I was going to write an essay on Australia’s fate at the Olympic Games, perhaps in the hope that the Rio Games might mercifully be the last ever, but as I thought it over I began to worry that I had actually written such a piece four years ago, at the time of the last Games in London. Well, it wasn’t quite the case, but I did write about the Games then, and made similar points in another later essay. The truth is, I think, is that we’re not as good as we think we are in anything, but some of our national pride is built around the notion that we are the world’s greatest sporting country, or something of that kind. Given the data, if we make a case about success on the basis of the number of gold medals per million people, we will find ourselves knocked over by Jamaica, or another small country with one or two exceptional athletes. For me it’s all hot air. Australians are no more ‘sporting’ or athletic than any other decently large country, and spending more money on the elite athletes won’t get us any more medals. We once had some natural advantages, decently distributed wealth, good weather and a leisure culture focusing on a few sports. Those advantages have largely gone as the world has become wealthier. We could do better for our country by putting the dough into bringing more young people into an appreciation of music, art and literature.
And over the last week, depressed by the amount of paper I seem to have accumulated, I’ve been cleaning out files and folders, and every now and then, while doing so, I’ve picked up a gem or two I had quite forgotten about. Here’s one from a dozen or so years ago. I don’t know where it came from, but it applies to any large organisation.
‘ARE YOU LONELY??? Don’t like working on your own? Hate making decisions?
Then Call a Meeting!!
You can …
IMPRESS your colleagues
MAKE meaningless recommendations
AND ALL on COMPANY TIME !!!
MEETINGS — THE PRACTICAL ALTERNATIVE TO WORK’
You can replace ‘COMPANY’ with ‘UNIVERSITY’ or ‘DEPARTMENT’ as you wish. After nearly fifty years in higher education, I felt that about half my working time, in the thirty years since I had become a professor, had been taken up by meetings of all kinds. That was the culture. As I may have written before, a useful guy from a large corporation whom I had persuaded to join an important committee to do with research, after a year asked me would I mind if he resigned. I asked him why. He said, ‘Where I come from, we have few meetings, and they are to make decisions. Here people come to find out what is going on, and most of the time they want to stop decisions being made.’ There was a lot of truth in that judgment.
Here is another gem, probably twenty or more years old, from the world of higher education. It is from the ‘Universities’ chapter in a booklet called The New Improved Official Liars’ Handbook.
- Teaching is the most important part of our job.
- I’ll have your essays marked by next week.
- That’s an interesting comment.
- You won’t lose marks if you disagree with me.
- You’re welcome to come and see me to discuss your work.
- That’s an original piece of research.
- We respect students’ opinions.
- You’ll find this course interesting/stimulating/rewarding/socially relevant.
- There’s not much written work.
- There are copies available in the university bookshop.
- I’m not just arguing for the sake of arguing.
- You should be able to recognise all the organs from the diagrams in the text.
- I welcome criticism.
- I’ve almost finished the thesis.
- I do my best work at home.
- This department is run democratically.
Oh dear, it takes me back, not because so many academics were like this — they weren’t — but because the ones who were like that stood out so awfully.
I wrote some time ago about a brilliant cartoonist called Jorge Cham, who has explained PhD to mean ‘Piled higher and Deeper’. This little gem beautifully captures the central problem with peer review — that the peers are other researchers with their own barrows to push. It comes from more than ten years ago.
If you go looking for humour about global warming or climate change you’ll find a vast amount, most of it American, that supports the AGW hypothesis, the main purport being that those who oppose it are loons, shills or Republicans. There aren’t many the other way, but I have this one in my collection.
And the next one has sat on my desktop for some time, getting a daily smile. It’s not actually about climate change, or global warming, though you can see potential links. It is about the daily fare of new health cures, new diets, new ways of postponing death, and new things you have to try. One of them is the paleo diet, which one of its exuberant supporters (no names) defines this way:
The Paleo diet is the healthiest way you can eat because it is the ONLY nutritional approach that works with your genetics to help you stay lean, strong and energetic! Research in biology, biochemistry, Ophthalmology, Dermatology and many other disciplines indicate it is our modern diet, full of refined foods, trans fats and sugar, that is at the root of degenerative diseases such as obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression and infertility.
Maybe it is wonderful, and members of my extended family try it from time to time. I would want to put in a caveat to the effect that some of the diseases we die from, or die with (Alzheimer’s doesn’t kill, as I read the literature), are the diseases of the old, and there are more cases of them now because more of us are living to really ripe old ages. Perhaps our modern diet has something to show for it. Anyway, here it is:
My thanks to cartoonists, who help us to laugh at the excesses of our fellows, and no doubt at the excesses of ourselves as well.
Finally, from a collection of stories from doctors themselves, most of them about their greatest error or glitch, a sweet account of an American doctor’s first meeting with a new elderly woman patient.
‘How long since you’ve been bed-ridden?’ he asked.
‘Oh, I guess about twenty years, when my husband was still alive.’
Endnote on politics: The result of the Northern Territory elections can be put down to the lamentable performance of the coalition government there, and the small scale of the whole electorate, meaning that judgments are quickly shared. It is not a pointer to the Federal Coalition, other than that lamentable governments are usually dismissed. It probably isn’t a pointer to the coming ACT elections either, about which I will write in due course.