Will COVID-19 finally drive us to do something about poverty?

By | covid-19 | No Comments

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 is the third major outbreak of a dangerous beta-coronavirus.  We have known about beta-coronaviruses in the human population since the 1960s but have never been able to develop a vaccine.  The most likely scenarios are that the virus fizzles out like SARS or it simply becomes part of the normal ‘flu’ season.  The real concern is not COVID-19 but the next virus that tramples its well-worn path into the human viral landscape.

Beta-coronaviruses are descended from the bat gene pool, but some can directly or indirectly (via other mammals such as camels, mice, anteaters and cats) infect humans.

These viruses have been bothering humanity for at least a century, that we know of. The common cold is a beta-coronavirus (CoV OC43) that was first detected in 1965 and another common cold variant (CoV-HKU1) has been in widespread circulation in the population since at least 2005.  A 2016 study of 1208 patients with respiratory disease in Cleveland, Ohio for example showed that 18 had HKU1, 18 had OC43 and 7 had other less common cold variants (NL63 and 229E).  A similar study in Malaysia in the same year detected 26 OC43 and 22 HKU1 cases in a 2060 patient sample. A genetic study of OC43 and HKU1 suggest both share a common ancestor and have been in human circulation since the 1950s.

In late 2002, we discovered that beta-coronaviruses can be more dangerous than the common cold. A new variant, later christened SARS-CoV, the virus that causes SARS, was something very different.  Death from viral pneumonia was a real possibility. It became our first know coronavirus pandemic during its brief run over the northern winter of 2002-2003. It was limited to 8,096 cases resulting in 774 deaths, mostly in southeast Asia.

One of the earliest known cases was a chef in Shenzhen, near Guangzhou, Southern China. He regularly handled recently butchered wild game. His wife, two sisters, and seven hospital staff who had contact with the family were all diagnosed with SARS-CoV. From 16 November 2002 to 9 February 2003, a total of 305 cases were reported in mainland China, with more than a third of those cases involving health care workers.

The virus reached Hong Kong on 21 February 2003, when a Guangzhou doctor, infected by his patients, visited the city. Within a day, he’d infected 16 other people in the hotel he was staying in. Those people unwittingly carried the virus to 30 other countries over the following 6 months.

Subsequent analysis established that the likely natural reservoir for the virus was Chinese horseshoe bats.  SARS-CoV is a zoonotic virus, which means it is a virus that is transmitted between animals and people, but once established in the human population it is easily spread from person to person.

The incubation period was between 2 and 14 days and the average person with the disease would infect between 2 and 4 others. Unlike influenza viruses, which are most infectious in the first 2 days of illness, infection from symptomatic SARS patients usually occurred on or after the fifth day of onset of disease. That is in line with the rising viral load in nasal mucus which peaks at around day 10. Fever, chills, dry cough and muscle pain were the major symptoms. Infections in children were milder than those in adults. And SARS in pregnant women carried a significant risk of death.

The most important route of person-to-person spread was inhaling infectious airborne droplets or touching hard surfaces those droplets have landed on (and then touching the face, or food). The virus can survive on hard surfaces for up to 7 days but is easily inactivated by soap, alcohol or other common disinfectants. The virus lasted longer on disposable plastic hospital gowns than on cotton gowns. Cotton gowns were therefore preferred in hospital care settings. Subsequent tests also revealed that transmission risk from paper was very small.  Even where a page was sprayed with a significant viral load, viable virus particles could not be recovered after the paper dried.

By far the most likely place to become infected was in hospital. Hospital transmission was much more likely where nebulizers, suction, intubation, bronchoscopy, or cardiopulmonary resuscitation on SARS patients were used.  All those procedures generate large numbers of infectious droplets. Around half the Hong Kong SARS cases were acquired in hospitals.

The SARS pandemic eventually fizzled out, not because of anything we did to stop it but because it developed an, as yet unexplained, mutation which impaired its ability to spread.

Subsequent studies showed the virus infected between 13 and 40% of asymptomatic food animal handlers in southern China. It is likely the sustained exposure of the animal handlers to live and recently deceased infected animals was a perfect testing ground for mutations which could jump from animals to humans.  Handlers were constantly exposed to variants of coronaviruses, with one eventually breaking through by successfully developing the ability to infect humans.

Like other viruses such as influenza A or Ebola, SARS-CoV possessed the ability to evade the innate immune system, the part of our immune system that reacts instantly to a foreign pathogen. Our long-term immune response, the adaptive immune system is not fooled.  It begins manufacturing anti-bodies against SARS-COV at around day 7.  Manufacture plateaus at around 60 days but is maintained for over 12 months, probably conferring immunity against reinfection.

A decade after SARS-CoV wiped itself out, another lethal outbreak of a coronavirus was detected in Saudi Arabia.  MERS-CoV, the beta-coronavirus that causes MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) has since infected around 2,500 people and caused around 750 deaths.  MERS was directly transmitted by camels which at some time in the distant past acquired it from bats.  MERS is significantly less transmissible than SARS, requiring lengthy, unprotected close contact with an infected person undergoing medical treatment.  It is still an active infection in the Middle East.

SARS-CoV-2 is the latest and by far the most virulent member of the family.  It appears to be almost identical to SARS-CoV except it has not, so far, acquired the self-limiting mutation which stopped SARS in its tracks.  We are now learning what SARS would have been like if that had not happened. So far it has infected 1.8 million people and directly or indirectly caused almost 110,000 premature deaths worldwide. This is between a third and a sixth of the number of influenza deaths each year.

Bats are a major reservoir of beta-coronaviruses, but they are not the only risk for zoonotic diseases.  COVID-19 is just the latest to join a list which includes Rabies, Ebola, bird flu, Hendra and over 200 others that we know have crossed from wild animals to humans.

The biggest driver of the explosion in zoonotic diseases is fast growing urban population in poverty-stricken parts of the world.  The human population growth results in the destruction of rainforest habitat, bringing large groups of humans into close contact with animals and the diseases they carry.  Feeding those populations is a significant problem and has accelerated the growth in informal markets which provide fresh meat to those people.  A lack of refrigeration often means the best way to transport and keep meat fresh is to keep the wild animal alive until it is sold and butchered on the spot.

A virus is significantly more likely to be transmitted from a recently deceased and butchered wild animal than from traditional farming and butchering methods.  Markets like these exist in China and throughout west and central Africa.  They are essential sources of food for hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people.

The world will get through COVID-19 once the virus either wipes itself out, we develop herd immunity or (much less likely) we develop an effective vaccine.  But that is not the end of the problem.  The same things which created it, will create its successor.  And next time it could be something far worse.  It is pure random chance that COVID-19 is not a disease as deadly as Ebola (it kills half of those it infects) and as transmissible as measles (every infected person infects 12-18 others).

There is probably nothing we can do to totally eliminate that risk, but a significant step towards lowering it is to ensure the people reliant on so-called wet markets don’t need them anymore.  This means lifting them out of poverty and providing sufficient high-quality nutrition.  And we need to do it very quickly or prepare now for the human and economic destruction that will inevitably accompany the next zoonotic outbreak.

Photo by Nathalie van Vliet

We’re looking at the wrong Nordic Country when it comes to PISA

By | Education | One Comment

Australia has just done worse than it ever has on the international academic benchmark, PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment).  The usual suspects are telling us to copy Finland, the darling of the early PISA tests.  But with the Fins now in a nosedive like ours, perhaps it would be smarter if we looked to their Nordic neighbor, Sweden.

PISA is conducted every three years by the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).  It compares the performance of 79 countries using standard and consistently applied testing.  It is the international equivalent of NAPLAN, the Australian national standardized test.

The latest round of data has just confirmed that Australia is in serious trouble. According to the test, more than 4 out of every 10 Australian 15-year olds now do not read well enough to meet the minimum national standard.  Even more shockingly 1 in 5 Australian 15 year olds cannot read well enough to actively participate in a modern society.

Our scores in Maths, Science and Reading have been consistently falling since the testing started in 2000.  Today’s Australian 15 year olds are academically equivalent to Australian 14 year olds in 2000 (and todays 12 year olds in Singapore).  In Maths, Australia has dropped from 5th in the world in 2000 to 24th today.

The usual finger pointing started within seconds of the data release this week.  Depending on the commentator, it was either the Federal Government or the State Governments or the teachers or the lack of teachers or the parents or the quality of graduates or the Universities or not using phonics to teach reading or lack of money, or, well, you get the idea.

The proposed solutions are as tired and worn out as the pointy fingers of blame.  One of the first to be wheeled out is that we need to be more like Finland.  When the first PISA test was published in 2000, it showed that Finland was close to the top of the table in most domains.  And when the second and third tests showed them getting even better, Finland became a superstar of education. Finland has been the darling of many education consultants (and professional development salespeople) ever since.  The only trouble is, that PISA tells us their results have been plummeting just as fast as ours since 2006.

Finland does do education differently to many in the OECD, but that is a recent phenomenon.  In the mid-1990s, they copied reforms implemented in Sweden over the preceding decade.  Both countries had been leaders in school education since the 1950s using a model of public education for all.  Both demanded that a student would be guaranteed the same high-quality education delivered to the same high standards wherever they lived.  Schools were strictly and centrally controlled, had state-prescribed curriculums, external school inspections and detailed regulation. Everyone had the best school in country just down the road.

But during the 1980s and early 1990s, a revolution in education practice occurred first in Sweden and then in by the mid-1990s in Finland.  Both embarked upon what could be described as knit-your-own-adventure education. Both countries disbanded their school inspection programs, central control was loosened and local administrators and teachers were empowered on matters of curriculum, teacher training and grade criteria.  Teachers were given enormous autonomy in the classroom.  They could choose whatever teaching methods they liked and were largely free from standardized testing and school inspections.

The changes introduced assessment by objectives.  The curriculum no longer included prescribed content and detailed syllabi.  It simply established goals and expected schools to interpret and implement them as they saw fit.  Sweden also introduced school choice, allowed the entry of for-profit private operators and encouraged competition for taxpayer funded ‘vouchers.’

When Finland blitzed the 2000 PISA test, the commentators attributed that performance to the newly implemented high autonomy design, forgetting perhaps that the 15 year-olds tested in 2000 (and even 2003) had, crucially, had their early education under the old system.

Sweden’s PISA results in 2000 were nowhere near as stellar as Finland (nor Australia), but they weren’t terrible, so no-one worried too much.  When the 2003 results showed a slight decline, alarms started to sound.  Internal national testing was showing that the average 15 year old in 2004 was achieving at the same level as 14 year olds in 1996. Action plans were drawn up, but an education system is a large ship to turn.

In 2009, Sweden’s experienced what they described as a PISA-Shock.  Sweden’s PISA maths result dropped below the OECD average, something Australia has just managed to emulate. In 2012 Sweden’s results plummeted even further, but by then plans to recentralize the Swedish education system were well under way due to a series of reforms implemented as a direct result of the 2009 PISA-Shock.

They decided quality education requires quality control. A new school inspection office and regime of standards enforcement was created in 2008 and a new curriculum which was much more prescriptive about what should be taught, how it should be taught and how it should be graded was introduced in 2011. And the results are beginning to show.  The 2015 results arrested the plummet and dragged Sweden just above the OECD average.  The 2018 results have confirmed it wasn’t an anomaly, with Sweden almost surpassing Finland and scoring significantly better than the flailing Australian Education system.

Sweden is still a long way from perfect.  Its privatized school choice voucher system is strapping a rocket to inequity and this is likely to put a ceiling on what can be achieved. It still hasn’t clawed its way back to where it was in even 2003 but its results are heading in the right direction.

Sweden and Finland both threw out a system of old-school equal education-for-all, centralized control, school inspections and prescribed teaching practices in favour of more experimental, loosey-goosey methods.  Both have suffered significantly as a result.  And while Sweden accelerated its demise by simultaneously introducing school choice that exacerbated inequity, there can be little doubt that flower-power education did neither of them any favours.

We can learn a lot from the Nordic experience, but not what most people think.  It tells us education needs structure, rules, tests and inspections and if you want it to do even better, it needs all of that, without school choice.

Australia needs to have its own PISA-Shock moment.  We are in accelerating decline and we need to act quickly to arrest it.  We have failed a generation of Australian kids.  When one in five Australian kids is not functionally literate, we are in the middle of a full-blown education disaster.  For those children and their families, this is a crippling impairment.  And for the country that depends on every child being an active contributor, it is a rapidly accelerating catastrophe demanding an urgent solution.

Gaming under the guise of sport has no place in our schools

By | Teens, Uncategorized | No Comments

Exposing high school students to addictive gaming under the guise of sport is reprehensible and is no better than addicting them to booze. Parents must wake up to the risks and stop schools from allowing it.

AUSTRALIAN high schools are increasingly signing up to eSports programs. They might as well be opening lunchtime pubs in their canteens. Addicting their students to gaming is no better than addicting them to booze and it certainly isn’t sport.

From the very beginning of computer gaming, just as with real life games, people have been keen to watch others play.

In 1980, just two years after the release of the first major commercial computer game, Space Invaders, Atari organised the world’s first tournament. Ten thousand players battled little green invaders across the US, with Rebecca (then Bill) Heineman being crowned the ultimate winner, and taking home a Missile Command video game console then worth US$3000.

For a long time the revenue earning power of computer gaming competitions was limited by the inability to compete directly against other humans. The competitions were essentially overblown High Score shootouts, where every player was pitted against the game algorithm and the winner was the one who understood how it worked the best. It understandably had limited mass appeal.

And then came the internet and with it, the ability to design games which pitted people against people. Sure, the game controlled the environment and its rewards and punishments, but now for the first time the skills of other humans could affect your ability to win. It was suddenly a lot more like a physical sport. And with that, a new age of gaming dawned, the age of eSports.

That industry is now worth around US$1 billion a year and growing very fast. It is predicted to have worldwide revenue of US$1.8 billion by 2022, when eSports will be included as a full medal sport in the Asian Games in China, the world’s second largest multi-sport event (behind the Olympics).

These “eSports” are free online computer games played in teams. Usually five players co-operate and attempt to destroy a base protected by another team of five players while protecting their own base. The most popular games at the moment are DOTA 2, League of Legends and Overwatch but the list is growing all the time and the new kid on the block is the wildly popular, Fortnite.

And just like real sports, the audiences are eating it up. The global audience is currently well north of 380 million people. Needless to say, an audience that big attracts hundreds of millions in sponsorship dollars, not to mention in-game purchases and merchandise.

It is this potential honey pot and massively accelerating growth that has attracted media, telecom and the owners of traditional sports. Telcom companies are buying teams and securing streaming rights and sporting organisations are funding leagues to expand their audiences.

Locally, several AFL franchises have ploughed money into eSports. In 2017. the Adelaide Crows purchased a franchise. It was quickly followed by Essendon the following year and North Melbourne, Collingwood, Geelong, West Coast and GWS are actively considering following suite. Adelaide now run the Meta High School eSports League, with the 2019 season involving 160 schools in Australia and New Zealand.

Participating schools establish “teams” of competitive gamers who “train” for hours each week after school and compete in the online leagues. The games are free to play and can be played all the time regardless of being in a “team”, so I suspect most of the players get in a lot more “training” than the hour or two they do at school. And probably use the need to “train” as an excuse for access to their devices at home.

The graphics and sound are exhilarating. The excitement and tension in the players is real.

These games are the very best, the most addictive, the most evolved, the gaming industry has to offer. Their purpose is to addict young minds to the point of obsession, so that billions can be drained from their bank accounts in the form of micro purchases (of costumes and characters) and billions more can be drained from the accounts of sponsors who want access to the players and their fans. And our schools have just signed up as part of the gaming industry sales force.

We wouldn’t tolerate a brewery sponsoring a Chug-a-lug competition at the local high school. And we wouldn’t be too keen on a casino installing pokies, sorry eMaths machines, in the library.

So why on earth are we allowing companies whose entire purpose is to addict young minds open up shop in our schools.

It isn’t sport just because they call it sport. eSport is addictive gaming, pure and simple, so don’t let your school fall for the marketing BS designed to turn your kids into a product for sale to the highest bidder.

 

First published in the Courier Mail.

Excerpt from Teen Brain

By | Teens | 8 Comments

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I started researching this book because two mothers of teenagers told me to. My wife, Lizzie, said she was barely able to get through a conversation with another mother of teens without hearing about a child in counselling or on medication for anxiety and depression. Then my publisher, Ingrid, said exactly the same thing. Both of them felt something wasn’t right. This wasn’t how they grew up. They felt something was going on in the world of teenagers that was being hidden by the happy selfies on Facebook and Instagram, and they both wanted me to start digging to see if their hunches were right.

Before I started, I really wondered why I was bothering. Surely, I thought, everything that could possibly be written about parenting teens had already been done, and done better than I could ever do. Sure, there seemed to be more fuss in the media about teens overusing their phones, but I put that down to the perennial intergenerational problem of ‘teens these days’. Yes, it was a minute-by-minute fight in our house to keep the kids away from their school mandated iPads. And yes, the presence of those devices in the house had introduced a whole new level of sneaky behaviour and teen angst. But I put all that down to normal growing pains.

Then I started reading the research on the significant changes in reward pathways in adolescence. I wondered why I’d seen nothing much in the press about that well established biological reality. And I wondered why I saw even less about why that might be a problem in an age when billions are being spent by tech companies to encourage teenagers to become addicted to their products.

I knew software is engineered to addict. When it comes to non-business-related software, addictive products sell. Non-addictive products die a fast death. This is especially the case when every product in the category is ‘free’. I’d worked long enough in the industry to know how product management and marketing work. But I didn’t know that teens are particularly susceptible to addiction.

I knew it was always a struggle to prise a screen from our teenagers’ hands, but I tended to have a vaguely dismissive, ‘What harm can it really do?’ approach. And yes, I felt devices in schools were a significant distraction likely to impair performance, but I had no sense of how uniquely destructive to teen wellbeing they could be.

In short, I was happy to drift, uncomfortably, through allowing teen access to devices and accept, uneasily, the assurances that while they might be distracting, it was for the best or at least would do no permanent harm. That was until the union-of-the-mothers-of-teens told me to have a good hard look at it. In a nutshell, here’s what I found:

  1. The biology of puberty makes the teen brain uniquely fragile. It makes teens susceptible to addictions that can last for life and usher in mental illness.
  2. Parenting is much more permissive and parents need to harden up to save their kids.
  3. Unfettered access to screens is driving an epidemic of addiction, depression and anxiety, the likes of which we have never witnessed before.

What I found was frankly terrifying. In less than a decade we’ve totally changed the future of the human race, and we’ve done it without so much as a backward glance. Think that’s an overreach? Bear with me while I explain. …

Excerpt from Taming Toxic People

By | Psychopaths | One Comment

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Imagine for a minute that you are carving your way, machete in hand, through impenetrable jungle in some terribly exotic place. You happen upon a clearing when suddenly you notice you are not alone. On the other edge of the glen, a stone’s throw from you, stands a tiger. He is staring intently at you. Assessing you. He doesn’t care whether you love your mother, what your favourite colour is or even that tomorrow is your birthday. To him, you are one of just three things: a meal, entertainment or too nasty to bother with.

The tiger will test you. He will growl, bare his teeth, or make an imperceptible, but swift, movement in your direction. These are all tests. He is probing you. Monitoring you for signs of strength or weakness. He will use every faculty millions of years of adaptation have given him, to determine whether you are trouble, or lunch.

You cannot reason with him, you cannot threaten him, you cannot plead for mercy. Your only chance of survival is to convince him that you are more trouble than you are worth. If you manage that, he will turn and walk away without a backward glance. If you can’t, your goose is cooked. Well, eaten.

The tiger’s cold assessment of your meal-worthiness is the same as the one your psychopathic boss, workmate, relative or lover performed on you within the first few seconds of meeting you. This is a book about convincing the tiger you are more trouble than you’re worth. And if you are really brave, it is a book that can tell you how to catch and tame the tiger. After all, who wouldn’t want a pet tiger?

I’ve had the misfortune to encounter a large number of psychopaths. No, I don’t work in a psychiatric unit or a prison. I’ve run across these people in all manner of benign social and work settings. None of these people would satisfy a test for overt criminality. But many skate very close to the edge. Their skill is obtaining a benefit – using criminal or at least, immoral, means – without ever exposing themselves to the force of the law.

I’ve been thinking about writing an easy to understand guide to dealing with psychopaths for a long time. Over the years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of people about the ideas in this book. Every single one (and I mean Every. Single. One.) of those people, often complete strangers, knew exactly what I was talking about. Every single one of them had worked for, been related to, been taught by, been married to or been in a relationship with someone who they felt to be a psychopath. Every one of those people had been profoundly damaged by the experience and most wanted to share their stories as a warning to others and never speak of it again. I didn’t seek out people affected by psychopaths. These were just people I chatted to after giving book talks or interviews, or people I ran into at the coffee shop. The truly amazing thing is that once I described how I believed a psychopath behaved, not a single person could say they had never experienced it. Many did not know that they were describing a psychopath, but believe me, if you have been, or are, a psychopath’s victim, you are not alone.

Why are we throwing money at people who choose not to use Public Education?

By | Education | 11 Comments

The Government has just decided to throw another 4.6 billion taxpayer dollars at a sector which already sucks up $12 billion a year of Australia’s education funding.  On equity grounds alone, the increase for ‘private’ and not public schools is outrageous.  But it highlights an even more egregious fact.  Almost 90% of Australian households are being asked to subsidise the private choices of the other 10%.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, of every 100 Australian households, 33 will have children under 15 or dependent students aged 15-24.  In 21 of those households the school age children will be attending public schools, 7 will be attending Catholic schools and 5 will be attending independent schools (such as Protestant and Islamic schools).

Together the 12 households that have chosen not to use the education system funded by all taxpayers are asking the other 88 households to pay for their choice.  They argue that in choosing not to use a public service they are saving the community money and so they should be compensated.  But that is the equivalent of an avid reader suggesting he is saving the local library by buying his own books and then expecting his collection to be paid for by the taxpayer.  Or the chap installing a pool in his backyard to be expecting it be paid for by the government because he is taking load off the public pool.

The reality is that our voracious reader or our keen swimmer may be choosing to spend money on books and pools for any number of reasons including convenience, variety and perhaps just because they don’t like sharing.  And they are perfectly free to make those choices for those reasons.  But they don’t get to ask the rest of us to subsidise those preferences.

Likewise those 12 families are choosing not to avail themselves of the public education system for a multitude of reasons.  Maybe they like religion mixed with their education.  Maybe they want a single sex education.  Or maybe its just that they think they can get a better education than the government is offering.  Whatever is driving their choice, they should be free to make that choice.  But they should not be given taxpayer funds for electing not to use a public service, any more than our book lover or water enthusiast should be given tax dollars to build and maintain their private library and private pool.

When the governments of Australia collectively decided that education was a public service that should be free, secular and accessible to all in the late 19th century, the Catholic church opted out and declared that it would fund an alternative.  It did this knowing that to do so would cut it off from taxpayer funds. But such was its religious conviction that children of Catholics should be educated by Catholics, that this was the price it was prepared to pay.

The Church stuck to this ideal for the better part of a century, but the decline in availability of low cost teaching labor provided by religious orders and the increasing cost of providing more complex education meant they were very much the paupers’ option by the mid-1960s.  Some strong-arm tactics by the Catholic church in Goulburn resulted in the first dribble of public money.  In the half century since, those drips have turned into a torrent and not just to Catholic schools.  In many cases, including in Goulburn, Catholic schools now receive as much or even more public money than their so called ‘public’ neighours.  And still they want more.  And they tell their customers how to vote to ensure they get more.

There is nothing wrong with parents choosing not to use a public service. But that doesn’t mean the taxpayer should pay for their choice any more than the government should pay for my subscription because I pay for Foxtel rather than watch the ABC.

Australians don’t want our governments throwing our money at people who opt-out of our public services.  We want every precious education tax dollar focused on improving the skills of every single child in this country. Yes, they can choose not to be educated by the State.  But if they do so, they also forgo access to the State’s money.  The sooner we shut down the notion of privatised delivery of government funded education the sooner we can begin to claw our way back to the top of the list of the world’s best education systems.

Schools taking taxpayer funds must not be used for political campaigning

By | Education | 2 Comments

On the eve of the by-election, the three Catholic schools in the Longman electorate wrote to 5,000 parents urging them to vote for the Labor Party.  Between them, these three schools received $31.6 million dollars in government funding in 2016. It is outrageous that they are using taxpayer funds to engage in blatant politicking.

The email from the schools explained that the parents should vote Labor because the Turnbull Government’s policies would “impede our ability to build new schools in the archdiocese and we will be challenged to keep pace with the real cost increases for Catholic schooling.”  It went on to explain that Labor had pledged to spend an extra $250 million on Catholic schools nationally.  It estimated that if the Government’s policy were pursued it would cost Brisbane Catholic Schools $40 million.

But these are not poverty-stricken schools running on the smell of an oily vestment.  They are extraordinarily well funded by the taxpayer.  For example, according to myschool, the Caboolture secondary school, St Columban’s College received 13,380 taxpayer dollars per student in 2016.  This was just a whisker under the $13,657 received by its next-door neighbor, Caboolture State High School.   St Columban’s also topped that up with an extra $5,678 per student from its fee-paying families.

In addition to that recurrent funding, both schools received taxpayer funds for capital works.  Caboolture SHS banked $516,595 from 2014-16.  But St Columban’s received more than three times as much taxpayer dosh, taking in $1,864,312.  That money is used to build assets owned by the Catholic Church, who in turn have the right to exclude the very people who paid to build them.

If the principal of Caboollture State High School had indulged in a little freelance political lobbying of his parent group, the screams of outrage would be heard from space, and rightly so.  The Principal is a government employee and has no place suggesting how parents should vote, much less actively cajoling them.  So why on earth do we tolerate it from Catholic Schools that are also funded by us?

When the governments of Australia collectively decided that education was a public service that should be free, secular and accessible to all in the late 19th century, the Catholic church opted out and declared that it would fund an alternative.  It did this knowing that to do so would cut it off from taxpayer funds. But such was its religious conviction that children of Catholics should be educated by Catholics, that this was the price it was prepared to pay.

The Church stuck to this ideal for the better part of a century, but the decline in availability of low cost teaching labor provided by religious orders and the increasing cost of providing more complex education meant they were very much the paupers’ option by the mid-1960s.  Some strong-arm tactics by the Catholic church in Goulburn resulted in the first dribble of public money.  In the half century since, those drips have turned into a torrent.  In many cases, including in Goulburn and Caboolture, Catholic schools now receive as much or even more public money than their so called ‘public’ neighours.  And still they want more.  And they tell their customers how to vote to ensure they get more.

There is nothing wrong with parents choosing not to use a public service.  But they don’t get to send the taxpayer a bill for their choice any more than I get to ask the government to send me a refund because I didn’t use the police this year.

Equally there is nothing wrong with private organisations lobbying for whatever political ideology they like.  But they don’t get to use taxpayer funds to do it.  If the Catholic Church wants to engage in political campaigning in the seat of Longman then it should hand back the $30 million plus a year it takes from the taxpayer in that seat.  If it would prefer to keep the money, then it should have to play by the same rules as a public school.  No lobbying.  No private school fees.  And the assets it builds with taxpayer funds remain the property of the taxpayer.  The days of having their wafer and eating it too need to stop. Now.

Creating The Perfect World for Psychopaths

By | Psychopaths | One Comment

We didn’t mean to do it, but we have created a perfect world for psychopaths. If I were to sit down with the express aim of designing a society where psychopaths could flourish, it would be almost identical to any modern capitalist society, or at least, where most are heading very quickly. There would be almost no communal property. Government would have been reduced to a tax collecting rump, tasked mostly with providing bare minimum services to the destitute. Almost all government assets would have been liquidated in search of the ‘efficiencies’, not to mention the money offered by business operators. The power system, the ports, the railways, the banks, the post office and even core services like health and unemployment would have all become partially or full privatised.

All communal services would be delivered on a largely user-pay basis, and the concept of community assets, like the public pool or public transport would cease to be fashionable. The interests and rights of the individual would trump any consideration of the collective good at every turn. Institutions that previously reinforced community values, such as businesses, religious groups and families would wilt under the sustained economic pressure to maximise individual gain. Increasingly business and government agencies would internally restructure in a way that rewarded individual and competitive economic performance rather than satisfying community expectations. Bullying and domestic violence would accelerate as the community standards which held them in check decayed. Honesty would become something to which we all paid lip-service whilst desperately trying to get away with as much as we could. We would come to expect the same levels of almost-honesty from our political representatives and become inured to their flexible relationship with the truth. It wouldn’t make us love them but we would know where they were coming from. We would no longer trust our leaders or public institutions. Indeed we would quickly learn the only people we could trust were ourselves and whoever Uber rated with 5 stars. In the race to compete with others narcissistic behaviour becomes so common that barely anyone notices it as being unusual. Everyone would be expected to self-promote at every possible opportunity.

The society I have described is highly individualistic. Every day in every way, the members of that society compete with each other for scarce resources. Co-operation and trust are almost non-existent and honesty is a vague and flexible concept. In that society humans have no need for empathy, trust, co-operation or a moral code which enables communal living. In that society all that matters is individual self-interest and getting the most for you without regard to anyone else. In that society, having a brain with a socialisation circuit upgrade is a significant impairment. You will have qualms about breaking the law. You will try not to exploit others as much as you can. You will try to avoid dishonesty unless it is really necessary. In that society, empaths are the sub-normals. And being a psychopath is a distinct advantage. Having a brain unfettered by moral constraints or empathy makes you a winner and probably even the President.

An Extract from Taming Toxic People

Don’t hand Sugar Tax money to the people who got us in this mess

By | Conflicts of Interest, Sugar | 3 Comments

It’s already been quite a year for the Australian Sugar Industry.  Just 6 sleeps into the New Year they were taking sustained incoming fire from the AMA (Australian Medical Association). Suddenly the doctors were demanding a soft drink tax.  It was something the AMA had sort-of mentioned before but now they were going postal on the issue.

Wiping the holiday sleep from their eyes, the pro-sugar lobby struggled to respond.  But eventually they managed to inspire a National Party Minister to regurgitate the soft drink industry response. Then they then lined up a climate change denial think tank to try and jazz it up with ‘science.’

And last but certainly least, yesterday they wheeled out an ever-reliable University of Sugar (sorry, Sydney) dietitian who sagely warned us that if soft drinks were taxed we’d all hit the booze instead.  Yes, lock up the vodka at Macca’s, Coke now cost 2c more.

It’s a familiar merry-go-round but in every other civilized place in the world it eventually ends with the introduction of a soft drink tax.  Since 2014, 28 countries and 7 US cities have implemented sugar taxes.  And there are very good reasons for that.  The science on the health destroying effects of sugar is unequivocal.  The costs of managing that harm are crippling. And unlike most tax increases, sugar taxes are popular.  A January 2018 poll tells us that 53 per cent of Australians want it.

The real question then is not whether we will have a soft drink tax but when.  Most importantly, when the inevitable happens, what will we do with the money it raises.

The AMA has clearly put its stake in the ground to be the first in the queue for handouts.  But their record on sugar has hardly been stellar.  No, they haven’t actively promoted sugar consumption like dietitians or the Heart Foundation, but they have sat on their hands for at least a decade and happily refused to use their considerable influence to advocate against sugar.

Even now, playing catchup, their support of the Health Star System (which labels sugar loaded Milo a health food and unflavoured Greek Yoghurt a health hazard), suggests they remain a little confused on potential solutions. The AMAs new found conscience should therefore be regarded with suspicion and their plans for the dough scrutinized carefully.

A soft drink tax is unlikely to have any measurable health effect on its own. Taxing one source of sugar will certainly reduce consumption from that source but people simply find a cheaper, or just different, supply (iced coffee anyone?).

But the siren call of cold hard cash will apparently do what I and many like me have failed to do for a decade.  It will remove the single greatest obstacle to real progress, the nutrition rent-seekers.

These organisations have been perfectly happy to ignore the science for decades.  They have been happy to dictate health policy that lets ever increasing numbers of us suffer.  And they have been happy to do it because of ego or profit or consensus or stubbornness or all of the above.

If, however the tax funds consistent government public health campaigns aimed at making sugar consumption slightly less desirable than persistent public flatulence, then it will have a measurable and significant effect.  The outcome can’t be to hand money to the organisations that got us in this mess in the first place and hope for the best.  Because if there is one thing we should know about sugar, our health comes a very long way second to the self-interest of the people with their hand in the cookie jar.

Surviving the Family Psychopath at Christmas

By | Psychopaths | 4 Comments

Christmas is a time for good will to all, for giving and receiving and, for getting uncomfortably close to people we’ve spent the rest of the year avoiding like the plague.

Toxic people. You might call them bullies, or micromanagers, or narcissists, or sociopaths.  I don’t feel particularly charitable towards them, so I go with psychopath.  But whatever you call them there common feature is a complete lack of empathy.

They see human feelings as an opportunity for manipulation.  They see our concern for our fellow travellers as a ‘weakness’ they neither suffer nor desire.  But they know they can use our feelings to torment us, sometime for gain but mostly for their pleasure.  So there is no better time of year than one when we have no choice but to be in their company.

Psychopaths want to be the centre of attention at all times.  Their birthday is a terrific celebration for exactly that reason, it’s all about them.  They are the focus and the receiver of all things.  They feel the world should be like this every day.

Psychopaths don’t experience human feelings.  They are not elevated by the company of others.  They have no idea why we are so obsessed by getting together and celebrating not-them.

Christmas, rather like other’s people’s birthdays, has the potential to be the opposite of a good time to a psychopath.  Luckily there are compensations.  People who go out of their way to avoid contact with the psychopath are suddenly forced to share a meal with them.  And they have to play nice.

In any room full of people making nice, there are loads of little surface tensions just waiting to be magnified with an appropriate bit of manipulation.  Oh the fun that can be had scratching everybody else’s little emotional itches until they openly bleed.  Puppet masters by nature, you will not know where the bullets will come from.  Psychopaths are experts at lighting a fire in others and sitting back to watch the show.  Pass the popcorn – the entertainment is endless.

Even better old and new targets will be much more open to the psychopathic charm.  The festive spirit dulls their victims’ memories of just what an utter prick they can be.  The opportunities for emotional torment of past victims and of the harvesting of new ones are endless.  Maybe Christmas isn’t so bad after all.

Every family has at least one of these toxic people.  They are the ones you wouldn’t have in your home if you weren’t obliged to by a sense of family responsibility.  They are the guest that is guaranteed to sabotage the bonhomie and leave a trail of ignited emotions and crumpled self-worth in their wake as they trample through the goodwill of Christmas.

And yet, we will have them at our table every Christmas without fail.  Because we care about how other humans feel and it would be mean to leave them out at that one time of the year.  Leaving them off the guest list doesn’t really affect them.  They are not harmed by ‘missing out’ on Christmas. But ditching them will probably more trouble than its worth.  They will use their exclusion as a weapon to divide the family into for and against (you) camps and you will pay for it a thousand times over.

Short of ‘forgetting’ to invite them, there are other defences against the family psychopath.  You cant change them, but you can change how you and others react to them.

Be well mannered, light hearted and Teflon coated.  Feel the power of knowing your enemy.  Be ready to stand up to any attempts at manipulation.  Push back hard and publicly on any jibe, but stay unemotional and unmovable.  Do not respond to innuendo designed to get a rise out of you. The more you remain implacable in the face of provocation, the less you will have to do it.

But most importantly, do not believe or act on anything the psychopath says about anyone else.  It is probably a lie and at the very least exaggerated and out of context. The more people in the room who are signed on to your plan, the less likely any of you will be manipulated.  Solidarity beats a psychopath every day of the week and twice on Christmas.

If it’s not your party, you could just not go.  Yes that’s extreme, but if the alternative is guaranteed emotional turbulence it’s got to be an option.  Why not simply arrange to see the bits of the family you can stand at another time.  Pop over for Christmas Eve or catch up on Boxing Day perhaps?

If you do go, you could do a flyer.  Breeze in, drop off the presents, give dear old Aunt Flossy a kiss, have a slice of Pav and hit the road before anyone can land a punch.

None of this is easy, but if you can manage it, Christmas might actually be fun for a change.