Why Dylan’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways” Deserves To Exist

Numerous times during this pandemic, I’ve seen some people put forth the idea that it would be best to let the virus run its course, infect us all, and bugger the consequences. Sure, some older and more vulnerable people might die, but at least the economy will be OK, and we’ll all still be in work.

It is, of course, a stupid idea. Not only does it ignore the economic consequences of allowing so many people to die (which many economists have calculated would be worse than the lock-down itself) but it ignores the cultural implications of letting the virus doom the boomers.

Bob Dylan’s new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is a case in point.

To say it’s his best album in years is possibly a little unfair. Late-career Dylan is full of highlights, from the bluesy-majestic sounds of Modern Times and Tempest to his trilogy of jazz standard albums, Dylan has been delivering music of consistent quality and authority.

But there’s something different about Rough and Rowdy Ways. There’s an emotional vulnerability to his new album that I’d argue has been missing for most of his career. It really feels like Dylan is speaking directly to you through these songs, rather than painting distant allegories with metaphor and dreamlike imagery.

There’s still some of that going on in Rough and Rowdy Ways, but he’s using his poetry differently, filling it with pop-cultural references that read like one man’s personal biography. Sure, some of his lyrics aren’t as “woke” as some people might want from a songwriter in 2020, but the guy’s 79; give him a break. But the music is sublime. In fact, I think it may very well be the most musically sophisticated album Dylan has ever released.

Look. Musical taste is very subjective. But having listened to Rough and Rowdy Ways a few times now, I know my life would be the poorer for not having it in my collection. Sure, it’s just an album of popular music, and I know there are more important things to worry about. But my point still stands; the idea that older people are past their best and incapable of delivery something of value is just a stupid, stupid idea.

And it’s not just Dylan. People like David Bowie, Paul Simon, Brian Wilson, Roger Waters, and Neil Young have all released some of their best work as late-career artists.

And it’s not just music, of course. Many authors and poets and painters have produced their best work later in life. And I’m sure there are examples of older people delivering lifetime bests in other vocations as well.

So don’t give me all this bullshite about sacrificing the old to save the young. Everyone has the capacity to be of value to our world, no matter their age or gender or race. We’re all in this together. 

How Sustainable Am I?

One of the unexpected benefits of being in lockdown is using this period as a sustainability baseline. We’re not driving as much as we usually do. We’re not travelling by air. But we’re also using more electricity at home and ordering more goods online.

So, how am I doing?

As I’ve written before, my lockdown life isn’t that different from my pre-pandemic life. And I imagine my post-pandemic life won’t be significantly different either. But by reviewing my ecological and carbon sustainability while in lockdown, it will give me a baseline to work from when our post-pandemic lifestyles become more apparent.

How I Reviewed My Sustainability

I used two separate online tools to help me assess my current level of sustainability.

  1. The Global Footprint Network’s Ecological Footprint calculator.
    This is a fun and easy-to-use website that helps you calculate how many tonnes of carbon dioxide you put into the air, and also tells you how many Earths we would all need to support your life lifestyle.
  2. The Carbon Footprint Ltd carbon offset calculator
    This website asks for details about your electricity and gas use, how many kilometres you fly each year, and how much you spend on food to calculate your carbon footprint.

My Ecological Footprint

I try to have a small ecological footprint. I don’t eat red meat very often, though I do eat poultry a few times a week, and eat dairy every day. I avoid packaged foods and try and buy local produce as much as possible. My wife and I are relatively frugal spenders and only buy things when we need them. We don’t own a car and don’t go away on trips.

Not surprisingly, we did well on our ecological footprint. According to the ecological footprint calculator, if everyone on Earth consumed as much as we do, then the whole of humanity would only consume 80% of the Earth’s total resources each year.

my ecological footprint

Of course, this is a very simplistic summary, but still good to know on a personal level. But we’re not typical. Most people in advanced western nations consume much more than my wife and I do. They would all need to give up so much to live as we do. No car, no travelling, minimal consumption; a bit like being in lockdown.

But now that our lockdown restrictions are easing, most people are starting to go back to their unsustainable pre-lockdown habits.

That’s a sobering thought.

But what about our carbon footprint?

Having a small ecological footprint is all well and good, but what if our carbon footprint is still contributing to global warming. So we then sat down and took the carbon footprint test; this time the news wasn’t so good.

Although our carbon footprint is lower than the average Australian, it’s still way more than the average European, and way more than the world target.

my carbon footprint

The most frustrating thing about this is how little control we have over our carbon footprint. Because of the failure of successive coalition governments to reduce Australia’s carbon footprint, we still rely way too much on fossil fuels. And no matter how much I might try and reduce my carbon footprint, while we still produce energy from non-renewable sources, I might as well be trying to empty Warragamba Dam with a spoon. Because all the food I buy and all the goods I consume all rely on our outdated non-renewable energy sources to varying degrees.

So, What’s Next?

To achieve our goal of being carbon neutral, my wife and I have no other choice than to purchase some carbon offsets.

These are surprisingly inexpensive. From the quotes we’ve started to research, to offset our carbon footprint might cost us between $150 and $300 Aussie dollars depending on who we choose and what type of offset to select. But we still have some research to do before committing our money. We want to make sure we choose the best carbon offset for us.

But that will be the subject of another post. So, watch this space!

Avoiding A Second Wave Downunder

We’ve been very fortunate in Australia so far to avoid the worst of the pandemic. So much so, all state governments are beginning to loosen their lockdown restrictions. But this risks exposing ourselves to a second wave of the virus. 

So how do we avoid the second wave? Is it up to governments, or health authorities, or businesses? No, it’s up to us as individuals. How we behave over the next few weeks and months will determine if we avoid a second wave or not.

Knowledge Is Power

I can’t emphasise this enough. The more you learn about COVID-19 — the more you understand how it works and how it spreads — the better you’ll be able to avoid catching or spreading the virus. Understanding the relative risks of contagion in different settings will become increasingly more critical as lockdown restrictions are eased.

Understanding The Virus

I highly recommend reading this article by Erin Bromage, an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. In the article, he gives examples of the most common scenarios for spreading the virus.

Basically, the most common way the virus is spread is person to person — coughing, sneezing, talking, singing — especially in enclosed spaces. That’s why we can’t go to pubs and bars and cinemas and theatres. That’s why cafes and restaurants have been closed for sit-down customers. And it’s why people who can work remotely have been encouraged to do so.

Contrastingly, there’s much less risk of catching the virus when you’re outside, so long as you maintain social distancing. So going for walks and exercising is low risk. That’s why beaches have been open for swimming, surfing and exercising, but not for sunbathing or picnics or socialising.

Then there are the medium-risk scenarios. Places where people congregate, but where there’s enough space to practice social distancing. Supermarkets and shopping malls and places like that. So long as people aren’t queuing up for long periods, shopping isn’t a high-risk activity, but nor is it low-risk. 

Look At The Stats

As well as understanding how the virus spreads, it’s also important to know where the virus is spreading. 

We’re lucky here in New South Wales because the level of testing being undertaken is amongst the highest in the world. Consequently, there are heaps of stats at our fingertips to help us make risk assessments. For example, there’s the NSW COVID-19 Heat Map that provides details of COVID-19 cases per postcode, including the number of active cases in your neighbourhood.

By looking at the stats every day, you’ll begin to get a feel for how things are going in your neighbourhood and surrounding suburbs, and keep an eye on any new clusters and make changes to your daily routine where necessary.

Understand Good Pandemic Habits

The last vital piece of knowledge to avoiding a second-wave Downunder is to maintain good pandemic habits. We should all know the score by now. Practice social distancing. Don’t touch your face with your hands. Use hand sanitiser when you’re out and about. Wash your hands whenever you come home, and then again throughout the day. Cough into your sleeve. Never go out if you feel sick. And get yourself tested whenever you feel unwell.

Make all of these things habit rather than something we feel obliged to do is another key to avoiding a second-wave of infection. 

Daily Risk Assessments

So, as lockdown restrictions are eased, it’s up to all of us to make daily risk assessments and act on those accordingly. These are the decisions we’ll all need to make for the foreseeable future; each and every day.

1 – Am I feeling unwell?

If I’m feeling unwell, or if I’m showing any symptoms — sore throat, runny nose, aches and pains, fatigue — then I’m cancelling all plans, and I’m off to get tested, and then quarantine myself until I get my results back. Simple as that. No exceptions!

But if I’m feeling well…

2 – Have I Checked The Latest Stats And News?

Before I go outside, I make sure I look at the latest stats and read the latest news updates, so that I’m aware of any new clusters or outbreaks. Today as I write this, there were no new cases detected in NSW, no clusters near where I live, and there haven’t been any new cases detected in my part of Sydney for over a month. So my assessment is that it’s a low risk to move around my local suburbs.

3 – Have I Assessed The Risk Of My Planned Activity?

So I feel very comfortable going out for an hours walk every morning to keep fit because I know there are currently only four active cases in my suburb, and I know that exercising outside is a low-risk activity.

But as my local cafes begin opening up again for sit-down customers, I’m less likely to want to eat at a cafe because cafes and restaurants are high-risk environments. I think I’ll keep getting takeaway from my local cafes, as I already have been doing for the past couple of months.

I’ll keep shopping at Woolies, but I don’t think I’ll be going back to shopping malls anytime soon. I know it’s a medium-risk, but I don’t feel comfortable taking that risk. I’ll also catch the bus home from Woolies, even though catching public transport can be a high-risk activity, but I’m on the bus for less than ten minutes, so that mitigates the risk slightly.

And if I usually worked in an office (which I don’t), I don’t think I’d feel comfortable going back to work just yet. And if I was an employer, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable asking my employees to come back into the office just yet either, simply because working in an office is yet another high-risk activity.

4 – Am I Ready To Leave The House?

When I go out for my morning exercise, I take bottled water with me, so I don’t have to use a water fountain when I feel thirsty. Plus I’ve chosen a route to take where I know I won’t be encountering any large crowds, such as Balmoral Beach. But I don’t take any hand sanitizer with me because I’m not going to touch any hard surfaces.

But if I’m going up the shops, then I’ll make sure I pack some hand sanitiser, and I’ll use it both before and after entering any shops. Because I know I’ll be touching things.

Plus, every time I’ll leave the house, I’m mindful of the rules of social distancing; keeping 1.5 metres from other people, not touching my face, and coughing and sneezing into my sleeve.

Finally, I check that my COVIDSAFE App is running. Now I’m ready to go outside.

5 – Am I Prepared To Change My Plans?

Not everything goes the way we expect. We all need to be mindful of what is happening when we’re outside. If you encounter an unexpectedly large number of people at a local beach or shopping centre, be prepared to cancel your plans and go home. Exposing yourself to risk amongst a large crowd isn’t worth the chance.

Likewise, if you start feeling unwell while you’re outside, it’s important to stop what you’re doing and go and get yourself tested. Don’t be the selfish person who puts their own needs ahead of the health and wellbeing of others. Do the right thing!

Don’t expect other people to do the heavy-lifting for you. We all need to do the work. Educate yourself, make daily risk assessments, and make good hygiene practices instinctive. If we don’t, we’ll all be forced to go back into lockdown. And none of us wants that. And having worked through my risk assessment, I’m now confident that I can leave my home in the full knowledge that I’ve done everything I can to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19.

Introverts & Extroverts In The Age Of Social Distancing

We live in a world where societal norms relating to social interaction have been turned on their head. We used to live in a world where daily social interaction was the norm, but now social isolation has become the new normal. How this affects us has a lot to do with where we sit in the spectrum between introvert and extrovert.

I think you can guess where this article is heading.

But first, a recap

For those of you unsure about the differences between introverts and extroverts, it’s not about shy people or confident people. Many introverts can be loud and outgoing, and many extroverts can be quiet and contemplative. It’s all about context and setting. 

The thing that all introverts have in common is that some forms of social interaction can be emotionally draining, and they need time away from other people to recharge their batteries. Extroverts, on the other hand, need social interaction to lift their emotional energy levels. 

Where do I fit on the spectrum?

Well, it depends. Put me in a room full of creative people working collaboratively on an exciting and innovative project, and I’ll be one of the loudest and most enthusiastic participants. I’ll feed off the energy in the room as if I was an extrovert.

But in truth, I’m pretty much your classic introvert. Place me in a social situation with the same people — say after-work drinks in a loud and busy pub — and I’ll be the opposite. I’ll be quiet and withdrawn and aloof, because social situations that require small talk, especially in a crowded place, drains my emotional energy almost instantaneously.

Shopping malls are another example of where I sit on the spectrum. I’m fine for about an hour. At first, I can mingle with the other shoppers quite happily, but by the second hour I start shutting down, and heaven help you if you’re with me during the third hour, because that’s when Mr Grumpy appears.

My wife, on the other hand, can spend hours out shopping with no ill effects. She’s a classic extrovert who seeks social interaction daily. It’s no coincidence that’s she’s on first-name basis with baristas and wait-staff and shop assistants, not only in our neighbourhood, but all over Sydney. 

I don’t mind a small amount of chit-chat with the staff in my local cafes and shops. But the difference between my wife and me is that she actively seeks out these social interactions, whereas I’d be quite happy to go shopping without speaking to another human being.

How are we both doing in the age of social isolation?

Well, as you’d imagine, our experience is slightly different. I’m in my element, working from home and socially isolating. I’m really enjoying the peace and quiet. And because I’m not socially interacting with a lot of people, my energy levels are staying high all day. It’s a nice feeling. 

But my wife needs more than me and the cats for her daily social interaction hit. Fortunately for her, many of our local cafes are still open for takeaway. So she’s been going out getting drinks (cappuccino for her, hot Nutella for me), or ordering takeaway for lunch. In that way, she’s been getting her daily dose of social interaction. Maybe not as much as she needs, but enough to get by. She even chats to our favourite barista on the phone sometimes even when not preordering.

But not all extroverts are coping as well as her because they are too isolated from their social networks. And some introverts are suffering too, because they are stuck inside of large households, and our social distancing rules currently prevent them from going outside to a park to sit quietly and read a book. But I also know some extroverts who are loving lockdown because they are enjoying the extra time to have some decent social interactions with their household.

So, once again, how people are coping with social distancing is not merely about whether they are an introvert or extrovert; it’s about context and setting.

It’s the lack of choice that’s the issue

Before the lockdown, we lived in a world where introverts would start each day with a full battery that gradually went flat as they encountered the everyday social interactions of day-to-day life. In contrast, extroverts would begin their day with a low battery that needed to be recharged by actively seeking social interactions.

The great thing about the way the world used to work is that we all had a choice. Introverts could decide to practice social distancing whenever they needed to, and extroverts could choose to seek out social interactions whenever they needed to.

But in the age of social distancing, we’ve lost that choice. Extroverts are not allowed to seek out social interactions with friends and family when they need to, and introverts aren’t always able to find the space to socially isolate at home. 

The slow journey out of lockdown

Fortunately, some social isolation rules are being relaxed, and here in New South Wales couples and their children are once again allowed to visit friends and family, though encouraged to maintain social distance. So hopefully things are getting better for my extrovert friends.

Hopefully, introverts will soon be allowed to sit in a quiet park when they need some time away from their household without being hassled by the police. In the meantime, those of us who are enjoying lockdown, like me, still have time to enjoy the peace and quiet of our socially distant world. I know it won’t last forever, but it’s nice to experience it for a little while.

What Sustainability Means To Me

I’ve realised that I haven’t talked much about sustainability yet in my posts. I think because I don’t like talking about myself that much, plus I don’t like preaching to people; I actually think sustainability is something we all need to work out for ourselves. But there’s not much point to this website if I don’t write about sustainability.

So here goes; this is what sustainability means to me…

Sustainability Means Different Things To Different People

I don’t believe there’s a “one size fits all” solution for living sustainable lives. We’re all different people with different circumstances. 

I don’t have any kids and live in an area of Sydney that has an abundance of public transport. Plus, I work from home (even when I’m not in lockdown) and don’t need or like to travel much beyond my local area. Because of these reasons, I don’t own a car which leads to a whole bunch of sustainability savings.

But if you have kids, or don’t have access to public transport, or need to travel a lot for work, then you might not have the luxury of not owning a car. But you might have access to other types of sustainability, like being able to drive to a farmers market on the weekend or take excess recycling to recycle centres; things that are not easy for me to do.

But what we all do have in common is the ability to lead more sustainable lives in our own ways.

Sustainability Means Not Being Afraid Of Science And Technology

We all recognise the sustainability warrior stereotype; the long-haired hippie standing in a field in front of a ramshackled self-built sustainable home, living off-grid and off-the-land. 100% organic and 100% renewable. No technology. The full neolithic lifestyle.

But, of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, sometimes the old ways are not always the best, and sometimes modern technology and techniques can be more sustainable than traditional solutions.

Then there’s the other cliche of the cold, ruthless, multinational research scientist, looking for ways to screw-over the environment to drive up profits and shareholder satisfaction. And unfortunately, there’s still too much of that in the world.

But just because there are a small number of greedy, self-serving bastards out there in the scientific community doesn’t mean we should ignore the abundance of technology and science available to us that can actually help us lead more sustainable lives. In fact, we should celebrate and support all those amazing research scientists who are trying to make our world a better place by developing remarkable new sustainable technologies.

The bottom line is that we should all keep our minds open and not shut to either point of view. Sometimes old-school is more sustainable, sometimes the modern world does it better. It’s all about understanding what works best for you, which leads me to…

Sustainability Is Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

In April 2017, my wife gave me a Fitbit for my birthday. I’m not sure if she was trying to tell me something, but I thanked her anyway and decided to introduce this new piece of technology into my life.

From that moment, everything changed. Suddenly I was able to keep track of how much energy I was using up each day. And, by keeping a log of the food I ate, I was able to compare the number of calories I was burning each day versus the amount I was consuming.

It soon became apparent I was consuming more calories than I was expending, and I finally had to admit to myself that I was, in fact, a fatty-boombah.

Things had to change.

I increased the amount of exercise I performed each day, mainly by walking at least 5K each morning on weekdays and taking longer 12K walks around Sydney Harbour National Park on weekends. Plus I changed what I ate each day, but not to the point of starving myself. I just focused on eating better, not less. The same number of meals each day; only fewer calories. A sustainable way of eating.

Over the next 18 months, I managed to lose over 20 kilos, and have managed to keep my weight below 80-kilos ever since. But I know the only way I’ll maintain my weight at a healthy level is by continuous review and adjustment.

And the same idea of continuous revision, adjustment, and evolution can be applied to sustainability. Creating a more sustainable lifestyle doesn’t need to be revolutionary and drastic. It can be evolutionary and built on small but incremental changes to our lifestyles.

But to do that, we need to be more self-aware and educated about our ecological footprints. Just like using a Fitbit to become more aware of my relationship with food and exercise.

Which brings me to…

Sustainability Means Self-Education

Unfortunately, there’s no sustainability Fitbit that you can strap to your arm and help you determine how sustainable your lifestyle is. To do that, you’re going to have to do some work. But even though it will take some effort, there’s no need to be ignorant about sustainability. There are so many resources available online to help you lead a more sustainable life that there’s no excuse not to. 

Here are two for example:

Educate yourself about how to lead a more energy-efficient life, and how to source ecologically sustainable goods and produce. Don’t wait for someone to do the hard work for you. Go out and learn how to live a more sustainable life. Which brings me to…

Sustainability Means Self-Awareness

It’s quite easy to sleepwalk through life and not take any responsibility for your own actions. But do you really want to be that person? Every action has a consequence. Just like being aware of how many calories I eat and burn-off each day, living a sustainable lifestyle also requires a high level of self-awareness.

Once you’ve done the work to self-educate yourself about sustainability, you now need to apply those lessons to your own life. Every decision you make about what to buy, where it comes from, how it’s made will ultimately make a difference. 

Do you need another pair of leather shoes? Is it better to buy leather or synthetic? Can I resole my old shoes instead of buying new ones? These are all things we need to research and decide for ourselves. 

Plus it’s the little things too. Turning off lights when you leave a room, and turning off the tap when you’re brushing your teeth. Only buying what you need when you need it and accepting you don’t always need the latest gadget.

And that’s what sustainability means to me. Continuous research and education and review and improvement wrapped up in a healthy level of self-awareness, leading to sustainable evolution and growth.

Five Ways To Tell Your Pandemic Story

Under normal circumstances, most of us will live our lives hidden from the scrutiny of history. But right now, we’re all part of history. Now’s the time to think about how we want future generations to learn about our individual stories.

Here are five ways to tell your own pandemic story.

1. Write Your Story

Well, this is the obvious one, isn’t it? Keep a journal or write some short fiction or poetry. Encourage your children to write down their own experiences. These pieces could be autobiographical, or observational, or fictional even. When you have enough material, get it edited (ahem, I am available) and self-publish all your essays and short stories and poems as a book that your friends and family can download from Amazon or the like.

2. Make A Documentary

Sure. You could vlog your thoughts, or keep a video diary. But why not go further than that. Interview the people in your household. Conduct virtual interviews with friends and family. Edit their answers into a long-form video documentary. Take some photos from around your home or neighbourhood or find some images from the world in general. Add some inspirational music (ahem, I am also available), and voila; your very own Ken Burns documentary ready to upload to Youtube.

3. Create Some Abstract Art

Some of our feelings during the pandemic will be too big or complex to put down in words, so why not channel those ineffable emotions into some abstract art. A painting or a sculpture or even a found object. Work off your anxiety and frustration by throwing paint at a canvas Pollock-style. Release your inner-Picasso. Build a giant statue in your front yard for your neighbourhood to admire. Or turn your spare room into an art gallery, and broadcast your creations to the world. You might even be able to sell them!

4. Record A Concept Album

If you belong to a musical household, why not write and record a concept album. It could be a rock opera like The Who’s Tommy, or a collection of thematically related songs, like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon. Get your online friends and relatives to add backing vocals, or write lyrics, or add an electrifying guitar solo. Anything that works. When it’s done, get it mixed and mastered (ahem, yes I can do that too) add some album art, and share it online. I’d recommend Bandcamp for that!

5. Keep A Scrapbook

Finally, why not go old-school with a pair of scissors and some glue and create a scrapbook from articles and pictures you find online. Create a bespoke physical record of the events of 2020 and beyond. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to create a unique heirloom that can be handed down from one generation of your family to another? Something tactile and weighty with its own unique smell and identity. What a great legacy that would be!

The Power Of Workshopping (A case study)

Workshopping is a powerful tool that can be used to bring team members together to work collaboratively in a safe and friendly environment. Here’s a recent example of how I used workshopping to help a team achieve self-improvement.

In July last year, IBM spun-off its cloud-based marketing solutions into a new company called Acoustic. Unfortunately, the software development lab I worked for at IBM was no longer required for the new company, and it closed in October. But I was asked to stay on for a further five months in support of Acoustic as a consulting editor to help the new company update and modernise its user assistance documentation.

The IBM Legacy

When we began looking at Acoustic’s documentation (and by that, I mean their legacy IBM documentation), we identified three significant areas that we needed to focus on. 

  • Firstly, we wanted to move away from the dry, authoritative IBM style of technical writing to a more conversational style of writing with a friendly, down-to-earth tone; a bit more like a blog post. 
  • Secondly, we realised that while the IBM documentation was good at describing the “what” and “how” of using their products, it wasn’t good at explaining why anyone would use their Acoustic solutions. We needed to make the Acoustic documentation read more like a story, with a beginning, middle and end.  
  • And finally, we realised we needed to fill in a significant gap in the Acoustic documentation relating to cross-product solutions, and the overall Acoustic story.

We also felt that one of the main barriers to achieving these goals was another IBM legacy; the way Acoustic’s content designers worked in isolated product silos without much interaction between product teams. So we began looking at ways to help the content design team come together and work as a group to develop a friendlier tone and style for their documentation, and learn more about each other’s products and encourage cross-product collaboration.

And one of the tools we used to achieve this goal was workshopping.

My background with workshopping

I first experienced the power of workshopping in 2014 when I enrolled in the Write Your Novel program at the Australian Writers’ Centre here in Sydney. For six months, every Monday night, I sat in a room with a bunch of fellow aspiring novelists. And together, we workshopped our draft novels.

What is workshopping? Well, it’s relatively straightforward. Each week, three of the students would submit 5,000 words of their work-in-progress a few days before class. The other students would then read the submission and prepare feedback, and then present their feedback at Monday night’s workshop.

Our mentor and facilitator, Pamela Freeman, gave us clear instructions on how to present our feedback:

  1. she asked us to always begin with our positive feedback, and,
  2. she asked us to present our negative feedback politely and constructively.

The goals of these two rules were simple; to provide all the students with a safe and harmonious forum to present feedback, and then discuss the feedback as a group in a supportive and friendly environment. And, for the most part, that’s just what happened.

I remember the first time I presented my writing to the group. I felt nervous and exposed; I had never given a room full of relative strangers any of my creative writing to read before — let alone receive feedback from them. But as people began to provide me with feedback, and as we discussed the feedback as a group, I forgot all about my nerves. I realised I was learning things about my writing I never knew before; what I was good at, and the areas I needed to improve.

Not only that, but I also discovered that I learnt just as much about the craft of writing by reviewing other people’s writing; noticing the things that worked, and the things that didn’t.

So, back to Acoustic

To help the Acoustic writers change their style of writing, and to improve the way they worked as a team, we arranged a series of workshops. Each workshop was comprised of a facilitator (whose job was to manage the conversation, keep the reviewers and submitter engaged, and maintain the right creative mood) a submitter, and four reviewers. We felt this was just about the right size for a workshopping group. 

The challenge we gave everyone in the team was to create a short product overview topic written in a friendly blog-like conversational tone; as if they were chatting to a friend across a kitchen table, eating cake, and sipping tea. We asked the content designers not to worry about where this text would be published. We simply wanted them to tell us the story of their product. 

We scheduled some meetings, signed people up as reviewers, and began workshopping. And while there were a few teething problems as we tried to find the best format to follow, we eventually got them down to a fine art. 

The Acoustic writers began submitting really engaging product stories, with a much friendlier tone and style than they had used (or were even allowed to use) at IBM. Plus they built new social networks between all the individuals who make up the content design team. And during the workshop discussions, they discovered how all the Acoustic products fit together and began looking at ways that the individual product stories could slot together to tell one complete Acoustic story.

But for me, the best thing about the workshops was how quickly the Acoustic content designers became more confident about their writing and more passionate about delivering the best documentation they could for Acoustic. Not just good documentation — not even great documentation — but industry-best documentation!

You can read some of the results of these workshops in these topics:

Now the for fireside summary

You know, there is a myth about the lonely writer; how writers hide-away in earnest seclusion waiting for inspiration to strike. And while that might be true for a first draft, the reality is that every book you have ever read is a collaboration between the writer, their beta readers, and their editors. A book is a piece of collaborative art. 

And the best documentation is also the result of collaboration, not just between content designers, but also offering managers, and UX designers, and researchers, and developers, and sales, and support, solutions, and marketing.

I believe the same is true for any writing. Website copy, marketing material, company branding; it can all benefit from a collaborative approach. And workshopping is a hugely valuable tool in achieving that collaboration.

And finally, the blatant advertorial part of this post

If you are interested in introducing workshopping as a tool in your organisation for any kind of content, not just technical content, I’m available to help organise and run virtual workshops for your team.

Not only can I design and run a series of workshops to help your writers improve their writing skills, but I can also teach you how to eventually facilitate your own workshops. Use my contact form to let me know why you’d like to add workshops to your organisation, and we can begin designing a program perfect for your team.

Five questions I’ll be asking before downloading the COVID-19 Tracking App

Sometime in the next couple of weeks, Australians all will be deciding whether they want to download the COVID-19 tracking app or not. 

So, some background. 

From what I understand, all the app will do is use Bluetooth to record the phone number of anyone you get close to who is also using the app. And by “close to” they mean closer than 1.5 metres for more than 15 minutes.

If someone is infected with coronavirus, authorities then use the phone numbers collected by the app to undertake contact tracing. The numbers are encrypted until you give health authorities permission to read the numbers on your phone, something that will only happen if you test positive for COVID-19. No geolocation data is collected. All information collected is deleted after 21 days.

Doesn’t seem that scary on face-value. 

But just in case, here are five questions I’ll be asking myself before I decide to download the app.

1. Does it worry me that any app collects data about me?

Let’s face it; most of the apps we have on our phones collect data about us. Apple apps, Google Apps, Fitbit apps, whatever-apps; they already collect more information than the COVID-19 tracking app will. So I’m already happy to let lots of entities access my data. And gawd-knows what they do with it. (Make money with it; that’s what they dooz!)

So, my initial gut reaction is that I have no problem with the app collecting a small amount of data about me, especially if it’s just my name, age, and phone number.

Which brings me to…

2. What would they do with my data anyway?

So, the only data health authorities will ever learn about you are your name, age, and your phone number. Not your location, or credit card number, or Tinder hits. If you pay tax or have registered with Centrelink at some point, there’s a pretty good chance the Government already has this information. 

And health authorities will only use the information collected by the app to call you and let you know that you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 and that you should be tested and self-isolate. They won’t be selling you life-insurance or trying to scam you out of money.

I don’t know about you, but apart from my wife, I haven’t been closer than 2 metres with anyone for more than 30 seconds since the lockdown began. I honestly don’t think the app is going to collect any data from me because of all the social distancing I’ve been practising.

And even if it did, it’ll just be a list of phone numbers, most probably (at least in my case) from a bunch of complete strangers.

I honestly don’t care about sharing that kind of data with the Government.

Unless the Government is lying, of course…

3. But why would the Government lie to me about the COVID-19 Tracking App?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. Fake moon landing? Yeah-Nah. Alien abductions? Unlikely. Deep State? Pfft! Secret ScoMo Hillsong anti-Atheist data targeting? Don’t make me laugh.

I’m not going to go there.

Seriously. Everyone has more important things to worry about at the moment, especially health authorities and Governments. It just doesn’t make sense that they would use such a lame app for their nefarious post-pandemic dystopian schemes.

But what if I’m still feeling uncomfortable?

4. Are my political biases showing?

I come from a family of Labor-voting true believers. And sure, I voted indie at the last election, but that was to help get rid of Tony Abbott; a strategic vote that worked. But I would never ever ever vote Lib!

And let’s face it; I don’t trust ScoMo and the Libs on taxation or industrial relations or the environment or climate change or most things.

But I have to admit that, for the most part, the Federal Government has been doing a reasonable job at containing the pandemic in Australia, as have the State Governments whether they be Liberal or Labor.

So, even though my default position is not to trust ScoMo, I haven’t seen any actions from him or his ministers during this pandemic that they have anything less than the people of Australia’s best interests at heart. (OK – except allowing people to access their super; that’s kind of recklessly stupid.)

But then again, Barnaby Joyce has stated quite categorically that he’ll never use the app. And I never listen to Barnaby. That’s another reason why I should download the app! Unless this is some kind of Government reverse-psychology trick.

Oh, now my head really hurts!

Maybe it all boils down to one final question…

5. Will the app help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus?

Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on how many people actually download it, I guess. But anything that can speed up the tracking and isolation of COVOD-19 clusters is a good thing. Especially if it means our lockdown restrictions can be reduced. 

Plus, if for some reason I contract the virus, I want to make sure that I haven’t been the start of a cluster. And I certainly don’t want to be the person who spreads the virus to someone who then dies from it. I don’t think I could live with that guilt. I’ll do everything and anything to prevent that from happening.`

So, I see no reason why I shouldn’t download the COVID-19 Tracking App. I mean, it can’t hurt. And anyway, if I change my mind, I can always delete it!

What will your pandemic story look like?

So many parts of our lives are out of our control at the moment. Where we go. Who we can see. Whether we have a job or not. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have some choices about how we live our lives. And although we all share the same inciting incident, the stories we will tell each other when all this is over will be different.

So, let me ask you this; what will your pandemic story look like?

Will you be the person who hoarded toilet paper, or the person who thought carefully about what they actually needed to buy?

Will you be the person who spread anxiety, or the person who mindfully tried to control their stress?

Were you the person who spread false rumours and fake news, or the person who used social media to reach out to friends and family to support and care for them?

Were you the person who listened to advice, or put yourself ahead of all others?

Did you give people space, or expect others to make space for you?

Did you practice social distancing because you were afraid to catch COVID-19, or because you were trying to avoid inadvertently spreading the virus?

Did you stay at home as much as you could, or did you go out whenever you felt like it?

Were you Trump, or were you Adern?

Were you the person who allowed their fears to feed racism and bigotry, or did you embrace the world as a global family all fighting the same enemy?

Were you the person who complained that their beach was closed, or appreciated the need to close some public spaces?

Did you treat your lockdown like a prison sentence, or as an opportunity to spend more time with your family, or to achieve personal growth?

Did you use Netflix as a babysitter, or did you actively guide your kids through the challenges of home learning?

Did you allow your kids to roam the neighbourhood on their bikes unsupervised, or did you actively engage your kids in family activities?

Did you learn a new skill, or fell back on bad habits?

Did you stay fit, or reach for another packet of Tim Tams?

Did you support your local cafes?

Did you hire a tradie?

Did you thank the people who continued to work in jobs that supported your community, or treat them with suspicion?

Did you appreciate the clean air and quiet streets?

Did you celebrate the birds outside your windows?

Did you spend your time hiding from ogres, or riding unicorns?

Did you write your own story, or allow others to write it for you?

And on the great ledger of life, did you do more good than bad?

Short Fiction: Desert Tsunami

Last year I was invited to submit a piece of short fiction to IBM’s in-house design magazine, Variable. I was asked to write a story that imagined what virtual twinning for farms might look like fifty years from now. When I began working on this piece, I had no idea that this would be my last piece of writing for IBM.

Because many of you never had a chance to read this (because it was published in-house), I thought I’d share it here on my website. Not only that, but I had to cut 150 words from the original submission at the last minute to allow for layout constraints, so the published version lost a little colour and texture. So this is my chance to share the uncut version; my director’s cut, so to speak. 

Desert Tsunami

By John Anthony James

I could tell that Pru was going to tease me again by the way the lines at the edge of her eyes crinkled slightly beneath the rim of her battered old bush hat.

“Hot enough for ya, Ravi?” she asked in that dry laconic manner of hers.

The air on my face reminded me of when you open an oven door; much drier and hotter than the thick humidity of my native Mumbai. And the flies were incorrigible. They found places to enter and irritate no matter how many times I practised the great Aussie salute that Pru had quickly taught me.

I shifted awkwardly on the back of the horse I was riding. It had been years since I had ridden one, and even then, it had only been a small, docile pony at the horse club my parents sent me to as a child.

“Why couldn’t we use the four-wheel-drive?” I complained. “It’s got air-con.”

“The chooks don’t like it,” Pru countered. “Makes them nervous. Horses are better.”

But I couldn’t help but feel she had made me ride a horse just for her own amusement.

Pru gave a high-pierced whistle. Bluey, her faithful cattle dog, changed tack and yelped at the legs of the large birds we were herding.

“Why do they still call them cattle dogs?” I wondered out loud, not really expecting Pru to answer.

“Chook dogs sounds stupid.” 

She whistled again, and the dog obeyed her instructions, rushing to cut off one of the birds that had separated from the herd. It almost felt like Pru and the dog had a psychic connection.

“My Nan used to farm cattle,” she continued. “And her dad, and his dad before him. Bluey, here, is descended from the same dogs they owned. They were cattle dogs, so why shouldn’t bluey be one?”

I couldn’t argue with that. And yet, it still felt strange for a cattle dog to be herding a bunch of flightless birds instead of the now almost extinct cattle that used to dominate Australia’s parched inland.

“So, why do you call them chooks and not emus?”

“Eem-yous,” she replied, correcting my pronunciation. “And we call them chooks because that’s what Aussies call chickens.”

“Another one of your Aussie jokes?” I ventured.

She nodded. “You’re learning, Ravi.”

“They’re much larger than chickens,” I pointed out.

“Yep. But then end up at the same place.”

I raised an inquiring eyebrow.

“On my dinner plate,” she finally explained.

I smiled. “And how long have you been herding emus? I mean, chooks.” 

“About fifteen years. It was Dad who decided to switch. That was the first time we used the twin.”

“But that was still UI based back then?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“So, what makes emus better than cattle?” 

“You have to understand, they’re not wild emus. Easier to herd cats than wild emus. But this lot? They’re genetically altered to be larger and easier to manage. More like cattle than birds, but more suited to the landscape than cattle. A bit like camels; they can go for days without drinking, then guzzle down bucket loads of water when they find some. And they fart less than cattle, so they’re better for the environment. The Government subsidised their introduction to help meet its carbon targets.”

“I thought cattle belched methane more than, umm, pass wind,” I suggested sagely, happy that I finally knew something Pru didn’t.

Pru shrugged. “Burping. Farting. It’s all the same.”

I glanced around at the spinifex and dried grass that populated the landscape. It was difficult to imagine that anything could be farmed out here.

“If we’re looking for some high ground to keep the stock away from some floodwaters, then where’s the rain?” I asked.

Pru smiled wryly. “It hardly ever rains out here, mate. What you’ve got to understand is that the outback is one huge drainage system. All the rains from the monsoon and cyclones up north? They flood across the outback all the way down to the Darling and Murray Rivers. The floodwaters come slowly, and they go slowly, but they run pretty fast. It isn’t safe for the stock. Less so for chooks than cattle.”

“And you’ve done this before?”

She nodded. “Once, when I was in me teens. Family secret. We’ve been bringing the stock here for over a hundred years when we know the waters are coming. We call it the hump.”

“It looks like the same flat ground we’ve been riding over for the past hour or so.”

“Yeah, but it’s subtly higher. Just enough the stay above the flood peak.”

I nodded, then waved my hand to bring up some flood statistics into my field of view.

“So, the biggest flood was back in 1974?”

“Yep. My Nan said that the water came up to the cattle’s hocks, even here on the hump. Almost lost the herd that year.”

“Well,” I said. “Let’s see what happens this time.”

I waved my hand once more and brought up a new menu before selecting the latest dataset we had been working on back in the lab.

That’s when we heard the rumble.

“Is that normal?” I asked.

“Nuh,” she replied frowning. She then squinted and focussed on the horizon. “Can you see that?”

I followed her gaze. I couldn’t see what she saw at first, but as the noise grew, I began to make out a frothy brown line approaching us at speed.

I couldn’t quite believe what I was witnessing. “It looks like a tsunami in the desert.”

Pru’s expression became grim. “This won’t be good. I’ve seen a flash flood like this once before when I visited a property down on the Darling Downs. The chooks won’t survive this.”

We watched intently as the waters approached until there was no doubt about what was going to happen. Ahead of us, a few of the birds had already been toppled by the fast-approaching waters. The rest of the herd had begun to panic and were running away from us. There was nothing that Pru or bluey could do to stop the stampede. 

“Do we have to actually drown too?” asked Pru as we vainly tried to outrun the floodwaters on our horses.

Despite our predicament, I managed to give Pru a sheepish smile. “Of course not. I just forgot where we were for a moment. Watson? End simulation.”

It took me a few moments to get my bearings. I took off my lucid-dreaming helmet and stretched my arms and shoulders for a moment. I was back in my office in Mumbai, with its air-conditioning, ergonomic furniture, and energy-efficient lighting. It had felt like hours had passed in the dream-simulation, but only minutes had passed here in my office.

I glanced up at the smart-wall of my office cubicle. Pru gazed back at me from her homestead in the outback. Behind her, I could see her old bush hat hanging on the hat-rack on the wall of her office, just like the one she wore in the dream. She took off her helmet and rubbed her eyes, like someone waking from a nap. 

“I’m still not sure about these shared dreams, Ravi. Feels a bit… intimate.”

“I assure you, at IBM we do everything to guarantee the privacy of our clients. Watson ensures that the only dreams we share are parts of the simulation.”

She shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “Good thing too, mate. I’ve got dreams about snakes that would scare the feathers off a kookaburra.”

I shuddered slightly. I was a little scared of Pru if truth be told; she was as tough as the landscape she had shared in our dream. I wasn’t sure if I could have coped with one of her nightmares.

I decided to get back on subject. “That simulation was worse than expected.”

Pru pursed her lips for a moment. “I was sure that the herd would be safe on the hump. I don’t think I would have believed your predictions if I hadn’t seen it for myself.”

I took a deep breath. “Well, this is an unprecedented weather pattern. The wettest monsoon on record, in fact. Maybe those old floods you mentioned are different now. Less common, but more extreme.”

She rubbed her face, worried. “Maybe. It’s been over twenty years since our last flood. But my Nan said they would normally come every five or six years or so.”

I shrugged. “There is no normal anymore. The unexpected is the new normal.”

“How long have we got? Dad’s already taken a team out to start gathering the herd together. I’ll need to tell him the hump isn’t safe anymore.”

I glanced at some figures on my smart-wall. “Maybe seventy-two hours. There’s still time to run some more simulations and find a better place to move the stock to.”

“If there is a better place,” said Pru grimly.

I tried to sound confident. “I’m sure there is. Come on. Let’s look at the latest topographic data for your farm’s twin.”

“Station,” she corrected me, and not for the first time. “It’s a station, not a farm.”

I laughed at my faux pas. “Yes. Your station’s twin.”

I put on my lucid-dreaming helmet once more and loaded the twin of Pru’s station into our shared dream. I felt the hot air on my face as I was once again transported to the outback. Sitting awkwardly on my horse as Pru and I — and bluey — herded the virtual birds to a different, and hopefully safer, part of the landscape.