Sunday, May 31, 2015

Heart and LOL

Life and Limb by Pants (2009)
If there is one thing we really hate here at Seat of Pants, it's organisations set up ostensibly for the national benefit by people who are apparently incapable of even defining said benefit.

Outcomes Australia - pause for chunder over phony conceptual name - appears to fit that description.

It's okay, TQW, I've got this. Just keep that Chardonnay flowing.

I find faux earnestness so dreary, however, coupled with idiocy, it can provide an evening's amusement on a drizzly night when there is no new episode of Sleepy Hollow to watch.

'What is Outcomes Australia?' you ask as, presumably, you are too smart to have been enticed by my thoughtful linking gesture.

The homepage opens with an obligatory John Lennon, (blessed be his name), quote (There are no problems; only solutions), and mandatory motherhood statement (our almost-perfect nation will prosper exponentially if we just tweak it ever so slightly in a way that only our uniquely talented team of egalitarians knows how to do). Then we get right into the nittiest of gritties with this,

'Outcomes Australia is a not-for-profit organisation for change.'

High-impact stuff. But what does it mean? The organisers want us to give them our small change? Red buckets being jangled in the high street are nothing new to us. Let's move on.

'It is a collaboration of eminent Australians who are dedicating time and expertise on a pro-bono basis to deliver solutions for the greater good.'

Respect to the sentiment but we were not aware that the 'greater good' required solving. Yawn. More Chardonnay.

'Our purpose is to ensure that Australia has optimal solutions to problems that impact on the entire community directly, or indirectly.'

Didn't we just discover that there were no problems? Never mind. What's next?

'The Outcomes approach is not to devise solutions, but to find successful and proven solutions to existing problems.'

Now I'm really confused. An activity that involves no activity? Sounds exhausting - and expensive. Poor John Lennon, (not that he's in a position to care, obviously). Even so, I'm sure he'd be mightily pissed off at the appropriation. He wasn't exactly a 'kick the can down the road' kind of guy.

Dear Outcomes Australia (chortle) - If all you're suggesting is that we copy whatever everyone else is doing, what do we need your eminent pro-bono expertise for? Can't we just Google it ourselves, wait thirty years and then get it all wrong anyway? Whatevs.

Dear Reader - have a Chardonnay. You'd be surprised at how well it goes with these mind pretzels. And you'll be wondering how I came upon this cabal of citizens extraordinaire, no doubt. Grab the bottle as this narrative has more clunky devices than an episode of Midsomer Murders.

Approximately every four minutes, thirty-three seconds, something happens in Australia that is a complete mystery to me. Most of the time I just put on my best 'whatevs' face and move on to unfathomables worth pondering. Occasionally, I find one that might be worth a blog post, and I foolishly follow that rabbit down its hole. When one goes to the bother of trying to join up the dots in Australia, one usually ends up with a cubist portrait of Heath Robinson. You have been warned.

It began last week, when one of our pre-eminent pro-bozos shocked the nation by resigning as chairman of the Organ and Tissue Authority Advisory Council. (You wha... Have another Chardonnay). As P-E, P-B David Koch's main gig is as a breakfast host on commercial television, he naturally chose to announce his resignation via rant between ads and interviews with reality TV stars. (You wha... Yep friends, this is what living in Australia is all about).

You have an organ, non?  You're a modern, metro male so you can admit to needing a tissue once in a while without the fear of being pummelled to death for being a homo. The birth of your son for e.g. (Strewth love, he's bald just like his ole man). Advising - that's sort of the same as advertising. Well, it's exactly the same except for the 'ert' bit in the middle, right? How difficult can it be chairing meetings where people will be discussing serious issues of medical ethics?

And exactly why did his pre-eminence feel obliged to resign? Well, it seems that the government is dragging its knuckles feet over improving our organ-donation rates which, shock-slash-horror, are not world-class!

'Obviously, I've got no choice but to resign,' he raged, 'and actively counter the tripe dished out by a whole bunch of rich lobbyists that just talk and do nothing.'

Given the general state of inertia in this country, it's difficult to imagine that our eminences ever do anything other than huddle in the nation's board rooms devising new ways of saying and doing nothing, but never mind. Intrigue thickens. It turns out the government appears to be suggesting that its own advisory council is to blame for our poor international showing. Curiouser and curiouser.

After such a bold provocation, I naturally went in search of the 'bunch of rich lobbyists' rabbit which led me down another dark hole. ShareLife (pause for chortle over conceptual, digital-age name), has apparently criticised the government and its advisory council for spending an awful lot of money on 'awareness' and receiving very few human bits in return. Finding an exact statement to this effect has proved difficult as the ShareLife warren website seems to have been stricken by myxomatosis. I did find this article, which clarifies one thing at least - everyone appears to be screwing up. One might pause to consider if a rich tabloid television presenter mightn't have something to gain from there being a lot of people with life-saving transplants to interview. Jus' saying.

Have another glass of Chardonnay and, if you're looking for the place where the pretzel joins up - ShareLife turns out to be a 'project' of Outcomes Australia. I will now pull a rabbit out of a hat.

A little more rabbit-hole exploration reveals that one of our infamous 'national conversations' has been burbling away in the background for the best part of a decade on the subject of whether or not we should adopt an 'opt-out' model for organ donation. I don't feel strongly about whether or not my organs are gifted after death. I don't carry a donor card. My family can do what they like with my remains. I'm happy to be turned into mulch.

However, I do have an objection to the growing tendency in our eminences and the masters of industry they serve to view us lowly proles as instruments. And I certainly have an objection to the notion that a life-saving transplant should be a 'right'. Rights infer universality. In an age when medicine is being increasingly privatised, it is doubtful that such a 'right' would ever be fairly extended. There is even a doubt in my mind as to whether medicine itself can be viewed uncritically as a public good now, given the vested interests that control it.

And I would most certainly object to having to carry a little card around indicating that I am so mean-spirited as to refuse to allow what's left of my liver to be re-homed in a child prodigy who is destined to achieve lasting world peace. I would do that rather than tacitly sanction involuntary harvesting. There is little chance that, given my age and condition, I would make a suitable donor so I am the perfect candidate for protest.
I doubt that, in the present climate, the opt-out 'debate' will get a serious airing. I only heard one interview with a strong advocate for it last week and then couldn't find it again, which is a shame because the interviewee's superior tone was truly offensive. Compulsory organ donation doesn't seem sensible in any case. It appears not to increase the rate of donation nearly enough to take on the political bother it would generate. Spain has the highest organ-donor rates and it has an opt-in model. The clincher is having a nation of people who care about each other. Good luck with that, ShareLife.

I'm on track to end up as mulch.

Meanwhile, back to the beginning and Outcomes Australia.

According to its founder and director, Marvin Weinman,

'Outcomes, (check out the casual shorthand), was formed to deliver much greater bang for buck to the Australian community.'

Another of Outcome Australia's 'projects' is BetterOff, (picture everyone at Seat of Pants going totally Bevis and Butthead about now). BetterOff's, (how can anyone keep a straight face), website informs us that,

'Australia is one of the five most obese nations in the world.'

Well, I guess, when you look at a map of the world, Australia is quite fat, especially around the middle. That's not good. Oh, and apart from our huge belly and tiny little legs, we also have two heads, and one of them appears to be wearing a dunce cap.

Enough rabbiting on from me.

Th-th-th-th-that's all folks!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Stop, look, listen

Stop by Pants (2015)

As a junior sailor, I had to learn to interpret nautical flags. Not that we had any of those on the sabot, mind. A plastic bucket remodelled to crudely resemble an Edwardian coal shovel and some sawn-off polystyrene coolers shoved under the seats for buoyancy was as classy as it got. Neither did anyone ever hoist a flag in our direction. On Sydney Harbour, rich people in yachts just swore at children attempting to navigate a boat the size of a rum barrel and with comparable manoeuvrability through one of the busiest waterways in the world. Survival depended on being alive to risk.

One flag I have remembered down the years comprises a blue cross on a white background. Roughly translated, it means 'stop what you're doing and look at me.' I have occasionally had cause to raise the blue cross to friends when they appeared poised to capsize. It sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.

As children we were taught to 'stop, look and listen' when we arrived at a road crossing. It was good advice. It is very important to be fully engaged when attempting to share a confined space with double-decked buses and cement mixers (putty putty). I'm all in favour of daydreaming, but not whilst in transit in high density urban settings.

Switching to autopilot in the supermarket is usually fine and often essential to general well-being, especially if you live in a small town and are sensitive to spontaneous, high-pitched greeting noises occurring scant inches away. An audio book and a set of impenetrable headphones can be invaluable in this situation. I try to preserve my focus for the small print on signs that scream 'SPECIAL', and for the checkout, where 'the bank' very rarely makes errors in one's favour.

I always bristle whenever the weary checkout operator enquires,

'How's your day been so far?'

Where did they get that one from? I'm always nice to minimum-wage, zero-hours people. There but for the grace of a lifetime of parsimony and a lot of fiscal good luck go I. Even with my near-pathological standoffishness, I've a nodding connection with many of the people who work in the Larrikin's End supermarket. They're all much better people than the monster corporation that employs them deserves.

'Fine, thank you,' is what I usually politely reply, with a smile that is the emotional equivalent of badly drawn blood.

This morning, someone finally volleyed the answer I've been tossing about in my fantasies for years,

'Not too good. I've just come back from the hospital. My wife's got cancer and it's terminal.'

I ventured a surreptitious glance. He was right behind me in the next queue. An old guy. Swollen ankles. One of those walking sticks with a claw foot. Face baggy and grey from worry. He was not being facetious. It was not a prank.

I felt for Toby*, the checkout guy. He's worked there for years.

'That's no good,' said Toby, as the vile bar-code-scanning thing bleeped.

The marketing elf who thought up the inanity 'how's your day been so far?' surely must have considered that, at some point, someone who has just received the worst possible news will still need to buy dog food. That person may, in fact, be grateful for the opportunity buying dog food affords to forget that this is the shittiest of days.

'We'll find out more about treatments next week,' the man said as he handed over cash for the three tins of dog food. Toby must have been glad of the cash transaction. Mercifully, he dispensed with the obligatory, 'enjoy the rest of your day,' and merely offered up a meek but clearly genuine 'take care.'

Having a script is all well and good until routine decides to improvise. Perhaps the guy with the dying wife momentarily forgot that this wasn't an actual question - rather the retail equivalent of a salute. Maybe because of the nodding familiarity we all have with each other in Larrikin's End, his grief felt liberated to express itself with the most tenuous of prompts. In that moment, all hell could have broken loose. But it didn't. Thank fuck for express checkout lines. Cash only, one basket. Have a nice day.

Recently, an article appeared in the New Yorker flagging the hazard of (literally) being on autopilot.  A commercial airliner crashed on a short domestic flight in favourable weather conditions because the pilot forgot that you're supposed to push the stick shaker away rather than towards you when your plane is about to stall. The crew were all chatting away in the cockpit and no one was looking at the instruments. There's a comforting thought for frequent flyers. 

The article cites a new study of airline pilots' responses to emergency situations as tested in a flight simulator. Researchers concluded that the higher the level of automation, the less likely it is that a pilot will be able to recognise a problem and fly the plane manually. Not only are pilots' skills 'atrophying' - that is the word researchers used - it seems their minds are inclined to go the same way. The researchers found that when asked to 'sit and stare', humans get bored and switch off and concluded that it would be better if technology designers developed human-centred systems rather than have humans conform to a tech-centric world because we're just not built that way. Well, duh!

Perversely, pilots mostly don't fly the planes these days. Their expertise is usually required for take-off and landing only. They are the cinema projectionists of the sky except with sexier uniforms. Projectionists push a few buttons and then retire to the snack counter to ponder the minutiae of life while a plane slams into the ground in CGI Land. The worst thing that can happen if you're a projectionist is that someone will come looking for you to tell you that the screen has gone black and the emergency lights have come on. If you're a pilot that's you slamming into the ground in real time while you're talking through your marital issues with your co-workers. If a computer crashes, it's merely annoying. If a plane crashes - well that really isn't good.

Unless you're living in a padded cell, any disincentive to paying attention can be dangerous, particularly if there are large, moving metal objects involved. Research seems to be suggesting that increased automation leads to boredom and dullness of wit - states that most of us would find undesirable in any situation. Yet, the hunger for more and more automation persists along with an inexplicable desire to self-subjugate to it. When Business Council of Australia President Catherine Livingstone was asked to suggest a single measure to address the 'growing digital literacy gap between Australia and its competitors', she replied,

'Teaching four-year-olds how to code, introducing them to computational thinking, design thinking, problem solving. They're absolutely capable of it and that's when they should be learning those skills.'

At this moment I am waving the blue cross flag furiously. First of all, good luck with getting your average four-year-old interested in the fascinating patterns you can make with a bunch of zeros and ones. Yes, babies are wizard on the iPad but that is only because they've worked out how to watch the very hungry caterpillar eat a chocolate cake over and over again. If you want to introduce your four-year-old to 'computational thinking, design thinking and problem solving, I suggest you buy a jumbo pack of Lego and invite all the neighbourhood children for a play date - unless of course you would prefer them to revive the horrid memory of how you attempted to turn your own progeny into an instrument of the economy whilst they peruse nursing home brochures. And I'd keep quiet about how much fun you had when market forces still allowed an actual childhood as you're driving them to coding class.

It's time we citizens of this supposedly free society collectively push back hard on the stick shaker before we go into an irretrievable stall and while we can still remember how to fly our lives on manual. Oh, and if you want 'literate' infants, try teaching them letters and numbers - preferably using brightly coloured cubes. That way they can learn their colours, strengthen their motor skills and acquire some basic manners into the bargain. (Pass me the heliotrope block please - thank you.) And maybe very young children also need to learn that sometimes what you build falls down - for real. 

*Not his real name, obviously. This is most definitely Jason and Darren territory.