All Posts Filed in ‘Articles

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★ Picking the metric that matters

The hard part is in figuring out which aspects of your business aren’t worth your focus and attention, right now. Technology startups that prescribe to the lean startup methodology might tell you that they’re focussed solely on customer churn rate, cost per acquisition (CPA) or the customer lifetime value (CLV), and the rest of the data can take a hike. This is a bold move and utterly critical for small businesses getting started and is not limited to businesses that describe their front of house with terms like ‘bounce rate’ and ‘click-throughs’. It can be applied to almost every form of small business, the smaller the better, and it can be the difference between hours of wasted time and success.

It’s called picking the metric that matters.

As a small business owner, you no doubt have a strategy in mind for growth. That strategy might be completely inarticulate (“let’s just keep doing what we’re doing, but better!”) or it might be more finely detailed (“we’ll pursue growth by adding to our line of products and opening a new branch in a new neighbourhood”), but it’s there. No matter if you’re looking to make more money, be more influential in your sphere, win more contracts or simply keep your creditors at bay, you’re looking to create new value. So why would you want to think about just one metric? Isn’t that crazy? Won’t you lose sight of the bigger picture?

The answer is both yes and no, but the more important question is how are you going to decide where to focus your efforts. Looking at one metric is a simple exercise in focus, a way of triaging the less important numbers. Focussing on too many interrelated metrics will leave you in confusion about what really happened and you still have to make a call on which is the most important. Instead of continuously changing your view, depending on how the data is playing out, just pick one and stick with it. Pick one that will genuinely change the way you do business, if it goes up or down. Pick one that might keep you awake at night. Pick the riskiest part of your small empire and focus on that alone. It could be how much it costs to win new business. It could be how high your overheads are. It could be the small revenue you earn per customer. Each business will have a different significant metric and different ways to measure it.

Your job is to identify it, observe it and to dream up experiments to test its limits.

Think of it like mould in a petri dish. How could you imagine that mould growing exponentially? What would it take to make that happen? What kind of environment would allow it to flourish, just like you’re imagining? How could you change your business to grow your metric like the mould in that petri dish? How might you change your approach?

Do everything you can to help it grow. Talk to your customers. Buy new ad space. Write more blog posts. Change the logo on that banner ad. Mention how you’re in the process of designing that cool new widget. Share your ideas, and watch how that metric changes. If something you try breaks the business, that’s ok. Remember you’re trying to break the small business in order to create that ‘petri dish’ rate of growth.

It takes guts to embrace this, but you won’t regret it. Find the metric that matters. Poke it and prod it. Find the best conditions for it to flourish, then get out of the way.

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★ Have you decided yet?

Bored by your job? Tired of your boss? Don’t be! Pick yourself, quit your job, become the boss and success will just follow. Except that it’s never going to be that simple. You need to make a few decisions before you make the big one. You need to decide what kind of boss you’re going to be. You need to decide what kind of employee you’re going to be. You need to decide what kind of business you want to create, what you’d be proud of, find your goal posts and how you’ll know if you’ve ‘made it’. All of this takes time and can feel like a barrier between you and your version of success. “If only I knew what kind of product I would make and sell. If only I knew how to find new customers online. If only I knew what people thought about ‘x’. If only I knew how to set goals and follow them.” I have both good news and bad news. Would you like the bad news first?

The bad news is that any decision you make from this point is almost always going to end up being wrong. Why? Because the idea is still inside your head, being warped by your hopes and fears into something thats too scary for all the wrong (and right) reasons. Because you haven’t made the important steps to get meaningful feedback from your potential new customers. You haven’t even put pen to paper and figured out the true costs of implementing your great new idea. Because you haven’t spoken to anybody yet (least of all your colleagues, for fear of negative feedback), to see how it feels when the rubber hits the road.

You’re still daydreaming and that’s not step 1 on the path to success.

The good news? The good news is that there has never been a better time to get feedback faster, to learn from others about how good ideas fail, to get in contact with the people who matter (your customers). The internet has opened the doors on a global marketplace of people who could buy from you (good), help you find other customers (very good) or help you uncover new ideas to bring to market (amazing!). The modern communication era (Seth Godin would call it the connection economy) is constantly creating new opportunities for observant entrepreneurs, all you need do is look. The best part is that the cost of launching and failing is so low that you can put together a business concept, be interfacing with customers and developing real products within days. To put it another way – there’s never been a better time to fail fast.

The truth is that you’re never going to have the perfect model for the future of your business idea, not even in the 10th year of operation. You’ll always need to be testing, learning, watching, looking for opportunities to improve or innovate. Otherwise you’ll stagnate, treading water, finding ways to scale rather than rocking the boat in the search for newer, better ideas.

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★ We'd love to hear your thoughts on our new podcast: Divergent Minds

Hey there! Frank and I are very pleased with the response to our first episodes of Divergent Minds, it’s very rewarding to create interesting podcasts, knowing that real people will listen to them. Hopefully they’ll also be useful or enjoyable at the same time! I’d like to put out a call for feedback from all of you who’ve listened to one or more of the shows so far (and if you haven’t, there’s literally no better time to give it a try!), to see if there are any ideas, topics or concepts that you’d like Frank and I to dig into. Maybe we could dig a little bit deeper in one aspect, or perhaps we could hit some other topics that you have in mind.

How are we doing so far? Are we too long, too short, too hot, too cold?
We’re always open to feedback, it’ll help us improve what we do and make the show so much better. How could we improve? We’d love to know.

There are a few ways you can get in touch with us: You could drop a comment in the box below, you could tweet at myself or Frank or you can email me directly.
Can’t wait!

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★ Every ending is also a new beginning.

Dear friends, I’m very pleased to announce a few changes.

Firstly I’ve recently plunged feet first into the world of freelance design consulting (if you’re thinking: is he interested in project x… the answer is yes! get in touch) and it’s fantastic. I’m spun out by the difference between working within a major organisation (such as the ever-incredible Arup) and working on projects on my own. I’m going to sorely miss the camaraderie and free-flowing idea sessions that made working there so much fun, yet now the door is open to doing this on a wider front and I’m hell bent on making that happen with new friends, collaborators and allies. It’s an exciting time to be alive.

Secondly I’ve decided to revamp this site to meet a few of my changing needs for jasonmcdermott.net. I’m going to refocus the site around my work portfolio, skills and side projects. It will still contain a much less active blog component, which you’ll still find in the same place, but the purpose of this place is going to be very different. I’ve really enjoyed exploring the creative writing side of life in the last few months, so you can still expect to find those endeavours here, but the smaller asides, snarky comments and tidbits are (semi) permanently being shelved.

Thirdly I’ve begun to set up a few new sites, which will fulfil a need to explore some of the better ideas I’ve teased out here. I’ve begun posting interesting web-by things at a new site called Dark Meta. It’s going to be the main place where my darker, more meta-focussed side can rule the roost. There are others which will also be announced, when their time is right.

Ultimately, I’ve felt that this place was trying to do too many things and succeeding only with a few. From here on in, it’s a whole new game. I hope you enjoy taking the next steps with me.

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★ The fool on the hill

Have you ever had the chance to sit atop a mountain, taking in every detail of all there is to behold, every rock, tree, cloud, hillside, truck, pasture and wind that makes up your small spherical world? It is breathtakingly big, so wide that the most flexible of neck and sharp of eye could not possibly drink in every drop of the scene which unfolds before you. Wide doesn’t even really come close to accurately describing the feeling, the word falling pitifully short of the feeling of pure and absolute breadth. Yet words are sometimes all we have, so we will have to put them to good use. Welcome then, to my mountaintop office.

During the course of the day, perched atop this gusty, quiet, earthly panoramic space, it is possible to observe a great number of small animals going about their daily business. They have quite a serious manner, not wasting time on idle chatter (or so it seems) and taking the least amount of liberty with their movement and energy. The lizards dart by, stopping to take note of an unusual placement of desk, desk-lamp and human, before scurrying off. They intersperse long periods of very little with short bursts of animal instinct, jumping on shrubs to seek after flies, performing the lizard mating ritual equivalent of ‘push ups’, and so on. They pass by my feet nervously at first, as though the unfamiliar sandals might rear up and strike them unexpectedly, then with great confidence as the hours pass. Their sidelong looks never change, though.

The birds circle above, like tireless aerial sailors making every small adjustment to their sails to best catch the available winds. They eye their horizons constantly, avoiding collision with others and always watching for the jerky start-stop movement from prey of all kinds. It’s not often that you’ll spot one shooting earthward with blistering speed and the intent to kill, more likely that you’ll see them soaring afterwards clutching small, colourful creatures in their claws. Much more common is the sight of the eagles circling, ever intent on swiftly bringing death, their cruel talons tightly tucked underneath sleek bodies. The full aerodynamic beauty of these birds can be admired from this proximity, as they very rarely fly much higher than the top of the mountain. This is surely due to the mountainous uplift winds, which make the birds’ airborne job so much easier. As they can see all they need to, any additional height comes with barely any advantage at all. The mountaintop observer is afforded the most generous of vantage points, so close you could almost forget that you aren’t capable of taking flight yourself. The pure effort of flight, at this height, seems like it ought to come easily and you’d be well advised not to try it for yourself. The birds swerve and dive, soar and glide, flap lazily and circle to gain vantage, eyes never giving up the search for new prey. It is mesmerising.

Much like the animal ecosystems at lower altitudes, you will no doubt come into contact with insects. The main difference here being the relative scarcity of ‘urbanised’ city dwelling pests, such as cockroaches, and the abundance of a wide variety of irksome flying creatures, such as flies, beetles and small black weevils. The gusting winds that sweep past me certainly help to keep the insect nuisance to a minimum, but they are almost always nearby.

The sun makes its lazy arc in the sky, pausing only to inspect the skyward side of the clouds overhead, beaming through at times as if to project the highest level of approval. It sweeps around my back, shadowing my face for the brightest hours of the day. It is a strange quirk of the mountain, that the spot most appealing to me for such lengths of repose, might also face away from the most important element of life: the sun. And so I sit, like a child placed in a corner with his back to a disapproving parent. Unlike the child however, I have been given not a dark and penitent corner to sit in and think, but rather I am awarded with the rich tapestry of the earth before me. A gift of the world itself, with not a corner or acute angle to measure in sight. I drink in the earth, savouring its sights until my eyes cannot possibly take in more detail.

The sight of a line of mountains falling away, on both the left and the right, with the vast spreading patchwork quilt of pasture and seasonal crops, is spectacular to say the least. When presented with the entirety of a natural landscape and the minute ambition of human agriculture, something becomes apparently rather quickly. This is the realisation that the sheer scale and timelessness of nature is at once both an illusion and an immutable reality. That this land will continue to be, just so, as circumstance and natural resources permit, is a sobering thought. As is the knowledge that our efforts to shape and bend, cultivate and develop, will exist solely along the timescale of the human lifespan, of a family’s generations, of the duration of culture. That these should seem inconceivably long to us, is only natural. Yet to the mountaintop, that most gentle and generous of seats, these tiny passages of time would fly past, barely noted. And yet we cannot know of a thing more grand and immense than the duration of our own lives, that is, those of us among the more secularly-minded. To be astride the mountain is probably the closest I might come to looking through the eyes of a true believer. To be seeing the world as god might. It is a poor approximation, if ever there were one.

I look until I can look no more and then turn to my other senses, almost for confirmation. If seeing is believing, then are the other senses like spectators to an event? Does hearing have its’ own centre of belief within the mind, which in all likelihood won’t listen to a word of what the taste buds have to say? Does it take an alignment of sensory voices before the mind, the ‘I’, can finally find agreement? I wonder how many votes each sense has, and whether any of them feel drowned out, lost within a sea of input and bias. I make a note to think more on this when I can, before returning to the smell of the clouds as they move in to darken my afternoon.

The world stretches out before me, in all dimensions, at once. It does not so much invite my thought and introspection, it demands it. This is a terrible place to get things done. It is not that I am unable to think clearly, rather that I think too clearly. I think along two timescales almost simultaneously – that of the lizard, the fly, the bird and the churning system of life and death – and that of the slowness of earth and moon, of ocean and stars. The movement of this line of thought is irresistible. I am taken by the flow and constant inertia of both stillness and life and I wonder if one can ever truly be felt by the other.

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★ Lost between the letters

My friends, I have some news. I have a newly rediscovered passion, one which snuck up and caught me completely by surprise. I have found myself the victim of a contagious disease, no small concern when in East Africa, one to which there is no prevention and just one cure available. I’m exhibiting known symptoms, clearly visible and easily diagnosed. I appear highly sedentary for many hours each day. I’ve noticed dark marks on my fingers. I’m dehydrated. I’m slow to respond to external stimuli. The diagnosis comes through plain and clear: I’ve become addicted to books.

It’s tragic, and glorious all at once. I hadn’t picked up a book in months (honest, I swear), thinking that perhaps I’d thoroughly kicked this affliction, when it came back with a vengeance. It all happened so easily, I was sitting, eating with my girlfriend in the common space of a Kampala backpackers. We were checking our emails, reading websites, doing general internet-related things (I’ll share that addiction with you another time..) when we noticed that the power was off. No problem, we agreed, it would be back later and there was no real need for concern. We’re in a thriving east african hub, about to head off for a game safari. Why do we need power anyway?

The next day we found the power had returned (patting ourselves on the back for our powers of prediction), when we noticed that conversely, the internet had not. This was a slightly different problem, one we dealt with by promptly picking up the worlds smallest magnetic chess set and waging small scale war. Several hours later, noticing that both the power and internet were still out, I began to look for alternative activities requiring neither.

It all started so innocently. The book exchange shelf was sitting there silently, patiently, pregnant with suggestion. Surely the french verb book in my pack would make a superb exchange, it seemed to suggest and ‘why not?’ I thought. I knelt down to inspect the contents, peering beyond the padlocked glass doors and single-space, laminated A4 page instructions. I had, quite literally, no idea what was in store for me.

What’s new about this addiction is the innocuous way it crept into my mind and slipped before my eyes. It all stemmed from scarcity, from the loss of those small, tiny essentials. The need to conserve power, the loss of external connectivity, the loss of a dry outdoor climate. Together these factors conspired to drive me into the arms of this jealous lover.

One week later, I have returned to the scene of first contact. Ground zero, if you will. In the intervening week I have devoured words, in what can only be described as a flurry of pages and a blur of eyeballs. I have inhaled books, sparing only furtive wayward glances to see that the unwritten world was still spinning as expected. I have inhabited these books, taking steps, vaulting barriers and cheering the small victories as they came. I’ve been the fifth beatle, the second shooter on the hill, the thirteenth player on the pitch. I’m loving it.

Oh fiction, you saucy minx. You had me at Chaper 1.

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★ The power of hello

The moto driver passes me a helmet and gestures for me to hop on. No problem, he says, the price is right. I climb on, feeling the machine shift under my weight. I slip the helmet on, unsurprisingly unable to tighten the broken strap. We make a slow turn onto the road and head off into town. Our destination is not far, only a brisk 10 minutes drive along a winding shoreline, honking and dodging cars, pedestrians, bicycles and other motos. The driver is calm, he does this so often you feel he could do it in his sleep. Me, I’m not so relaxed. My hands snake their way behind me to grip the bars just behind my backside. I note that I’m the only passenger who seems to be concerned. We pass mothers with their young children wrapped to their backs, men in suits who are lost in their SMS inboxes, women whose sense of balance is nothing short of impeccable. Not a single person is holding on for balance, for comfort or even (in my case) for the perception of safety. This is Africa. Everything is different here, so don’t bother holding onto your hat.

We pass by many people making the 5km walk between Rubona and Gisenyi, a seemingly endless stream of people who seem in no hurry, yet anyway walk with a slow purpose I couldn’t even begin to guess. Some are walking alone, others two-by-two, others push bicycles fully loaded with sacks or containers. Bicycle taxis also make their slow way up and down the hills, but the people here seem to prefer (or can only afford) to walk. Some bicycles are so heavily and awkwardly loaded with bizarre cargo – often it will be a bag of potatoes (or other crops), or containers of oil – but every so often you’ll see long sheets of corrugated steel or long planks of timber balancing precariously over both ends of the bicycle. At no time does anyone ever look twice, except of course at the bewildered mzungu (white person) hanging onto the back of their moto, as they speed along through the scene. The moto driver makes a continuous hymn-like hum as it speeds up and down the roads, punctuated only by the shifting of gears or the warning beep before overtaking. Anything is fair game for an overtake, it seems. Even the horn itself, a sound of annoyance or anger in Sydney, is used as a considerate warning for those on the side of the road. The driver beeps to let you know that he’s coming past, and the people respond accordingly. It’s all very natural.

I was surprised to discover the remarkably democratic approach to the concept of road. Unlike the roads of Sydney – where the cars rule the road and anyone else had better make space – here the roads are literally for everybody. People casually wander up the road, sharing the way with cyclists, cycle taxis, lots of motos, others carrying produce to market, the (very) occasional car or truck and the wonderfully irregular buses. There are no lanes, no footpath to speak of, no real sense of organisation and yet it still sings with a level of order I can only put down to culture. Everybody seems to just know what to do, and how much to worry about the heavy metal objects whizzing past. Which is to say: not a lot, it just works. I don’t get the sense that there are many traffic accidents here. I would be interested to learn how accident prone these streets are, although of course it’s also hard to say how much of it would go unreported. The people don’t seem concerned though, which really is the most lasting impression.

We wind our way into Gisenyi, whistling past the football field, packed with young men jostling for the ball, for space to watch the game. It looks like a training session, or perhaps a tryout for the coming season. We pass the tiny supermarket (with both french and english signs), the much larger petrol station, the highly expensive lakefront hotel complete with guarded walls and spiked fences, the women lounging on the roadside presumably waiting for something to happen. The moto chugs up the road into town and I cast my glance up to the hillside hotel that we had initially booked before arriving in town. We’d cancelled almost immediately, noticing the place lacked character, light and most importantly, guests. One of the perils of traveling in places without Internet, or traveling with an absolutely sub-par guidebook (the East Africa Lonely Planet, I’m looking at you), is that you occasionally find yourself arriving in places that are less than ideal. You can never know this before you arrive, but you base your decisions on word of mouth. Recommendations are the same in person and online, only with the internet the element of chance is greatly reduced. The chances that you’ll bump into someone who has been to your next destination, that you might happen to ask them about where they stayed, that they would have a recommendation and that you might actually manage to make a booking. The internet removes a lot of this happenstance, so in many ways that’s helpful, but for now we’re managing to just go with the flow.

We continue past the hotel, still curiously empty, and make the left-hand-bend turn into town. With this last turn my moto driver gives the bike one last spurt of gas and so it purrs down along the main street. We point to one of the five banks in town, and he pulls over to let us off, whilst simultaneously offering to bring us back to Rubona (it’s quite normal, actually, for taxi drivers and moto riders to offer you their mobile numbers, for the return leg). We say “no” in Kinyarwanda, the local African language, and dismount. Aside from the barrage of people offering moto/taxi/hotel services, the main street is fairly friendly, with people sitting casually near the entrances of stores, banks, hotels and such. A few guards with large guns eye us suspiciously, but nothing much comes of it.

After we sort out our international finances, we head back down towards the lake. This is where the magic happens. The Africans we meet have Stoney faces, silent and unmoving as you approach. It’s hard to read, it’s hard to imagine what going on underneath. Aside from the occasional “mzungu” calls, or the offers from moto drivers, the Africans are inexpressive to the point of appearing annoyed or angry. That is, until you say hello.

The standard greeting in Kinyarwanda is “amakuru”. It means ‘how’s the news?’, and is appropriate at all times of the day. The standard greeting is “nimeza”, meaning ‘it’s good’. You might sometimes get a “sawa sawa”, which means “it’s ok”, if they’re not having a good day, but this is much more rare. Especially when it’s you saying hello. The Rwandan people approach you stone-faced, perhaps not really looking at you or paying much attention, until you say the right hello and everything changes. Their faces light up, dominated now by smiles larger than you thought possible and they chuckle their way through the response. Saying hello in Africa is so important, but before you do, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s not so important. A well timed amakuru will transform an unreadable and impassive face into an open and animated face, smiling and laughing at this unexpected and pleasant surprise. They love it, and it really does let you connect beyond cultural and language barriers, going someplace neither of you really expected to go. It’s lovely.

We stroll on down the busy road out of town, towards the unusually good Thai restaurant on the lakeside, greeting as many people as we can. Not everyone responds the way we hope, some really do have no time for us, but those who do make up for that in style. Each new smile is like a match being lit right before your eyes, lighting up the space we share, in that brief moment of connection.
It’s wonderful.

Featured image taxi moto by Adam Cohn on Flickr.

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★ Losing at what, exactly?

I hate losing at chess. There, I said it.

I don’t know what it is that bothers me the most, although I do have a few theories about why it bothers me so. I’m no chess genius, mind, but I do like to think that I have some knowledge, skill or capability at the game. There’s something so simple, so constrained and minimal about the game and yet the limited palette offers up so much complexity and intricacy it’s often very easy to mistake the game for something much, much larger.

Since chess happens to be such an intricate game, with wonderfully complex interaction and outcomes, it is tempting to think a game won could be indicative of a brilliantly clever mind. One capable of sewing a web so deftly that entanglement is a foregone conclusion. Likewise it is also tempting to think that a game lost could be equally damning, a mind stumbling around blindly and meeting a swift or painful end. Yet what does a game of chess really have to say about us, our mental faculties, our ability to process information and predict complex outcomes?

To find the answer to this, I think it’s useful to look not to the board itself, but to the players on either side. I think that chess is not unlike other objects in our world which reveal much about us without our knowledge. A rorschach board, if you will. Take me, for example. I’m a youngish guy, with some travel experience, a background in design and a penchant for thinking (perhaps too) highly of himself. When it comes to chess, it can appear to be a game that is mine to lose. The winning outcome is not simply a shared but opposing goal, no it is rather an expected outcome for one, featuring some rather satisfying and challenging barriers. Getting to the king is not done in jest, but an eagerly anticipated goal. For others, I can imagine it might be different. A fair contest, perhaps. Or a difficult game requiring some concentration. Remembering exchanges could be overreach for someone who barely remembers the name and behaviour of each of the pieces. Or perhaps another player may know the taste of victory whilst also knowing the amount of patience required to achieve it. For me, playing chess is a joy, a challenge, an exchange to puzzle out – but a puzzle which I intend on completing.

I don’t think it’s wise, or even useful, to dissect a lost game in retrospect. Should I have made that move, midway through the game? Was it my opening move that lead to the end? I should have seen that rook, hiding in the wings. It is tempting though, but for me it only further highlights the failure, extended at length. Even worse, it is often hard to recall with clarity the precise series of events which lead to my demise. Each of the moves (and the subsequent response moves) stack up in my mind, drowning out my inner cries to simply accept and move on. Let’s see.. If queen takes pawn. If bishop moves to attack queen. If the queen backtracks. If then the other pawn moves to attack the queen. Then the queen skips to other side of board. If the knight then moves into position…

Why am I still thinking about the what-ifs?

Losing at chess bothers me so, because some part of me does think that the game represents a partial truth of life, a hint at something much larger. It points to a failing of mine to think through the longer term consequences, to empathise and guess at my opponents’ tactics, to plan and amend those plans when needed. In chess, the failure doesn’t lay flat on those 64 black and white checkered squares. Rather, the failure sits squarely within me. And that’s the reason why I don’t like losing at chess. It digs deeper every time, even more so if there are successive losses. It gets deeper under my skin, taking my thoughts to other uncomfortable places, other ‘losses’, if you will. You don’t have very much money. You don’t even manage to handle your money very well, do you? You don’t speak to your parents very often, why haven’t you called your sister? Maybe you’re not half as smart as you think you are. Could be that you’ve seen all the success you’re likely to see.

You see, it’s not so difficult for a superficially simple board game to conjure up some very serious inner demons – weak as they are to scrutiny or cross-examination. At the same time, I’m also aware that these thoughts tend to pass as swiftly as they approach, especially so if I set myself to doing something completely different. Brooding on these moments can be a spiral of emotion, but only if you let it.

The game of chess. I hate losing it, I hate the way it makes me delve into negativity and I hate the way it forces me to question my assumptions about life and my stake in it. But I don’t hate it enough to stop playing – and more than anything else I enjoy the feeling of a snared opponent, a swift or long fought win. It makes the whole thing worth the effort.

So.
Until next time.

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★ Unspeakable acts

Yesterday I made a short trip to the Nyamata and Ntarama churches in Kigali, two incredibly vivid memorial sites to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Words cannot describe the sadness that I felt being in those places, nor could they describe or the barbaric acts to which those walls hold witness. What took place during those hellish months, 18 years ago, is indescribable. One wall of the Ntarama church buildings is still stained with the blood of children who were killed there, in a manner so brutal and so inhuman that I struggle to believe that it’s not just part of some awful fiction.

Being amongst the bones, the clothes, the broken walls. The silence. The sounds of children playing outside. The feeling of decades old pain. It’s haunting.

The Rwandan genocide didn’t affect me in the least, not until I set foot on Rwandan soil. This experience is one that I will never forget.

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★ Breathless

It starts with a chill. You open your mouth, to suck in some air, to replenish your desperate vital organs, when it hits. The chill. It touches your lips, it sweeps over your tongue, it flashes past the tips of your teeth and tickles the back of your throat. The cold spreads down into your lungs, where it takes hold. I notice each and every part of this. It’s no better to breathe through the nostrils, as despite the respite it offers to the lips, the nose sniffs the cold with far greater sensitivity than I could have imagined. You could alternate between the two, and at times I do, but no matter how hard you try, the cold digs ever deeper, sinking it’s cool roots as far down as it possibly can. This is not even the coldest place I’ve been, not even close to the coldest place on earth, and yet I feel it so. The cold breath of the mountain does not willingly let go.

I make do with a number of makeshift solutions: turning to breathe downwind, pulling my hood up over my head, wrapping my not-designed-for-this-kind-of-cold scarf around the lower half of my face. It works, to a point, but even the thickest cloth can’t change the temperature of the air that rushes down my lungs every time I inhale. By contrast, my exhalation comes as a kind of bastard warmth, a temporary warmth that fogs up my glasses and moistens my scarf, only to chill again with each new breath. It teases me with this fleeting warmth, a warmth which mocks my attempts to fight the cold. It seems to say: why are you here to begin with?

The wind cuts through my defenses so easily. It whips though wool, through cotton, through synthetic thermals. It barely notices these barriers, flicking its cool fingers at my torso before continuing on beyond where I stand. The best relief for this is an object – any object – to stand behind. People work well, sometimes. I scramble behind stone monoliths, behind volcanic rock which serves as the best possible minder that this wind is nothing if not relentless. I crouch behind rock which has been shaped, no carved, into likenesses by the winds caress. They are smoothly formed wind tunnels, basking in a vast emptiness of sand. Howling through their crevices, the wind is like a river of tiny knives. Invisible and relentless, my soft-fabric existence is no match for this.

If it were simply the cold that held me in its grasp, I could perhaps bear it more lightly. If it were only the icy breaths which chill me from the inside, it might not be so hard. No, it is not just the cold with which I struggle. It is the very air itself that fights me, that challenges my every motion, that demands my respect. Each action comes at a cost, each movement depletes the small amount of oxygen given. I must ration out my thoughts, my steps, my entire repertoire of action. Walking up a flight of steps is a luxury I cannot afford, let alone the inverse. I must stay still, savoring this ‘almost air’ with an acceptance almost spiritual. In that state, I can almost see the strings which twist and jerk this puppet about.

I remember earlier efforts, exertions against gravity, with a rueful grin. I remember what it was like to bound around, paying little to no mind to the forces which let this play unfold. To before when the abundance and scarcity of (nothing more than) air humbled me.

I scramble out into the wind, leaving behind my shelter, like some long abandoned volcanic sentry. I shuffle around, shifting and adjusting my hoodie/beanie combination to ‘see’ into the wind. I search for a more mobile, man-made shelter – the one which brought me here. In this place, I cannot but move within the confines of such a shelter. I could not imagine how life could take hold, let alone thrive, here. It seems as though it doesn’t, or at least it doesn’t let on. The desert must keep its secrets close, only willing to share three with me before I leave – fast, relentless and ice cold.

Safely back in the warmer confines of the rover, trundling over rocks and dirt, I glance down to my hands. It is only then that I noticed that one of my gloves is missing. I look back, towards the towering columns of rock, and know that it is already too late.