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Unreliable Memoirs

Winter is coming… and pretty much here.

So far it’s been a touch cold and a good bit wet. Not too bad on either count to be honest, but as it’s the first winter in a new(ish) place there have been drafts and peculiarities to discover this July. Hints of mould have emerged in the colder and darker corners of the unit, and if it lasts much more than mid-August we’ll have a harvest of mushrooms in spring. I’ll admit a fair part of the damp air has (probably) come from my preference for ridiculously hot showers in a closed bathroom. Nothing like opening a bathroom door and having the steam drift out as if it’s an industrial smoking oven. Roman baths achieved a peak of civilization that we have yet to surpass.

In any case – the mould reminded me of a favourite quote from one of Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs I’d read years ago. He has always had a fantastic turn of phrase, and this particular paragraph is a beautifully condensed and vivid impression of his dismal university accommodation…

When I opened the door and stepped into my darkened room, I fell across the bed and smacked my forehead smartly against the opposite wall. Luckily the wall, under its many geological layers of plaster and paint, was sufficiently resilient to absorb most of the impact. It was also quite moist. When I found the light switch, a twenty-watt bulb dispelled just enough gloom to reveal that the moisture was not my blood. It was rising damp. It was also descending damp, with a good deal of transverse damp mixed in. The smell of mould was tropical. The temperature of the air, on the other hand, was arctic. There was a two-bar electric fire, one of whose bars worked reasonably well for half its length.

Also from Unreliable Memoirs… not a word wasted in painting a picture:

I was writing poems about Florence. They were full of Medici pomp and Machiavellian circumstance, of tasselled banners and blazing trumpets, the sweet waistlines of Paolo Uccello handmaidens, and the crackling flames of Savonarola’s pyre. All this I wrote about while sitting under a chalked menu announcing that spam fritters with two veg could be followed by spotted dick with custard. Outside the dirty window, rain that for some reason would only make it dirtier fell thinly but persistently, like a small annoyance.

One more – back to the richly contrasted impressions of the occupants at Cambridge:

Another shock was the hitherto unannounced presence of Romaine Rand, who had already taken another room on the same floor as mine. Indeed it was the room next to mine. It was the big front room facing onto the street. In something less than a week, Romaine, who in another time and place might have run the sort of salon that Goethe and the boys would have swarmed around like blowflies, had already transformed her room into a dream from the Arabian nights. Drawing on her incongruous but irrepressible skills as a housewife, she had tatted lengths of batik, draped bolts of brocade, swathed silk, swagged satin, ruched, ruffed, hemmed and hawed. There were oriental carpets and occidental screens, ornamental plants and incidental music. The effect was stunning.

Aristotle Onassis had married Jackie Kennedy in vain hopes of getting his yacht to look like that. Romaine, however, once she had got her life of luxury up and running, did not luxuriate. She had a typewriter the size of a printing press. Instantly she was at it, ten hours a day. Through the lath-and-plaster wall I could hear her attacking the typewriter as if she had a contract, with penalty clauses, for testing it to destruction. As well as finalising her thesis, apparently, she was working on a book…

I resolved that I, too, would transmogrify my environment. Picking out a section of wall where a shelf might go, I tapped it with a testing forefinger. About a square foot of plaster fell off and brained a cockroach.

Literary gold. Thankfully the plaster here is holding up well.



Ok – so the plan of having regular ongoing updates this year has fallen waaaayyyy behind. To be fair, the first quarter of 2011 has been described as the ‘busiest in team history’ in the office; and that doesn’t appear to be letting up soon. Plus, unlike the typical MGSM Assignment-and-major-exam subject format, Operations Management (which kicked off on Jan 6) included a group debate, 4 case study tests, written analysis of the Asia-Pac coffee supply chain network, class presentation… AND the usual 3hr exam.

With that said, it’s time to cram at least a couple of posts in; Musing for the week – I was running late for one (of many) group meetings after work at the MGSM campus, via picking up a watch near Galleries Victoria. The hike from Pyrmont to Uni (without detour) is a solid 25 min on foot during peak hour… or 35-40 min on a bus. I was grumbling to myself in light rain while passing the Maritime Museum, at which point the monorail rumbled into the station on Harbourside. In a flash of stupidity, a little voice in my head hinted that it might be quicker thank walking.

The last time I had ridden the monorail was to avoid the New Years alcohol Nazis manning a checkpoint on Pyrmont Bridge, at which time transport wasn’t the main benefit being sought.

Turns out it isn’t the main benefit at other times either. I’m 90% sure I could have walked faster, AND the damn turnstiles demand $5 per single-trip ticket. The nerve of it.

As fate would have it, I ended up in the mostly empty back carriage (actually, make that mostly-empty-train) with a backpacking couple from the UK. They were frantically snapping dusk skyline photos of the city as the monorail lumbered around Darling Harbour. After a minute, they realized that despite casual Google attire, no camera nor face pressed against the glass meant that I must be a local, rather than a fellow tourist.

“Must be handy having the monorail in the city?” It was definitely a question, but I still can’t seem to replicate the guy’s inflection right, either in Oz or UK accent. I think it went up at the end. Definitely a question.

“I wouldn’t know; I never catch it”. I wasn’t trying to be rude – just a statement of fact.

“So how come you’re on it tonight?” Straight to the tough question…

Mental blank. Why the hell would I want to use it? I’d never really thought about it from a marketing point of view; does it tick one of the 4P’s at least? (Price, Placement, Promotion, Product). How do they look…

– Price (Cheap)? Hell no.

– Placement? Well, it only covers 1.5km and connects nothing useful…

– Promotion? Other than grinding noise, I haven’t heard it advertised for years.

– Product? It is… novel…

Which I guess is a key driver for using it; something a bit different from the average form of public transport. But that only works the first time – why would you want to use it again?

And looking at the tourists in the carriage – that’s kind of the point. If you don’t use it more than once… it’s a quick and relatively cheap way of getting to see a chunk of the CBD. Far cheaper than $30 for an open-top bus tour. Yet at $5, it’s more expensive than any local would pay for a bus ticket; so it’s never going to be fully crowded, even during peak hour. Ie, the price works for a tourist target, but filters out the Sydney commuters.

While it doesn’t go anywhere useful for a local (like connect to train stations or central financial or legal districts of the CBD) – it does connect Galleries Victoria (expensive shops), Harbourside (expensive tourist shops), Convention & Entertainment centres (hotels or shows) or Paddy’s Markets (crappy souvenir shops…). Again, perfect for a traveler who wants to stock up a suitcase without wearing out their thongs trekking around. In fact, thinking back – when it was first built in 1988 it must have been designed specifically for the expected Bicentennial & Expo crowds.

Oh yes – and the cameras. Being 7m above the road gives a much better vantage point for taking snaps while in transit. I wonder if any of the blurry-while-in-motion-through-glass-held-with-one-hand shots actually come out? In any case, the needs, price, placement all work for a tourist but not a local. I guess it’s not really a surprise and has always been kind of seen as a tourist thing – but it’s nice to step back and work out how the marketing mix fits together.

About the only thing they don’t have any more is the voiceover pointing out the sights… ah – which is why the Londoners want to have a chat. We talk about the ‘sights’ (ie, how awesome Paddy’s Markets are), and by the time we get off at Galleries they’ve got a list of places to check over the next few hours and are off to take a hundred photos of the talking dog at QVB.

I’m well and truly late for my lecture.

Ok – the first blog post is always going to be the hardest. Is it possible to say something profound & mystical, sharp & critical, or otherwise unlock the secret of the universe in 20 lines or less?

Probably not. But that shouldn’t stop us from poking around in the chaos a bit. I figure that until I join the Masonic movement or the Illuminati, the hidden meanings of the universe won’t just appear. However, working out what makes us tick goes a long way.

Years ago, between finishing university and actually finding gainful employment… during those slightly panicked months of chasing lists of interviews and being consistently not offered a job… I went walkabout. *Literally* walked through scrubland near Lake Macquarie asking myself what the hell I wanted to do with 30-50 years of working life ahead.

It can be deceptively hard to sum up who you are. Try it sometime – in 1 sentence write down what defines your persona. A lot of people in management training sessions will list things like ‘look after my family’ or ‘be the best salesperson’. Is this what defines them? Or are these articulated priorities for something underneath – WHY do you value family above anything else? WHY is it important to sell the most stuff in the team?

After about two hours of increasing frustration wandering concrete-hard dirt trails with the white noise of cicadas becoming harder to ignore, I found a little clearing and at the same time landed on an answer – I’m an analyst.

As a kid I’d always loved pulling things apart, putting them back together, trying different combinations. Do the batteries work the other way around? Why should I assume they don’t just because someone said so? What makes a car work? What makes stuff float? If someone dies do they just see black? (yeah, this one will still bother me till I find out for sure).

Standing in the middle of this patch of dirt, I felt calm. As long as I was learning more about people, how things work or our place in the world… it would all work out. Better still, can I find out things that haven’t been discovered by anyone else yet?… yeah… that would work. Something about finding new insight has always tickled that little part of my brain that moves the steering wheel for the rest of it.

So – why blog?

Come forward a few years – at the start of 2010, I went back to uni to start an MBA. This has been both good and at the same time colossally painful (Ctrl+Save ranting on rediscovered Uni life for a later post).

One of the early subjects to crop up was Foundations of Management Thought – having done undergraduate management subjects, I’d assumed would be a good refresher on various theorists. Elton Mayo’s look at workflow in the Hawthorn studies; Maslow’s needs model (yet again); Taylor’s school of scientific workplace management…

What we ended up with was a much deeper serve of Socrates, Plato, Freud & Marx, with dashes of Hume, Machiavelli & Nietzsche. Questions about existence… questions about everything… turns out even Maslow’s 5-tier model actually has 7-tiers (ironically, ‘know & understand’ is above self-actualization, but excluded from most lessons).

Suddenly feeling very small again with an almost infinite number of things I haven’t thought about or don’t know. But it brings a wry smile. This is cool. I want to learn again; I want to think through things from ‘scratch’ again.

So… the plan is to use this little piece of Internet real estate to do a few things:-
Pick apart concepts or thinking of others (may the best data win)
Track some of the gems of wisdom in the remaining 3/4 of MBA study
Rant a bit about lack of objective facts in media, etc
Balance with some quotes, stories & fotografix of the lighter sides of life

And with a bit of luck, try to catch some glimpses through the cracks in the universe.