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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Failure...

This week, I’ve been thinking about failure, and how society looks on people who are deemed to be failures. We live in a time frantic to document itself digitally, with some inhibiting effects. “Fail blogs” catalogue pictures and video clips of people making mistakes in all kinds of scenarios. Slapstick, banana-skin situations, Johnny Foreigner typos and social faux pas are all par for the course. The message is clear: failure is for laughing at and failure happens to other people.

While I think it’s healthy to have a sense of humour about things, I think the rictus grin of fail bloggers and #epicfail hashtaggers on Twitter masks a coarsening of attitudes towards failure. If we’re taught not to try risky things because others might laugh at our failures, then we’re aiming for the middle ground; for unthinking docility and worst-dressed-list-avoidance sterility. I think this is continuous with a worrying trend to medicalise perfectly ordinary character traits as failures of balance in need of biochemical redress (e.g. shyness as ‘social anxiety disorder’ http://nyti.ms/m2ZXuF).

Failure is a part of life, and an important part of life, at that. We’re guided by our mistakes (mistakes in triplicate, in my case) and we should cherish our failures as marks of having tried. It would be too much to aim to apply a Beckettian template of ‘failing better’ to our lives, but failure adds texture to our life – it’s the crunch in the ice, and sadly, it seems easiest to know when something was important to us when we’ve failed to achieve it.

Serena Williams's outburst at the US Open, 2009. (Picture credit: EPA)

But the story of failure includes how we respond to it. At her 2009 US Open semi-final match, Serena Williams famously lost match point with a default point for misconduct. Her offence was to verbally abuse a lineswoman, and she was subsequently fined US$92 000 for her behaviour. Clearly, Serena Williams’s tirade was unacceptable: it was a failure of character. However, despite a dubious initial reaction to her punishment, Serena Williams seemed to learn some measure of humility from her mistake and redirected the maelstrom of publicity around her to raise a matching US$92 000 for Haitian earthquake survivors. This strikes me as a winning response to failure.

Research into ‘failure tolerance’ or how responses to failure affect future behaviour has been done in economics (http://bit.ly/j3uDaa). One interesting finding is that where a society is generous in giving people (entrepreneurs) a second chance, that’s a good indicator that the economy will grow. What’s this tell us about Captain Scott and Co.? Well, for one thing, the UK scores more highly for entrepreneurship (risk-taking) than Norway over the past century. Relatedly, people in the UK are more willing to wish someone well on their ‘second chance’ than people in Norway.

A bit of cod psychology might suggest that this maps on to Scott’s and Amundsen’s divergent expedition approaches. Scott’s Terra Nova expedition was, in fact, his second chance, as his Discovery expedition to Antarctica a few years earlier ended with a rescue mission to his men, as their ship was stuck in sea ice. Scott’s Antarctic programme was rich in scientific interest and an insatiable curiosity to discover. Amundsen, meanwhile, came from a relatively young country (independent from 1905) that was keen not to embarrass itself as it established a presence on the world stage. This matches Amundsen’s cooler logistical planning and execution. Maybe I shouldn’t make such crude geopolitical generalisations, but I do think that early twentieth century people thought along patriotic/nationalistic lines more rigidly than we do today.

There’s a notion of ‘moral luck’, championed by philosophers like Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams, that throws interesting light on moral judgements. In a nutshell, people can’t be held responsible for things they don’t have control over, but when we judge someone’s actions to be praiseworthy or blameworthy, we seem to need to take into account things that depend on contingent factors. For example, how things turn out is largely beyond our control.

Susan Scott has studied meteorological patterns (http://bit.ly/muoomM) that suggest that Captain Scott and his companions encountered a window of extremely harsh weather that they could not have predicted. If Scott’s team had not encountered this freak weather system, they might have survived. We would judge Scott differently then, as a ‘success’ and as a good leader. But why? Surely Scott’s actions are the same, whatever the weather system, and he can’t be held responsible for the weather. This casts doubt on our intuitions about how to assess Scott’s failure/success.

Yes, against some identifiable benchmarks, we can say that Scott failed. He failed to reach the Pole first (for those that that interests). He failed to lead four men back to safety. But can we say Scott himself was a failure? I don’t think we can fairly make a stable judgement on this. What do you think?

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

"Why Scott?"

Thanks everyone for the emails, questions and suggestions. I’m looking into making the most of this dynamically interactive inter-web thing. No blogger is an island, so stay posted for further details of ways to get involved/throw rotten tomatoes. The fattest common thread in your emails has been ‘Why Scott? What has he done for me?’ (I’m paraphrasing.) This is a good question, so I’ll start with that.

Firstly, I’m really inspired by his can-do attitude. Scott had no polar expedition experience when he had a chance meeting with Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society. Markham remembered Scott from a meeting twelve years prior and sketched the outline of the intended British polar mission. Two days later, Scott applied to lead the Discovery expedition, and the rest, as they say... Granted, the encounter with Markham was lucky, but Scott followed it up. Adventure needs to be sought out, not waited for.

Captain Scott was driven by ambition, an iron work ethic and an adventurousness of spirit and outlook. Beyond the obvious perils involved in Antarctic exploration, the path of polar expeditioning was far from a secure route to promotion, compared with the naval officer ladder he’d been smoothly climbing up, up to then. I think our schooling trains us to be pliable employees, rather than bold risk-takers and anyone who strays from the path of least resistance gets my vote.

This is the ward room table around which Capt Scott and his men celebrated their last Midwinter (22 June 1911). Picture credit: P McCarthy, Antarctic Heritage Trust

Scott’s also admirable for his personable approach. From his Journals we know that Scott was racked with private doubts and the self-rebuke of the perfectionist, but to his crew and the people around him, he was noted to be fair and charming in manner. In all of his years of naval service, not a single formal complaint was lodged against him, which considering the stress of the situations he was commanding in is greatly impressive.

Captain Scott was not free from flaws, but he had the intelligence and self-knowledge to recognise his weaknesses, to work around them and even to capitalise on them. For example, he had the humility to assemble a team around him that was better qualified than him. For his Terra Nova mission Captain Scott was a naval officer tasked with leading a mixed crew (with Royal Navy, Merchant Navy and science backgrounds) on a primarily scientific mission. Scott was no scientist himself, but he did not stand aloof from the experiments carried out by his team members. When the crew ‘over-wintered’ on the ice, as overland trips could only be done in the summer, Scott arranged a full programme of mostly scientific lectures to educate his crew to see their surroundings afresh.

Scott’s often put down for having ‘lost the race’ to the South Pole, but this stems from a misjudgement of his character and his motives. Scott was not intending to race in the first place, and in fact had openly approached Amundsen, his supposed competitor, for skiing tips. In contrast to Scott’s open nature, Amundsen was secretive and took care not to meet Scott, so as not to lie to his face about his polar intentions. Amundsen’s campaign was a lean one, calculated to reach the pole first at any cost, whereas Scott had a more balanced smell-the-scientific-roses angle on his expedition.

I like Scott’s lack of pretence and his unsentimental view on his achievements. On reaching the South Pole, he famously said, ‘The Pole... Great God! This is an awful place.’ Quantifying social impact is like counting ripples in pond., but despite Scott’s ultimate failure to guide his party back to safety from the South Pole in 1912, there’s no denying the great legacy that Scott left behind, whether in the research of the Scott Polar Research Institute set up in his memory or the inspiration that his diaries and story has served to countless people in the past century. He was acknowledged in yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, in recognition of the trail of scientific discovery he left behind, as well his courage and fortitude (http://bit.ly/jNwMqC).

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Cape Evans hut

Two weeks ago, I went to the Scott Centenary Weekend at Plymouth.  It’s a hundred years since Captain Scott’s last birthday (http://bit.ly/kavPuF), but his work continues to bear fruit. For example, one of the exhibition stalls explained how field data collected by Scott and his team helps to calibrate climate change indicators: bryozoans (a kind of plankton) are smaller than a hundred years ago because with rising temperatures, less oxygen is dissolved in the sea.  Other stalls displayed the cerulean and ivory sweeps of Antarctic paintings, polar expedition gear (from hand-steamed wooden skis to today’s fibreglass and laminate kit and everything in between) and Antarctic history resources.

On the Sunday, I helped with the ISCE2012 stall. I watched the supplies of limited edition ISCE chocolate steadily get more limited, and I met a fascinating mix of people including casual passersby and dyed-in-the-finnesko (http://bit.ly/iowaZw) adventurers. I learnt from one of Britain’s last full-time dog sledders that the dogs were ideally kept as undomesticated as possible, to keep the vigour and dominance hierarchies of the packs dynamic.

The far-right of the ISCE2012 stall. The bust is by Kathleen Scott - Capt Scott's wife. She trained with Rodin.


I managed to go to one of the many talks put on. Robert Headland spoke on the project to conserve Captain Scott’s Cape Evans hut. The conservation pendulum has swung from the laisez-faire approach of the 60s/70s (mass cringe at a slide showing a tourist eating one of Scott’s leftover biscuits) to more recent protectionism (the World Monuments Fund Top 100 Most Endangered Sites list of 2008 included the hut http://bit.ly/k44TYQ).

Robert Headland was on the pragmatic middle ground. One thing I took from his talk is that thoughtless inattention to historical context can wrongly influence our understanding of historical figures and their actions. For example, we judge early polar explorers’ characters from their photographs. We admire their marmoreal stillness and stoical bearing. But photographic exposure times upwards of 30 seconds encourage pensive poses more than exuberant ones (try it  and see).

Another big point was the role of serendipity in the conservation project – unsurprising, given the extreme weather conditions. For example, a few years ago a blizzard set back a repainting deadline, but at the same time solved a salt build-up problem. Some of the conservation apparatus is unobtrusive (the steel beams shoring up wooden ones are hidden from view), but some is necessarily visibly modern (fleets of triangular wind deflectors stop the hut from being buried in snow drifts).

Robert Headland’s talk was thought-provoking and reminded me of another talk I’ve been to recently. It was by Julian Worrall at the V&A, titled ‘Architecture As Performance’. His talk was focused on Japan, but seemed very applicable in the Antarctic context. He said that the average building in Japan lasts just 26 years (before demolition/destruction in a natural disaster) but the average age of a Japanese person is 43 years, so buildings in Japan are seen more as make-shift theatres where lives are played out. People, not buildings, register as monuments.  In comparison, Western architecture is approached more reverentially, since buildings are expected to outlive their inhabitants.

The link with Scott’s hut is that I wonder what approach best fits a continent with no indigenous culture. The hut is a landmark and a marker for human endurance, but at what cost should a monument be preserved? Is the hut just an expensive geegaw or is there merit in diverting funds towards its upkeep? And given the perishability of materials in the Antarctic environment, how much of the original hut do we expect to remain in ten; fifty; a thousand years?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Polar explorers v astronauts

The story of Captain Scott has been retold many times over the last 99 years, recasting his last expedition as a triumph of heroism, as a bungle of heroism, a lost race, a coup for science, etc. I think lost in the skirts of this revisionism is the key point that the Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole was a strikingly modern and risky enterprise at the time.

The daring of early polar explorers is easily glossed over because we see the pictures of them posing with familiar household products (tinned beans, sugar lumps) – product placement was in its infancy. Also, in our sat-nav, Google Earth cocoons, we’re all armchair explorers now, so it’s worthwhile reacquainting ourselves with the thrill that Scott’s contemporaries would have felt at his achievements.

I think one way to do this is to compare early polar explorers with their modern equivalents, astronauts. Firstly, Antarctica is a famously hostile environment, unsupportive of human life to the point that there’s no indigenous population, and 15% of the continent remains the only unclaimed land on the planet. No surprise, then, that NASA have been testing their Mars spacesuits in Antarctica (http://reut.rs/iJ0NEr).
 
Testing the Mars spacesuit in Antarctica (photo credit: unknown)
 
Scott and co. weren’t just pushing back frontiers of geography, but also of science. Though not formally trained as a scientist, Scott was an early adopter of new technologies: in the Navy, he specialised in torpedo warfare when torpedoes were young enough to still be fired from ships, not submarines. Scott blew away cobwebbed expedition techniques and championed equipment prototypes. In one diary entry (June 20th 1911), Scott blithely lists recent innovations tried out by his team: ‘double’ tents, sleeping bags and wind-suits, a modified blubber stove and lightweight ski-boots with cramp-ons.

The historical arcs of polar and space expeditions have close parallels. It’s striking how innocent the pioneers of both kinds of exploration were of their impact on their environment, and how sensitive modern explorers are to conservation and custodianship issues. Space junk is a big enough concern that lasers, balloons and even dedicated clean-up satellites are now under consideration to solve the problem. Modern travellers to Antarctica are asked to consider where they walk, since moss footprints can last decades, and responsible sledging parties make allowances to carry home their waste, which mercifully freezes quickly in that environment.

Another interesting point of comparison is explorers’ enduring thirst for novelty: to push further into space; to conquer a yet more difficult ski route. Early polar explorers and modern astronauts are probably the same mix of individualistic (to want to do something out of the way) and pack animal (to fit in a close-knit team for long periods).

Anyway, analogies can only stretch so far. Perhaps early polar explorers would today be... modern polar explorers. What do you think Scott and his men would be up to, if they were born thirty years ago?


Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Welcome

Hi

Thanks for visiting my blog! A quick introduction to me and the blog: I’m 28 and live in London. Like most people, I’ve worn different hats over the years, but I currently work in social housing for a local authority. It’s challenging and rewarding work. The purpose of this blog is to spread the word about one of my deep interests and to chart and shape the adventure I’m planning for the rest of the year.

In my free time, my imagination’s fired with dreams of ice. There’s a big red felt-tip pen ring around 2012 on my wall calendar: the centenary of the death of Captain Scott and four of his men is coming up. I’ve been following with keen interest the roster of events that will mark the anniversary of their passing (http://www.scott100.org/). I’m staggered that already there’s a commemorative event or exhibition scheduled somewhere in the world every day from now until the end of 2012 and beyond.


That's me, on the far right. (Photo credit: Christopher Jones, The Daily Telegraph)
 
I have the absolute privilege to volunteer closely with the organisers of the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 (http://www.isce2012.co.uk/). This charity aims to honour and embody the ideals exemplified by Scott and his men, not least of which include their appetite for adventure, courage, comradeship and a sponge-like thirst for scientific knowledge. The charity rolls out a successful polar history and science outreach programme that has already reached 220 schools across the UK. In addition, a sledging party will visit the final resting place of Scott and his companions in early 2012.

Through this blog, I’d like to share with you my passion for Captain Scott’s remarkable life story, and to look at the legacy of his work. I’m not one for moony-eyed hero-worship, though, and would like to touch on various themes and points of interest, including the part that success/failure plays in our lives, the binding power of sea shanties (that Scott’s naval colleagues would swagger through) and modern-day Antarctic culture (an average of 1000 people are settled on Antarctica on any given day).

Also, in the company of friendly readers, I’m finally ready to let out my big secret. Yes, I’m a wannabe explorer. The ISCE2012 has four confirmed sledgers, but the fifth and final place is down to a shortlist of ten – I’m pinching myself that I’m one of these ten. It will come in small doses, but I’ll share details of my training progress and expedition survival tips in the hope that you’ll share right back.

Lastly, and on that note, the best blogs are conversations, so please let me know your thoughts on the site, suggestions/objections, constructive criticisms, training tips and interesting weblinks. What would you like to see? This is my first blog post ever, so I humbly beg for your patience and support while I improve, and look forward to hearing from you!

Best wishes
Ali

About Me

My photo
Ali is a 28 year old Londoner. He has trained at various things, including tennis playing, biochemistry and bespoke tailoring. He currently works in social housing for a local authority. In his free time, he marinades in Antarctic arcana, runs avidly (middle-distance) and bumbles through music practice. Ali volunteers for the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 charity, which aims to honour the legacy of Captain Robert Scott and his four men who died a hundred years ago. Ali is one of ten shortlisted candidates for the final place on the centenary expedition itself.