Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Art of Deception

“She was practiced at the art of deception, I could tell by her blood-stained hands” – The Rolling Stones

The Mingha-Deception route, famous for its role as the Coast to Coast’s mountain run course, draws some of the world’s best athletes, though not always the best outdoorspeople, into some of New Zealand’s toughest wilderness with occasionally disastrous results. With the 2013 race just around the corner, Mark Banham looks at the do’s and don’ts of this iconic trail run.

Arthurs Pass' Mingha River

On Friday 13th January, despite the inauspicious date and an ominous weather forecast, two groups of runners training for the Coast to Coast set off up the Southern Alps’ Mingha Valley into what would soon become a life-threatening situation – and an expensive and controversial rescue.

As the runners loped up the rugged 33 kilometre route, gale force westerly winds slammed into the mountains, dropping 65mm of rain, flooding the Mingha River and its tributaries and sending the wind-chill plummeting.

According to police reports, the first call for help came in around mid-day. The icy rivers, gale-force winds and driving rain had pushed one of the runners into hypothermia. To their credit, their companions recognised the seriousness of the situation, stopped at Goat Pass Hut and used the in-situ radio to call for help.

A Garden City rescue helicopter was despatched, battling headwinds all the way from Christchurch to arrive on the scene shortly afterwards. According to NZ Land Search and Rescue’s Duncan Hamilton, however, there was never any guarantee the helicopter would actually be able to reach the runners.

Hamilton, a West Coast local who has run the route more than 100 times and won the mountain run section of the Coast to Coast on several occasions, was one of the NZLSAR members on the scene that day. He says conditions weren’t as extreme as the West Coast can get, but it was certainly “a bit touch-and-go” for a helicopter rescue.

“There was heavy rain and strong winds, but fortunately the visibility was okay; it never got below about five kilometres and the cloud base always remained two hundred metres up.”

According to Hamilton, that’s a pretty close to the limit for helicopter rescues. He said if the cloud base had dropped by another hundred metres – which would take a mere a percent or two change in humidity – then search and rescue teams would have been forced to use much slower ground  based tactics.

“The next plan would have been for the helicopter to fly up as far as possible and drop us off, which may or may not have been alright,” he said, euphemistically.

In the end, the helicopter managed to sneak through the meagre weather window to collect the runners and transport them safely back to Arthurs Pass where one of the group was treated for mild hypothermia.

It was an embarrassing incident with a happy ending for the runners. For the rescue teams, the day was just beginning.

Before the rotor blades even stopped spinning a report of an emergency locator beacon signal coming from the same valley arrived – the second group of runners were in trouble.

Hamilton says one of the big risks on the Mingha-Deception route in rainy conditions is becoming trapped between rising rivers. “People who aren’t moving so quickly can get across the river at the bottom, but not the narrower crossings further up… and then by the time they get back to the first river crossing, it’s too high to cross as well.”

It sounds fairly benign, but it’s actually an extremely dicey situation. Statistically speaking, if you’re going to get killed below the tree-line around Arthurs Pass, a river is likely to be involved. Of the 93* non-aviation fatalities in the region since 1926, 28 have been due to drowning in rivers.

Sure enough, as the rivers rose the group found themselves trapped between two tributaries. As the precipitation increased their options evaporated until they were left with a choice: spend a night out in appalling conditions with no shelter and minimal food and clothing… or calling for a rescue – they opted for the latter.

So what went wrong?
Many observers simply blew the incidents off, describing them as just more examples of tax dollars being used to interfere with natural selection. But was it really that simple?

They certainly made some bad decisions, most notably going out with a heavy rain warning on the forecast, but simply saying they were idiots and leaving it at that seems a little too easy. In effect, it’s just a way of saying: “It couldn’t happen to me- I’m far too smart,” which is a dangerous train of thought indeed.

To try and make sense of it all we had a chat with Daryl Carpenter, CEO of New Zealand’s Mountain Safety Council. Carpenter’s job is to try and minimise these sorts of face-palm incidents. He says with any near-misses there are always lessons to be learned.

1 – You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.
The Mountain Safety Council have spent years developing and refining a set of guidelines for the outdoors - the Outdoor Safety Code; a five step process to make sure you don’t end up going home in a helicopter – or worse.

[In case you’ve forgotten, they are: Plan your trip, tell someone, be aware of the weather, know your limits and take sufficient supplies].

Each year the organisation goes to a massive amount of effort and expense to drum the idea into Kiwi outdoorspeople’s heads. So no doubt it’s a more than a little frustrating when people ignore them based on the spurious logic: “I’m running and the code is clearly designed for walkers.”

Carpenter says “If you’re trail runner you’re simply moving at a greater speed. If you’re a mountain biker you’re moving at an even greater speed. The rules apply equally whatever discipline, whatever terrain.”

2 -Timing is everything
One of the most common traps Mingha-Deception runners fall into, Carpenter says, is just not allowing themselves enough time.

“If it’s your first time through, double your expected time. If you’d normally run that sort of thing in four hours, then first time through, you might want to think about eight hours – because you’ll get lost in the rock garden.”

“If you’re with a group of four, generally you end up travelling at the speed of the slowest person. If they’ve niggled their knee, you might be able to do it in four hours but they do eight – guess what you do.”

Rumour has it that the Friday the 13th runners had been told the bad weather would arrive around lunchtime, giving them just enough time to sneak over the pass before the door closed behind them.

As it transpired, they were slower than expected and the weather arrived sooner than expected – closing the door in front of them.

3 - Bring enough stuff.
Carpenter says “As a trail runner you don’t want to prance around with too much gear, but there are some fundamentals.”

For this sort of mountain run people should think about bringing a polypro top and bottom, hat, gloves, a light raincoat and a survival bag - basically the Coast to Coast’s compulsory equipment.

He goes onto underline that’s just a starting point. “That gear will be different from the Kepler run, which’ll be slightly different from the Routeburn run, which will be slightly different from the Port Hills run.”

Plus it’ll change depending on the group. If you’re a fast runner travelling with a group of plodders, you won’t generate the usual amount of metabolic heat, and so you’ll want extra insulation and extra food. If it’s cold you might need still more.

Of course that gear will make you safer, but not invincible. As NZLSAR’s Duncan Hamilton pointed out; “[The Friday 13th runners] had the minimum clothing recommended for doing training there… But that minimum equipment won’t keep you alive if you’re outside indefinitely.”

5 - Know when to quit.
Another trail runners’ trap on the Mingha-Deception comes when, despite the best laid plans and sunniest forecasts, the deluge sets in and the rivers come up.

If you’re training for the Coast to Coast, chances are you’ll be running the route as a final shakedown squeezed into a narrow window of opportunity in January. And chances are you’ll have travelled for hours or days to get the chance to get familiar with the course, so the pressure to just give it a go anyway is tremendous.

Carpenter says if you find yourself in that situation, he has three words of advice: “Pull, the, pin.”
“People bleat and say ‘Aw but... Aw but…’, but hey, that’s life,” he says. “You need to start thinking ‘What’s my backup plan?’”

He says there’s no shortage of options in the area that don’t involve dicing with deadly rivers “You can just run up and over the road to Arthurs pass. Or you can whip over to the West coast and run some of the tracks. If it’s your boulder hopping you’ve got to worry about then jump into the Taramakau and run up and down that for a while.”

Even better, he says, is to have a backup weekend – plan to hike it in December so if the weather’s no good in January (as is often the case) you’ve still had a chance to get to know the route.
He says staying clear of the Mingha-Deception’s river crossings in bad conditions is good outdoor wisdom for anyone but especially for trail runners.

“Most trail runners are pretty lean and trim; you don’t have a lot of body fat to call on, so they’re actually powering through the resources of their body a lot quicker. So as soon as you enter the river, and repeatedly do so, the cold sucks the life out of you.”

But that still leaves one mystery…
The troubling question surrounding the Friday the 13th rescues is: why did two groups of experienced runners head out onto one of New Zealand’s hardest running routes with a weather forecast that clearly told them it was a bad idea?

Could they have not looked at the forecast? That seems unlikely. Perhaps it was group-think, with people shifting risk management responsibility onto a leaderless group? Perhaps it was the hubris that comes from being lucky in the outdoors for too long? We’ll never know for sure as the people concerned have understandably slipped back behind the veil of anonymity.

However one factor that may have had an influence is the ease with which both parties called for a rescue. There is a theory that emergency locator beacons and mountain radios can sing a siren’s song to outdoorspeople, telling them to push their luck because rescue is only a gadget away.

Carpenter says although their story had a happy ending with everyone being whisked to safety just in the nick of time, pushing your luck then pushing the button for a rescue isn’t a strategy that works in the long term.

“A really good rescue service is the wrong end of the spectrum to look at,” he says. “A really good prevention strategy means you’ll be fronting up at the start line.”

*Statistics from Arthurs Pass Mountaineering ( The most lethal accident category is falls with 48 fatalities; however this included a large number of climbing and mountaineering incidents. Below the tree-line the threat from rivers is likely to be higher than indicated. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Born to run?

Could the millions of readers and followers of Christopher McDougall’s book "Born to run" have been led astray? An Australian anthropologist thinks so and has an alternative theory that could change the way you look at running forever. 

If you read Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book Born to Run, or listened to his erudite TED talks you will have heard a theory on human evolution that goes something like this:
About two million years ago our ancestors’ brain size exploded – going from “pea brained” Australopithecines to “melon head” Homo erectus. However, to support that big brain, you need a source of condensed caloric energy – meat – and the first edged weapons didn’t arrive until about 200,000 years ago. So he says “Somehow our ancestors were killing animals without any weapons.”

To explain this quandary, McDougall says we evolved as “hunting pack animals”, using our efficient running gait and cooling adaptations to chase quadruped prey, which have neither, until they collapsed from heat exhaustion providing us with plenty of brain fuel – with no claws or fangs required.

The implication is that modern humans are built to run - and if you think otherwise then you’re not only denying history. You’re denying who you are.
This “endurance running hypothesis” as that’s commonly known is an amazing and compelling idea: man the elite athlete and great hunter, taking on the African savannah with only his bare hands like a pre-historic Bear Grylls; so it’s no surprise it’s commonly accepted by both anthropologists and the mainstream media.

But there’s one problem – it’s wrong. At least that’s the opinion of Stephen Munro, a former anthropology professor at Australian National University and current curator of the National Museum, Australia.

Munro is part of a growing faction of the scientific community, including Elaine Morgan and Sir David Attenborough, who say that the endurance running hypothesis is unlikely at best.

“The endurance running model from two million years ago – I struggle with that,” Munro says. “As far as I’m concerned endurance running came later with Homo sapiens [about 200,000 years ago].”

Why we’re not born to run

Munro says the idea that early hominids chased their prey to heat exhaustion on the savannah presents some serious logistical challenges.

“Our children aren’t endurance runners – certainly babies aren’t – pregnant women wouldn’t have been and likewise for the old folk,” he says. “Supposing they were actually doing this, it would have been only the healthiest males – and maybe females – running for many kilometres at a time to hunt. But at the end they have to somehow take that meat back to the people who couldn’t run.”

Of course this would have all taken place under the watchful eye of every other predator and scavenger on the savannah, many of whom would no doubt view a pack of exhausted apes carrying a dismembered animal the same way we see a super-supreme pizza.

The idea that we evolved on the hot dry savannah, Munro states, is flatly wrong. Munro says the fossils of butchered animals point to an aquatic setting. “One of the most common animals they find is hippopotamus; there are also records of whales being butchered and crocodiles. The [fossils] that are bovid, are animals like waterbuck that spent most of their time feeding in wetland grasses.”

In addition, Munro says there are a host of problems with the way our ancestors were built that would hinder their long-distance running ambitions. Homo erectus, the first human ancestors said to have used endurance running for survival, had a heavier skeleton than any primate in history, making it even less suited to running than its evolutionary predecessors.

“As a runner, there’s no real advantage in having heavy bones”, Munro says. “Good long distance runners don’t carry much fat and they’re slightly built – they’re not big hulking guys. Homo erectus had big muscles – big muscle attachments – and we assume they would have had subcutaneous fat like modern humans do. In my opinion, they were totally unsuited anatomically for long distance running.”

Furthermore, modern humans’ sweat glands, conventionally proposed as cooling adaptations for endurance running, combined with our dilute urine make us vulnerable to dehydration and salt depletion. Without trace elements like iodine, which are relatively scarce in a savannah environment, we fall victim to hypothyroidism and mental retardation.

Right now you’re probably asking yourself: ‘Dead hippopotamuses and retarded primates? What’s all this got to do with trail running?’ In a word: everything.

Running is a primal activity, so doing it well requires understanding your origins. How can you develop a good running style when you can't even say for sure why you stand on two feet rather than four? If you don't know what environment you came from, how do you expect to make good decisions about your water and salt intake? And if you don't know what food your digestive system spent a few million years evolving to process, then how do you expect to put together an effective training diet?

More likely: born to wade

So if running wasn’t the shaping force in our evolution, what was? According to Munro and his colleagues the driving force was water.

A model that explains our evolution in terms of foraging in and around oceans, lakes and rivers, answers many questions that savannah-based models (like the endurance running hypothesis) leave dangling: our hairlessness, our ability to consciously control our breathing and the wetsuit like layer of fat under our skin.

“If you’re swimming in water…then it’s an advantage to be naked and have subcutaneous fat but also to be linear – to have the legs spine and head all in one line,” Munro Says. “People often will assume we’re linear because we’re bipedal… in some respects we might be bipedal because we have a linear body that’s good for foraging in water.”

He says spending time around water would have provided the impetus for our breath control, which is one of the pre-conditions for speech.

However, he says it’s important to note we weren’t mermaids. “I don’t think humans were ever aquatic in that they were spending all their time in the water. They weren’t fast swimmers. They were foraging beneath the water, collecting things like shellfish; things that didn’t run or swim away.”

Munro says a waterside diet – eating coconuts and shellfish and scavenging the high water mark – explains our omnivorous tendencies and also the high docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) diet needed to grow the large brain necessary for tool use.

“You can survive on that. You don’t need to be running after anything, but you need tools, because you need to be able to open the shells. Tool use is very important.”

A shoreline lifestyle would have given us the perfect conditions to evolve our problem solving and tool making skills – the successful waterside ape would need to open mussel shells one day, carve up a beached whale the next and pilfer birds’ eggs in between. Eventually, basic tool use would have led to fishing spears and other projectile weapons.

In Munro’s opinion, it was only after we’d mastered these skills and evolved into our final Homo sapiens format 200,000 years ago that we began to hunt larger land-based prey, eventually dominating the planet and learning to endurance run.

So what does that mean for runners?

If Munro’s beliefs are true then we’re not the highly evolved endurance running specialists that many experts think. Instead, running, like language, art and science, is something that we learned to do much more recently.

While Born to Run fans might be feeling a bit down right now, for the rest of us Munro’s theory answers a whole stack of questions that have probably been nagging at you since you first laced up a pair of running shoes.

It explains why getting off the couch and running an ultra-marathon isn’t as straightforward as some people would have you think. It tells us why perfect running technique doesn’t come to us all as easily as we’d like and why you need to train carefully, scientifically.

It says that if you get injured, that’s okay, you’re not earmarked for natural selection – it just means you need to use that big old Homo sapiens brain of yours to figure out what’s going wrong with your running and fix it.

At the end of the day, Munro’s theory tells us that although we’re not natural born runners, we are born to adapt, improvise and persist – and when we do that, anything is possible.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hell on wheels.

Queenstown, New Zealand. The menace is loose again. Daylight savings is back and with it the "Wednesday Wheels" bunch ride; a pack of insubordinate cyclists thundering through the back streets of Queenstown like a herd of panting, Lycra-clad wildebeest; with muscle to burn, a disrespect for motorists and a loose middle finger; following only their most basic instincts, which at six o’clock on a Wednesday night tell them it’s time to migrate.

These bunch rides exist thanks to a regrettable legal loophole that permits freedom of assembly among cyclists, even going so far as to let them to ride two abreast so long as they don’t "hold back traffic”. Exactly what constitutes holding back traffic is unclear and so the Wheels have been known to take to the streets en-masse in groups of up to thirty cyclists, forcing motorists to exhaustingly lift their foot off the accelerator, delaying their journeys by tens of seconds.

The riders don’t pay a cent in registration or fuel taxes, so while the beleaguered motorists are forced to endure the tedium of turning the steering wheel by a few degrees to avoid colliding with a mass of sweaty flesh and carbon fibre – the cyclists ride, mockingly, for free. Exactly how they get away with this is unclear because lord knows those two-centimetre wide tyres must dish out a brutal beating to Central Otago’s road network. Next time you sink axle-deep into a spring pot-hole, don't blame the tourist busses or the cattle trucks - it'll be the cyclists that are responsible.

Until now the Wednesday Wheels and the imitation rides they’ve spawned on Tuesday and Thursday nights have been at a tolerable level for motorists, like a tune on the radio that’s not quite annoying enough to make you change channel. But Queenstown’s cyclist problem could be about to reach full-on Van Halen levels of intensity.

Mountain bikers, road cyclists’ even filthier cousins, have been allowed to cut a network of trails through our pine plantations. Those trails have led to more bikers, which have led to more trails, which have led to more bikers and so on. Now, it seems this influx of lucrative, socially desirable, ecologically friendly visitors has piqued the interest of our national human trafficking organisation, Tourism New Zealand. The result is massive infrastructure projects like Nga Haerenga, a world-class national network of cycle trails designed to lure even more bikers from around the world.

The problem is, as sure as night follows day, where mountain bikers go, road cyclists will follow. If we let our country become known as a biker-friendly destination then we’ll inevitably see roads crawling with gangs of “roadies” jacked up on endorphins, speaking in their own lingo and performing rites and manoeuvres so bizarre that one can only conclude their sole purpose is to disturb the regular motoring public.

It’s not too late to stop this nightmare from happening. But Queenstown will need to take a cold hard look at itself and decide: do we want to give our town over to the spandex wearing scourge or do we want to preserve every man’s inalienable right to automotive convenience? I think the answer is obvious.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Welcome to Fiordland

Hello children!

Something very exciting is happening right now near Milford Sound: New Zealand is getting its first proper theme park – Fiordland!

Very soon the boring old tramping tracks and huts will be replaced with fabulous gondolas, ecologically sensitive monorails (a bit like a rollercoaster but slower and painted green) and spooky bus tunnels.

The Department of Conservation has already given its okay to the first of the theme park rides; the spooky tunnel (officially known as the Milford-Dart Tunnel Project) pending a public review. So as long as the grumpy locals and dirty hippies don’t spoil the fun it should be opening up soon.

This ten-kilometre-long, five-metre-diameter tunnel is going to be an engineering marvel and although it’ll be a little spooky it’ll be completely safe, just like the Pike River Mine was and totally earthquake proof, just like Christchurch was.

So don’t worry kiddies there’s absolutely no chance it’ll ever make international headlines for all the wrong reasons like the Mont Blanc tunnel did back in 1999 when a margarine truck caught fire in it sending 39 people off to heaven.

The next couple of rides: an all-terrain-vehicle and monorail ride between Lake Wakatipu and Lake Te Anau and a Gondola through the Caples Valley; might take a bit longer because the Department of Conservation isn’t playing nicely with the businessmen, but don’t worry they’ll be here just as soon as DOC rubber stamps the proposals and goes back to bothering the possums.

This isn’t just great news for children around the world – it’s great for the economy (yes, eco-no-my is a bit of a big word kiddies, it means is it’ll make the rich people happy).

You see, letting the big businesses build the rides means they get to decide who goes on them and how much they’ll have to pay – and that will make them lots of pocket money.

Of course they won’t keep it all to themselves – that’d just be mean – they’ll share it with their friends the lawyers and the property developers… and they might even give a bit with the politicians while no one’s looking. They’re not supposed to – but we won’t tell anyone will we. 

Every theme park needs a theme and although the ideas for the rides have come from different companies they’ve landed on exactly the same theme – convenience. They’ll all shorten the ten-hour trip to Milford Sound to as little as four hours.

What a clever idea! After all who wants a place like Milford Sound to be remembered as wild, rugged, and untamed? No, we’d much rather have our theme park remembered as cheap, convenient, and looking exactly like it did in the brochures.

Around the world convenience theme park projects like this have been a wonderful success. In Tibet and Nepal, once upon a time you had to endure weeks of heathen culture and prehistoric infrastructure to see the big mountains, now you can just take a train or a bus most of the way – it’s very convenient.

Some people say that the road has spoilt an ancient way of life for the families who’ve made a living looking after travellers for centuries and that the railway to Tibet is just a way to encourage Han migration to Tibet to legitimize China’s territorial claim. But those people just need to lighten up and realise that change can be fun.

Likewise, in Italy, the big businesses have done such a good job bringing visitors to Venice on big convenient cruise ships to see the city’s culture that the little Venetian locals can’t afford to live there any more – and so have had to take their culture elsewhere.

That’s okay though, because the tourists’ Venice is much more fun than the real Venice ever was so no one really minds.

In fact, we know for sure that no one really minds because in 2010 some cranky Venetians staged a protest at the loss of their culture, dressing in costumes and handing out admission tickets to “Veniceland”.

But the protestors didn’t realize that American tourists don’t understand sarcasm and so they thought they’d seriously opened a theme park. Silly protestors!

Once Fiordland opens there’ll be no telling what fun attractions might come next. Perhaps a tunnel under McKinnon Pass, so people can do the Milford Track on Segway scooters. Or maybe a giant ferris wheel at Sandfly Point – just like Melbourne’s Southern Sky. With an open mind and a pro-business government in the Beehive, the possibilities really are endless.

All this is coming soon children but it’s not here quite yet. So you must be on your best behaviour. That means no sending angry emails to the Minister for Tourism, no writing letters to the newspapers, no lodging submissions to DOC – and absolutely no sending silly satirical columns to Wilderness Magazine!

If you misbehave then Fiordland might just stay a boring old national park.

[As published in Wilderness Magazine April 2012]

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Getting away from it all

What’s the first thought that pops into your head? If it’s the opening bars of Mozart’s last symphony, or a great idea for a new flavour of ice-cream you can stop reading now.

If on the other hand you thought “Did I remember to switch the gas off this morning?” Or, “I wonder when the car’s due for a service?” or something along those lines then, like me, you’re a worrier – read on.

Don’t worry (or at least try not to), you’re not alone. Most people’s heads are filled with a constant background noise of minor concerns, bills to be paid, quibbles to be reconciled, and jobs to be done.

It’s just part of being human – we’re problem-solvers by nature, so it’s only natural that we tend to focus on our problems. But occasionally we need to press the pause button on it all, just for a moment, for the sake of our sanity.

For me that’s fairly simple: take a powder snow filled backcountry chute or a few kilometres of mountain bike single trail add a few friends and it’s done – problems ‘solved’ if only for a moment.

But what is actually being done when you press that metaphorical pause button? Clinical Psychologist Lisa Cohen says two mechanisms are affected; the psychological and the physical.

Psychologically it’s simple; you’re pretty much overloading your brain with sensory input. When you’re trying to balance on a pair of skis, navigate and estimate the snow stability – plus smile for the photo at the same time… you’re brain simply doesn’t have the capacity to worry.

Physically it’s a little more complex. When you put your body under the right sort of stress, it releases a bevy of unpronounceable chemicals like andrinocoticortropic hormone, serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, melanocyte-stimulating hormone. The exact workings of these chemicals are a bit of a mystery even for experts like Cohen, but the overall effects are well known – heightened awareness, alleviated pain and euphoria – a natural high.

She says the combination of a clear mind and a euphoric mood often triggers a third, profoundly spiritual component whereby escapists either literally or metaphorically see God in the wilderness. Of course double-black-diamond chutes and single-track bike trails aren’t the only way to get away from it all - drugs and alcohol will do the trick too.

Cohen, who a specialist in the treatment of addiction says whether you choose to get your escape on the summit of a mountain or the point of a needle, comes down to some fairly subtle but very significant personality differences.

“[Outdoor escapists] are usually risk takers, but they’re able to channel their like for risk into healthy activities. Sometimes it may be obsessive, and they may get ‘addicted’ to it, but it’s a lot healthier than substances… and it doesn’t have the legal ramifications.

“[People who use drugs for escape] don’t have a lot of patience, or tolerance for their emotions or themselves or people,” she says. “That’s why they’re more likely to indulge in substances – it’s just easier – it doesn’t take a whole lot of planning.

“Some people will do it consciously. They’ll realize that they’re risk takers and they want to channel their risk-taking in a more positive healthy area that challenges them. They’re also more likely to have some belief in their ability to succeed in those challenges.

“Whereas people who tend to engage in compulsive use of substances tend not to have such a great belief in themselves, or if they do it’s more from a narcissistic point of view – it’s not reality based.”

However, in matters of the mind – particularly when mind-bending substances are involved – things are not always straightforward.

There are notable cases of high-functioning individuals like Keith Richards and Hunter S Thomspson, who despite elephant-killing intakes of drugs and alcohol over the years (or possibly because of it) have managed to produce some of the twentieth century’s best music and literature. Likewise there are countless cases, especially in adolescents, where relatively low doses can have life-wrecking impacts.

Cohen explains “Generally it is a problem if whatever the person is doing is affecting their family and relationships, their job and their health. If it’s not any of those – even though they may be using high levels of substances – then how do you identify it’s a problem… it certainly won’t be for the person [concerned].”

Intriguingly, if you apply that litmus test to the outdoor community you do see the occasional case of ‘endorphin abuse’, with some possible junkies cropping up much earlier than you’d expect.

Most people know George Leigh Mallory, as the British mountaineer last seen in 1924, 350m below the summit of Everest, in the words of expedition mate Noel Odell “going strongly for the top”.

He perished in the attempt sparking an ongoing debate whether he made it to the summit, beating Hillary and Norgay by almost thirty years (although the fact he didn’t survive makes it a moot point).

What people don’t realise is that, before heading to Everest, Mallory served in WWI as a member of the Royal Garrison Artillery through some of the war’s most intense fighting, including the Battle of the Somme – a campaign that cost the two sides over a million lives.

On the front he would have been exposed to the full gamut of wartime horrors; gas attacks, dead bodies, severely wounded colleagues – and as an artilleryman, the constant nagging doubt that perhaps one of his shells had gone astray and landed on his own men.

He returned in 1921, almost certainly suffering from what we’d now diagnose as post traumatic stress disorder, quit his job as a school teacher and headed for Everest.

When asked why he needed to climb the world’s highest peak, Mallory famously quipped “Because it’s there”. I wonder if a more accurate answer, given the memories he would have been carrying with him, might have been “Because when I’m there, everything else isn’t.”

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Rebels vs Insurgents

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed something a little odd about the language used to describe the conflicts going on around the world at the moment?

Take for example the way anti-government forces are described in the media: are they "rebels"or "insurgents"? Literally the two words mean pretty much exactly the same thing:
Rebel: a person who refuses allegiance to, resists, or rises in arms against the government or ruler of his or her country.

Insurgent: a person who rises in forcible opposition to lawful authority, especially a person who engages in armed resistance to a government or to the execution of its laws; a rebel.
But their implied meanings are poles apart. In my mind (which I don't think is too far from the average) when someone says rebel I think fondly back to stories of the French resistance, Che Guevara, Luke Skywalker, Marlin Brando even.

Insurgent on the other hand seems to have been popularised by the Bush Administration's ongoing War on Terror. So pretty much translates to a non-passport-holding terrorist; the guys that stay home and make IEDs rather than jet-setting around the world blowing things up.

The point is, the word you choose tips your hand as to which side of a conflict you're cheering for; effectively they're just fancy ways of saying "good guys" and "bad guys".

For government press releases and dinner party conversations that's fine, but you'd think the news media would be a bit more careful, as it's supposed to be impartial, unbiased and dispassionate (it's not, but it's at least supposed to try to be).

To give you an idea, let's have a look at what word is used to describe which conflict via a Google News search. It's by no means scientific, but hopefully youíll get the idea:
Insurgent Rebel
Afghanistan 5,450 720
Iraq 2,080 879
Libya 1,040 9,080
Tunisia 426 2,740
Okay, any theories as to why that is? Well it's hard to say for sure, but my hunch is that whenever the United States Government - the most powerful spin-doctor on earth - gets involved we see what John Pilger described as the "information dominance" strategy coming into play. That is, the US Military saturates the news media with their footage and their version of events.

Media outlets are reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them and when the government hand is supplying tasty treats like high-res photos, spy drone camera footage and up-to-the minute statistics, normally savage news hounds tend to roll over, play dead and repeat the US version verbatim.

That's just one example, but the point is, next time you turn on the TV or pick up the paper, don't just passively absorb the information flowing down the tube, have a critical think about what's being said. Sometimes thereís more information between the lines than within them.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Wikileaks: implications for the communications industry.

With a few mouse clicks, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and volunteer staff of Wikileaks have picked up the chessboard of international politics and given it one hell of a shake.

It’ll take a while for the dust to settle… and it’ll be very interesting to see what the game looks like when it does.

In reality much of the changed landscape of this ‘new game’ will only affect people directly involved in the Machiavellian cut and thrust of international politics.

However the various scandals have drawn into focus some very interesting changes in the way people share information. And if like me, you’re involved day-to-day in corporate communications (an industry that you could argue is a minor league version the international diplomacy game) then you really should be watching closely. Here are a few concepts that have caught my attention:

The scientific approach to communications.
When Wikileaks published the “Collateral Murder” tapes showing a United States helicopter machine gunning civilians and journalists they didn’t just release a ten second clip… they released the full, unedited camera tapes. Sure you could see an edited version, but if you didn’t believe the conclusions they drew, you could download the unedited version and decide for yourself. It’s what’s known as the scientific approach journalism.

The idea stems from the dusty world of peer-reviewed science journals where you don’t just publish your conclusions; you publish the hypothesis, the methodology and results too. The idea is that readers can view your data and see if they draw the same conclusions, or if they like, repeat the experiment and see if they get the same results. It’s a fairly high standard to achieve, but it’s one that clearly separates objective from subjective; fact from opinion.

In the pre-digital age, cost and logistical constraints prevented the news media from using this approach. The result was an arrangement that forced readers to rely on the subjective opinions of reporters and the subjective choices of editors. It was an imperfect system, to put it lightly.

But on the internet there is no such constraint and so we see a growing number of communications organisations showing not just the tip of the inverted pyramid… but publishing the whole thing (mummies and all).

So how does this relate to someone selling mountain biking holidays, or real estate packages?

Well, twenty years ago the column inches constraint applied to corporate communications too - so you could say “trust us you’ll love it” and people would generally be happy enough with that. But as the world’s ability to transmit and process information grows it seems likely that the businesses that say “trust us you’ll love it… but if you want proof, here it is” will be the ones who come out on top.

Of course not everyone will look at that proof; not everyone has the time. But if you’re trying to convince people to buy into your idea, be it a product, political campaign or news story; and you’re not prepared to show them demonstration videos, independent field trials, customer reviews, etcetera to back it up… then you’ll need a to think up a pretty damn good reason why not.

No more porky-pies
The second revelation to come out of Wikileaks actually stems back to an essay “Conspiracy as Governance” written by Julian Assange back in 2006. In the essay, which forms the philosophical underpinning of Wikileaks Assange argues that unjust organizations by their nature will create leaks and that those leaks will have a negative nonlinear effect on them.

“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive "secrecy tax") and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaptation.”
Once again Assange was writing is in the context of tyrannical government regimes… but again the principles apply on a smaller scale. As the world’s ability to share information increases, organizations that behave duplicitously; whether that’s over-selling a product, over-spinning their public relations activities or just plain lying; are increasingly going to find themselves outmanoeuvred by their honest competitors.

That’s not to say you can’t have conflicting points of view and it definitely doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with everything that you do (in fact having some people vigourously dislike what you do can galvanise your supporters and actually be beneficial… but I digress). However, what it does mean is that by keeping your rhetoric and your actions in line you’ll make your organisation more effective - and more profitable.

One obvious sticking point will be the traditional difference between ‘back-of-house’ and ‘front-of-house’ communications. Communication is always going to be context specific and shifting contexts will invariably distort the meaning of the message. Anyone who’s taken their spouse to a work Christmas party will understand.

There is however a big difference between this sort of cross-contextual friction…and conspiring to deceive the public at large. It’s a hazy line I’ll admit, but with information passing between contexts more freely than ever, it’s one that professional communicators are going to have to watch very closely.

What’s your name again?
On a more technical note, it’s interesting to observe that Wikileaks was able to operate almost entirely unhindered without even having a domain name. After EveryDNS cut ties with the company claiming the denial of service attacks on the Wikileaks site were threatening its ability to serve other customers, the URL effectively ceased to exist.

You’d think they would have been dead in the water, but the site was still easily locatable via Google at its numeric IP address: and continued to run more or less unhindered.

So what? Well, the old marketing adage: “build a better mousetrap and the world with beat a path to your door” is generally quoted as a description of how things used to be done – before the wonders of modern marketing. It seems these days, with a little help from Google the saying is true once again… especially if you’re looking to catch very big, corrupt mice.