Author Archives: Chris Watkins

Christian ministry without faith

What do you do if you’re a Christian priest or minister who no longer believes in God? Most likely you are afraid to confide in anyone, you don’t want to hurt those in your family and your congregation, and you have no other training.

Dan Dennett discusses this, describing six actual ministers who continue to preach and minister to their flocks, despite their loss of faith. (They remain anonymous, of course.) He then discusses the evolution of religion. (56 minutes)

It’s not sport if you’re just watching

I visited Bangkok in 2007 (coming by train, bus and fishing boat up the Malay peninsula). After settling in, I was asked “So, you’re here for the World Cup?” I looked at this English fellow blankly. World Cup? Turns out people were flocking to Bangkok from around the world, to watch men kick a round ball around on the grass.

My new acquaintance chuckled. “There’s two kinds of Australians traveling overseas. Those who can’t wait to find out what’s been happening in sport while they’ve been away, and those who leave Australia to get away from the sport.”  As for me, I don’t see how sports “news” makes it into actual news programs.

Playing sport is fun. Watching top athletes can be inspiring. But if you’re just watching someone else play, what you’re doing is not sport.

Astrophysicist: “I’m almost embarrassed for my species”

It took an actual meteor over Russia exploding with 25 times the power of the atom bomb in Hiroshima to convince people that maybe we should start doing something about (possible asteroid collisions). I’m almost embarrassed for my species that you can be so blind to everything experts have been telling you and you got to wait for people to almost die to say, “Oh, I guess they are out there.”Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist

I hardly need to point out the parallels with climate change.

Fun with white supremacists

You might want to microwave some popcorn – this is only a minute long, but you’ll want to savor the moment.

White supremacist leader Craig Cobb hears the results of the DNA test from a black British host who’s thoroughly enjoying herself:

John Safran (the Australian provocateur who did some role-reversal with Mormons in Utah, asking if they’d heard of evolution and The Origin of Species) had a similar adventure with white supremacist leader Richard Barrett – a great story but with a sad, sordid ending, brimming with hypocrisy and exploitation.

Hat tip to Liz McLellan for the video.

Communication only succeeds when people hear you

Of communication and cultural blank slates…

Paul Romer is a prominent economist with a vision for “reform zones” in developing countries, with charter cities that operate independently of the rules and institutions that have failed to create wealth in the country as a whole. The idea was to invite foreign countries to help set up new rules and institutions and build the cities, experimenting with new ways of doing things, to find what would work to create wealth and end poverty.

But for years the idea had no traction. Part of the problem was an accusation of colonialism – which seems to make no sense if the country is inviting them in and asking for help. However, Romer is not a people person, and he couldn’t sell the idea, until he had help packaging it into a clear, emotionally appealing 18 minute presentation – i.e. a TED talk.

This led to him connecting with two Honduran government officials with a similar vision who had also had trouble selling their idea, Octavio Sánchez and Javier Hernandez. With the help of the TED talk, the Honduran government was convinced. In a matter of months from Romer standing in front of an audience at TED, a constitutional amendment had been passed to allow charter cities (ciudades modelos) and work had begun preparing for this grand experiment. (See the follow-up TED talk.)

But all was not well. Romer was perceived to be bossy – Hondurans expected him to work with them, but he was apparently dictating terms. International media consistently reported it as Romer’s vision, rather than recognizing the work and vision of Hondurans. Local opposition increased, Romer was isolated, and a dubious-sounding deal was made with powerful interests. The project failed entirely when courts ruled it unconstitutional, but not before an outspoken opponent of the project, human rights lawyer Antonio Trejo, was assassinated.

Romer plans to keep trying, and says he’ll do things the same way next time. He has little patience for emotion and sensitivity about who gets credit and such matters, and believes that such things should be put aside in the interests of an important project.

TED helped Romer package his message, but it apparently didn’t solve his fundamental communication problems, nor lead him to take a participatory approach to the project. Running a large project in a country with corrupt and dysfunctional institutions takes more than communication, of course, but with the team divided and national opinion shifting away from them, they had little hope of facing down major challenges.

A bonus lesson: A charter city can never be a completely blank slate – corruption, paternalistic attitudes, non-participatory approaches and other institutional and cultural problems are part of the institutions working to set up the new city, and they won’t disappear by passing a constitutional amendment.

Further listening: Self-Improvement KickThis American Life, January 4, 2013.

Women in startups

My friend Michelle is working with a startup incubator at her university, and asks:

  • Why are women under-represented in startups?
  • Why is this a problem?
  • What to do about it?

Please share your thoughts and/or relevant links in the comments. (If it’s directly relevant to Australia, that’s a bonus.)

Here is my friend’s message in full:

Hi there, My friend Chris and I have been having a discussion recently and he’s kindly agreed to bring some questions of mine to your online brains-trust – I hope you don’t mind me asking a few things that you probably discuss all the time. In the last year my University has begun supporting/funding an incubator for start-ups. I think it’s a great idea, and told them so – it’s the first in the country – but I also couldn’t help noticing that, in their last few rounds, *very* few of the leads on successful start-ups (or at least, those pictured to take place in the official photos shoots) were women. I took this up with them and, to their credit, they were very open to a discussion on the subject. I mentioned that I knew women were under-represented in tech and start-ups, and they acknowledged that there was more than one way for them to be a ‘first’ in this area. I also said that I knew there was a literature on this topic – although I wasn’t much familiar with it beyond that – and they asked if I could put something together for them. So at the moment I am knee-deep in opinion and stats and reports (much of it specific to North America, but useful nonetheless) from all over the web and beyond, and am pulling together what I have in three separate areas:

  1. Why are women under-represented in the start-up arena? (I know that the literature on women in STEM/IT has quite some history, and I will necessarily draw on that – but for the sake of readability I am trying to keep this focused.)
  2. Why is this a problem? (As mentioned earlier, this particular programme at my University is already open to acknowledging that the current male dominance is ‘a problem’, for various reasons – but I’m also well aware, from what I’ve already read, that there is a vein of argument that says, ‘an idea is an idea is an idea… who cares if a man or a woman has it? It should be judged on its merit alone’ and another that says, ‘look, if women don’t want to get involved in start-ups, for whatever reason, why force them?’. So any potential come-back along these lines I would like to disarm before it even has the chance to be raised.)
  3. What to do about it? (I am finding this question a particular challenge in this context, since a lot of what I’ve read so far says – unsurprisingly – that women’s career trajectories and breaks for child-rearing play a large part in the lack of (or loss of women from) tech careers and jobs. Given that here we’re talking, in the main, about undergraduate students (the programme is also open to postgrads and University staff, but what I see of the successful start-ups tells me that it’s mainly undergrads getting involved), the marriage-and-children element is not yet in play in a big way. I know that what this will likely leave instead is the ‘culture’ arguments – girls’ socialization to maths and science and IT, how far they are encouraged to pursue these, how much they want to get into an environment where they perceive there will be conflict, etc – and that these will be difficult to address… but I get a sense that the University wants to try and do that.

I guess you probably discuss this kind of thing all the time, and don’t necessarily want to trawl through it all again in this forum. If you do, I would be very appreciative! If not, I would be very pleased to have any suggestions for especially useful documents or stats or arguments you might have read and would like to share. I think this might be an opportunity to actually do something productive, since there is already a will to act: the why and what just need to be spelled out in such a way that action becomes both possible and as easy as possible. Thanks! Michelle


Milton Friedman: women should offer to work for less (!!!)

Milton Friedman got a few things right – I imagine that’s how he got the Nobel prize in economics, for starters. This post is about a couple of the things he got wrong.

For one, he said that the unions are to blame for apartheid and women should respond to sexism by offering to work for less.


Another memorable moment was his statement in December 2005 that “the stability of the economy is greater than it has ever been in our history, we really are in remarkably good shape. It’s amazing that people go around and write stories about how bad the economy is, how it’s in trouble…”

The Benchmarking Harvests project

We think there’s an urban food production industry waiting to be recognised.John McKenzie

St0rmz' tomatoes

Harvest of tomatoes, cc-by-sa 2.0.

Want to see abundant quality food harvested in our neighborhoods? Good news on that front:  Growstuff and Permaculture Melbourne are developing a tool to record and share our harvests, and to show how much food is being grown in urban and suburban gardens. It’s now live.

John McKenzie from Permaculture Melbourne lays out the vision:

We want to find what the best gardeners can produce on their plots of land. This becomes a benchmark for their area. The benchmarking project is hoping to indicate the power of urban gardening. If 20% of households could grow at the benchmark rate, then how much food could an urban community produce? We think it’s a huge amount. We think there’s an urban food production industry waiting to be recognised.

The aggregated data will tell us about the capacity of our communities to feed ourselves, broken down by area and crop type. This is the first time data has been collected and made available in this way – a milestone for urban food growing and urban resilience.

Growstuff is the platform – an open source, collaborative, community-oriented gardening site and social network. They’re building a database of crops, harvests, planting advice, seed sources, and more, that anyone can use for free for any purpose under a Creative Commons license. (If you can handle more adjectives, it’s also open data, with an API, independent, ad-free and operated as a social business.)

Growstuff is headed up by ex-Google coder and food grower, Alex Bayley. I’ve doing pair programming on the harvest tool with Alex, and learning much – her coding skills are so far ahead of mine that I’m pretty much watching her code, but that’s the collaborative and inclusive approach of Growstuff. I can vouch for Alex, who could be earning big money in the tech industry, but is instead following what she believes in, and does much of her coding at a kitchen table, looking out on a vegetable garden.

Be part of Benchmarking Harvests

So, food growers and supporters, here’s how to get behind Benchmarking Harvests:

Boosting local food and resilient communities

Think how motivating it will be to know that gardeners are producing not just a few tomatoes, but hampers and buckets full of delicious, fresh food, in our own neighborhoods. This will be a real boost to urban food growing and local resilience, to have this knowledge and data about local food production – for our own knowledge, for our communities, and in our dealings with our local governments. Knowing what successful gardeners can produce on their own land and mapping this by area, we can discover the potential of urban gardening.

Thank you to Lucas Gonzalez from the Appropedia community, who connected us up via Twitter – the spark that let this synergy happen.

Update: Alex Bayley describes the new functionality at Track your harvests with Growstuff.

Transition Convergence 2013 in Melbourne, Australia

Transition groups around Victoria are gathering in Melbourne, to reconnect and discuss ideas and plans for transitioning to a resilient, locally-based post-carbon society:

Saturday 16th November, 2013 at 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Please RSVP by Friday 1st November to Jan Down: janet_down at – if you’re a Transition type of person but not part of a Transition group, I imagine there’ll be space for you, but check with Jan.


The Multicultural Hub
506 Elizabeth Street Melbourne –
opposite the Victoria Market

Please bring:

Pictures, maps, stories, from your Transition group for display.
News, questions, ideas – what’s worked, what hasn’t, what to celebrate and build on…

Melbourne people please bring finger food to share for a potluck lunch.

Please read the full announcement from Transition Hobsons Bay.

Talking about a confronting subject – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson calls on fellow atheists to show respect, compassion and understanding towards believers.

The context is the relationship between education and belief in a personal god. This belief declines from around 90% among the general public to 7% among elite scientists – small, but  still a significant minority of top scientists who believe in some kind of personal god who can intervene in the world.

At 2:39 Tyson says this:

So here’s my problem, here’s my concern: When you’re educated and you understand how physics works, and you’re mathematically literate, and you understand data, and you understand experiment, and you go up to someone who doesn’t have that training, and they’re religious, and you ask them “Why are you you religious, you’re believing in invisible things that influence your life, what’s wrong with you?”, that’s unfair.
It’s not only unfair, it’s disrespectful, for the following reason: until that number [the 7% of elite scientists who believe in a personal god] is zero, you’ve got nothing to say to the general public. These are scientists among us in the National Academy of Sciences who are religious and pray to a personal god and I know some of them. And you’re fighting the public for their religious beliefs?
Figure that one out first, because maybe there’s an asymptote. Maybe you can’t change everybody. Maybe that’s telling us something. Maybe there’s something in the brain wiring that positively prevents some people from ever being an atheist.
If that’s the case, in a way, they can’t help it, and you’ll never know it because you’re not one of them. So I ask you, first for compassion with the public, but you should target your exercise, and your experiments on understanding that number. Because that’s not zero. Yes it’s low, but it’s not one percent, it’s not one-half of a percent, or a tenth of a percent – it is seven percent – one out of fourteen.Neil deGrasse Tyson

How far to take this? I think Tyson himself demonstrates a great balance in his public life, speaking clearly and openly, with humor and respect.