Elevator Etiquette

Many seem unfamiliar with the use of this apparatus, or with the concept of consideration for others, or both. Here is the user instruction manual everyone should have had to read before first using one of these devices.
- if you can conveniently use stairs instead of taking the lift, do so. It’ll do you good and leave the lift for those who actually need it.

- there is no point pressing the call button more than once, doing that will not bring a lift more quickly. Have you ever been in a lift that suddenly rocketed to an unscheduled floor as a result of someone doing this? Would you yourself design a lift system to work that way? No, of course not. So don’t do it yourself. This is why lift buttons break so often.

- if your floor is near the top of the lift’s travel, try to enter first and move right to the back. Yes, even if you are male.

- if your floor is near the start of the lift’s travel, try to enter last and stay near the front. Yes, even if you are female.

- if the lift stops, it is not your floor and you are near the door, then move away or step out for a second. Surely it is obvious that there is someone behind you trying to get out? Surely?

- if you must listen to music or a phonecall in the lift, pay attention to what’s going on around you. Look around at each stop. People should not have to tap you on the shoulder to get past.

- don’t call the lift unless you are actually ready to get in. Don’t stand there gawping at your phone, or talking to a bystander, or anything else and miss the lift. This annoys others, as it would you, and you put extra load on the system by now having to call a second lift for a single journey. Next time you have to wait a long time for a lift, think about this – it may be why.

- do not run for the lift and stick your hand between the doors. You’re just slowing up the whole system and another one will be along shortly; you’re holding up all the people in the lift for your own solo convenience – this is called “being inconsiderate”. You know how annoying it is when someone does that to you, so don’t do it to someone else. You are also stressing out the people already in the lift, who suddenly have to lunge for the Door Open button in order to not have your amputated hand drop to the floor in front of them.

- don’t hold the lift doors open for people who aren’t ready to get in right now. There will be other lifts for them. Meet down in the lobby if you must. Again, you slow down the whole system for everyone, for the potential benefit of just one or two.

- if you need to use a card or key to get to a secure floor, have it in your hand before you enter the lift. Failing that, move to the back of the lift and let others in, then “excuse me” your way forward when everyone’s in. Standing there in the doorway fiddling in your pocket or purse, while others are anxiously queuing outside, is the height of rudeness. Then the doors start to close and disaster ensues.

- don’t finish a conversation from within the lift to someone outside it (or vice versa) while holding the doors open. This ascends to Olympian heights of rudeness.

Escalator Etiquette

Many seem unfamiliar with use of this apparatus, or with the concept of consideration for others, or both. Here is the user instruction manual everyone should have had to read before first using one of these devices.

- If you can conveniently use stairs instead of taking the escalator, please do so. It’ll do you good and leave the escalator for those who actually need it.
- If you can walk up or down the escalators, please do so. It’ll do you good, and get you and everyone else to your respective destinations more quickly. Also you will then not look like an utter dork who thinks they are on some sort of very slow amusement park ride. You do realise how slow escalators are, don’t you? If you walked up stairs that slowly people would point and laugh.
- If the escalators were stopped you’d walk up them, wouldn’t you? Why does the fact they are moving – oh so slowly – change that? I mean really.
- If you must stand – that is, if you really can’t walk up stairs – then move to the left and let more mobile people by. Do not stand next to your companion as that blocks the entire stairway – you can do without their presence by your side for a few seconds, surely?
- Handbags, backpacks, briefcases, shopping bags, and all other such impedimenta should be held in front or behind you, not beside. Yes, you and your stuff are blocking the escalator just as surely as if there were two of you.
- For the love of all that you love, of all that you consider holy, for the sake of all humanity – do not stop moving just before you get to the end of the escalator. I promise you getting off the escalator is no trick at all. It is moving really slowly. I mean, really really slowly. All you achieve is to stop the entire column of people behind you along the entire length of the escalator. Dozens of people may be delayed because of your hesitation.
- For the love of all that you love, of all that you consider holy, for the sake of all humanity – do not stop moving just after you step off the escalator. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know 100% which way to go from here, just get out of people’s way, and quickly. Those behind you on the escalator have no way – no way at all – of not running into you, and then what will the people behind them do? Get the hell out of everyone’s way NOW.
- In summary, try to be aware of those around you and see what you can do to ease their way through the world, not make it harder and slower. The fact that you are not in a hurry doesn’t mean others aren’t, and as a member of society it’s incumbent on you to not impede them if at all possible.

I’m Bored, Mum!

Stop me if you’re a parent and haven’t heard that cry, or its patriarchal equivalent. Hard though it is, the worst thing we can do as parents is to make it our job to entertain the kids.

[Sorry, that was hyperbole and inappropriate to the topic. Entertaining your children is of course is not the WORST thing you can do as a parent. However it's not good - you are teaching them that keeping entertained is someone else's problem, not theirs.]

Being bored is not such a bad thing for them. Maybe they’ll actually come up with something to do all by themselves; they might then learn that the world does not owe them entertainment, any more than it owes them a living. Being bored is basically an admission of personal failure – failure of imagination, initiative, personal resources in general. There’s nothing wrong with suggesting things to them (whether creative, playful or thoughtful), but don’t set up stuff or worst of all go out and buy stuff to entertain them. The world is full of interesting books, places, games, films, people, and things – go find them.

Keating!

Yes, inspired by the musical of the same name. And the recent revival of interest (triggered by the four Kerry O’Brien interviews) in Paul Keating’s time in the political sun.

Keating’s tenure was the last time I was actively proud of a Prime Minister of ours. Certainly he was hugely egotistical, abrasive at times, and as with so many intelligent people overly dismissive of those of lesser intellect. I know now that there’s no credit to be taken for having high intelligence, any more than the colour of hair or eyes – it’s just an accident of birth and upbringing. What matters is what you do with it. I was often the smartest kid in my class, but only got average results because I coasted on it rather than working hard. But he did what he judged was right for the country, and did not bend to the political winds.

There’s a story which illustrates his breadth and depth of interests well; he visited Berlin after the reunification, as of course did many world leaders. The Mayor greeted him in an official reception, and showed him plans and models of the projected rebuilding scheme. Keating amazing him by whipping out his own annotated copies of those same plans, over which he had been poring for some time, and diving into a deep discussion of the architectural and town planning merits of different approaches to city-building and reconstruction.

I am conflicted though, because in a way I blame Keating for John Howard PM and all the ills that fell to us through that. Let me explain.

Keating won the “unwinnable” 1993 election by efficiently demolishing his opponent John Hewson’s programme of politics. Keating utterly dominated Hewson in Parliament. Amazingly despite having championed a GST himself just years before, he was able to run a successful scare campaign against Hewson’s proposed GST and won through. But he failed to draw the right lesson from the unexpected win; I believe his ego did not allow him to recognise that he hadn’t won through the superiority of policy and leadership and intellect (Hewson was probably just as intelligent, but in a more academic and less street-smart way) but through hitting the electorate’s hip-pocket nerve – in fact his own tenure as Treasurer and then Prime Minister triggered a substantial degree of public education in economics and he was able to use that against Hewson. People may not have liked Keating but they believed he knew what he was talking about, economically. But he started to believe the myth of his own political and economic genius, and especially that that would be enough for future battles as it was for the past ones. He didn’t so much win the election as provoke Hewson into losing it.

Then came John Howard. His election as opposition leader was seen as an act of desperation by the Liberals, who had voted him in as leader and then out twice before – Lazarus with a triple-bypass, as he was known at the time. Keating underestimated his old/new opponent, and like a general who fights the last war not the current one, treated him just like he treated Hewson, assuming the same outcome. But he never got under Howard’s skin like he did Hewson’s, and worse than that he failed to realise it and change his tactics. This went on to the extent that he declared his last election (1996) as a referendum on Leadership – which would have suited him if it were true, but all it did is remind people of how much they hated his leadership style. He was, for people, wearing thin, and he needed to re-invent himself. In essence he went to the well once too often.

He couldn’t get under Howard’s skin because, I believe, it was too thick. I know little about Howard’s childhood but if I were a betting man I would wager real money that he was bullied for his unprepossessing manner, nerdish appearance and hearing disability. Awful as a childhood like that is (as I know) it hardens one to bullying in your adulthood, and that’s essentially what Keating was trying to do – break Howard by intimidation and confrontation. But (unlike me) Howard took this in his stride and it made him all the more determined to stand his ground. Keating needed to find some other way to get to Howard, but failed and we ended up with 12 years of debilitating class warfare, middle- and upper-class welfare, splurging of budgetary surpluses on tax cuts for everyone except those who needed them, and an uneven and inflexible GST. Family ‘benefits’, baby bonuses, bailing out his own brother’s failing company from public funds, involvement in two illegal and unnecessary wars, Pauline Hanson and One Nation, a cynically manipulated referendum on the issue of an Australian Republic, and the dudding of the world’s newest and poorest state Timor Leste of their rights to oil and gas in the Timor Sea.

The one beneficial policy that Howard put through was the restrictions on gun sales and ownership after the Port Arthur massacre early in his first term. Indeed I think it’s fair to say that only a right-wing PM could have implemented what would normally be thought to be a left-wing policy, in the same way that perhaps only Ariel Sharon could have got Israel and the settlers out of Gaza.

That aside Howard was a tragedy for Australian society, economics, diplomacy, poor and disempowered, and especially the Aborigines. After the Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke/Keating governments real social progress had been made against discrimination and making public racism unacceptable. Had Keating defeated Howard in 1996 Howard was finished for all time, and we would have had most likely 6 or more years of similar such progress, making 30 years or a whole generation. But we had only 24 years and so fell just short, and Howard’s shameful dog-whistle tacit approval of Hanson’s vile xenophobia rewound the whole painful process back to pre-Whitlam years.

So, much as I admire Keating’s economic management, leadership, intellect and breadth of interests, like General Montgomery and his WWII Market-Garden airborne operation he fell one bridge short of breaking through to clear ground and utterly defeating those who we must eventually end up defeating anyway; it will just take longer and cost more than it needed to.

Justice and Punishment

As with education, Western societies’ approaches to justice and punishment are beset with confusion over goals and aims. We seem to want our current system of fines and jail to:

- deter people from committing crimes
- sequester criminals from the public
- deliver ‘justice’ to the victims and/or society as a whole
- wreak societal revenge on the criminal
- rehabilitate the criminal

No system can possibly accomplish all these goals, indeed some are contradictory. We need to consider what exactly we are trying to achieve with this whole system, and then re-design it accordingly.

Our prison populations are overwhelmingly composed of the poor, the mentally ill, and the societally disadvantaged (in Australia Aboriginals, in the US Amerinds and African-Americans, and so on). It’s hardly news that jailing such people with each other does not improve them in any way, indeed jail might almost be designed as a way of training better criminals.

On the other hand we must face the reality that people expect, demand really, that criminals be punished rather than just sequestered or treated. Criminologists and psychologists will, I suspect, never convince people in general of the self-defeating nature of this line of thought, and any system of justice needs strong public support or vigilanteism will rise again. This means an element of punishment must be included in the criminal justice system.

Here are my proposals for a new system of justice to resolve these inconsistencies. The core ideas are that trials be determiners of fact, not of guilt; that criminals be considered to be mentally ill by definition; and that the guilty not be released until found to be cured of that mental illness.

- there should be three possible outcomes of a criminal trial: proven guilty, proven innocent, not proven. This removes the situation where someone not proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt, but still possibly guilty in fact, can claim to have been “cleared” of the crime by being found not guilty. In this system they would merely be found not proven. There is no plea of not guilty due to mental illness, as all crime is to be treated as mental illness.

- criminal trials are not to factor in criminal intent, motivation, awareness or alleged incapacity (due to intoxication, mental illness, rage or anything else) into the verdict – except insofar as these things are part of the definition of the crime, e.g. murder vs manslaughter. The purpose of a criminal trial is now to establish the fact of whether the accused actually committed the acts of which they are accused, not go into any mitigating factors as to their criminal culpability. Those matters are to be taken into account in the sentencing only, not the trial itself.

- A sentencing judge may conclude that the accused was not responsible for his actions for one reason or another but that merely means that jail time is reduced or foregone, and suitable treatments for the condition that rendered the accused non-responsible be undertaken instead. So if found guilty the sentence will specify jail time for purposes of punishment, and then admission to suitable facilities for rehabilitation depending on the nature of the crime. This latter part is unlimited in time, the sentence being essentially ‘until cured’, or determined to be manageable in a community setting. Crime is to be seen as a symptom of mental illness (and so treatable) rather than intrinsic evil (and so not treatable). That is not to say there is no mental illness that is not criminal, of course, it’s not a crime to be mentally ill in this situation. Rather it’s to acknowledge that an inability to restrain criminal impulses and drives is a form of mental illness. Releasing a mentally ill person back into the community, with no change except a few more years hardening, does neither the prisoner nor society any good at all.

- expert witnesses are engaged by the court as it deems necessary, not by the defence or prosecution. This will prevent expert-shopping and professional witnesses. This may proceed as far as giving factual education to juries or even judges, if required on technically or financially complex cases.

- no prisoner is ever to be held in solitary confinement. This is to be considered torture, and therefore unbecoming of a civilised society.

- no first-time prisoner is ever to be in the same facility as a repeat offender.

- prisoners on remand will never share a facility with convicted felons.

Truthfully the above is not as coherent a “system of justice” as I was hoping to create when I started this, more a series of changes to parts of the existing system. Let’s think of it more as a framework for change; as they always say Needs More Work. To be updated as time and inspiration permit.

Education

Education may be the most fractious and faction-ridden activity we undertake. There is no end of uninformed opinion out there, so – taking cognisance of my previous blog (“Leadership”) which extolled the value of expertise – I’ll add to the pile. I’m mostly concerned with Primary and Secondary educational levels here.

In a situation like that it’s advisable to step back and take in the long view. What is education for? What is its point, what is the desired outcome for all the money and effort spent? The best I can come up with as a core common goal is “to prepare children to be able to live well in our society”. A number of current problems in Western education systems come down to a proliferation of aims, or priorities, within this overall goal:

1) to impart necessary basic skills such as literacy and numeracy – English and maths
2) to inculcate good values
3) to equip them with mental tools to deal with life’s challenges – philosophy, logic, ethics (aka moral philosophy), critical thinking, the scientific process
4) to teach the facts of mankind, the world and the universe – science, history, geography

5) preparatory training for currently desirable jobs/vocations/professions
6) to associate with socially desirable peers

Few would argue whether the first four are desirable; the last two are more debatable – and more argued about! The problems with them are that 5/ as the job market changes ever faster specific job skill training will be obsolete before the student reaches the job market (or shortly after at best) and 6/ associating with a restricted set of people – that is of attitudes and opinions – produces close-mindedness and intolerance, and so a lack of exactly the mental flexibility students will need as they move into their futures. I was raised in an exclusively right-wing world and I well remember the shock when, at the age of 16 – 16! – I met my first Labor voter; ironically enough one of my teachers at my exclusive private school.

If we have agreement over the first four items but not the last two, it’s clear they are where we should focus our efforts and it only remains to prioritise them. I’ve placed them in a deliberate order; each is necessary to absorb the next (#2 and #3 have significant overlap of course, and may well be considered as one).

The absolute minimum the school system must impart to any capable student is the ability to split a restaurant bill, to do a simple tax return, and to understand how ridiculous the odds on any form of gambling are. To be able to read a daily newspaper and make sense of any story in it, and to write a simple coherent letter or email.

As those skills are being bedded down they can be used to take in the wisdom of the ages as expressed in classic texts of various sorts – here I include everything from the ancient Greeks to the bible to Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22, and use them as bases of discussion on how to live a good life – most especially what it means to live a good life.

This naturally leads on to the intake of wider material on the nature of thought, and in particular how to make sensible decisions on the numerous matters that all students will come across in their lives – who to marry if anyone, whether to take this job or that or none, how far loyalty to friends or relatives ought to extend, who to vote for, and so on. How likely is this claim I’ve just seen on an internet chat site – how can I determine that? We must empower people with confidence that they can make good decisions about these day-to-day matters rather than trusting instinct, what they’ve just read somewhere, or what some salesperson tells them. We need to train people to be skeptical but not reflexively cynical.

From there students have a sound base for considering the sweep of history; not just the events but the human thinking and motivations that propelled such events, whether glories or disasters. Why science proceeded as it did, when it did. Why people were swept along by a particular religion or political movement at a particular time.
What we end up with is an interwoven curriculum where fundamental skills are provided to enable ethical understanding, which then leads to thinking about thinking, which then – only then – leads to examination of what actually occurred and why. Year by year this process builds students’ ability to absorb and understand knowledge, and only then takes them through that knowledge itself.

Consider the typical progression of a child’s interest in science and nature, which too often moves from fascination to utter boredom in a few years. My contention is that knowledge without context, without the basis to understand and absorb it, is not only useless but boring and, in the end, harmful. We need to impart the basis of knowledge as well as the facts themselves, or they sit in isolation and the student cannot bring what they’ve learned to bear on every-day life. We are faced with the spectre of people who decry science but use it to find their way around in the form of GPS – which only works because of the Theory of Relativity. Who decry evolution yet eat food and own pets that have been deliberately evolved by humans. Who decry vaccination yet live in the safe world that it has created.

We’ve ended up with a society where everyone uses and depends on the output of science and technology but most have no understanding of how it works and how it has contributed to their life, and cover up embarrassment at their ignorance with disdain for it. The problem is I think that they have just been told these facts in a way that does not differentiate them from falsities that others tell them, and quite understandably they don’t see the difference; science and pseudoscience are indistinguishable when science simply asserts things and do not provide the listener with the underpinnings (pseudoscience has of course no such underpinnings). The process I’ve outlined above specifically equips students with the knowledge of such modes of thinking as the scientific process, logic and ethics, and shows why they are reliable guides to factual truth where instinct is not.

The Easiness of Hard Decisions

Like me you’ve no doubt heard this a million times: “It wasn’t an easy choice, but we had to make the hard decision”. You hear this when anyone fires anyone, when someone takes a country to war, when someone throws asylum seekers into concentration camps, when police shoot and kill some unarmed person, when politicians “stand on principle” but cause damage to their own country by sheer recalcitrance, or extend jail sentences knowing it will have no effect on crime but just further alienate the alienated. Any time someone feels the need to be a callous hard-ass, which is essentially to be an arsehole to someone.

Going for the most inhumane option is not the hard decision at all – it’s the easier one. The thinking – or more accurately feeling or instinct – is that making the decision which harms the most people is showing some sort of decisiveness, showing firmness and resolution in the face of people’s suffering.

An analogy is how great powers choose to wield that power. If you make the choice, as the US has over the last 60 years, to address every issue with military might just because you can (to a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail) only shows your weakness. Firstly because you have shown no judgement, just reflexively using the tool to hand regardless of how appropriate it is to the task, and secondly because you are inevitably going to overreach and fail – most likely when you are deploying your hammer on job better suited to a screwdriver, a chisel, or just sandpaper, and end up damaging what you are attempting to fix.

So the US’s military adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon, Granada, Iran and other such missteps have only convinced their potential enemies of their weakness and irresolution. How different would the world be if they had said to Vietnam “OK, so now you’ve beaten your French colonial masters fair and square; better still than we managed against the British and that only with extensive French help. You plainly want and deserve to rule your own affairs and it ill-befits us as a historically anti-colonialist power to stand in your way, so all best of luck!”. I doubt Vietnam would be even nominally communist today. Fine, go into Afghanistan and try for bin Laden, who could blame you: then succeed or fail just get out of there.

Similarly, the genuinely hard decision is to do the humane thing when the mob are howling, when the people you can helping are otherwise helpless. The hard decision wasn’t to keep on hanging people, it was to eliminate capital punishment. The hard decision wasn’t to keep children in the coal mines, it was to bring them out. The hard decision isn’t to go to war in the face of provocation, it is to restrain yourself.