Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fear itself

Help by Pants

Yesterday I bought a new camera. Much as I love the little Kodak, it was becoming clear that my pictures were anything but and I didn't think it was altogether fair to blame the situation entirely on my inabilities as a photographer. I've upgraded, but only very slightly - I was hindered by financial constraints and a thankfully still active self-awareness of my artistic shortcomings. Mr T was here last year and he has a serious camera. I couldn't help but notice that his pictures of our fabulous Larrikin's End sunsets were better than the actual sunsets. Mine looked like bad clown makeup on a panda. But I don't need sunsets to look better than they really do. I'm not Baz Luhrmann. Accurate is adequate for my purposes.

On opening the new camera's manual I was met with a barrage of disclaimers and warnings. The operating instructions are appended at the end as a kind of afterthought following the manufacturer's discharge of responsibilities for every possible liability - and some not even J.K. Rowling's imagination could have dreamed up, like this for example,

Do not sit in a chair with the camera in your pocket.


On a day like today, I probably shouldn't even own such a camera. The manual cautions,

Avoid using, placing or storing the camera in the following places,

Places subject to strong sunlight - that eliminates Larrikin's End
Places subject to temperatures above 40 degrees C - that cuts out Victoria
Humid or dusty places - All of Australia then.

I guess I'll have to send the camera to Britain - to someone who doesn't sit in a chair or own garments with pockets.

Would you ever have thought a camera maker would feel the urge to share this caution,

Before you discard batteries, cover the terminals with tape or other insulators. Contacting other metal materials in waste containers may lead to fire or explosions.
Someone call Mythbusters.

I took my life in my hands this morning and downloaded some pictures I'd managed to take yesterday. Some, and I tremble as I write this, were attempted in strong sunlight. As I was downloading I was listening to a radio programme about America's culture of litigation. You can listen here if you wish. In Life without lawyers : liberating Americans from too much law, published early last year, Phillip K. Howard argues that civil lawsuits in the USA, far from fulfilling the function of achieving justice, often operate as either windfall opportunities or substitutes for medical compensation. His textbook example of the first scenario is the insane case of a man who sued his dry cleaners for US$54m after they lost his trousers. That must have been some pair of pants! Howard's argument is that the judge, who should have batted this straight back with a stern caution against wasting the court's time, let it go through two years of litigation simply because he didn't feel he had the 'authority' to make a judgment call on its validity. The case apparently hinged on a legal definition of 'satisfaction guaranteed'. I don't suppose you'll see too many of those signs up in American shops now. You can follow an interesting exchange on this with the author and reviewer Anthony Lewis in the pages of the always, and ever so refreshingly excellent New York Review of Books here and here.

Here in Australia, and in Europe, and many other places in the world where there are protective government services like public health, it's tempting to dismiss this American foolishness as their silly problem. We can see that it's all a misguided overreaction to their distrust of authority and unerring faith in the private sector and we're also sure that nice and clever President Obama will sort it out soon because all the situation needs is some common sense thrown at it. But standards that are set in the U.S. have a nasty habit of exporting themselves to other places. 

Apart from nutcase lawsuits like the $54m trouser affair, Howard also raises concerns about the plethora of tests that are carried out prior to simple, routine surgery because medical professionals fear the repercussions of undiagnosed complications. Howard says all this unnecessary testing bumps up insurance premiums completely out of the range of poor people and is a contributor to the situation where 40m Americans cannot afford any form of health coverage. I certainly noticed this in Britain and I am seeing it in Australia too, that American attitudes to health provision are influencing thinking on its efficacy. 

In Australia, people are starting to believe that if you get sick, it's your fault. Fault leads to blame which leads to the kind of mentality for which litigation appears to be the only answer. As a first-year college student last year I received an orientation booklet. It contained six pages on bullying but not one single word on what I might expect from my education. It seemed to concern itself entirely with environmental factors to the complete exclusion of the intellectual. That attitude then filters through into the behaviour of the tutors who act more as an obstacle than enabler to accessing knowledge. The great example I love to quote (and forgive me regulars, I have before) is when Mistress of the Brush told us in the context of a OH&S lecture that the dust masks Mistress of the Chisel would give us for sculpture were rubbish. When I asked Mistress of the Chisel whether or not the masks met compliance standards for use with limestone, (a simple and easily verified enquiry), her instinctive response was to flannel her way out of it. I would have accepted, hang on a mo, I'll just read the label, as an appropriate answer in lieu of actual certainty. Instead I got a cranky rebuff and a lecture on how my health and safety was really my own responsibility. I've never, ever trusted that teacher since. That's where all this shirking leads - to lack of co operation and disintegration of trust.

It's hot today. Too hot to risk being blown up by my new camera, especially as the manufacturer has abrogated all legal responsibility for my risk-taking behaviour. Guess I'll just hang out at the beach. If I get into trouble there, I know the lifesavers have to do something about it. They're not called lifenotmyproblemers now are they? Viva La Baywatch!