Thursday, October 15, 2020

The obsession with adrenalin

Today my employer arranged a guest speaker ostensibly to talk about resilience. Actually, what he mainly discussed was thrillseeking. Not only is he a medical doctor, he is also a base jumper and adventurer.

I don't understand this corporate obsession with adrenaline junkies. They are venerated as role models and staff are sent to scary team bonding sessions involving abseiling or other scary activities to somehow improve their productivity.

As the speaker said at the start of his talk, some people are genetically programmed to seek out risky thrills. And some people aren't. But as today's talk illustrated, those who are addicted to the rush appear to be determined to hook us all up to their drug of choice. 

And it is an addiction. There are many examples of sports people and adventures who, once the source of their rush finishes through injury, age or other misfortune, fall into destructive behaviours in a quest to return to their previous highs. 

Don't get me wrong, the human race needs people who will take risks and push the boundaries of what is possible. From the bottom of the deep ocean to beyond our atmosphere, the human race has been propelled forward by those who conquer their fears. 

But do we need everyone to be like them? Or should we delight in those who are satisfied with simple pleasures? Is a doctor who is satisfied in life with the thrill of a difficult diagnosis any worse than one with a passion for jumping off mountains? I'd argue that they might very well be better. 

Most organisations tend to be risk averse. Decisions have financial, legal and human consequences. There are opportunities to reap the rewards of bold decision making, but that is not enough on its own without the due diligence behind it. 

A large part of my job is cleaning up after others who seek big impact without considering the long term consequences of their decisions. Like someone who reaches the top of Mount Everest they get the glory, but it's often those who sit in the background that do the groundwork to make reaching the pinnacle possible. 

Does it matter that I hate roller coasters and heights, high speeds and big drops? That I get my thrills from solving a complex technical issue? So long as there is a willingness to explore new possibilities, to adapt and learn. To consider the risk and the reward and make a decision accordingly. 

There is the classic tale of childhood, the dare to smoke a cigarette. Maybe you might find it pleasurable, but is it wrong to look at the probable consequences and just say no? Does it really matter if most of us never go bungy jumping or sky diving? 

We can celebrate those who put their lives on the line, but they shouldn't be our only heroes. 

Friday, May 22, 2020


They came for me in the evening.

“I’m sorry to tell you this Mrs Saad, but your daughter has tested positive. It is vital that we take her to the facility where she can receive proper care immediately.”

“What about us?” my mother asks, the concern on her face obvious, despite her efforts to hide it.

“You and the rest of the family have tested negative. You are welcome to be tested again at one of the clinics but we have no reason to believe you are at any additional risk, despite your daughter’s results.

Now Cass, please go and pack some changes of clothes and any toiletries you need. Unfortunately, we will have to ask you to leave your phone and any other electronic devices at home as they can’t be disinfected properly.”

“But how can I contact my parents?” I ask. I can’t imagine going anywhere without my phone.

“There are telephones at the facility that you will be allowed to use. Now please come along quickly.”

One of the testers, his face obscured behind his protective mask, takes my bag of clothes from me “for sterilization” as I’m led up to the waiting bus where the other children are sitting down, a few chatting quietly, some watching a movie on the screen, most ignoring it. Some have tears, sobbing silently to themselves.

My parents barely touch me as I say my farewells, afraid of me, of the virus inside.

That was the last time I saw them.

It started without anyone paying it much heed. A sniffle, maybe a mild fever, the usual tiredness from a bug. There was nothing to worry about, nothing to do about it. Everyone gets a cold. All but the unluckiest recover without any lasting effects.

Then one day, a couple of weeks later, you’d be wheezing in the hospital struggling to breathe. Or you’d simply drop dead. The virus triggered your immune system, sent it haywire, attacking your blood vessels, your lungs or your brain.

They tried the drugs. But by the time you knew you were sick with the virus it was the immune system they needed to stop, and when you do that it’s every other disease that’ll get you. Especially when the medical system is stretched beyond breaking point.

The bus pulls into what looks to be an army base surrounded by razor wire fences and masked soldiers with weapons at the ready. I was already terrified and this did nothing to reassure me. How long did I have? Were they going to try out some experimental treatment on us? Or was it just a lot closer to where they would bury us?

The virus, officially labelled abv-456, was almost always fatal. Normally that would stop it in its tracks. But this was an devious little almost-lifeform. It was mild enough that you barely knew you had it while you were at your most infectious. And infectious it was.

We’d learned from the ‘rona, or at least we thought we had. Business, schools and community facilities were closed, people stayed home. Factories were switched to churning out protective gear and tests were prepared, vaccines promised.

People still died.

After filtering out of the bus we are made to queue at the entrance of a large hall, like the one where we have sport and assembly at school. As I reach the entrance a chunky band is strapped around my wrist. I am instructed not to remove it. Then I am given a small drink of sweet fluid.

I step through and join the crowd of other kids milling around inside. Everyone looks to be between twelve and the late teens in age.

Once the hall is full the doors are shut behind us. The lights are darkened except for those above the stage at the front. A man wearing an inflatable hood stands on the stage.

“Good evening boys and girls,” his amplified voice echoes around the hall. “I know that many of you are very concerned about your test results and of being separated from your parents. I want to reassure you that you have nothing to fear and will be well looked after here.”

“Each one of you was given a treatment for cmv-456 as you entered the hall tonight. This treatment is experimental, but safe, and we are confident that it will cure you. Just in case however, you will need to remain at this facility until we are entirely certain that you cannot infect anyone else.”

Other lessons had been learned from the ‘rona. Lessons like people not wanting to lose their jobs and businesses. Their frustration of changing routines. Their willingness to listen to conspiracies over facts.

And those at the top worried about their stocks dropping, about their influence waning. So they quietly locked themselves away and ensured that, this time, the governments would follow their rules.

“My fellow citizens. At the start of this crisis I promised you strong action to fight this pandemic and I can assure you that I have never wavered from that commitment. Today I am informed that we have completed testing the entire population for abv-456.

Whilst we await the results of these tests I would like to share with the public some excellent news. Our scientists have discovered that some of us are fortunate to have natural immunity to cmv-456. They do not appear to be able to catch the virus.

Researchers are working feverishly to replicate this immunity so that we can deliver a vaccine for all our citizens. But in the meantime we need those lucky citizens to share their good fortune with all of us.

From today all naturally immune citizens will be informed of their status and classified as essential workers. You will need to attend your nearest Jobs Centre where you will be tasked with providing the essential services on which our economy depends.

All naturally immune citizens aged twelve and above are expected to comply with this request. I regret that this service will be compulsory and that there will be penalties for anybody who refuses to support their fellow citizens.”

They lied to us. We aren’t the sick ones. That treatment was sugar water. There isn’t a treatment, there’s no vaccine. The scientists have said as much.

I was a good student. I could have been a doctor or a manager. But they don’t give us any education now, just work. Last week it was burying the bodies. Now it’s the mines. We don’t even get properly paid, just an allowance that we never see. And they keep us isolated from the norms, as we call them. We might infect them, they say. As if we could.

You see, we’ve got the survival adaptation. But you know those so-called leaders? Those politicians, billionaires, thought-leaders, visionaries? The ones they pay the big bucks to make decisions? They don’t get there by adapting. They’re too scared to. They bludgeon down anyone else who might out-compete them.

They’re afraid of us.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Blade Runner and London

One good thing about the pandemic lock down is having the time to catch up on my outstanding entertainment list. Listening to the Art of the Score podcast on Vangelis' score to Blade Runner I am remembering my own connection to the movie's music.

Back in July 2009 I was on my first solo overseas trip, to London for a week to attend a workshop. My wife and baby son were at home while I stayed at a pokey London hotel in Earls Court without summer air-conditioning. I existed in an almost time free zone, attending the workshop or exploring London during the day, sleeping when I got back to the hotel, waking in the middle of the night to video chat with B and Alex before returning to bed.

Early in my stay I popped into the Virgin Megastore and purchased a couple of soundtracks: Jack Nitzsche's Starman and the three disc Blade Runner set.

London isn't really a city that you would associate with the imagery of the dark 2019 Los Angeles portrayed in Blade Runner, one of my favourite movies. Yet it worked very well as a soundtrack for this trip.

It's fortunate that I had purchased a DVD burner in Singapore during my stopover, as I was otherwise reliant on my Walkman phone and Samsung MP3 player for music. I hooked the burner, bought for backup purposes, and ripped the music to my very recently purchased and very slim Sony VAIO P laptop and plugged in the also slim TDK flat travel speakers, the VAIO P speakers being tiny and poor.

I love to fall asleep to music, but B doesn't share my tastes, so I took this opportunity to do so. So every night I would drift off to the hypnotic tones of Blade Runner and Starman. And this tiny room, warm with summer heat, would be transformed into an exotically dreamy Middle Eastern locale with Tales of the Future or Damask Rose.

My flight home was via Hong Kong, the city that apparently inspired Blade Runner's canyons of neon. I arrived in Hong Kong early in the morning, exhausted and needing a sleep. The hotel desk at the airport recommended the Novotel CityGate nearby.

The filtered golden brown light of Hong Kong's dusky air recalled the first meeting of Deckard and Rachel at the Tyrell Corporation. Too exhausted to do anything more, I opened my laptop on the table, lay down on the pristine bed, and fell into the most delicious of sleeps to the music of Blade Runner.

Later on, before I almost missed my final flight home, I walked the streets of Mong Kok under those neon lights of Los Angeles 2019.

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