Wednesday, February 4, 2009

On the dumbing down of Australia (and the rest of the world)

Those of you who know what I do not for a living... hey wait, I need to be more specific. Let me rephrase that.

Those of you who know where I acquired my skills in cut price business administration will be relieved to know that I won't be rattling on about the sad state of the education system. Not much anyway.

No, I'm talking about dumbness in professional circles - the sort of people that should know better.

The rot started with the demise of the corner shop and the rise of the supermarket. At this point I could go on to say that it was the availability of motorised private transport that triggered this change, but I won't bother. The supermarket model was a major shift away from the old system where one man (sometimes with help from his family) ran the whole thing - butchered the cow, laid out the meat on the shelves, wrapped it up and took your money. Consequently he knew everything there was to know - but only in his field of expertise.

When supermarkets tried to become all things to all people, that intimate knowledge was lost. In the drive for low prices the retailers hired the cheapest labour money could buy, and didn't bother to teach them anything about the product. Here's a cash register, all you have to do is punch in the numbers and take the money. Customers decided that low prices were more important than real product knowledge or even friendly service, specialist shops couldn't compete and went under, and the age of mediocrity was born.

The spread has been slow but distinct. Supermarkets created a market for dumb blondes who know nothing beyond running a cash register; the population rose to the challenge and produced them. As usual it made more than the supermarkets could use (remember they were trying to cut costs, staff are just an expense really) and the employment market was flooded with them.

Gradually other industries realised that they could hire this cheap labour, thus at a stroke solving their recruitment problems and slashing their expenses. They would get just a few clever people to make the decisions, and have a bunch of these cheap Retail Workers doing the donkey work.

Soon the universities discovered that eighty percent of their graduates were just doing donkey work for the smart guys - needing only slightly more grey matter than a Retail Worker. Why are we wearing out our lecturers teaching students things they will have forgotten by the time they need to use it? Why not just teach them the things they should have been learning in high school, like how to put a sentence together correctly? (Oops, I forgot I said above I wasn't going to make slurs about the public eddication system like that. I apologise. I think.)

It only takes a few years for all sorts of industries to be flooded with mediocrity once the universities start to churn it out. Not just universities either - here's some examples.

You would have thought that flying would be the very last place you'd want to find mediocre training. In aircraft things can go wrong very fast, and there's no way of pulling over to the side of the road to chill out and think about the problem. But about a year ago one of the columns in Australian Aviation magazine talked about a trend whereby people trained as pilots, couldn't get a job with an airline (due to the number of military pilots being lured away by large amounts of money), and instead decided to become instructor pilots.

Many of these raw instructors, said the columnist, had never been in an uncontrolled spin because they couldn't afford a flight in an aircraft rated for them. How could they be an effective trainer?

Possibly the impression of mediocrity is just a reaction against the fact that all the World War II pilots (who had thousands of hours under the most incredible conditions) had died or retired. But I think the AA columnist has a point.

Household goods
How long have you had your freezer? Most people don't keep them for more than five years - ten at the most. When something goes wrong, they get replaced. Gone are the days when you could call a repair person who would take the back off, find that some condensation had corroded the contacts on the motor to the main pump, replace a few wires as preventative maintenance, pocket his fee and leave you with a working device.

No, you first assume that the old one is a write-off (after finding out that the warranty expired last month) and try to buy another. Then you get a bunch of hopeless salespeople trying to tell you the difference between this model and that model, and arranging delivery by a separate company that can't guarantee delivery schedules more accurately than a 48 hour window.

Why is it so? Because nobody in Australia knows how these freezers work. They're designed overseas, manufactured in huge quantity and shipped out here. The only person who knows what speed the motor is supposed to run at doesn't speak English.

Car repair
Once more - gone are the days when a mechanically-minded person could learn about engines and then tinker with a car until it works. No, every engine is different and they have to go to a course to learn it. As often as not it's a case of reprogramming the computer to make it work - and of course the computer is locked up and nobody can touch it.

Engineers used to be incredibly brilliant people - they could do calculations on a slide rule that would baffle a lot of electronic devices. The trainees were apprenticed to an experienced engineer for years and learned the job properly.

Nowadays they are trained to use a calculator or CAD program at university, then sent out to a big firm to practice. The blueprints come out looking great, but do they know that this kind of soil can be a tin crust over a mass of low-density stuff underneath? No, they start digging and then find out the hard way. That's why building projects cost so much.

Medical science is another place you'd expect to find none but the very most cluey people available. They make a mistake, someone dies. They show a lack of confidence, a patient worries and takes longer to recover.

But where in the old days they had years of intensive on-the-job training in the field, now they do a long university course without ever once seeing a patient, are awarded a piece of paper, and go out and practice. No good.

And there are lots of other examples of course. It constantly amazes me when I watch the Mythbusters, that they can find experts in all sorts of areas. You want to know what the actual steel cap out of a safety boot looks like? Here's one. This is just a travelling boot salesperson - not only does she know the name and price of each boot, but she knows how they work. A breath of fresh air.

Of course, it's not all bad news. Recently I was looking at buying an electric booster unit for my bike - climbing out of the Scotchman's Creek basin is no fun when you have to do it three times a week after a day's work. The salesmen in the shop (there were two or three) just happened to be the ones that designed the circuit that controlled the power to the motors. They were able to answer every difficult question I threw at them, and at one point even offered to design a modification to one product to suit our requirements - with a rough quote on the spot. I was seriously impressed.

Interestingly, it's the supermarkets, which started the downward trend, that are doing the most to reverse it. They're (re-)discovering that once you've cut costs to the bone, the only way to make money is to have more customers. Real rocket science folks. And to have more customers, you have to make sure they're happy to come back to you. Getting into brain surgery here! And how do you make them happy? You give them good service.

Of course it's a long hard road, reversing 50 years of bad attitudes. Entire procedures manuals have to be rewritten. Point of Sale software has to be modified. What gives the most trouble is taking away safeguards - they were put in place for a good reason (even though the reason assumed the worst of both customers and staff) and the responsible course is to protect the company. But the consequences of doing so are that the company can't give good service. It takes real guts (in a corporate vice president sort of way) to fix that sort of thing, and it happens slowly. But we ARE seeing progress.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Summer Tones, or, how to sing despite the heat

(For those that aren't accessing this via the link from Facebook, it won't make much sense to you. Allow your attention to wander, as what I am about to say does not concern you. There's plenty of things you could be doing, go walk the dog or something.)

In the cold sober light of dawn I take keyboard in hand to write a review.

I'm guessing none of you have ever been the subject of an Angelico review before and are quaking in your ballet shoes, but fear naught, for there is nothing to fear but fear itself!

I knocked off work at 6:15pm and took the 6:28 train (w00t!) to Armadale. Young Fabian also knocked off at 6:15pm and took a car. I was there first, he had to park. Mwahaha, you car drivers don't have it all your own way.

I should mention, first of all, that I had exchanged my blue uniform for a white shirt and what is known in big business circles as a "tie". Pronounced phonetically. A tie is a strip of overpriced cloth intended to command respect for the wearer. It is designed to constrict blood flow to the brain, thereby giving "suits" (the people who wear ties) an excuse for the bad decisions they make about economic crises and things. (I only wear them to convey respect to other people - so far the only ones so honoured have been prospective employers, important people in the public transport industry, lead sopranos from shows I was in who I think will be COMPLETELY AWESOME as Princess Ida, and the Summer Tonians. Feel very special.)

So in I walk, buy my ticket and immediately sight a familiar face. Johnny Edmonds, what brings you here? I've known these people for years, and Jin is playing! What brings you here? I know Stacey, I'm her boss in fact, hey it's a small world! (And yes Stacey darling, I'm going to keep rubbing it in until it's completely rubbed... you know how I enjoy taking a joke too far. Especially if it's about you.)

So I manage to sit up the front. Why not, under the spout where the blessings come out. Hey wait it's Saturday, it's not a church it's just a hall. Wake up Michael...

During the course of a meandering (aka interesting) conversation Johnny drops a compliment. Something along the lines of "I think your family is really weird - and I mean that in the nicest possible way!" Brilliant - incredibly perspicacious of you. That describes us to a T. I wear it with pride.

At precisely 11 minutes past starting time Kristian's Girlfriend(TM) comes out and asks us to turn our phones off. It's being recorded you see. Ah, that's why Fabian was in stage blacks, thinks I. I'll have to demand a copy of the resulting DVD on pain of refusal to work Saturdays after this roster finishes.

So Kristian and Jin come out to a smattering of applause, lots being from up the front - Johnny is very supportive of his wife and she sure doesn't disappoint him (or anyone else). I should have said earlier how I know Johnny. He was our rehearsal accompanist for Mikado, Patience and Gondoliers, and his ability was such that he was selected as Musical Director for A Song to Sing O - during which time Melvyn Morrow paid him some handsome compliments that the entire cast agreed with 100%. By now you will have guessed that he is no mean judge of piano playing ability. I wonder how it would be to be married to someone completely brilliant at something you yourself are completely brilliant at... Well I'm in no danger of that, no volunteer organization is going to be completely brilliant at efficient administration and such boring-like subjects.

So as I said, a smattering of applause. It has been said that "Applause before the show is faith; applause during the show is hope; applause after the show is charity." Of course that's only talking about bad shows, like the one I blogged about in October. Go ahead and heap abuse on that post girls - I will be disappointed if you don't.

Anyway I'll get to the point sooner or later. Kristian opened his mouth and sang. I'm glad it was in Frog (no offense Tiffane, I always say that) because I didn't have to try to follow the plot of the song and could just listen to the sound. Brilliant stuff, you deserve to do extremely well in your upcoming studies and have a distinguished career.

Then he switched to German, and again it was a brilliant sound - also it sounded really German, with the exception of the guttural sounds which would probably damage the throat.

The applause by now was picking up nicely.

Back inside and out come Stacey and Daniel. Stacey sings about a man who refuses to propose to her, and seems to be throwing significant glances somewhere. I crane my neck to see who they might be aimed at but gain no useful information (sic). Argh, better luck next time. Now - I've heard that voice many a time and oft as the expression is, including singing as well as spoken. I was interested when I heard a few bars of nothing in particular in the lunch room one day, highly impressed with a performance of Eurydice which she insists was not acting at all (which makes me very, very afraid - because if it wasn't acting it must have been genuine, it was nothing like the second-by-second cues I've seen done by people who REALLY can't act), completely captivated by a random excerpt from a Christmas carol during a work BBQ, and still I was blown away. No other description.

Incidentally that one was in English, hence my ability to understand the words - when I bluff to Niluka that she has no idea how many languages I speak, I'm talking Q-Basic and VX-REXX with a smattering of HTML 2.0 if you call that a language.

Then we had another Cox&Boxism (aka stage directions "Exit James John Cox, Enter John James Box") and Kristian and Jin came back in. Another song in German just to remind us that he has a great voice and the show isn't just about fun words, then an English one about a condemned prisoner contemplating his impending doom. The programme said something about hanging but it sounded more like he was going to walk the plank. Good acting BTW Kristian, I was getting really worried there until the song finished, the acting dropped and you acknowledged the applause (which by this time was fairly impressive for a small audience in a church hall).

Then a piece of Mozart and we start getting into the patter (which I love above almost all other kinds of music). If I had found the time to think of it, I would have been worried because everything Kristian had sung so far was the very opposite - but my unformed worries were unfounded. I have a theory about timing that states that a person has an internal CPU clock speed which regulates everything else. Singing in time depends on the tempo being an exact multiple of the clock speed. I have heard people sing patter when they aren't used to it, and notes sometimes land in the wrong spot because they were getting too close to their clock speed and the mathematics didn't work out right. Kristian, unless you were wired on caffeine last night, you have no worries in that department.

(My theory states that clock speed also determines how fast you type, run up stairs and process visual information. And it can change over time.)

Exit Kristian and Jin, Enter Mandy and Daniel. This is the first time we've seen Mandy and it's nearly the end of the act! I guess it's no worse than Archie Grosvenor, and certainly better than Private Willis.

Mandy cuts loose on another piece of Mozart and dammit I'm incredibly impressed again! Can't we have at least one dud? Another cheerful pattery song. Another flawless exhibition of adequate(TM) clock speed. Her voice sits very high, I don't think I've heard more than three or four other people in the world sing like that. Of course I've only been listening to that sort of music for about five years, but still that's only one a year so it still counts as a compliment. Do Lucia one day Mandy. Just don't be one of three split over five performances.

And then Jess comes out again to say it's interval! What, already?

So we go round the back for the old brandy there - or rather, very welcome cold water. Tiffane turns up and says hi - she also is here straight from work. General catching up takes most of the interval.

Johnny and Jin have to go, they have something else on. Good to see you again, take care, happy studies! Oh dear, does that mean I'll be alone in the front pew? No I'll have the honour of a charming young girl sitting next to me. I'm flattered Tiffane!

As a dedicated stage crew regular I really enjoyed watching everyone move the screen that blocks the sight lines to the door. I just wanted to say that.

Mandy opens Act 2 (or Act II if you like that sort of thing), which is only fair since she's been kept out of most of what has gone before. She sings two bits of Schubert, in some dialect of German I don't understand - but the facial expression told us what we need to know. Well done Mandy's face.

The programme prepared me for something interesting in the next one - it said something about being drawn from folk music and lacking something compared to classical kulchered music. It certainly stood out from the mould, and Daniel got to cut loose on the piano a bit. It was kind of sad and wistful, which is not the sort of music I like to sing but I sure like to hear it sung by a good sop. During one performance of Pirates when Mabel was singing her aria, the police were waiting in the wings and the two first tenors (who were therefore not subpoenaed into changing out of pirate costume) were downstairs letting the makeup cake on our faces, Jamie said to me "You know, when I had my first video of Pirates I always used to fast forward this bit..." In his defence, he said, he was only 10 years old at the time. So what was I saying, ah yes, sad sop arias sung incredibly well are a Good Thing(TM).

PS Steph if you're reading (you probably aren't, most girls in the world wouldn't read my blog unless forcibly sat in front of it and threatened with a large, ugly firearm) - you already know I love you, I'm not trying to earn brownie points, OK?

Cox Mandy, Box Stacey. With Mario on the guitar - a bit of a business putting all the gear together, particularly with two guitars. I was going to ask afterwards why the difference (I mean, I could see they were a different shape but what does that do?) but I forgot. Quite a performance - a lot of arm movement unlike any other guitar playing I've seen. Good fun, guitar-accompanied singing is different from piano, nice contrast.

The first two songs were by Benjamin Britten, just to prove that the Poms have a bit of kulcher. Poms, Frogs, Krauts, Wogs, I'm going to insult everyone equally today. The programme says the first one is from Northumberland but when I was over there I didn't hear anything like it. I guess like most of the modern world they follow the lead of the Beatles. Then a tragic song of a man who accidentally shot his fiancee. Again, I would never sing a song like that but I love hearing them done well.

The next song was a weird one (in the good sense Johnny used above!) - lots of la-la-la stuff and then a sort of hum which Stacey somehow (I have no idea how) projected to the entire hall. Just the technique would take months to learn I'm sure. According to the programme it was meant to be done with a sop and EIGHT cellos. Being an avid fan of the big strings, I think that would be Something to Hear. Hopefully it wouldn't detract from the singing though.

Another Coxandboxery, in come Mandy and Daniel. And Jess? Ah I know what's happening, it must be either long or complicated so Daniel needs a page turner. It's quite a good job - you get to watch (and learn) all the music, hobnob with some VERY competent musos (I worked with Frank Platford, if any of you don't know the name you must be too young), you do none of the hard work and get the credit at the end!

Mandy, please accept my sincere apologies - my attention was half on the accompaniment for that number. It went well. Daniel made clear indications when he wanted the page turned, and Jess stayed inconspicuous until the right time and then turned the pages quickly and silently. It takes good teamwork and a bit of practice. That sort of thing deserves a curtain call - even if there's no curtain.

Now my scroll bar is rapidly shrinking so I'll skip to the end - a Donizetti. All I knew about Donizetti (apart from that horrible LdL) was that Sullivan parodied him to make Mabel. Now I can state categorically that 1) he was parody material (I do have a fairly keen sense of the ridiculous, hopefully that doesn't affect my career prospects in foreign climes), and 2) Sullivan did a really good job of it.

And so to dinner. The familiar post-show buzz was in the air such as I haven't felt since Pirates. You know, talking at Notch 8/Pedal to the Metal/Full Throttle/Parallel Transition (take your pick), laughing at the tiniest thing, saying ridiculous things that wouldn't normally be funny, nobody knowing what's happening and all following each other, good fun. Eventually we ended up at a restaurant next door to Malvern tram depot, how good is that?

More post-show conversation, unwinding, talking about future plans (another of these shows? I'll be first to book!), etc. Pizza at 11pm is never a good idea, but hey, let tomorrow take care of itself, it's party time!

And then home, some people have had a hard day's work, others have had a hard day's preparation and sorting out last minute issues. Hugs all round (I just LOVE being around musos!) and I caught the train home with about 45 seconds of waiting time.

So - a night of incredibly good singing. Today in church I was almost afraid to let myself be heard because I fall so far short of the mark... I once thought I was on a good thing, but that was before the stress of Patience in England put me so far out of form it took 18 months to get over it (and I'm still not up to where I was). There will be no duets in the stationery aisles. I'll just listen.

Afterthought: I don't think there's any one person in the world who will understand ALL the veiled references I've put in. That means I managed to allocate at least one to each of the different groups of people who I *hope* will read this. Have fun!

PS - can someone tell me exactly how many languages were represented? I lost count.