Why Do I Have All This Stuff?

Another one worth saving, from Facebook last year

A bit introspective today…

Yesterday I received 2 keys – one from my mum, for the bach, with orders to destroy the old one (literally), and a flat key from Vanya, which I had commissioned to avoid further incidents of slipping as I climb through my bedroom window (painful). I then did a cull of keys – I had so many, and couldn’t remember what any of them were for. Why did I keep them so long? This has got me thinking more about what I keep, and what I throw away. I’m not one inclined to connect to arbitrary or trivial things.
My past is gone: I don’t take photos (what does one do with old hard copy photos people gave me? Thanks to those who tag me on Facebook). I don’t get nostalgic, I don’t carry much baggage from the bad things, and I forget a lot.
I don’t care about money or stuff. I keep stuff (just in case: my mum taught me that), but if I didn’t have it I wouldn’t care. I have a bunch of stuff that I have lugged around from place to place that I know I’ll never really get to again… anyone want some material? (Free to good crafty home). I also have a bunch of clothes and shoes to go…
I change: I am not connected to my self image, except as a person who can always improve. All my beliefs are open to challenge. I do not require security. I am extremely distrustful of appeals to precedent and tradition.
I do get connected to people and causes, but I know that life moves on, and sometimes these go on different paths to me. I don’t fight that – maybe I should? The closest I come to regret is thinking about past connections that I don’t actively keep current. I just feel that it happens, and one must accept that. If that’s happened, and the paths cross again, I am generally delighted to re-connect to the person or cause, as they are now, but I get uneasy if I am treated like the person I was in the past. That’s why I keep old friends on Facebook: I always hope I’ll see you again (even if I forget your name and what you look like ). I hope you know you can ALWAYS ask me to help you – I might say no, but I don’t mind being asked.
And I have learnt to walk away from people and causes that I care about, but that do me no good. In such cases I don’t go back, and if we cross I don’t reconnect. Sometimes it’s good to leave things behind, and the baggage that comes with them. I think we all carry too much stuff, sometimes.


You Should Not Read This…

So – you ignored my patronising advice. Good for you 🙂

There are some words that, when I hear them, instantly raise red flags around the communication. One of these is the word “should”. Every time I hear someone say this I know they are talking about an idealised, romantic view of the world and commonly not about reality. Here are some examples…

As a tester, I hear the word “should” a lot. “The content from this field should populate the corresponding field on the admin page”. “The import should take no longer than 5 min”. “The user should be aware that they can’t add a link to this content”. Testers are professional sceptics. When we hear the word “should” we say “Reeeally? I’m going to have a look at that…” It’s surprising how often statements like these are wrong, completely or partially. One of the things that catch developers out is the belief that their “should” will apply in all circumstances. Yes, a name entered into the Name field is saved to the database… except when that name contains an apostrophe (common in Polynesian names), a hyphen or a space, or some strange German letter… And even if a user “should” know better, what happens is they accidentally add a link (in a cut and paste, for instance)? Does the app up and die? It probably shouldn’t do that.

As someone who studies ethics, however, one is aware of far less amusing failures of the word “should”. “People should protect the environment, if they are rational”. “There should be no discrimination in the workforce”. “People can believe what they want, but they should not act to harm other people or communities”. What people are really saying, when they say “should” is the opposite: people DON’T protect the environment, there IS discrimination, and people DO act according to their beliefs, even when it harms others. After making these pronouncements ethicists then allow themselves to feel disappointed at the way people actually behave. We need to accept the reality of what we are talking about. Ethics are too often about dreams and utopian ideals, and not about reality, and it’s far too easy for a privileged, educated Westerner to accept the constraints of their own ethical pronouncements and just assume that if they can and will, anyone can and will. Until ethicists make statements that are both possible and compelling to the general population, or at least law-makers, ethics fails to be a practical study and is instead just a means to designate various things that would be valued, if we were rational. We need to find the statements that make the following true:

  • People CAN AND WILL protect the environment when…
  • There WILL be no discrimination when…
  • People WILL NOT hurt each other when…

Anyway, who listens when other people tell you what you “should” do? You’re reading this, right? Unsolicited advice, or just basic patronising authorities (warranted or not) are generally ignored unless someone really has an interest in the topic and no clue what to do. In my experience, they only time pronouncing “should” has any effect is when people turn it on themselves: “I should go on a diet”. “I should not pay so much attention to negative people”. “This should not happen to me”. This has an effect because, rather than achieving these high aspirations, we fail to achieve them (or even properly start them) and then have an excuse to beat ourselves up. It’s a self-imposed goad with no plan to get the carrot. One of my couchsurfers put it very well when she related being told to “Stop shoulding all over yourself”. Once again, when we say should, we are being unrealistic, and talking about dreams instead of realising them. We need to accept that we are NOT going to go on a diet, unless something changes, and then we might. We only change when we actually do something, and keep at it, however that comes about, and then there is no more “should”.

Of Cats and Dogs

One thing me and the Ruski really don’t see much eye to eye on is the relative merits of cats and dogs. He loves cats, and is happy to be the staff of our little cat, Chilli, who will wake him to feed her and then come back to my bed to snooze with me (without eating anything). He has also been known to chase off the two little dogs from our neighbours who occasionally get loose and like to bark at Chilli. She was perfectly safe, sitting on top of the fence pretending to ignore them whilst driving them crazy, but the Ruski had to ruin her fun. He has mellowed somewhat in the last few years, but for the longest time he did not like dogs. This was in large part to the childhood memory of being chased and treed by a pack of wild dogs in Siberia.

I, on the other hand, have some reservations about our love affair with cats. I get that they are lovely or hilarious to watch (I have been known to spend time watching cat videos on YouTube), and can form relationships with humans and be warm, affectionate company, and cats other than ours can kill pests (or entire species, let’s not forget). Chilli is the worst hunter ever. But those qualities we commonly find endearing in cats, their self-contained and commanding nature, distain, fastidiousness, savagery… we would not like these qualities in a person of our acquaintance. Also, consider these points:

Now I have heard the protests of the cat-lovers: “not my cat – my cat is smart / faithful / friendly / caring…” and I have to admit to seeing a lot of variation in cat attributes myself. This can be attributed to the fact that we don’t spend a lot of time killing off cats that exhibit strange or anti-social tendencies, like we do with dogs, and so more behavioural variation can be expected. Commonly we find the mad cat endearing, even when it scratches us for no reason or steals the neighbours’ panties off the washing line eg http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2397155/A-real-cat-burglar-Cheeky-Norris-steals-neighbours-underwear-night-prowls.html We excuse their bad behaviour in the same way as overindulgent parents, with maybe a slight embarrassment, but private delight.

To highlight this, the other day Chilli came over for a pat when I was in the middle of something. I gave her a quick pat and moved to walk away and she scratched me on the leg. I told the Ruski about this, and he said “What a bitch! [Pause] You should know better than to walk away when she wants attention!” I think he deserves everything he gets with the joys of cat ownership, including the catbox duties and the barfed furballs.

On the other hand, the things we culturally find pathetic or undignified in dogs – their unconditional love, desire to please, steadfast loyalty, and boisterous nature – these are things that commonly make a person our best friend, though maybe we would be a bit nervous of this, thinking we don’t deserve it. Why do we choose to laud the antisocial behaviour of cats over the social behaviour of dogs? Or, if I am to get serious for a bit, why do we imagine that people who treat us rudely or with distain show quality and are desirable, and those that accept us and treat us well can be taken for granted and used? I do believe these traits of humans are interconnected, and bear thinking about.

Why do we have these double standards in the value of these qualities? This is why I have reservations. It’s not because I don’t love cats, it’s because I do love humans, and I wonder if we hurt ourselves and sabotage our relationship happiness by confusing our values between humans and our furry friends. What’s the chance we see the dog or cat qualities listed above in a person and accidentally apply the reversed interpretation we give these qualities in our familiar non-human friends? For example, I suspect the Ruski admires cat qualities in girls, which I believe accounts somewhat for his miserable romantic life. If I say someone has a cat-like personality, I am not saying a nice thing about them, but am likely thinking of a sociopathic or neurotic narcissist. I admit to being a sucker for narcissists, which is probably why I actually do like cats. And this is OK: they are not humans, and they teach us humility. Dogs teach us how to be friends.


Why I Love Couchsurfing

What is couchsurfing, you might ask? It is when someone who doesn’t usually live with you sleeps on your couch, usually for free. This can be formalised, using a website where you can arrange to surf the couches of people in other cities and countries, for free: www.couchsurfing.com. The idea of this usually freaks people out, at first. What if the surfer or host is a psycho? What if they steal your stuff? There is a reference system, whereby people can say if a surfer or host is good or not. It’s not fool-proof but it helps. There is also the argument that a person is not going to travel halfway around the world to steal your TV. The thing that really keeps people safe is that most people in the world are not bad people! I think we forget that, after being bombarded with constant media scaremongering.

Anyway, I have hosted something like 900 surfers (I don’t count), and I’m not dead yet. I’ve lost some small stuff, but I don’t know if that’s carelessness, surfers, flatmates, drinking buddies or the cat. There are occasional surfers who don’t fit in so well, but they’re gone usually within 4 days, and the next awesome surfer helps you forget. I have never left a negative reference.

But this story is not about the dud surfers – it’s about the awesome ones. The ones that have changed my life, and the way I think about things, and given me memories and stories that will last a lifetime, even though I commonly forget their names and faces as soon as they leave the house 🙂

Couchsurfing is almost impossible to fail. To do couchsurfing, you have to be:

  • Honest, else you will get a negative reference for stealing, and no longer be part of the community
  • Brave – more so for surfers, who approach a stranger and ask for a couch, then come into my territory, where I have all the benefits of familiarity, assets and support structures (and, in my house, actual weapons and combat training) and trust that I’m not going to use it against them
  • Generous – more so for hosts, as there are always some small costs of utilities and consumables like toilet paper. We don’t have to feed the surfers, but sometimes we will share anyway. Surfers are expected to share some time with their hosts, and though they don’t have to they will commonly enough cook meals to share or leave small gifts or help around the house
  • Social – you have to be, to want to share time and stories together, to get to know each other and enjoy the variety of people you will meet.

And when you have all these excellent qualities of humanity, and add to that the excitement of meeting a new person, where you put on your best face (this is not a manipulation, it’s just how people are – we want people to like us) and share the things and people you love, you get to experience humanity at it’s best so often you don’t want to miss an opportunity to meet another.

Back in Jan 2008 I was rather detached from my world. I had just had to move from my apartment, my long term relationship was on it’s last legs, my kids were in their teens, gaining their independence of me, I had lost my passion for medieval re-enactment and was only just starting in circus, and my job was boring. I realised I could drop it all and travel. Thinking that I would never be rich, I thought I’d aim for a point somewhere around Turkey and walk out in a spiral, sleeping under bridges, since 20 year olds can do it, and I’m tougher than that. That’s when I remembered seeing something about couchsurfing, and I looked up the website. I was instantly hooked – what an amazing and perfect way to travel! I asked the Ruski if we could host, and he accepted (I don’t think he even checked anything I sent him). We both still remember our first surfer: a professional beat-boxer from California, who did a private performance for us and our friends in my living room. He’s still in touch, when he comes to NZ. We have hosted ever since.

Couchsurfers saved me. When I finally told the boyfriend to move all his stuff out they gave me the distraction and reason I needed to not become distressed or lonely. I moved on quickly with my multiple instant interesting light friends. They are mostly light, unless they stick around for a while (some have, and become closer friends), but that’s OK. It’s nice to see a friendly face at such times. I know there are many people in the world who couchsurf so they have company and companionship. Everyone wins.

I have so many stories involving couchsurfers! I’ll follow up this intro blog with philosophy, funnies, ideas and inspirations all of the category “things I have learnt from couchsurfers”.

Have a look at this related post https://anacrusisblog.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/life-is-a-journey-not-a-competition/ – I got my appreciation for the difference between travellers and tourists from couchsurfers. Some come tearing into a country with 2-3 weeks to tick off a list of must sees and must dos, stay in hostels or hotels with people who speak the same language as themselves, jump on a bus with a bunch of other tourists, spend the time with a camera in front of their face separate and protected from the threats and challenges of unfamiliarity and uncertainty. My parents travel like this. My Dad doesn’t like Russia because his pocket was picked in St Petersburg.

Some enter a country with the idea of meeting the people who live there, staying for an extended time and commonly getting a job and homebase to explore from so they can really get an appreciation for what it is like to be a part of this community. They deliberately put themselves into situations where they are not in full control, and do not have familiarity, taking side trips following promising signs, staying or travelling with people of different cultures and languages, trying things (activities, foods, challenges) that have not previously been vetted by a professional guide. They may see the tourist spots, but they commonly find the best moments are when they let the locals share what they like about their home. These are travellers, and they understand the journey is about quality, not quantity. I have met some amazing travellers through couchsurfing.

Life is a Journey, Not a Competition

I started writing this as a Facebook post, but it turned into an article, so rather than wasting it, these are my initial thoughts…

Be a traveller, not a tourist, on your journey:

  • Try to carry your own baggage: people may offer to lighten the load, but it’s a gift to you, not a right. Other people are not your servants, even if they serve. Better to leave some of the baggage behind so you don’t need help.
  • Experience what you’re going through, don’t just dream of the destination, don’t just take selfies to show off to others.
  • Remember that everyone else is on a journey, too. They are not just the quaint locals that provide atmosphere for your story. You are as much an encounter for them as they are for you. What will they take away from the encounter? Are you a predator, a parasite or a symbiote?
  • No-one owes you a living, or special treatment. You are not superior or untouchable. No-one is going to give you a prize at the end – what you take from life is your reward. Do you have love, happiness, self-respect?
  • Thank the people that help you.

I’ll write more about what I’ve learnt from couchsurfers soon – watch for the category

SPIN, DEARMAN and Integrity

Last weekend I attended an afternoon convention for professional software testers, which seems to be the career I have fallen into… I think critical scientific and heuristic thinking combined with a fairly devastating ability to find weaknesses in complex systems (biological, political, battle strategy and tactics and now software) would lead to that. That, or terrorism…

Anyway, I attended an interesting talk on a technique for communicating needs for change to someone who could help but might not agree. It was summarised by the mnemonic SPIN, which stands for:

 – Situation – what I see
– Problem – why I care
– Implication – why the one I’m talking to should care
– Need – what I think we should do (this can be opened up for general discussion if you really don’t know)

Following this technique, one gives all the relevant information and motivates the listener to act in everyone’s best interest, which is rational.

The word “spin” itself has some connotations of biased representation of data, like we expect from the media and politicians. The technique is biased from the petitioners perspective:

 – the petitioner might not have the full information, therefore what they see might not be the whole picture, or even contain all the relevant pieces
– that the petitioner cares does not mean that other people have the same problem or that it is any of their business – I have made this mistake myself, overstepping the boundaries of program testing to project management, for example. PM’s should not tell testers how to test, and testers should not tell PM’s their job, either…
– telling someone why they should care is fraught with issues of being patronising, telling them how to do their job, and anyone who knows these techniques can see they are being “managed” which can trigger some negative reactions to manipulation or lack of respect, justified or not
– the petitioner might have all the info and still not have the best solution, or even a solution that follows from the situation (as conclusions follow from premises). They might not like the solution that the one appealed to comes up with.

Putting that aside, I was reminded of the DBT (Dialectic Behavioural Therapy) technique for appealing to someone for a change (in their behaviour, usually), known by the mnemonic DEARMAN:

 – Describe – the situation, as above
– Express – how it makes you feel when the situation happens; this is sort of like the problem, from above, but makes it more subjective, and therefore less arguable
– Assert – what you want; your need, from above
– Reinforce – why they would want this, too; implication, from above
– Mindful – staying on topic, one issue at a time, and not getting distracted by excuses
– Appear confident OR no Apologies (depending where you look) – people don’t listen to you if you don’t appear to stand for what you’re saying
– Negotiate – keeping in mind that you don’t know everything

I have rather more time for this approach, as it more clearly puts the ownership of the alleged issue with the petitioner, gives some good advice for the manner in which one should make the petition and negotiate it, and the mnemonic is more respectful.

BUT… Both SPIN and DEARMAN have two common unspoken pre-requisites: that the listener cares to make things work, for themselves (rational) and the petitioner, and that they can actually do something to bring about the petitioner’s required change. I have found, in both personal and business relationships, that these are not always the case, and no matter how well you make your case, and how important it is, it will bring about no change. Some people do not play well with others, or just cannot effect change. (You have to go around them, if you can.) Humans in general are notoriously bad at acting rationally. I found DEARMAN can sometimes be very disappointing in the real world.

Then I saw a very interesting YouTube clip about professional interpersonal relations. (I’m sorry – I forgot to get the reference when I saw it – I just made some notes of bits that resonated). The presenter encouraged me to believe the following:

 – Self: I have some information, but I may not see or understand everything
– Other person:
– may see things that I don’t see which could help
– is acting with integrity given their situation
– Task: combine our knowledge to make the best choice

So first we select and describe the problem, as above, but then, when we explain, evaluate and propose actions we have to remember we are working on assumptions.

The “acting with integrity” clause hit me like a wet fish. Really? I myself do always try to act with integrity, and I don’t always agree with the ideas of others, even given the same information and good incentives. The word “integrity” does make me reconsider the position of people who are challenging to work with: they could be right, for one thing. Even when they are apparently only gate-keeping, throwing up obstacles to progress, protecting their territory and other such non-productive behaviour: while they are being difficult, even sometimes unprofessional, their situation could be the real problem. How much stress are they under? What are they frightened of? What are their obstacles to change? Can I help them to help myself?

In reality, commonly you can’t. Their situation is causing a problem for them, and it might be that there is no-one who can help them, or maybe they have to SPIN or DEARMAN someone themselves, and then we have to hope that someone at the end of the chain of needs starts a domino effect of necessary change.