ATUL GAWANDE AND DIGITAL’S WRONG TURN
HIP RECIPES ON THE CONSCIENCE (WHERE IS JULIA CHILD WHEN YOU NEED HER?)
WHY FICTION NOW WALKS ON EGGSHELLS
TANYA PLIBERSEK TAKES ON THE TERTIARY ESTABLISHMENT
REBEKHA SHARKIE AND SISTERHOOD SPEAK
VIDEO – HOW TO REALLY APPLY SCENT
A DIGITAL DARK AGE BECKONS
The over-reach of our brash digital world continues apace.
I now learn that, in some American companies, candidates for jobs like financial controller or sales director are being interviewed over the phone by – wait for this – an automated service that asks questions and records answers. Executives claim the interviews are “more efficient and candidate-friendly”.
I was pleased to read that many candidates simply hang up.
In this automaton process, employers then send the recorded responses of these hapless, wannabe employees to company representatives in countries like Singapore and The Philippines, who rate them. The reps then send notes back to recruiters, letting them know if the candidates are a good fit and worthy of a second interview. With a human.
Now this is the other thing I don’t get about our newly digitised world with all its supposed leanness, speed and impatience with “old school” ways. When I read the steps in the above process, all I can see is something that is cumbersome, includes endless room for errors and miscommunication, and probably has a camel’s hump of digital and other costs (renewing and updating the software and processes, legal liabilities, monitoring, staff turnover in The Philippines with corresponding expense, poor staff choices) that haven’t, for various accounting and/or management reasons, yet been fully factored in.
Given that many of the smarter, more experienced candidates will also simply opt out and put their phone down some time during the nonsense of a non-interview, that means the process has another automatic feature: self-selection away from the best.
It’s funny how our digital world so often works backwards like that – away from real progress and towards something that makes life more difficult and unpleasant – and yet the power of our new digital masters, and their capacity to hypnotise so many executives, department heads and HR departments into the kind of decision-making that gave us “Your call is important to us; please hold”, just increases.
But we are finally seeing signs of rebellion and some rebels even come from inside the circle. There are more and more delightful news stories about how Silicon Valley’s top bods – from Bill Gates to Google’s Sundar Pichau to Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel – monitor their own children’s use of digital devices.
I write “delightful” ironically, because it’s so clearly undelightful that these billionaires are happy to pump out hardware and software to keep your children hooked and stupefied, just so long as theirs aren’t infected.
Over the last few Christmases, thankfully, retailers have also reported some swings away from digital devices for kids with parents and relatives hunting more traditional toys and playthings.
And I am starting to see wider disquiet, from the thoughtful and influential. People aren’t rejecting digital outright; that would be nuts. What people are realising is that digital’s immense powers are not being harnessed in the right way. Something has sent them on a haywire path.
What doctors hate about digital
In the November 12, 2018 issue of the New Yorker, surgeon, author and regular NY contributor Atul Gawande had a lengthy, meticulously researched and detailed essay on why doctors hate their computers.
It’s called The Upgrade and though Gawande is diligent about making his essay balanced, it’s pretty clear that “upgrade” is often the last word he’d want to use as he describes digital’s march into our surgeries, operating theatres and hospital administrations.
He writes that “doctors are among the most technology-avid people in society … yet somehow we’ve reached a point where people in the medical profession actively, viscerally, volubly hate their computers”.
New systems are introduced, costing millions of dollars in patient hours, tech-support personnel and data-transfer problems, during implementation.
The bigger a system becomes – and there are obvious cost benefits for managements in having systems that, supposedly, can work for all staff – and the more demands it has to cater to, the more unwieldy it inevitably gets, the more bureaucratic and tightly regulated. “Changes required committees, negotiations, unsatisfactory split-the-difference solutions,” Gawande writes.
A British anthropologist, Matt Spencer, recalls to Gawande how scientists, many of whom have idiosyncratic styles of research, have complained to him that “they were spending so much time on the requirements of the software that they were losing time for actual research”.
The essence of Gawande’s argument is captured in a cameo that closes the essay. He is dealing with John, a 43-year old construction supervisor who, he eventually diagnoses, as having a parathyroid tumour. But between his first meeting with John and his second, Gawande has a moment of truth. He realises he was spending too much time hunting files and information on his computer screen rather than looking at, and directly addressing, his patient: “I became aware of how long it was taking me to pull up the right results.”
He writes, as he contemplates all the alerts now spinning doctors’ way because of tech advances in testing, “most of them irrelevant, and all in need of human reviewing and sorting … We ultimately need systems that make the right care simpler for both patients and professionals, not more complicated”.
His patient, John, is sympathetic. He too now spends half a day on his laptop, logging inspection data, looking up information, checking specifications: “All these different technologies and apps on these iPads …,” he says, “they’re supposed to make our lives easier. But they’re either slow, or they’re cumbersome, or they require a lot of data entry and they’re not efficient.”
Both men are worried about what’s going missing with all this tech and process forced on them – communication between humans.
Gawande knows it is the most vital transaction of all between doctor and patient. John needs to talk face to face with his employees and subcontractors.
John’s technology, Gawande acknowledges, is more precise, but it’s made everything more complicated and time-consuming, especially as the system creates a torrent of email alerts.
Eventually people start ignoring the emails because they can’t deal with them all. “It’s ridiculous,” says John. “Then nothing gets done. You end up on the phone, back to the old-school way. Because it’s a people business.”
A doctor commented on the piece in a later issue: “E.M.R. [electronic medical records] software is usually written by coders who have no understanding of how it will be used, purchased by hospital employees who have no understanding of the specific work for which they are purchasing it, and supervised by administrators unfamiliar with the actual procedures of staff. There is a misguided belief that mistakes can be prevented by forcing detailed completeness in even the most trivial task. No-one’s judgment is trusted…”
The issues Gawande raises are serious. Instead of now making the most of the human brain’s astounding capacities, as well as its knowledge and instincts, we are turning it into a servant confined by the dictates of software dreamed up by some 20-something technician in Silicon Valley. Or perhaps by the IT team in your own building. Or your company’s Chief Digital Officer/Chief Information Officer.
Do human beings get much dumber than this?
Digital takes the wrong turning
We are already living with the stress of the digitisation of corporations, organisations and government departments.
Seduced by the notion that customers, patients, clients can just be directed to an online site to lodge orders, complaints, problems and thousands of staff can therefore be let go – so much money saved! a share price rise! KPI bonuses! – those same bodies now don’t seem to give a care in the world that, for the average person, it is becoming just about impossible to get through a normal day without spending time online fruitlessly trying to accomplish something that would once have taken minutes because we were still able to ring and speak to human staff.
Try getting to a human voice at Australia Post. Useless unless you go into a post office. Although the other day, two weeks after Christmas, with people returning packages and sending thank you parcels, I waited in a queue of 16 people while a skeleton staff did its best.
My next door neighbour in inner Sydney simply couldn’t reach any humans at her insurer – she tried to get someone to answer the phone on and off for four hours – when her skylights went in last December’s massive hailstorm, and rain poured in.
I got through to mine – AAMI – but it still took 45 minutes, which was exactly the time it took me to attempt to fill out the online claim that a recorded voice, informing me of the estimated wait time, had directed me towards.
Fortunately, I’d decided to also stay on the line holding and so, did eventually speak to a miraculously efficient human who quickly sorted my claim out (as well as the errors the online form had forced me into making because of its inflexibility).
Why don’t we appreciate humans more?
Humans might cost more but they are amazing. Machines, for all the benefits they have brought us, aren’t a match.
At one stage in his essay, Gawande describes the plight of doctors in a tech age, and it seems to apply equally to all of us. That, as things are at the moment, “the only choice we seem to have is adapt to this reality or become crushed by it”.
That should not be acceptable. And if we do accept it, where will we be in five years’ time? Ten years?
It’s time for everyone to protest this unthinking alliance between the digital industry and the cost-cutters that is turning us not only into slaves of a digital economy but denying what digital could truly bring us if freed from that one purpose, saving money. (For even the aim of minimising risk is about – in the end and in the main – bringing down an organisation’s insurance costs.)
We need to get in the driver’s seat and make sure instead that – or even as well – our digital age is bringing us all the glorious, imaginative and liberating benefits that it could, and should.
SLAVE IN THE KITCHEN
There’s another kind of slavery around though here, we’re choosing it ourselves. Deciding on recipes for a dinner for seven the other night, I made my usual mistake. Once I’d read and tasted the recipes in my head and decided they’d be delicious, I checked out “method” and “ingredients”.
I like the first to consist of not too many steps and the latter to not include more than one I don’t immediately recognise. But, yet again, I forgot to digest the little words that came after each ingredient. Words like “chopped”, “zested”, “grated”, “diced”, “pounded”, and “finely sliced”.
And so, believing I was about to prepare something that would be simple and not too time-consuming – Adam Liaw’s slow-roasted cumin and lime roast chicken – I found myself, for the umpteenth time, cursing for an hour or so as I read and obeyed all the bossy verbs listed above.
Are there any recipes in magazines or cookbooks today, or on-line, that don’t require all this fine-tuned, finicky effort and endless rows of ingredients?
It struck me, as I grated my right-hand fingers zesting a lime, that even 20 years ago, we could have people around for dinner and not greet them with bloodied hands scraped raw on a grater or minced while finely chopping five different things.
The big change has been the switch from cooking based on European cuisine to more adventurous forays into the pleasures of dishes from, or influenced by, India, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Indonesia, Lebanon, Morocco, Mexico, Brazil and so on.
Yes, countries with fabulous, intriguing, subtly flavoured and complexly fragrant cuisines. Countries which, in our multi-cultural, globalised times, now influence how we cook and eat and what is now readily available to buy in the supermarkets and even corner stores. Countries we have taken to our hearts and stomachs in this new, let’s mingle, open-minded, non-racist world of ours.
And a good thing too.
But countries – I thought savagely that Saturday afternoon – that also (lightbulb moment!) have millions of people, mostly employed on tiny salaries, who work in the kitchens of their fellow-citizens who are better off. Even those who are a bit better off.
And there they dice and pound and chop and slice away, shoulder to shoulder, for salaries as low as $360 a month – and somehow, in the cause of fashion, open-mindedness and a desperation for the new, we westerners now devotedly copy them as we prepare our own meals. Except few of us can afford kitchen help so it’s usually just one of us at the chopping boards, two if your partner likes to cook (and get bloodied) too.
Here’s a radical if mischievous thought.
Should we not be beating ourselves up for promulgating – no, for glorifying and enjoying – cuisines that were actually founded on, and continue to often depend on in their native countries, the lives of the unfortunate poor?
In these acutely sensitive times, should we not be far more sensitive to what we choose to put in our pots? Certainly, a click on some of the above hyperlinks might make you want to rethink.
Beef for beginners
Now, I know I’m being provocative but bear with me. To explore my new theory, I dug out my old cookbooks: Italian ones, French, English, Elizabeth David, Julia Child.
David liberated English kitchens when she introduced European cuisine to the Brits after the Second World War. Suddenly they were eating spaghetti, calamari, boeuf bourguignon and gazpacho. But look through her recipes and there aint a lot of dicing and slicing. Maybe one, or two ingredients, at most.
Her recipe for tuna pate for parties, in her fourth cookbook Summer Cooking, is so simple, I’ll give it here: pound good tinned tuna in a mortar, work in half its weight in butter, season with lemon juice and black pepper and add capers.
Don’t scoff, it’s completely delicious.
Even Julia Child, who brought French cuisine to the Yanks in 1961 with the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and whose recipe for roast chicken in that first volume ran to over two pages, doesn’t make you perform like a navvy. I was using Child’s cookbooks in my carefree 20s.
That’s because, I’d argue, with the exception of the aristocratic and truly rich, few European households post-WW1, could afford platoons of staff. Or any staff at all.
The truth is that the traditional, heavy on the slice-dice-chop-pound recipes only seem to begin as you head south down through the Americas, or eastwards, starting with the Middle East itself. (In Beirut, the setting for the wrenching new film Capernaum, about a child living in shocking poverty who sues his parents for having given birth to him, sponsored domestic workers from Ethiopia or Sri Lanka earn around $200 a month.)
It’s ironic too that now, even the western-style recipes of chefs like Jamie Oliver have copied the east so there’s little respite anywhere from slicing and dicing and grating. Amazingly, Oliver’s online recipe for roast potatoes includes zest from clementine oranges, God save us.
So here’s another simple recipe for you. Buy baby potatoes. Don’t even think about peeling them, just wash them. Then parboil and drain. Slosh some olive oil into a heavy roasting pan, add the potatoes as well as plenty of scattered rosemary and a couple of pinches of rock salt and roll the potatoes around a bit in the mix so they’re coated. Roast them at 220 degrees for about 25 to 30 minutes. If not brown enough towards the end, turn the oven dial to grill for about ten minutes to crisp them up.
And on Saturday night, the potatoes got even more compliments that the lime and cumin chicken.
REMEMBER WHEN BOOKS WERE ALLOWED TO BE FUNNY?
I don’t just hanker for the recipes of yesterday, I long for the ease and wit of books written even 20 or 30 years ago before identity politics thrust itself into culture and started ordering us around.
Susan Isaacs is a successful American novelist whose heroines, like her, are Jewish and usually, inadvertently, up to their necks in murder mysteries.
The Isaac books are funny and very wry, the author never missing a chance to send up and comment drily on the worlds and circumstances of her characters, whether she is writing about millionaire enclaves on Long Island, political campaign shenanigans or Jewish family dinners.
I’m currently re-reading one of her best and wittiest, After All These Years, published in 1993. The other morning, I read this paragraph.
The heroine, Rosie Myers, is about to be charged with her wealthy husband’s murder and she is talking to her best friend and neighbour, Cass, an African-American teacher, like Rosie, who is, writes Isaacs, a natural grand dame with “ebony features so finely chiselled” she looked like an “exquisitely moulded Yoruba carving”.
I couldn’t help but stop and marvel: would she be allowed to write that today? And if she got it through, would there not be a reviewer carping about patronising, white, neo-colonialist attitudes?
The book gets worse PC-wise (or funnier and more textured if identity politics hasn’t yet stolen your sense of humour).
Cass is married to Theodore Tuttle Higbee III, publisher of a conservative magazine, Standards, the scion of a distinguished and rich African-American family, and a Republican. She loves him deeply but her pretend attitude towards him is, in public, one of mild, affectionate disdain.
When Theodore attempts to mollify Rosie and get her to stick with an expensive and pompous establishment (white) lawyer who is clearly useless or a “bubble-head” as Rosie puts it, Cass remarks of her husband, “I haven’t the foggiest notion why I ask his opinion. The man knows nothing.”
She continues to Rosie, “It is hard to believe that in this last decade of the twentieth century, an Ivy-League-educated African-American can be, concurrently, so obtuse and so smug, but Theodore manages it.”
Isaacs then writes, “Theodore, a light-brown version of Fred Astaire, dapper, slender and graceful, beamed at his wife.”
That is a very droll and knowing piece of writing. But would it be published today?
Might a publisher also question the inclusion of such characters as Cass and Theodore on the basis that Isaacs is white and Jewish?
What do you think?
At least brood on this. Nobody thought twice about Isaacs writing that 25 years ago. And that’s not because those were more racist, prejudiced and condescending times.
It is because, courtesy of the concentration on self, and identity politics, we now find ourselves on the road to a grim destination that we are only just starting to glimpse.
TANYA PLIBERSEK AND THE ART OF BREAKING THROUGH
Labor is in for no easy task if it wins office. As others have written before, our country, tearing itself apart as the population heads in all directions on key policies, is now just about ungovernable.
Take Labor’s policy on who should be accepted for teacher training at our universities. Tanya Plibersek, shadow minister for education, announced in early January that the minimum ATAR score for acceptable candidates for teacher training in our universities should be around 80. That is, the students would come from the top 30 per cent.
At the moment, if you trawl through various news stories from the past few years, you can find examples of candidates being accepted with much lower scores. According to one official report, nearly 40 per cent of teaching undergraduates scored below 70. And some universities apparently thought it was fine to take students who had scored below 19!
During the same period, we’ve watched Australian literacy and numeracy rates drop alarmingly. Anyone with an ounce of commonsense knows that if we don’t arrest this decline, this country is heading for major trouble. It is already in a bad way, if you listen to the complaints of employers about their younger workforce and university lecturers on their students.
So I welcomed the news story about the Labor policy on the new threshold and pretty much presumed – silly Pollyanna me – that everyone else would react the same way. We want intelligent, hard-working people to be teaching our kids and, while an ATAR score doesn’t tell us everything (and may sometimes not allow enough for personal circumstances), in the main, it can tell us about a student’s motivation, application skills and ability to use their mind.
So, asking for an ATAR score of 80, what’s not to like?
A lot apparently. In moments, critics from the Australian Council of Deans of Education and Universities Australia had come out to say the policy was flawed and could have unintended consequences, that there was no evidence such a “quick fix” would work.
By the third day, we – and Labor – were being threatened with massive teacher shortages in this country if such a policy was implemented. (Frankly, I can’t help thinking that some classes would be better off if left to their books and own survival instincts rather than imbibe the theoretical, sociological nonsense coming out of the mouths of teachers who turn out to be academic under-performers and badly trained to boot by university departments more interested in progressive ideology than education.)
I was pleased to see Tanya Plibersek‘s response. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Deborah Snow reported: “Asked how Labor would respond to universities resisting the idea Ms Plibesek replied: ‘they should try me. I’m very serious about making sure that we attract the best and brightest to teaching because our kids deserve nothing less’.”
The groups opposing the policy each have a financial stake in the outcome. Universities want to attract as many students as they can and so do the departments responsible for teacher training.
(In other news, it turns out that, according to The Australian, “universities are divided about the value … of teaching performance assessments for graduating students … ” Hello? )
Of course, as these various experts argue, an ATAR score cannot be the only measure used to assess whether someone will make an excellent teacher. Of course other qualities like communication and interpersonal skills need to be considered. I’m pretty sure Plibersek and Labor get that. I do. I bet you do too.
But an ATAR does give an indication of what kind of student you have in front of you.
Whenever someone comes up with an idea to solve a nagging and serious problem, and whenever someone spots something going wrong when it could be fixed, there are always bodies with a stake in the outcome which can cite theory and statistics to back their opposing voices.
Self-serving lines and statistics can then be swallowed like sweeties – the media is often at fault here – by those who should be doing anything but. The old Mandy Rice-Davies line in the 1963 British court room, countering Lord Astor’s denial of an affair with her – “well, he would [say that] wouldn’t he” – is all too often forgotten or ignored.
Her riposte, now often simply referred to as MRDA (“Mandy Rice-Davies applies”) should be remembered by every politician, every CEO, and every journalist too.
The best leaders relentlessly pursue what is good for a nation and community, despite the naysayers and the self-interested.
If this country is to become governable again, we need to keep calling out the latter, and encourage politicians with sound ideas to hold their nerve. The alternative is chaos and stagnation. In short, ungovernability.
REBEKHA SHARKIE AND SISTERHOOD SPEAK
I never get over being appalled by the way women treat other women. And the more virtue-signalling there is about the sisterhood, and women’s networks and sticking up for each other, resisting male aggression and male bullying, the worse the behaviour seems to get.
Years ago, for a magazine feature I wrote about adult women bullying other adult women, I quoted (now retiring) NSW Liberal politician Prue Goward , a former federal sex discrimination commissioner, who said, “I think [this bullying] is taken for granted by women … It’s just one of the pains in the butt of being a female, that we do this with each other.
“I never went to a forum where someone didn’t get up at some stage and say, ‘I wish women would pull together instead of pulling each other down’. And there would always be a titter of agreement through the room. And then somebody else would get up and wag their finger and say, ‘That’s the problem! You’re always criticizing women!’ It was just pushed under the carpet. Women do not want to discuss it.”
Not a sorority?
So let’s, right now, discuss what Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie apparently thought it was okay to say to The Australian last week about the crossbench, and a possible new member.
“It’s not a sorority,” she declared, which was odd because what else came out of her mouth for that story could have come straight out of a Hollywood movie like Mean Girls.
The Australian made it clear in its story that controversial Labor MP Emma Husar, who is contemplating a move to the crossbench, was Sharkie’s subject. Sharkie is reported to have said that she and fellow independents Cathy McGowan, Kerryn Phelps and Julia Banks were centrist or right-leaning and it just happens they “have a number of issues they’re quite aligned on” while Ms Husar was from the Labor Left.
“I have no choice over who joins the crossbench.
“Emma will make her own decisions but they are a world away from my role as a member of the crossbench and the team I am in. “
Sharkie continued her lecture, “You need to have the capacity and dare I say the maturity to ensure you develop a position on every piece of legislation.”
Honestly, can you imagine any man speaking like this about another man as the latter decided whether to join him on the crossbench or not? Can you? Because I sure as hell can’t.
The newspaper noted in the same story, “Crossbench sources told The Australian there was ‘no enthusiasm’ for Ms Husar, who represents the western Sydney seat of Lindsay, to join their ranks”.
And to think Julia Banks moved to the crossbench in a protest about bullying by the Liberals.
I feel much more comfortable with the gorgeous Rossy de Palma from Pedro Almodóvar’s films. She was splendid opposite Toni Collette in Madame, another film about poor female behaviour.
The inclusion here of the following video is not designed to sell you a Jean Paul Gaultier Personal Vocal Assistant, nor his perfume.
It’s simply to cheer you up after all the above and to remind you – and me – that there is a whole, sparkling, generous world out there. (There are another five in the series of ads: so hunt them down and enjoy.)