Three recent news items had me shaking my head, unsure whether to laugh or cry. You have almost certainly heard or read them already, but I’ll share them anyway…
No.1: President Trump nominates Brett Kavanaugh to fill a vacancy on the US Supreme Court. A woman comes forward saying that he attempted to rape her at a teenage party 35 years before. BK denies it. The FBI is asked to investigate the allegation – with a whole week to complete the task. Not surprisingly, they could find no evidence one way or the other. If everything I did when I was 17 were made public, incompetent fumbling included… well, I just hope it never is. How about you?
No.2: The promoters of a new horse race (The Everest) want to project advertising material on the ‘sails’ of the Sydney Opera House. The CEO is interviewed by notorious radio shock jock Alan Jones, explains that the Opera House’s charter forbids commercial advertising, and is vilified, shouted over and threatened on air.
The Premier of New South Wales immediately orders the advertising to go ahead and the Prime Minister backs her, describing the Opera House sails as ‘the biggest billboard in Sydney’. 300,000+ people sign an online petition against the decision and a crown gathers to shine torch-beams on the sails to disrupt the display.
At one stroke the Liberal Party, already in bad odour because of the ongoing civil war that toppled Malcolm Turnbull, has alienated lovers of culture, opponents of gambling and anyone who was appalled by a) the on-air bullying of a conscientious public servant and b) the State Premier’s kowtowing to a shock jock. It is not known whether the scandal has also jeopardised the Opera House’s World Heritage status.
No.3: There is to be an APEC meeting in Port Morseby. To ensure that the participants can travel between their hotels and meeting places, a fleet of 40 Maserati Quattroportes is being airfreighted into PNG. Reportedly, they are to be distributed to Provincial Governors when their very brief service to world leaders is over. I cannot think of any words that would usefully embellish the raw facts of this act of lunacy.
There’s been another report on suicide in Australia. People have expressed shock that the highest suicide rate is for men over 85 years of age. I say to those people, “Well, which group defined by gender and age do you want to have the highest suicide rate? Young men? Old women? Children?!”
Personally I think it makes perfect sense that old men are the most prone to suicide. Men are valued – by themselves and by others – for their strength, virility and self-reliance. They tend to define themselves in terms of their income-earning capacity. As they age, all these reasons to be valued fade away.
Men are also known to have fewer and weaker social connections outside their workplaces, and to recover more slowly than women after the loss of a spouse.
According to the latest Australian death statistics, with a bit of adjustment by me for population growth, 70% of males make it to 70; once there, half will make it to 90. I am not shocked if a few blokes in that bracket are no longer enjoying the party and want to leave early.
I was looking for tiny watch batteries, variously coded 377 and 626. By Googling I found a source in Australia that offered them at A$6.90 each; and two others that offered them at a mere A$2.90. But I ended up ordering six from Hong Kong for a total payment of A$5.94, including Australian sales tax (A$0.54) and postage (about A$1.35). They arrived and they work. Is this really the most efficient way to distribute consumer products?
Coles knows exactly what I buy at my local supermarket, at least when I remember to flash my FlyBuys card. And eBay knows that I buy printer ink and batteries online. But how on earth does eBay know that I’m a sucker for beauty products?
And who let on that I’m awesome? And Polish?!
Here is a direct quotation from my local newspaper:
“Aboriginal women are at least 32 times more likely to be hospitalised because of an assault by their partner than non-indigenous women.
“They are at least three times as likely to have experienced violence in the past year than non-indigenous women.
“All this despite comprising a far smaller proportion of the population.”
The writer (Lauren Novak) is drawing attention to important statistics and goes on to suggest ameliorative measures. But she spoils it for me in that third paragraph. Having correctly compared rates of hospitalisation and exposure to violence, she then demonstrates a failure to understand what a rate is.
I don’t want to pick on Ms Novak, who is a much-awarded professional journalist whom I have never met. This is just one example of what I have now dubbed Numeric Incompetence Syndrome (NIS). It seems to afflict journalists and sub-editors disproportionately, but perhaps that’s because their condition is on public display more often than other sufferers’.
I’m thinking about an annual award for the most egregious manifestation of NIS: a Nissy to sit alongside the well-established and eagerly-awaited Stroppy**. What do you think?
Since writing this I have seen another howler in my local newspaper (one of Rupert Murdoch’s, by the way): a little matter of a displaced decimal point in a graphic summary of the South Australian State Budget, showing annual revenue and expenditure to be A$1.9 billion instead of A$19 billion. Now that’s the sort of thing a sub-editor should pick up, don’t you think?
** The Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Twaddle, awarded every January, for which nominations are always open.
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When I went to university there were places for only 10% of each age cohort. By implication, the cut-off IQ level was around 120. Selection was based on examination results and an interview. At my university (Cambridge) there were men’s colleges and women’s colleges and men outnumbered women 10-to-1.
Now the situation is very different, throughout the rich world. About 50% of school leavers go on to university, which means that the implied IQ threshold is around 100 and a university degree does not have the cachet it used to. So it matters more which university one has gained a degree from.
In the UK there is the ‘Russell Group’, which includes Oxford and Cambridge; in the USA there is the ‘Ivy League’. Here in Australia the Australian National University (ANU) stands at the head of a handful of Australian universities in TopUniversities’ global Top 100. ANU is ranked 20 and the Universities of Melbourne, New South Wales, Queensland and Sydney are bunched between 40 and 50.
The University of Adelaide is ranked 109. This is not bad, but if a foreign student is looking for somewhere to gain a prestigious degree he/she will probably prefer one of the others. So what is the University of Adelaide doing to clamber up the rankings? According to recent reports it is:
- Seeking to merge with the University of South Australia, which is ranked 264.
- About to advertise eight academic posts, for which only women may apply. The pool of potential candidates, from which one hopes the university will select the best, has been reduced by 50%.
On top of that, I have just read an article in the Guardian Weekly saying that the Russell Group universities have been criticised for failing “to recruit students from neighbourhoods where few traditionally enter higher education.” Labour MP David Lammy is quoted as saying, “Real progress in this area will require radical and punitive action by the government and Office for Students.”
I know I risk being called an elitist, and perhaps I am. The kind of education that can and should be given to someone near the top of the intelligence bell curve is not the same as can and should be given to someone in the middle. Moreover, in even the most egalitarian of societies there must be a highly educated layer of leadership with exceptional qualities. Intelligence is not the only quality that matters, but it’s probably the most important and it correlates positively with some of the others. Fiddling with recruitment of staff or students in the interests of social engineering is dangerous and wrong and it makes me stroppy.
Does anyone disagree?