, then she'd take care of herself.  One morning she didn't turn up to work - she'd pushed herself until her body couldn't take it any more, and she'd ended up hospitalised for three months.  People didn't commend her valiance at working herself into this state, but were more angry at her for inconveniencing the project than with me for cutting back on excessive overtime.  Although there were some lines of support for her, she was just replaced with someone else.

Back at the support group, we'd have some people come in for several months, some new people drop in.  I noticed we were getting a lot of people from IT into the group, they had different mental health problems, but a similar story to Samantha.  They'd been working in a high stress situation, in hindsight there had been warning signs, but they'd ignored them, then they'd needed to be hospitalised for a while.  A breakdown of one form or another, diagnosis too late of a problem, therapy, medication, trying to put their life together.  Occasionally you'd hear how back at their old company, they'd been replaced and left behind.

It's depressing isn't it?  In talking one-on-one at group, in my workplace and at conferences, I've heard a lot of stories of people struggling with mental health at work.  Not all stories end as dramatically as that, but it's important to remember this is a blight within our workplace.

Many places, including my current workplace, are extremely supportive of people with issues.  But really there is an expectation that if you're having issues, you need to be adult, speak up and seek appropriate help - a doctor or a counsellor is a good start.  Most employers are sympathetic, and have schemes in place to help, from counselling that can be booked without needing to tell management to phone help lines which are all confidential.

During this problem year, I honestly don't know if I had mental health issues per say, as much as I was as stressed as any human being would be.  Our whole team was becoming tetchy and starting to crack, what happened to Samantha was terrifying and sobering.  Because we all were out to impress and break new ground, we didn't say 'no' enough, and we didn't set boundaries.  And because of that we'd feel chastised when we tried to - not healthy.  But to be fair, we put ourselves under more pressure to impress than we were probably put under.

The key lesson of this post is about awareness of not just our mind but our body, and when we're having issues to seek help.  I'd really like to hear less stories like Samantha's in our industry.

During my time in the group I came across the WRAP, that I briefly talked about last time.  It stands for Wellness Recovery Action Plan.  It's a way of recording how we're doing, to look for patterns, and to see (much like with my monthly group visits) if we're getting worse.

As mentioned, I'd love to potentially cover this at workshop with someone at a conference in the future - but you can find a copy here.  You fill it out over time, it's a reminder of how you feel, of things that make you feel better, and things that make you feel vulnerable, and a reminder do more of the former, and less of the later.

You don't have to have depression or a serious physical injury to use a WRAP, you just have to be mindful.  Samantha used something similar to help her recovery after hospitalisation, as has my wife after a severe back injury.

As detailed here, it includes,

  • Daily maintenance plan - reminders of what to do when you feel good.  [For me, it's remembering to get good levels of sleep, for my wife it's starting the day with stretches for her back]
  • Triggers - things that can make you feel worse.  When these happen, you need to look after yourself.  [Using this with a counsellor over my post traumatic stress, I found that violent TV and cinema as a trigger, and one of the reasons I write more and watch less TV at the moment]
  • Warning signs - behaviour which shows you're getting worse somehow.
  • Crisis Plan - when things get really bad, what are you going to do?  [For me, it's slow down, book a counsellor appointment, and talk to my boss - I work for a company which has good support for staff]

The fundamental issue here though is that your wellness matters, and it matters NOW.  You can't keep deferring it, and even if you're an absolutely loyal company worker, the truth is you'll hurt your project more by not taking care of yourself than playing the hero.

I want you to have a positive and well 2017, and I hope I've provided you with food for thought.

Ideas for conferences

I promised my friend Gitte that I'd write this blog post for suggestions on how people with different degrees of mental health can be supported at conferences.

Generally at every conference I've been at there are enough conscientious people to support those having issues, particularly anxiety seems to be the big one.  But it would be great if people felt more supported to sign up to conferences.

Some very elementary suggestions we had brainstorming the idea were,

  • Conference usually have lean coffee in a morning.  We could have a form of support circle for those needing them.
  • Badge emoticons.  Some people with anxiety especially find conference overwhelming, most conferences have quiet spaces which is great.  But having a kind of sticky emoticon that people could wear saying "I'm overwhelmed, don't take it personally", just so people can still attend, have their own space, but not feel they're offending anyone because they don't want to join in a conversation.
  • What seems like an age ago, I used to be a youth counsellor at Christian event Spring Harvest.  Likewise it'd be good to have people with a badge that just says "I'm approachable if you need to talk to me".  A lot of this happens informally anyway, but it's a little more ad hoc.  I tweeted at Let's Test Oz about having an awful nights sleep, and someone talked to me about why.

Have any other ideas, or your own story to tell?  Please feel free to contribute via the comments, and don't be afraid to do so as Anon if you need!

Now Playing - "Rock'n'Roll Suicide", David Bowie
Might sound inappropriate, but I love the line, 'give me your hand, cos you're wonderful'.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Reflecting back on 2016...

There has been a lot of talk about 2016 having been a particularly cursed year.  There were a lot of alarming and sad elements to it for sure.  A lot of celebrities who seemed to embody my childhood died, and we had a very disturbing year as alarmism managed to fuel shock election results of Britain's "Brexit" vote to leave the EU, and Trumps win of the 2017 presidency.

However for me personally, it's hard to imagine a year which led to so much change, and I want to spend some time on a personal retrospective on some of those elements.

Looking after my mental health

I've talked before about a past event - witnessing someone being killed - and dealing with the impact of that memory.

The start of 2016 saw me working on a challenging project, like the rest of my team, pulling in hours where we can to get it over the line.  One day on the way to work I had quite an alarming realisation ... the memory of that event forms a form of flashback.  It's like a looped tape in my brain, which plays at least once a day, and typically when I feel stressed or dis-empowered it plays almost on repeat.

But I realised that I'd not had a flashback in weeks.  Indeed, if I tried to access the memory, rather than it being like watching video footage, it was more like I was reading an account.  It was all hazed, like viewing through a fog.  [I'm not sure if my writing about memory has caused me to haze and distrust my own memories]

Now as odd as that sounds, it really worried me.  Worried because as terrible as they were, I'd gotten used to them and dealing with them.  Any change scared me that it could be part of something bigger - worse still I was worried that when the project ended it would cause the floodgates to open, and I'd be overwhelmed by it all.

When I've talked about mental health before, I know a key part of it is knowing something is up and taking action.  I didn't just notice something was amiss, but also formed a plan,

  • First - and it's very basic - I told people.  Not everyone, because not everyone 'get it'.  [I realise I'm being open here and telling all after the event, but I think it's important especially after the fact, to be open about these struggles]  But my wife, and a few close friends who get mental health.  Importantly it meant I didn't just stew on this wondering if I was going mad.
  • Secondly - I planned.  Importantly because of my worry about 'when the project was over', I booked some leave and down time when this occurred to let whatever was going to unravel do so.  I also recorded when I was being particularly worried about this and why.
  • Third - I checked in with a professional.  This was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before, not a "Mike's feeling a bit down, give yourself a day, take it easy and see how you go" I self-prescribe when I'm feeling low/rundown.  I was tempted to self-diagnose with Dr Google.  But instead I booked myself in with a counsellor who I've used before and trust, and laid out everything I was going through.

Everything went well, I went on a retreat to a monastery which was really helpful to just disconnect for a few days.  Regarding counselling - in actual fact it seems that losing the constant playback for me was a positive sign of letting go (more on that later).

I was actually quite worried - the memory is a big once for my identity.  I try to be a positive person who encourages people to talk out issues, because I've seen the worst that can happen.  If I stopped forgetting what happened I internally reasoned, maybe I'd change, maybe it'd make me a little nastier without having that constant memory to keep me in check.

My counsellor helped me realise I don't need to use something like that as my moral compass, and I can let go of having something so negative defining me, now it's up to me to choose new memories to define me.  It's done it's job, it's 25 years on, don't let something from when you're 21 define your whole life.

BTW - I'm hoping to propose/take part in a workshop on 'looking after yourself' for a future conference based on the "wellness recovery action plan".  I've been talking to Gitte Klitgaard about this - if it interests you, do let us know more.

On retreat

As that 21 year old, I'd made plans with a friend named Krishna to do a retreat at the year's end to a monastery.  Stuff happened and distracted me, and I never quite did it.  I found out about a local Buddhist monastery and arranged a retreat of a few days there, away from everything but my head and hard work (no phones allowed).

I have an absolutely great wife, because she understands I need to do things like this, and she gives me room to do so.  She was a little apprehensive with "you're not planning to run away and become a monk are you?".

I'm actually Pagan, and as such we're encouraged to be eclectic, to learn a little about everyone's faith as well as much psychology as we can handle.  It's all so we understand common elements, human needs to what makes us who we are, how we yearn for a place in something bigger than just us (in part as a way to tap into something immortal).

The monastery was an incredible experience, though not quite for the reasons I'd expected.  There are a lot of rules, and a lot of routine.  I got so much wrong to start with, but there was understanding of that, and I'd have a lot of little rules explained to me, so I'd get better at it - things like how to sit in a room with a Buddha (never point your feet in it's direction) and that you need to bow three times on entering and exiting a room.

When I was 21, the rules and the routine would have been really tempting.  The world is unpredictable and at times brutal, but we try as human beings to impose some level or order on it with rules and routine.

What I realised is as a human being I tend to embrace a level of chaos more than I'd think, and especially as a tester, my life is closer to some kind of trickster god (for example Loki or Coyote) than I'd think.  It was an interesting observation which I'm still reflecting on.

But also it made me appreciate choice.  I wake when I want, I have breakfast and lunch when I want, and I can choose what they are.  I have made a choice to be with my wife and my son.  I choose to go to work each day.

Life in a monastery is structure, rules and routine.  But there is little choice.  And choice is a freedom and a blessing, but used badly a curse.  But I like being able to choose.

Learning to let go

I talked a lot about this previously here.  I learned about defining what I'm responsible for, and if something falls outside of this sphere, I will escalate it in the first part, but be wary of letting it distract me.

Understanding what motivates me

This is a weird one.  I'm a passionate and creative person - I've made this blog a reasonable success, but a lot about it worries me, and always has.  Behind the blog is a whole series of trackers which tell me what's popular, which articles people like most etc.

What's always bugged me is the most popular onces aren't always those I feel most emotionally invested in, and it makes me feel upset at times.  My posts typically get hundreds to thousands of reads, which should make me do a fist pump.

On the other side of the coin, I run a wargaming YouTube channel called The War Bunker with my son, and we put a huge amount of energy into this - we've painted a room downstairs for this.  But many of our videos only get 20-50 views.

So why do we love working on content for The War Bunker?  We spend a lot of time trying things out, and maybe that's half the thrill.  We've both become better at talking to camera, video editing, and putting more effort into our model work.

So why can you not be "successful" i.e. get lots of views in a project, and still find it rewarding?

It's made me question in myself what motivates me.  Trying things, wanting to push the limits of what I do (something I do a lot on this blog).  Back at work, it's made me think more how Richard Feynman's "the thrill of finding things out" motivates me.  I've managed to work in the last year with a lot of different arms of testing - things like performance, availability, accessibility, mobile, reliability - and it's been a thrill finding my feet.

So it seems I like a challenge, and I love doing a bit of research and development in testing approaches!  Especially in strategy.  I'm going to be sharing some of my "secret sauce" this year at TestBash Brighton.

Pushing my writing

To me, 2016 was very much about pushing what I could achieve in writing, picking up from my motivation talk.

I managed to pull off a huge series of articles in Java and automation.  Automation isn't finished yet, because I've had distractions, but it will be.

The work on those two threads inspired me to try bigger.  I've talked here about my plan for 2017 to launch an astronomy blog, which is currently planned out, with about the first third written up ...

On top of my 100+ blog posts for 2016, not a bad achievement.  Then I read a post from Dr Black, which inspired me.

I dusted off a novel I'd written 20 pages for and had started work on in 2003.  I'd attempted to work in earnest on it in 2008, but lost a lot of material to a laptop crash.  It's so old that Violet had helped me on the first part and it's initial concepts.

The problem was my novel called Melody Harper's Moon was a neat idea, but it lacked a defined story arc.  Dr Black's tweet gave me an idea, I'd already had a theme in there she'd tweeted about, but I decided to bring it more to the fore, and make it a central theme of the book.  I posted an extract here which seemed to fit the mood of the day.

Writing a novel was hard work - almost three months of coming home and trying to lay down an hour's writing a night.  I filled out my key pivotal scenes, then filled it all in, changing scenes as I went.  I would even write sections on the train and email them to myself to add later.

I got the first draft together, and I've sent a copy to a limited pool of alpha readers to get opinion on how the story itself holds together (I'm not worrying about grammar at this point).

If you're interested in being involved as a beta reader, do get in touch, I'd love to get your input!


A team of us from Datacom entered the Software Testing World Cup, and won our heat - you can see our winning exit report here.  This meant we got to go to Germany for the finals, as well as to Agile Testing Days.

Both were an amazing experience - we ended up coming third, which we're really pleased about.  It was also a great way to travel and bond with people within my organisation.  It was really nice to not be travelling alone.

I was blown away though to finally meet in person Lisa Crispin, someone who has been so supportive of my work, a great person to sound out ideas when I was a sole tester at Kiwibank, and who encouraged me to participate in her book with Janet.  What amazed me is seeing the number of people at conference for whom her voice and her encouragement were important.  It was also an absolute blast to meet her husband Bob, who I absolutely clicked with.

For me the amazing thing about the conference was the many private conversations and sharing of ideas which happened during the week we were there.  I met people like Gitte Klitgaard, Janet & Jack Gregory, Ash Coleman, an old work colleague Kevin, Matt Heusser, Lalit Bhamore, Sam & Concetta & Karen from S Africa, George Dinwiddie, multiple amazing Dragans (you could call it a Dragan's den), Meike & Hagrid, Keith Klain, Huib Schoots, Rob van Steenbergen (who was in the winning world cup team), Pete Walen and too many more (this is fast becoming an attendee list).

Something I was glad I did, I took a logbook, but knew I'd never fill it up, so went around people and just asked them to write in.  It was a nice thing, it made me remember to get around everyone on the last day (I can get a little shy when I'm tired), and also is a neat souvenir of everyone.

What was really lovely was a few people didn't know who I was (I was there to compete really over present), but when they worked out I blog as TestSheepNZ, they each had something I'd written which they'd found particularly important and inspiring.

I told Janet Gregory how important that feedback was.  As I'd said under motivation, I'm not really motivated by numbers.  If I wanted large readers, I could post, "oh my God, you'll never believe what happened to Justin Beiber".  Being reminded my writing can make a difference.  I'm hoping whatever I do with Melody Harper's Moon, it's something you'll get to experience.

Looking forward - politics

A lot of personal growth, but there is that specter about how politics is going, and that's unnerving.  Some of that fueled my writing within Melody Harper's Moon as a reaction.

Whilst on the retreat, there was a morning meditation which talked about "don't hang onto today, nothing is permanent, and things can change because that's the way of things".  Something that helped me.  The lesson though is as someone who is liberal, I expect people to "come to their senses" - didn't we all?

Meanwhile a lot of misinformation is being used to fuel votes.  Poltics is going to have to be something we're all going to get used to talking more about - I know it's considered social death in places.  But the risk of not having intelligent discussion is that people will otherwise just squeeze in misinformed opinion as solid fact.

I've been so alarmed by the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's election, even though they're going on in another country, that I decided and joined the NZ Green party on the last day of 2016.  I don't 100% agree with them, I don't 100% agree with any party, but I agree with more of what they say than I disagree.

I'm not saying you should join your local Green party, but if either of those votes alarmed you, I'd encourage you to get motivated.  The far right has been obstructive and on their soap box for years hoping to get to this position.  If we want real change, we need to do likewise.

Now Playing: "Changes", David Bowie

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Bless You Carrie Fisher

Sometimes it seems that 2016 has been a cursed year for celebrities.  For myself as a child of the 70s/80s, it's felt like watching as a piece at a time, part of my childhood has died from David Bowie, to Prince, to UK radio personality Terry Wogan.

It seems that 2016 had one last nasty left.  Carrie Fisher fell ill on a long haul flight from London to Los Angeles. The whole world held their breath, but this morning I'm waking up to a feed full of "Princess Leia dead".

It's always awkward when an actor dies.  As with Leonard Nimoy, you can't help talking a little about the role that makes them famous, and we will.  But there is an aspect to Carrie which is the reason behind this post.

Let's talk about Leia

Okay - in a nutshell, Star Wars isn't really that original a concept, 'let's rescue the Princess' is a common theme in fantasy, and okay to mix things up it was done in space.  But let's talk about that princess, and how she broke the mould.

You see until that time in the 1970s, 'the princess archetype' would be a helpless woman who the bad guys henchmen would just grab and throw in the dungeon.  In Star Wars, when a stormtrooper said 'grab her', this princess came out fighting, shooting him dead to rights.

Groundbreaking for the time.  But of course she wasn't allowed to be too groundbreaking.  Where a guy would just continue to shoot it out with the villains, Princess Leia then attempts a feeble run away and is shot in the back.  I guess we weren't ready for a female as an equal billing action hero.

Leia turns out to be in charge of a resistance, the Rebel Alliance.  She's tortured, blackmailed with the destruction of her home planet, but doesn't give in.  She refuses to be intimidated or broken.  She never pleads for herself, only when others are threatened.  She's is undeniably feisty and barely recognisable from your typical fairytale princess.

When she is rescued, she picks up a gun, and starts shooting it out with the boys.  She proves her feistiness again by having some of the best lines during their escape from the Death Star, "you came in that? You're braver than I thought".

Some friends at school hated that about her, she's been rescued, and she's just bitchy.  But then again she's breaking 'the princess archetype' by not just throwing herself at the guys who rescued her.  [Notice she kisses Luke once for luck escaping the Death Star, but apart from that any romance is in Luke's head.  At the end she hugs Luke for destroying the Death Star, but it's more that of a friend]

It broke the mould of the time, but like I said, today it seems dated.  Leia is the only one of the band repeatedly shot.  And in Return Of The Jedi, she even turns the table on 'rescue the princess' by being instrumental in 'rescue the smuggler' of Han, although because she's a girl she soon needs rescuing herself.  [Even then, she manages to single handedly take down Jabba The Hutt, without needing a lightsabre]

Princess Leia paved the way for future heroines who have become a staple of subsequent movies.  Heroines like Brave's Merida, Shrek's Princess Fiona, and of course Star Wars Padme Amidala and Rey.

Look at Leia - Padme - Rey, each one is allowed to be more daring than the next, require less rescuing, be more capable of effecting their own escape.  This shows a kind of normalisation.  But it all started with Leia.

Let's talk about Carrie

So Star Wars happened in the 70s and 80s, but after Return Of The Jedi, most of the cast seemed to vanish.  Only Harrison Ford seemed to be keeping busy, although Carrie and Mark Hamill seemed to be taking the Rutger Hauer route into occasional direct-to-video low budget movies.

Carrie Fisher seemed to vanish.  There were a lot of rumours in magazines I read about her 'having problems'.  Drugs and mental problems were loosely talked about, it felt like another Hollywood casualty, someone we'd get over as we all just moved on.

But she never quite vanished, she still persisted in media, talking about her issues - she'd become addicted to cocaine, she was diagnosed as 'manic depressive' or bipolar in today's terms.  In another era, this would have been career suicide, she'd have been shunned.  But she wasn't - although of course she had more than a fair share of 'haters', some of which rose to a head with plenty of unfair criticism aimed at her during Star Wars VII The Force Unleashed.  Using dialogue worthy of her onscreen character, she rose above it, whilst getting in a few well place quips which placed her as a feminist Oscar Wild witicist at times.

Over the last two decades she acted less, and write more - Postcards From The Edge was semi-autobiographical.  She also helped to edit and doctor screenplays.

Carrie Fisher along with British comedian Spike Milligan were the first public celebrities I knew who talked openly about their mental health struggles.  And they did so in an era where mental health was stigmatised.  A common tool they used was their sense of humour to get through the bleak parts, but also to help communicate what they were going through.

Mental health is an issue I've discussed a lot on this blog in the past.  I've been overwhelmed with the reception I've had to some of that writing, it's an issue the IT community is passionate about doing better in.  At the recent Agile Test Days conference I ended up talking a lot with others about the subject, listening to their stories, all of which moved me a lot.  But without a doubt, people want to talk about mental health because it's important to them - they want to be open when they have issues, and it be okay to seek help rather than suffer in silence out of pride, feeling they have a form of mental leprosy which will see them banished.

To me, Carrie Fisher was a pioneer talking about her issues in an era when it was taboo, and she risked and experienced heavy stigmatisation.  Her bipolar might have laid her low at times, but she proved to be stronger than that.  She was braver than Princess Leia going up against Darth Vader in this.  She broke the taboos of the time, she showed that 'it's okay to talk about this stuff'.

It's for that reason that in a year when we've lost so many celebrities, her loss has hit hardest.

Farewell Carrie Fisher,

Carrie talked with Stephen Fry about her experiences as part of his program 'The Secret Life Of The Manic Depressive'.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

On the death of Fidel Castro

I have complex thoughts on the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro this weekend. Once upon a time there was a man who was so outraged by the Batista dictatorship that he rallied his people to revolution.

People flocked to him because people in desperation yearn for change, because change brings hope of a better future.

Unfortunately in what's a common pattern, such regimes bring a little change, before becoming stuck.

Suddenly all the talk of power for the people, is seen to really become power for one man and a limited family of cronies.

Karl Marx's writing, the original Communist, are about trying to create a fairer society.  One where there is less of a rift between the rich, and the poor workers who create that wealth.  They're not books written by a power-crazed individual.  He lived in a squalor that was responsible for the premature death of four of his seven children.  Fundamentally his writing yearns to address that terrible injustice.

Unfortunately, his writing is idea fuel for revolution against unjust regimes and those which create real suffering in the general population.  But we've seen such 'Communism' mis-sold throughout the world. No country which has called itself Communist has really addressed injustice or delivered on the ideals of a democratically elected and accountable government.

The litmus tests for such revolutions are if one man or his family stays in power too long, or if one family controls too much. No amount of 'on behalf of the people' can smokescreen this.

If a revolution promises to lift you out of squalor, but you find you still have to queue down the street for bread, something is wrong.

Especially if those in power, talking about 'for the people' live in excessive luxury.

Right now, a revolution of sorts has happened in America with the election of Trump.  A lot of talk from people who voted for him about how he will bring change, from not being part of the status quo.  They've placed a lot of hope in him, hope that he will bring change.

Never stop yearning for a better tomorrow, but be careful who you trust to deliver.

Now Playing: "World leader pretend", REM

Friday, November 11, 2016

Sophie says, "buckle up"

It's been a difficult week for a lot of people, with the news of the victory of Donald Trump as future President of America.

To see someone get elected as the head of the most powerful country on earth, off the back of such a divisive platform is terrifying.  Much like Brexit earlier this year, the victory of a far-right agenda has sent a signal that it's okay to openly practice prejudice.

Many women, Mexicans, blacks, liberals, gays and transgender are terrified.  Trumps platform has sought to control and limit their freedom.  Sadly incidents like the one Angie Jones tweeted below have been common,

One of the reasons that my blog has been quiet of late is that I've been working on a book.  It's about a girl who moves to the Moon, gets bullied, and thinks about moving back to Earth.

Rereading a chapter, I thought it'd be good to share - it works out of context of the story.  Enjoy...

I got up early to write this – been thinking all night.  My CompPad is still not connecting, but last night felt like being reunited with two of my dearest friends.

My grandfather has a love of books – the old kind made of paper – and he has rooms just filled with them, on every kind of bookshelf that will fit.  He's passed on a lot to me, but I could only bring two.  Just two!  Being reunited with my case means they're back in my hands, and I sat up reading parts of them again.

'I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings' is a book by Maya Angelou, which is all an autobiography of her as a girl growing up in America during the early 20th Century.  It was a very different America to the one we visited in '81.  Being black was basically to be a second class citizen, little better than a slave.  And yet she and her family refuse to be beaten.

Being part-black, I'm quite glad that experience is so alien to me today.  I don't think our family ever settled in America.  We came from Jamaica – grandad keeps a lot of histories he's been told, and I really wish I'd written down.  He says there are stories of how when our family first moved to Britain in the mid-20th Century, there was a bit of segregation.  It wasn't unusual for there to be signs for 'no coloureds', and people did their best to avoid having a black neighbour.  I've read the famous speech from a British politician talking about 'rivers of blood' over the tension of having black people living with white as equals – it's really an ugly and shameful period.

My other book is about a scarier period, there was a very scary regime called Fascism which involved half the world in a war in the 20th Century.  It was vicious and brutal – it waged war, and systematically exterminated anyone they saw as different to them.

Against all that brutality was a girl, just a girl.  A girl who wanted to stand apart.  If I could have a time machine, and meet just one person, it'd be her, Sophie Scholl.

Whilst the world was locked in one of the largest wars in history, she and her friends believed one of the most brutal and twisted regimes the world had ever seen could be undermined through non-violence and the truth.  Whilst others capitated, she resisted, and paid with her life.

In an era where depravity and genocide could show how low we could sink as a species, she showed the world how brightly we can shine.  She was just a girl.  A girl who wasn't afraid.

And she was right – non-violence was the way.  We saw it with Mahatma Gandhi taking on the British Empire, to secure freedom for India.  We saw it with Martin Luther King taking on the fight for civil rights which would consign Maya Angelou's experiences to the dustbin.  We've seen it in this century with Mesi Mawiyah and Namdak Bhuti.

She showed the way.  And damn it, I feel I know what she'd say to me about my situation – not to run away.  To give it my all, and try my best to settle here.

She'd also not be too impressed about the whole business of me punching one of my classmates.  It's not really very non-violence of me is it?

No – I'm not sure her or Maya would think much of me wanting to run away.  And I know they're right.  Here goes!

Read more about the amazing Sophie Scholl, and other brave members of the White Rose here.

Be inspired by Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings here.

Now playing - "Don't dream it's over", Crowded House

Monday, October 24, 2016

Culture - the "pass the salt" incident

I was incredibly fortunate to go to lunch last week with Kate Falanga, Parimala Hariprasad, and Stephen Janaway who were all in town for the amazing WeTest conference.

As you can imagine, there was an incredible amount of "shop talk" about testing, but a small incident, which proved to be thought provoking.  Food arrived.  I needed salt.  It was on the other side of the table.  Controversial!

So I asked Kate if she'd pass the salt, immediately wishing I hadn't.  For a moment, she waited for me to take it from her hand, before putting it down on the table.  I realised me waiting for her to put it down might have seemed a little rude, so explained myself.

"In England", then eyed up Stephen, who's from a different part, "or at least in the North of England, it's considered to be bad manners to take the salt from someone's hand".  I thought back to being childed by my grandmother (we called her "Grandee"), a veritable clone of the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey, right down to the rules of serving tea.  [By the way, even workmen were served tea in china cups, due to her strict NO MUGS rule]

Supposedly salt was linked to warding off the devil, so to take it from someone's hand invited ill fortune.

This intrigued Parimala, where in India it's considered polite to put either salt or a knife down, rather than to pass directly.  Similar to me, she's raised up to consider how spilling salt is considered to be ... well she called it "inauspicious", I went "doom".

Representing as we did America, India, the UK and New Zealand, this led to a lot of discussion about culture, and how as a international community we need to not take lightly or assume someone from another part of the rules has our same values.

When something as trivial as passing the salt has different rules of ettiquette for different parts of the world, it's a reminder to take nothing for granted.  When talking internationally, it's always good to talk about our relative cultures - what's considered rude, what's considered polite - to avoid misunderstandings.  This is something we should be doing, whether we're talking about ourselves in a multinational setting, or about ourselves within a cross-discipline setting.  Sharing of our values, helps to form a common understanding of core values.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

You don't always need a justification for a test ...

I was just listening to a Neil Degrasse Tyson lecture whilst out in my garden stargazing, and he had this amazing story I knew needed to be added here.

As you can imagine - there's huge competition for time on the space-based Hubble telescope.  Not just anyone can use time on it - and typically you need to put forward a business case for it, something like,

  • We want to observe the following nebula, to look for any stars which might be in the process of forming
  • We want to look at this star over the following days to look for exoplanets
  • We want to get a better view of the following supernova remnant

Obviously the director in charge has to queue up these requests as best they can, but they're also allowed a small about of time, that they can allocate for any whimsical reason they want.

So the director tried something radical - they'd pick an area of the sky and stare at it for 10 days.  And for something even more daring, they're try to point away from the spiral of the Milky Way (our galaxy), away from any star clusters, or galactic clusters.

They'd try to find the most boring part of the sky, and just see what's there.

The area they looked at represents the amount of sky you can see through a narrow eyehole in a needle ... at arms length.

And what did they find?  Galaxies ... thousands of them ...

This went on to become known as the Hubble deep field, and for some is considered one of the most important discoveries in the lifetime of the telescope.  It confirmed and made real what we'd suspected about the sheer size of the cosmos in which we live in.  Every one of those points of light is a galaxy, comparable to our own of hundreds of billions of stars.  So many thousands of galaxies, all seen through the eye of a far away needle.

And this discovery wasn't one that you could have been able to justify the business case for.  It was whimsical, but NASA allowed it, because they know sometimes you find amazing things, just giving some time for curiosity.

It reminds me of something James Bach told me earlier in the year, you don't always need a justification for a test.  Indeed sometimes if you're about to try something and someone says "what problems are you expecting", it's easy to talk yourself out of it.  But it's important to give ourselves a little bit of time to try things out.

As long as it's not an unmanageable portion of your day, there's always time for a "I just wonder if..." experiment.

Now Playing: "The Universal", Blur