I have barely written anything here for more than a year, but Bearhunt was always just sleeping and never dead. I thought I didn’t have much to say, and perhaps I didn’t at the time, but looking back over the last 12 months there have been a lot of lessons. Maybe I was too busy experiencing them to be able to see them for what they were at the time, but now there is distance and I have entered a reflective phase in my life (more on that later), so I find myself contemplating a return to regular blogging. I would like to make a note of what I have learned and perhaps consider some of it a bit more deeply and this seems as good a place as any.
Also, I have an end date for my time in Japan. For better or for worse, in 5 months time I will be back in Britain, if not for good, then certainly for the foreseeable future. It seems I’m about to close the door on one big adventure and open the door on another.
Look! A new blog post! Crickey, that’s been a while then…
The last 9 months has been a real whirlwind roller-coaster (is that possible?). It contained some of the lowest lows of my life so far (seeing the destruction left by the tsunami of 11/03/11) and some of the highest highs (meeting so many wonderful people as a direct result of my volunteering there). It also marked a significant shift towards a much happier and healthier self, which I won’t bore you with here, but suffice to say the Nell of Jan 2012 is much more satisfied with her self and with her life than the Nell of Jan 2011. I feel… whole
Anyhow, you aren’t interested in that! You want to know about arseholes!
I have long been a proponent of Bob Sutton’s no asshole rule, which says (and I’m putting my own spin on it here) that arseholes do huge damage to teams and business, and even talented arseholes do more damage than good on aggregate and are best avoided. However, this post on Bob’s blog has me reevaluating that position somewhat. Only a little bit though.
It seems that Steve Jobs was an arsehole of such supreme talent that it really did counteract the loss in productivity brought about by an unpleasant working environment and resulted in, not only a very successful company, but one of the most successful of all time. But (and such a large arsehole come with a very big “but” indeed), was there anything in his methods that the rest of us could benefit from?
To define a successful business, you must first define “success”. That may seem easy, surely a successful business is a profitable one and the most successful is the most profitable? Perhaps; if money is the most important thing to you. But I’d wager that it isn’t true for most. For almost everyone in the world being happy is far more important than cold hard cash. Not that I’d be naive enough to suggest that financial security doesn’t help with happiness, but even the most acquisitive creature only collects possessions because doing so makes them feel better.
I define “success” slightly differently. To me, when measuring the success of a company, we should take into account all of its impact across every aspect of its functioning. You can restrict that view to just the economic (whether it respects its environment and provides its staff with a decent pension or than expects the public purse to pick up the tab for care and cleanup) or include the wider social impact (whether they add value to the community and its wellbeing), but you must take into account the cost/benefit to society as well as to the company itself if you want to judge absolute value.
I don’t think Steve Jobs evaluated success in terms of cold hard cash, but I don’t think he worried about the wider social impact of his company overly either (although Apple’s green credentials are comparatively ok, the company’s bullish attitude to IP litigation is well known, amongst many other examples of a less than caring attitude). Rather, I suspect Steve Jobs cared about making the best product possible and he cared very little whether others agreed with him, as long as he was happy with what they made. It so happens that most of the time enough people agreed enough to pay Apple’s prices and so the company was successful by the more standard metric of profitability also.
So. Steve Jobs was successful by the standard metric and by his own, but not necessarily by mine. What can we learn from this? I think an all round happier society is better served by the John Lewis model of shared ownership and non-arseholery. It may not be as big or as profitable as Tesco, but it gives much more to the communities in which it resides and is more stable in times of financial hardship – it is a safer place to be employed.
But what if you don’t care about the wider community? First, I’d say that means you are well on your way to being a sizeable arsehole, but I’d also suggest that if you’re going to be an arsehole in control of a company, then you’d better be a supremely talented one. Because if not, you are more likely to fail in your endeavours in the long run than your more kindly neighbours. Steve Jobs was successful because he wasn’t just an arsehole, he was a one in 8 billion arsehole. If you want to emulate his methods, you’d better be certain you are too!
American banks invented really dodgy credit products, which they sold to people they knew couldn’t afford to pay them back, and then sold the liability on to other banks, many of which were in other countries. When we discovered just how dodgy the products were a large part of the house of cards came tumbling down and, because so much of the debt was held overseas, the US problem spread globally.
But initially, they had thought this was a really good idea, so a deade ago they (Goldman Sachs) taught the trick to the Greek Government, who’d asked for financial advice. The Greek government parcelled up all their toxic debt and sold it on to the rest of Europe (and used the profit to fund massive public spending, which is why Greeks are happier than Americans, or were, until the Government tried to take it all away).
The rest of Europe was apparently savy enough to sell the debt on again, just in case, and, because it’s entirely unregulated, no one knows who it is who’s watching the Greeks riot with their fist in their mouth, their blanky on their knee and their therapist on speed dial while the country circles the default drain.
Round and round and round it goes, where will it end? Nobody knows!
The smart money, however, is on those same American banks who created the whole mess in the first place… which would be some sort of poetic justice if it wasn’t for the fact that they will hurt a lot of innocent people if (when?) they fall.
On the other hand, it was the so called “smart money” that created the problem in the first place, so perhaps we should just wait and see.
What an eventful 2 weeks. While I was off shovelling mud one of my friends (and occasional blog tech support) got engaged (congratulations Charlotte and Dave!) and another had a baby (congratulations the Bromleys!), marvelous
Sorry the moblogging stopped abruptly after 3 days, it turned out my pathetic little solar charger was NOT man enough for the job of charging my phone and so after 3 days, that was that.
Reading back what I wrote at the time; it’s not very positive sounding. I strongly suspect that has far more to do with the time of day I was writing (before 6am, bleh) than any actual unhappiness because, looking back on it, the week I spent in Tohoku was, quite simply, the best week of my life so far. It’s too hot for me up there now so I won’t be going back for a couple of months, but come October and you just try and keep me away.
Here’s the story:
We boarded the night bus at 9.30 pm for the journey to Ishinomaki in Tohoku. I was expecting a miserable time as I don’t generally sleep well on buses, but as the bus was less than half full and we each had two seats I actually managed to pass most of the journey asleep. We stopped at a services about 45 mins from the disaster zone at 5am and, as we weren’t due in Ishinomaki until 7.30, we stopped there for a couple of hours. It is the unexpected moments of closeness that cement friendships and, as I sat in a park in the early morning light with my friend Erica just chatting and whiling away the hour until the bus would be leaving again, I suspected this week was probably going to forge ours into something a bit stronger that the usual ‘ladies that lunch’.
We arrived, had a quick orientation meeting and transfered to our final destination. We were staying in a clothing factory that had been cleared by previous groups of volunteers in the middle of a badly damaged residential area. The factory was just one huge room with a tarpaulin to give the girls a bit of privacy. No such luck for the boys, and some of them seemed to relish the fact. Certainly I caught myself more than once staring vacantly into the distance, only to realise I was staring fully at some guy getting changed. Still, they had a changing room and they chose not to use it, so I shan’t feel too guilty if I occasionally elected not to look immediately away from some of the adonis-esque abs I found myself accidentally gazing at.
We had time to unroll our bedding, change into our work gear and then we were straight into it. On the first day all the new arrivals were together clearing a plot of land for a family. Our team of 7 had a garage to clear:
Team 10 and friends taking a break:
That’s a lot of hedoro (sludge):
A job well done:
By everybody (4 teams and the family):
We finished fairly early as it was our first day and we hadn’t had a full night’s sleep the night before and headed back to the factory. I don’t remember much about that first evening. Food was eaten and there was probably some chatting.
It’s strange looking back at those photos to think that, at that point, I’d barely spoken to the people in them. The work had been carried out with spirit and speed and pretty much all of our conversation on that day was dedicated to figuring out how to work together. I doubt we talked much that first night: we didn’t know each other yet. At some point I must have fallen, exhausted, into bed. The bed, however, was a yoga mat on the floor, so the quality of the sleep, even as exhausted as we were, shouldn’t be overestimated.
The next morning, we were up again by 6am. Coffee and porridge with almonds and cranberries set me up well for the day and Erica supplied both. I think I may have fallen a little bit in love with her at that point.
We geared up and presented ourselves for the daily morning meeting and rajio taiso session (radio exercise):
Equipment was loaded into wheelbarrows and we were off for day 2:
As I posted at the time, day 2 was somewhat uninspiring at first, but in the afternoon we were transfered to help with clearing a garden of mud and we felt better at the end of the day than we had at lunch. Still, even as difficult as we found that first lot, we cleared a lot of detritus, and the before and after pictures show that perhaps the day 2 blues were responsible for some, if not all, of our (my) feelings of frustration, because we did good work that morning:
The concrete pole is a telegraph pole that had been ripped up by it’s base. The piece lying at an angle in the first picture is the base, you can just see it lying on the rest of the pole on the left hand side of the second picture as well. The pole is nearly 2 feet thick reinforced concrete and it has been snapped like a twig. You can’t get the magnitude of the destruction from the TV, and even on the ground it is too great to be comprehensible, but perhaps this, more than a km from the shore and quite far from the worst of the destruction, can give you the smallest sense of the power involved.
The area had suffered:
After day 2 we settled into a routine. We would get up very early, usually around 5.30, have a leisurely breakfast lasting an hour or more (these became the most important part of the day for me; I really treasured the peace and the conversation), gear up, do our rajio taiso, get our jobs for the day and get stuck in. Breaks were approximately every hour and lunch was 12.30 – 13.30. We carried debris and piled it for collection and we shovelled mud and sludge into bags and piled those up by the road too. In the evenings we would perhaps visit the one open convenience store, sit around chatting over dinner, read a book or play cards. We worked hard and in the evening we enjoyed each other’s company. We weren’t without the occasional point of friction, and I think everyone snapped at someone else at some point during the week, but on the whole, we got on with getting on and we made friends.
At some point, dressed in full PPE for shovelling toxic sludge, we ended up hauling debris in the full sun outside instead. Taped into our boots, the only solution for cooling down was… well… At this point we ceased to be Team 10 and became Team Pants Off! instead. Or Team Trousers Down! in British
Towards the end, I started to feel sad that it was coming to and end. I was dying for a shower and a night in a proper bed, but I had expected the week to be one of the hardest things I had ever done, physically and mentally, and, while there were definitely moments of sadness and fear, it was far from hard and it was also fantastically good fun.
I am so very grateful to the people I met and the friends I made and especially to Erica for her fantastic company and to Aki for leading our team so well, for putting up with us and for taking and sharing these photos. I hope to keep in touch with everyone and I will definitely be doing this again.
There is a constant stream of short-stay volunteers coming and going. Their buses leave very early in the morning and they generally start packing up around 5.15. We don’t need to get up until 7 but because they are awake from 5.15, so are we. We don’t much like them.
Sunday was the hardest day so far, as we had been promised it would be, although I don’t think it’s because we were too tired. We ended up trying to dig around a foot and a half of tsunami detritus from someone’s lot in the direct sun. It was uninspiring work, because it was an empty lot and it was very slow and very difficult and we weren’t really sure how deep we needed to dig. We weren’t experienced enough to figure out how much water and how many breaks we needed and we all got headaches. In the end, it was decided there was too much for human labour to efficiently do and a digger was required. We were pleased to be transferred to a different job.
Yesterday was completely different. We were inside a house scooping mud and sludge and slop from the space under the floor. It was by far the dirtiest smelliest task we’ve done so far but, again, I really enjoyed myself. I spend so much time staring at a screen or in the lab pipetting that the opportunity to stretch my body instead of my brain is valuable. My new slim(ish)-line self is quite capable of digging for 8 hours without complaining, and that feels good too.
But yesterday was also the most emotional day we’ve had. The home owners were on site and. As is quite common, they show their gratitude with food. They supplied all the iced tea we could drink, a lavish lunch and ice cream for the afternoon break. In the even they sent sushi to our accommodation. During a break we were chatting and discovered the house was the woman’s sisters and she had died in the tsunami. The building (which was modern and large and must have been beautiful before) was one of only a few still standing in an area of utter devastation. 100 meters down the road two fire engines were sitting were they had been tumbled in amongst what has become the area dump. The house was a single story building with a high ceiling entrance, the water make was 2.5 meters up the wall of the hallway, in the rest of the building there had been nowhere to escape to. We found child’s toys in the mud. We don’t know whether they belonged to the family or had been swept in with the mud but the only thing to do was put the feelings they evoked in a tightly sealed box o deal with later and keep digging.
The noise of 100 exhausted people sleeping on a factory floor is strangely similar to a jungle at night.
I am incapable of holding on to more than one ear plug for an entire night.
Yesterday, after an overnight bus journey that, unusually for me, I managed to sleep through almost all of, we shovelled mud for 4 hours. 14 people can shift a lot of mud in 4 hours. To my surprise, steamed-up goggles aside, I really enjoyed myself.
In the evening, we giggled quite a lot. We don’t hate each other yet…
We have been told that day 2 is usually the worst as everyone always does too much the first day and they’re still very tired from the journey. This is probably true. I want coffee.
We start shovelling again in 90 mins. This time for 8 hours.
I have just finished packing for my trip on Friday. I got everything in my bag, sort of. Close enough that I can manage it all anyway. Out of interest, I weighed the bags: they total 23 kg (51 lbs), which is almost exactly 1/3rd of my body weight. Ack.
It turns out volunteering requires a lot of gear. Here is a list of what I’m taking:
Food for 1 week
2L of water (for emergencies only, there should be some on site)
- these first two items account for 9 kgs of the total, so at least it will be lighter on the way back!
Dust masks (2 per day)
A set of waterproofs
Steel toe-capped wellies
a roll of tape
spoon, fork, knife, chopsticks
kairo (sticky heat pads for if it’s cold at night)
A first aid kit
clothes for 8 days (I have a fresh set for each day, which constitutes luxury, but I doubt it added more than 2 kg to the total)
toothbrush & toothpaste
ear plugs (with 50 or so people sharing a single warehouse floor, these are most definitely essential)
head scarves (for keeping sweat out of eyes, these are not a luxury)
2 packets of oreos and 2 of chocolate (bite me)
A head torch
a solar phone charger
If anyone can see anything there that I don’t actually need, that might reduce the weight a bit, please don’t be shy!
Yesterday I attended the orientation session for my trip with Peaceboat to Ishinomaki. In the run up to the series of bank holidays that occurs at the start of May called Golden Week, Peaceboat were overrun with volunteers and were turning people away; since then, numbers have fallen away dramatically and they are struggling to find people: now is the time to go.
The satellite image has been updated by Google to show the way it looks now, but drag the little man to street view and you can still see what used to be there.
I have been asked more than once lately whether things are getting back to normal, because it hasn’t been in the news lately. The answer to that is very simply no. Not even remotely. The truth is that it hasn’t been in the news lately because nothing has changed and an unchanged situation doesn’t sell copy. There are still towns that were totally obliterated and where the clean-up hasn’t even started; there are still thousands living in evacuation centres with just a small amount of rice and bread to eat; there are still busses on top of apartment blocks and ships in what were once bedrooms. Festering mud encapsulates rotting animal carcasses in peoples homes and livelihoods and lives are still destroyed. The official death toll still lies at around 15000 dead, 9000 missing.
Right now, the things most concerning me about this trip are how well I will be able to sleep, the smell, whether I will cope with the hard physical labour, how much gear I have to carry and how I will cope with not washing for 8 days.
I am fairly certain that, once I get there, those will seem trivial and irrelevant concerns.
Denying compassionate release twice in the last 6 weeks of a man’s life, and then finally granting it the day before he dies (and after it’s too late to be of any use to anyone) has very little to do with compassion and everything to do with arse covering. Big Rinty didn’t die handcuffed to the bed, but only because of a technicality.
One wonders how the “people” involved in these decision sleep at night. Have they dehumanised those in their care so far that they are able to justify it to themselves on the grounds that prisoners just don’t deserve compassion? I suspect so.
If you found me searching for the lyrics to the children's song, you can find them here.
I am a researcher in bionanotechnology currently living and working in Tokyo. I moved out here nearly three years ago, against my better judgement but in search of adventure. It has certainly been an adventure and not one I would have missed for the world.
I am trying to retrain as a designer and you may see the odd example of my work appear here as I progress.