Personal Reflections

Monday, March 18, 2019

Beating the cockroaches - reflections on the events in Christchurch

It's been a funny mixed up period, one that reminds me of the fragility of life.

On the 9th of  March I found Avenger dead in the drive way. He had not been well.

Since I started living on my own, he has been a companion., sometimes annoying, but a companion. He was the last of our family cats. He came with me when the family broke up in 2012. 

The last few months have not been especially good and the death hit me more than expected. Even today, I found myself almost turning into the supermarket  to buy cat food.

Things picked up. After a month and many hours talking to Optus I finally got my email re-connected. In the end, it wasn't complicated. I just had to find someone who knew what they were doing!

That was good, although I had over 2,000 back emails to sort through. I now have that down to thirty that require a substantive reply. But then on Friday we had the dreadful news from Christchurch and then news of Anna's death, something I wrote about briefly in Death of Anna Carlborg.

But life goes on. On Saturday was youngest's. Clare's, wedding. It was a lovely ceremony, and both were so happy. so in the midst of difficulty and death, there is love and life.

This is a fairly long preamble for brief reflections on the events in Christchurch,

I am half  Kiwi, my father was born in Christchurch, I still have family living on the South Island, so there was an area and family connection. Then I found that the arrested person was an Australian, from Grafton in the broader New England that I write about so often.

Like many, I struggle to understand events like this, although as an historian I have seen many similar cases over the millennia. Trying to think it through, I come down to a small number of points.

I have argued before in the context of terrorist attacks of all types, and there have been so many over the years, that our ability to control them is limited. Sometimes, our attempts to do so create make for a far worse outcome, the prescribed cure is far worse than the disease.The only thing that we can control is the nature of our response.

 Here, wearing my New Zealand hat, I am just so proud of the New Zealand response.

Prime Minister Adern's response was measured, compassionate. Her action in reaching out to the small Muslim community in that personal way went around the world.

The New Zealand officials interviewed were balanced, objective. The response of the Christchurch community and that more broadly within New Zealand was loving and caring, denying the very validity of the message that that Australian alleged  killer had tried to impart.

“They are us,”Adern said of those killed and affected during the attack. “The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand." The New Zealand public agreed.

The reactions in Australia have been more complicated because our politics is more complicated, more adversarial, more identity based. The million Australians who signed a petition calling for a certain Australian senator to be expelled from Parliament for his views miss the point, although I can understand their reactions.

To begin with, Parliament does not have that power. Then, too, the senator in question is running for re-election where he is consciously targeting, trying to build, enough of a small base vote to get him back into the senate. He doesn't need than many. To him, publicity is the breath of life. And he is getting that in quids.

I do not object to the idea of a Parliamentary vote condemning him. although it may play into his hands. I think that the Parliament needs to make a statement for the broader community. However, the best way of dealing with a cockroach is to get a broom and sweep him out of the door at the next election.

I am not a leftie. I really dislike some of the "progressive" views. I have attacked them. But this is not a matter of left or right. Both can be equally dangerous. It is a question of survival for those who believe in a just but compassionate society.

I said that I was proud of the New Zealand response. Looking at it gave me hope that good might come from even the most horrendous circumstances, that New Zealand will use this horror to build. Tonight, I am proud to say that I am a Kiwi - well at least half! 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Death of Anna Carlborg

For those who knew her, I am sad to report that Anna Carlborg (AC) died last week. Several years ago she had cancer which they thought had been caught. It returned last last year.

Anna was a remarkable woman, Born in Poland towards the end of the war, she grew up under the communist system, training as a mathematician. She left Poland when her then husband took a job at IBM in Paris. They came to Australia where Anna worked in IT at IBM and Westpac.

Anna lived between Poland and Australia, appreciating both although sometimes not sure just where she belonged. She was widely read with a love of film and theatre as well as literature. It was Anna who introduced me to the art of flânerie, something that became an addiction. I guess that I was doing it anyway!

Anna began blogging in 2013. Her blog, My Observations, captures her interests and sometimes idiosyncratic English, thinking Polish but then writing English. She was very kind and much loved by her small group of friends including those she met through blogging.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

When to use the Oxford comma?

Just where do you place, or not place, the comma? Image Madam Grammar

I am not a grammar nerd. I fear the controversy over the Oxford or serial comma escaped my attention for a very long time. Wikipedia defines such a comma in this way: "In English language punctuation, a serial comma or series comma (also called an Oxford comma or a Harvard comma) is a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) in a series of three or more terms." In the graphic above from Madam Grammar, you can see the Oxford comma in the second example.

I grew up in a world without Oxford commas. A comma marks a pause as does and, so you don't use them both. Indeed, just last week in editing documents originally written by someone enamoured of the Oxford comma I removed them with a degree of frustration, However, the March 2017 decision of a an Appeal Court in Maine, a decision that I have only just become aware of, made me reflect.

The case involved the question of whether drivers for the Oakhurst dairy in Maine were entitled to get paid overtime for some types of work. Under state law, drivers were supposed to get 1.5 times their normal pay for working overtime (more than 40 hours per week). However, the law provided some exceptions. Specifically in this case, you do not get special overtime pay for the following:

"The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
1. Agricultural produce;
2. Meat and fish product; and
3. Perishable foods."

The case revolved around the absence of a comma after the word shipment. That missing comma cost Oakhurst $US5 million. You will find the full judgement here. It may appeal if you are a grammar nerd. 

Now before going on, Liz Bureman has a rather simple even masterly piece on the Oxford comma that  is worth reading.

I struggled a little with the judgement because it seemed to me that it wasn't just a question of a missing comma, but one of bad drafting that could have been avoided. 

A key thing in good drafting, it's something that lawyers such as Legal Eagle or marcellous have in spades, is the avoidance of ambiguity, the establishment of clarity. I sometimes struggle with that.

Had that clause come before me as an editor, my instinctive reaction would have been to insert commas after packing and distribution, thus reading " storing, packing, for shipment or distribution, of". In this case you have a series of activities which are exempted from overtime if they are being carried out for shipping or distribution. The acts of shipment and distribution would still have attracted overtime. To provide greater clarity still, the comma between storing and packing could have been replaced with and.  

Now say someone had said to me in response, "that's not right, we want to cover shipment and distribution as well. Then the clause would be amended to read "storing, packing, shipment and distribution of", replacing or with and. 

I said that I am not a grammar nerd. I reserve the right to continue to delete the Oxford comma in simple lists because it adds nothing, just detracts from the flow. Where there are ambiguities, then it comes back to the construction that provides the greatest clarity and, in my case, sounds best!  

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Saturday Morning Musings - Mr Dutton doubles down: refugees, social housing and health services

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has used the departure of the last refugee children off Nauru to increase the pressure on Labor over the medical transfers legislation and claim Australians will be "kicked off" waiting lists for healthcare and public housing. Source

I was going to write something on the environment this morning looking back at some of the things that I had previously written. Then in conversation with a friend, I realised that I couldn't go past the latest spray from Australia's Home Affairs' Minister Peter Dutton. 

This as been well covered in the Australian media, I tried to find a release or transcript of Mr Dutton's remarks because I like to check the original material but without success so am relying on the press reports.

The idea that Australians will be "kicked off" waiting lists for social housing or health care is factually incorrect. Waiting lists will not be affected. What will be affected is allocations. For example, if I am on the social housing wait list I will remain on the wait list but may drop down a little in terms of the allocation of social housing, thus delaying my access. The same holds for the public health system.

Social housing is in short supply because of previous underinvestment. In NSW, for example, there are more than 50,000 people on the housing wait-list. Housing is allocated first to priority applicants, which means that those on the general wait list can wait a very long time for a house. This wait varies from place to place, but is highest in the cities. 

 Assume that every person on Nauru or Manus Island ended up in Australia as a consequence of medical transfers and was given NSW social housing. At present, there are something like 150,000 social housing properties in NSW. As I said, there are around 50,000 on the wait-list. As housing has become tighter and more expensive in general, as the proportion of very low income or welfare households has risen, families are staying longer in social housing. 

Herein lies the rub, for it means that the number of properties becoming vacant each year has been falling. I don't have the numbers here, but I'm guessing that the number of properties becoming vacant each year may now be as low as 5%,  

 So if every refugee household, household includes single men, was evacuated to Australia and given social housing in NSW it would be a tiny proportion of the total housing stock, but might amount to a reasonably significant proportion of social housing becoming vacant. This would push out wait-lists. However, the final impact would depend upon the actual number of properties required and their distribution,  

The position in the public health system is a little different because of scale differences. I haven't had time to check numbers, but I suspect the effect would not be statistically significant.  

In a way, all my analysis to this point misses the point, but I wanted to provide a minimal statistical base. You see, Mr Dutton's remarks are misleading, playing to concerns in the Australian community for political effect.

If this were a serious public policy issue, Minister Dutton, and the PM who later echoed Mr Dutton's remarks. would need to provide information. How many might actually end up In Australia and how much might this cost? They do not want to do this.

Consider social housing where the impact may be greatest. Here we have one problem, underinvestment in social housing, conflated with a second one, the impact of new demand on constrained social housing supply. Even if every detainee ended up in Australia, and that won't happen , we could fix this with a one-off total spend of perhaps $500 million. That may sound a lot of money, but it's a relatively small spend compared with the current recurrent costs of offshore detention. It would also create a government asset available for later use. 

The Government does not want to engage in this type of discussion for fairly obvious reasons, it distracts from its primary narrative, the need to protect Australia's borders, stop the boats, they shall not come. While I have previously expressed reservations about the Government's approach, I think it reasonably clear that it has majority Australian support. It is also one of the small number of things that actually favour the Government. 

The Parliament's decision to facilitate certain medical transfers was vehemently opposed by the Government. The amendments made by Labor addressed some of the Government's core concerns. The Government was not prepared to accept this and basically doubled down. Mr Dutton's remarks are part of this process.

I have said before that I follow a range of social media and news feeds despite  my sometimes discomfort. One thread is the constant repetition that refugees receive unwarranted preference in housing and welfare benefits, that the ordinary citizen loses access,is disadvantaged, and bears the costs. The Australian threads also constantly recirculate similar material from other countries and especially Europe, 

Mr Dutton is, I think, well aware of these views. His latest comments play to them. They also reinforce the underlying theme that if the floodgates are opened through things such as medical transfers then welfare access and costs will blow out to the disadvantage of ordinary Australians. There is a problem here. 

It is possible to argue against the preference issue on the facts. To the degree preference does exist, and it does in rationed social housing, it is also possible to argue on the basis of values and judgements. It is also possible to argue on the basis of alternative solutions such as the successful placements of refugees in certain country areas. It's possible to argue, too, that Australia as a wealthy and successful country has certain responsibilities. But once an issue or conclusion becomes a matter of belief, of faith, argument is no longer possible in a world of simplistic black and whites. 

To my mind, Mr Dutton's double-down response plays to emotion, reinforces divisions, is designed to stop discussion. I think Australia is the worse for it.  

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sunday Essay - the importance of local adaptation in buildings

I have mentioned before my liking for the UK TV program Grand Designs. Finally, after so many episodes, I fear that I have largely, not totally, lost interest. There is a certain sameness that has become wearing, sameness in many ways: in design, in building materials, in the huge use of glass, in the hermetic sealing. I had no idea that house airtightness had become a measurable building requirement. at least in the UK..

This comment on sameness may seem strange when there are variations in building materials and apparent differences in design, but there is a certain sameness nevertheless.

I was thinking about this while listening to a radio program on the unsuitability of modern Australian houses to hot weather in the absence of air conditioning. One comment was that younger Australians have lost the folk  memory of managing a house in hot and cold. I suspect that's right.

I have only lived in two houses with air conditioning and then only for brief periods. We rarely used it, in part because of expense. I suppose I have a bit of a phobia about air conditioning. All cars now have it, people insist on using it, but it gives me a headache. I need the windows open, something that can be a cause of dispute.

I first came across the concept of breezeways in looking at colonial Australian architecture where many homesteads were consciously designed to maximise shade and air flows. I immediately recognised It and have been thinking about it since.

The old semi I live in now starts cool but the warms up as the bricks absorb heat. So it starts cool and then can become and stay hot, even when the outside is cooling. This can be a real problem if I am working elsewhere and come home to a sealed and very hot house. Nothing worse than going to bed in heat when it's cool outside.  

But the house does have eaves. That's important. It may be hot in the sun, but the temperature does drop when you move into shade. There is also some shade on the western side. So I have found by judicious use of blinds and open doors and windows I can stabilise the temperature at lower levels even when it is over 30c outside. Just as well, since I find it hard to work in a hot house.

I think that Australians have to relearn how to live in hot and indeed cold temperatures. 

Consider street trees. There was a period when councils replaced the large street trees with smaller trees. This was done partly because the bigger trees interfered with power lines, partly because the trees dropped leaves and small branches (my present local council comes round with blowers to get leaves out of gutters so that their council sweeper trucks can then gather them up), partly because they were seen as more decorative. The result exposed the footpaths to direct sun, making them unpleasant in hot weather.

I grew up in cold country, well cold by Australian standards. Those wanting gardens learned of the need to create micro-climates, areas protected from the cold winds with their wind chills and from frost. Australians now have ceased to be gardeners and that knowledge is progressively being lost.

This idea of microclimates is slowly coming back and not before time. Those urban councils who took out trees are suddenly recognising the value of deep shade, the way that greenery can lower temperatures across entire areas. Councils, whose belief in development created concrete spaces that turned into heat sinks that finally chased people away, are experimenting with ways to drop temperatures and bring people back.

Those living in the country have, I think, always been more conscious of just what can be done to ameliorate the effects of climatic extremes. They have had to be, although even here some of this knowledge was lost for a time. we can, I think, see this in homestead architecture where the older houses with their verandahs were replaced by modern homes influenced by urban architecture. Now verandahs are back. We can also see it in the re-greening of the country.

Townsville has recently suffered major floods, the largest in the city's history. In those floods, the ground level modern homes suffered more than the classic Queenslander raised above the ground to provide air flows - and greater freedom from flooding.

Today we believe in uniformity, in the application of standard rules and standards. You see this in every aspect of public policy - and indeed politics. The problem with this approach lies in the way that it ignores local variation.

An example is the 1950s push in NSW to remove shop verandahs, replacing them with awnings. There were  practical reasons for this including safety and the desire to make street parking easier, but there was also the acceptance of a certain idea of modernity, a desire to show civic progress. The end result was a sometimes cloying uniformity.

Beardy Street Armidale early 1960s before removal of the last shop verandahs. The few remaining nineteenth century buildings with their iron lacework are now highly valued.

Our new city subdivisions are much worse, in part because of their size. You can drive for miles through outer Sydney or Melbourne or the lower Hunter Valley and see no variation.

In the new apartment areas that you find in in, say, Sydney's Green Square development, the use of cladding can create individually attractive buildings, but the total affect is one of sameness.

It has always been true that changing fashions in architecture combined with the development of new building technology does impose a certain uniformity based upon time of construction. This allows us to classify architectural styles, to create categories such as Federation or California Bungalow.

55 Mann Street Armidale, an example of the Federation style. This was also my grandparents' home in the 1930s.

This type of patterning adds to adds to the visual value of the built landscape, a value reflected in changing patterns of use. That row of humble workers' terraces suitably modified become the valued residences of young urban professionals attracted by closeness and an inner city vibe. However, I do wonder about the overwhelming impact of present building approaches associated with rapid urbanisation.

My grandfather once said that God invented the country, man invented the city, but the devil created the suburbs and built flats. I have some sympathy with that view, although now the flats increasingly dominate the inner city landscape. There is something biblical about the idea of developer Meriton as an agent of the devil!

I may seem to have drifted a little from my starting point. I think that my key point is that in reinventing both the built and to a degree rural landscape, we need to focus less on universal standards or styles, more on creating a landscape that recognises basic variation at a microlevel, A building, urban and rural design, should accommodate, be related too, the local environment, not engineered to be independent of it.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation on heat effects in Western Sydney: Sophie Coombes loved her Penrith life, this is why she's left it behind. 


Monday, February 18, 2019

Australian elections - why the loss of Mr Green's election calculator is a good thing!

I am, in case you hadn't worked this out already, I'm a political junkie .And events have given me lots of stuff to feed that addiction.

In Australia, the Australian Government has reeled from crisis to crisis flowing from its minority position in Parliament. It's difficult to explain to an international reader without  going into excessive detail. I think only a few things need to be noted.

The first is that everybody is really just waiting to get through the next few weeks until the formal election campaign begins in advance of a May election. Nobody is listening anymore. The Government is trying to dust of old nostrums such as border protection that may have some impact, but there is no way that it can cut through.

The Poll Bludger bludger track presently suggest an election result of 91 ALP, 54 Coalition, six minor party or independents in the lower house. I suspect that's about right, although the vote might tighten during the campaign. In this context, the latest poll results do suggest an improvement in the Government's position.

Starting from the premise that the ALP will win, the things I am watching for are:
  • The Green note. I expect this to be down. 
  • The size of the small party vote and especially One Nation.. I expect this to be lower than expected, although regional variations will be important. I say this partly because smaller party votes tend to be lower in polarised elections. Still, we will see.
  • The size of the independent vote. 
The last is worth looking at in more detail.

A lot of emphasis has been placed on the rise of the independents on the centre, those who are centre left on social issues, centre right on economics. This group is mainly city based, targeting the hard men of the Liberal Party like former PM Tony Abbott. I really have no idea here, but suspect that it's just too hard in the atmosphere of a general election for them to get any traction given the structure of city electorates. I say that for practical reasons.

Country campaigning is far more exhausting than city campaigning because of travel time. However, it is also easier. In the city, local candidates struggle to get any media coverage outside the local free throw away newspapers. In the city, candidates going to functions or just mounting a stand at the shopping centre face an audience that may include very few who actually live in the electorate.

Within the electorate itself, local social cohesion is lower. Fewer people are involved. It becomes harder to identify and target those who might shift votes. For all these reasons I'm not really expecting independents to have much of an impact. They will attract votes, but not enough for them to get to the critical second or even third position on the ballot paper that will then draw preferences from excluded candidates,

 The position in regional areas is a little different. There an independent or minor party candidate finds it easier to get media coverage, to become known, to identify people who might support in general or on particular issues. Issues tend to be more focused.

This doesn't make it easy. You have to travel and campaign and that takes time and costs. But you have a chance. You also have a better chance to influence other candidates and campaigns, to influence the agenda.

While attention is presently focused on the national campaign, NSW will hold its next election on Saturday 23 March. Here the fluidity in the vote and especially in regional areas has forced ABC election commentator Antony Green to abandon his lower house election calculator. To Mr Green's mind, the number of variables now involved makes it very difficult to develop a meaningful computer model to project results.

I am happy with this. In fact, really happy. In recent years, reporting of Australian election results has become really boring. It focuses on a single question of the winner. Once this is established, or more or less established, the talking heads focus on what it all means at a very macro sense. They talk and talk, often trying to find things to say, to defend positions.

Elections are about electorates. The current focus loses sight of this. The nuances in particular seats are lost, the local battles vanish from sight. The only seats talked about are already defined swing seats. When something slightly different happens, it is rarely picked up or picked up late in the coverage. Then, after the night, coverage diminishes. Each election has unexpected results,  but you would be hard pressed to realise this outside the most extreme examples. It has all become very boring - and sometimes quite misleading.

Maybe this year things will be different. I hope so!


Saturday, February 02, 2019

Saturday Morning Musings - Return of Print

On the way home from lunch, I bought a copy of the Australian. I was barely a quarter of the way through before I left the bus.

Each morning I scan the news across across half a dozen outlets. I can do that in half an hour. I have decided to start buying print papers again.

At Christmas, I went book shopping as I do. My main bookshop was totally crowded. In that shopping center another bookshop has opened. At Eastgardens Pagewood a bookshop has opened. It's not very good, but it's the first for several years.

Globally and in Australia, Buzzfeed is retrenching staff.  In Northern NSW,  Fairfax Regional Media has introduced pay walls on main papers allowing you to access just three stories a month. I am not paid for my history columns, but I did have access to the e-edition of the paper. Then the paper began running my stories in the on-line edition, usually appearing well before the Wednesday Express Extra, the print version for my columns and often on the on-line front page. Then as part of the changes, I lost access to the e-edition and could not access my stories on-line

The limit is three on story access is three. I publish four and also want to check what I have published so I am rather stuffed. I complained to my editor, but there appears to be nothing he can do. He cannot even give me personal on-line access even though a subscription was part of the original deal. He also said that out-of -towners who wanted to read the columns would be okay because they could access three columns without charge.

This view suffers from two problems. Out-of-towners like to read more than three stories when they visit and, in any case, they can't read all my stories because there are more than three in a month. So I can't really promote the columns in the paper. That has to wait until they are on-line on my history blog.

Perhaps the most important problem in all this is the Fairfax pay rule has turned much of Northern NSW, my broader New England, into a news' black-hole so far as those living outside New England are concerned. Note that the News' papers brought from APN also have pay walls.We have an entire area of Australia that has largely become a news black-hole not just for those living outside the area but also for those within who live outside or are interested in more than their immediate area. And that's most.

I will return to this issue later. For the moment, I want to come back to my headline.

The question of on-line v print is not an either or, but one of balance and promotion. In this mix, print is coming back. let me give an example. D E Stevenson's books appeal to a niche. When we just had print, they dropped out of publication. Now, most are back in e-editions that can justify small runs. But as e-publishing has grown, so has print publishing for those who like the physical product. The totality of e and print means that almost all of her books are, once again, available to readers.


Sunday, January 27, 2019

That Aussie Farms' map - a vacuous gesture that poses some individual dangers but has no meaning beyond

The creation of an on-line map by a crowd called Aussie Farms has created a degree of outrage.The organisation describes the map in this way:
In development for over 8 years, the Aussie Farms Map is a comprehensive, interactive map of factory farms, slaughterhouses and other animal exploitation facilities across Australia, launched publicly in January 2019. 
This map, linked with the Aussie Farms Repository, is an effort to force transparency on an industry dependent on secrecy. We believe in freedom of information as a powerful tool in the fight against animal abuse and exploitation. 
If you find a facility that hasn't been marked, you can login, right-click the facility on the map and choose to submit it for approval. You can also submit information about any facility already marked, and upload photos, videos and documents relating to that facility.
Aussie Farms describes its mission in this way:
Aussie Farms is an animal rights charity, dedicating to ending commercialised animal abuse and exploitation in Australian animal agriculture facilities by increasing industry transparency and educating the public about modern farming and slaughtering practices. 
Established in 2014 with the release of world-first footage of the carbon dioxide gas chambers used in pig slaughterhouses, Aussie Farms grew from separate campaigns that had been run under various Animal Liberation groups including NSW, ACT and QLD. These campaigns began with Aussie Pigs, and expanded to Aussie Turkeys, Aussie Ducks, Aussie Eggs, Aussie Chickens, Aussie Rabbits and Aussie Abattoirs. Together these websites formed the Aussie Farms network, aimed at countering the myth that animal abuse doesn't happen in Australia or that when it does happen, it's an isolated incident. 
The ever-growing library of material began to prove beyond doubt that animal abuse was not only commonplace, but in fact inherent to industries that exploit or use animals for profit. 
Aussie Farms operates under the belief that these industries rely on secrecy and deception, using marketing ploys such as "humanely slaughtered" and "free range", and imagery depicting happy animals living out their days on rolling green hills in the sunshine; and that by breaking down this secrecy and making it easier for consumers to see the truth about what their purchases support, the commercialised abuse and exploitation of animals will slowly but surely come to an end. We believe that information - freely and readily accessible - is our greatest and most powerful tool. 
Listing farms and facilities that have some connection with animal husbandry including dairying may be a breach of privacy, but does not appear to be illegal in itself. Further, and I will come back to this point in a moment, it is so broad brush in its coverage (on their definitions they need to list a million or so establishments if not more) that the results are vacuous in the extreme. However, the difficulty is that the map comes after a series of targeted attacks by Animal Liberationists on individual producers that have done considerable personal damage. So people are concerned about their personal details being revealed.

I had a look at the map in the areas that I know and it is so lacking in rationale and content as to be absent of meaning. On the New England Tablelands, it gets two municipal sale yards but misses the rest. It picks up the Walcha Dairy, a place that is fine from everything I know, but ignores the rest. Lamb producers in general escape. It gets some feedlots, misses the rest. It gets a few free range producers, a few specialist dairy producers, but misses most. It picks the Dutton trout hatchery that supplies fish for New England streams. Bluntly, it's silly, a publicity stunt designed to attract presently tax deductible donations.

This is not to say that it cannot do damage. Pity the one poor greyhound trainer I identified.

Aussie Farm's objective is to remove all commercial animal husbandry. No chickens, no dairy, no fish, no beef, no pork, no lamb, no mutton, even no wool. I think that they would go further, removing any form of cottage production. They are entitled to work to achieve that objective. But I do think that this map, no matter how silly it may be, is a step too far especially when funded by tax deductible donations. That should stop.      

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Saturday Morning Musings - the importance of the local in Australia Day

Today is Australia Day. It is also India Day, perhaps more correctly Republic Day.

I find myself out of sorts with Australia Day. The major celebrations attached to the day date back to the 1990s when it suddenly emerged as a major event. I remember us taking the girls to an Armidale celebration in the 1990s. It was quite pleasant, something to entertain the kids. However, I was never very comfortable with the sudden focus, it struck me too much as jingoism, almost un-Australian. Later I mellowed a little, for I came to see it for what it was, an excuse for a party.

This year, the months leading up to Australia Day were marked by the usual disputes over the day and especially the date. The day marks the landing of the First Fleet at Port Jackson and the raising of the British flag to mark the start of the new colony. The fleet had arrived several weeks before at Botany Bay but found that Botany Bay was unsuitable as a base. So Commodore Arthur Phillip took a small boat north and entered what is now Sydney Harbour, a much more suitable location. The fleet then moved.

You can see why 26 January might not be seen as a good day by the descendants of Australia's Aboriginal peoples. To them, this is Dispossession or Invasion Day. Some Aboriginal people, not all, want the day shifted to a more "neutral" day. This cause has been taken up by the "progressives" who have added it to their list of causes : "First reconciliation, then a republic – starting with changing the date of Australia Day" as one article put it. Now this conflation of issues gives rise to acute dyspepsia on my part. I have to rush for the antacid.

A large majority of the Australian population supports retention of the present date, although there is an age gradient. Those under 24 are the only group in which support for the current date is in a minority. Every other age group shows a majority for retention that rises with age.

Personally, I don't care. The only reason that I can see for retaining the present date is the platform it provides for Aboriginal people seeking redress from the ills of the past. From that comment you might surmise, correctly, that I support the idea of reconciliation and of a treaty. But I do not support the idea of a republic. When the "progressives" conflate all these issues I find myself opposing a date shift, I question reconciliation, since all of these are meant to end up with an outcome I do not want. And when Peter Fitzsimons, that Don Quixote of "progressive" causes with his red bandana, starts tilting his lance at windmills I want to tilt back!

I will put dyspepsia aside. I am old enough and, hopefully, wise enough to deal with separate issues separately even when others conflate them. In doing this, I will also put aside the arguments of our cultural warriors and instead focus on a few positives, things that make me think that this country is in fact doing okay.

One feature of all the Australia Day ceremonies at local level is the recognition of local heroes, the people who have contributed to local communities in a whole variety of ways. To illustrate this, I will take one newspaper, the Guyra Argus. For those who don't know Guyra, it is a small town between Armidale and Glen Innes on the New England Tablelands.

This photo shows those who received awards for community service in Guyra. It's quite a big group for a town with a population around 2,000. The Argus story provides some of the details.      

Aileen MacDonald is Guyra’s Citizen of the Year for 2019, primarily for her role in promoting activities directed at Guyra's economic development. These are varied and quite intense.

.Bronte Stanley was named Young Citizen of the Year. The Guyra Central School captain organised a very successful Mental Health Day for the students, earned a place at the National Youth Science Forum, and has excelled in swimming and the arts.

Russell Roberts received the award for Community Service. The Ben Lomond Landcare and Rural Fire Service volunteer played a pivotal role in the inaugural Winter Fair, and is a foundation member of the StarGrazing event.

Kathleen Lorraine Varley was recognised for Long-Standing Service, including 10 years as Guyra Show Society Secretary, foundation member of the Kolora Aged Care Facility committee, Guyra Ladies Golf Club president, and Catholic Church Finance Committee member.

Painters Kay Smith and Brian Irving received the award for Arts and Culture. They coordinated the TroutFest Art Show, and provided a lot of advice to young artists.

Braydon Cameron is Guyra’s Sportsperson. The 16-year-old was a member of the Under 19 side that finished runner-up at the Sir Garfield Sobers Cricket Tournament in Barbados. He trained at the Central Northern NSW Academy for cricket, coached a number of junior teams, and scored 228 not out at an Open schools cricket tournament.

Jason Campbell and Luke Blyton were recognised for their Contribution to Sport. They coached the Guyra 12s rugby league team with great success in the Group 19 competition. The team achieved the season’s highest points tally, claimed the Best and Fairest player prize, and demonstrated great sportsmanship.

Passion on the Platform was the Community Event of the Year. The Guyra & District Chamber of Commerce event attracted more than 100 people for a seven-course degustation at Guyra Train Station. The sold-out event shone a spotlight on local food producers.

Now when you look at this list, notice the range of activities. Australia works as a country because of the millions of people who are involved and care at a local level. This is not big ticket stuff that grabs the headlines. It is people who care and contribute, who want to make a difference locally.

In other local Australia Day awards, Les Davis was awarded an OAM for his tireless work at Saumarez Homestead, a National Trust property just outside Armidale, while an OAM was also awarded to Max Tavener for his service to veterans and their families around Armidale.

There is something hit and miss about the National Australia Day awards. I know of so many people who should have been recognised but have not. I suspect that's inevitable.

The local awards are a far better reflection of real contribution at points in time. They encourage people to continue, they show the depth which underpins this country's continued strength. Regardless of the date of Australia Day, the local festivities are its real core.    

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Saturday Morning Musings - can the centre hold?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats, 1865 - 1939

I have always loved this particular verse by W B Yeats. It captures a certain fear, one that seems particularly appropriate today.

In the United States, President Trump's proposed boarder wall has brought the US Government to a standstill. It will be no secret that I am not a Trump supporter. However, President Trump made the wall a centre piece of his campaign and has consistently argued for it. The wall may not make sense, but in Australian terms he has a mandate to seek to build it.

If you now look at the Democrat side, you find a win at all costs mentality. I have now listened to Democrat Nancy Pelosi  She strikes me as rigid and dogmatic as the President, if on the other side, also determined to win at all costs. The wall has become a symbolic issue. The economic costs of the shutdown already exceed the costs of the wall. Logic would dictate a concession that allows some construction, that allows political focus on other more important issues. But, no, symbolism dominates, the desire to win dominates.

Something similar is happening in Australia at the moment if on a much smaller scale over fish kills on the Lower Darling River. The similarity lies in the way that symbolism and sharp political divides have polarised the debate, It is hard to adopt a central position, to find out the facts, although information does emerge in the midst of the shouting and political posturing.

I do recognise that the concept of "the centre" in society or politics is actually a slippery one, especially in dealing with a single issue.

The standard English definition of centre - the point that is equally distant from every point on the circumference of a circle or sphere or, alternatively, the point from which an activity or process is directed, or on which it is focused - doesn't quite capture the social or political definition.

In conventional terms. the idea of the political or social centre is presented as a straight line from left to right, with the centre just the bit in the middles. This does not capture the way in which ideas and beliefs overlap and can vary from person to person, from value to value, from issue to issue, although it can be useful when you have diametrically opposed views, when the spot in the statistical middle is largely vacated as people crowd to the left and right.

I think the idea of using a circle, or a series of circles moving out from a central point, to plot attitudes and beliefs is better because it allows easier tracking and analysis across multiple issues. I recognise that definitional issues remain. For example, do you place the centre at the point where the dots are greatest or do you use another conventional measure and then plot views against that or a combination of the two?  However, I think that it is a useful technique.

As an aside, back in 2010 I reported (Mapping the Australian blogosphere) on attempt to measure linkages and clustering between political blogs. I haven't seen it done since and indeed the blogging world has changed enormously since, but the clustering remains interesting.

Returning to my main theme,  I think that if you mapped the United States I think that you would find two things. If we define the centre in terms of majority views, we would find a move to the left. If we define the centre in terms of the area of overlap of views, we would find that it has sharply narrowed with two quite distinct segments coming from that point, both of whom talk past each other.

I think something similar has happened in the UK where Brexit has highlighted divisions to the point that the very survival of the UK as a political entity is under some question. Brexit is an example of a wicked problem made more acute by the earlier failure to address what might be done if the there was a yes vote and then weaknesses in the consultation process. As in the US, divisions reflect geography and history as well as the usual economic and class divides. In both countries, ideology has become more important, hardening left/right divides.

The problem with the apparent collapse of the centre lies in the way that it reduces scope for common working, adds to the zero sum must win mentality even where such victories can only be short term pyrrhic gains. Despite the divides, there are political leaders in both the US and UK who still instinctively move to the centre in seeking common ground even at political cost to themselves.

I think that the Australian position is better, although some of the same trends are apparent here. I say this for several reasons.

I think the major parties still look, or are at least forced to look, for centre ground. Here I think that the cross-bench has played an interesting and quite productive role. I have also found, and this is just a personal comment, that even with the ideological warriors it is still possible to have a conversation on facts and issues despite their normal entrenched positions. I am not sure that this would be possible in the US.

Still, I do worry whether the Australian centre can hold in the face of the forces of disunion.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Christmas reading and the Viking Age

And so we come to 2019. I haven't made any new year's resolutions. It seems to me that they mainly provide a record of failure! However, I am going to try to do a few things a little better.

Over on her blog, The Resident Judge of Port Phillip is very good at recording books she has read, films, she has seen. I read a lot, too much perhaps because I don't always record much before slamming onto my next book. I will try to do a little better here.

Eldest visited Australia over Christmas with her Danish partner.  Helen has been indoctrinating Christian into things Australian. This is Hyams Beach on the shores of Jervis Bay. Christian has been carried off to a number of beaches, been paddle boarding at Rose Bay, saw a women's T20 cricket match and is slowly and somewhat reluctantly learning about rugby.

It seems a very strange game to him. He has watched one match with Helen in a Copenhagen pub where the sight of large men lifting another even larger and taller man in the line-out to catch a ball struck him as somewhat bizarre, a view shared even by some Australians!

The influence goes two ways, of course. The Danes are outdoor people, so under Christian's influence Helen has acquired a like of camping. I find that a very good thing!

Since Helen moved to Copenhagen my knowledge of things Danish has advanced by leaps and bounds. To continue this process, Christian gave me two books for Christmas, the Xenophobes guide to the Danes and Else Roesdahl's The Vikings. This is a very good book

Over at her place, Art and Architecture, mainly, Hels had an interesting story (Did the Bayeux Tapestry prove the existence of a lost Aryan master race?) about the desire of the Nazis to find the original Aryan race and to establish a connection with the Vikings. It is a nice piece, but set a little too much within a particular framework of English v French. It's not quite like that, I think.

I have commented before on the way in which particular frames, particular stereotypes, affect historical thinking. I grew up thinking that the Roman Empire finally fell in 476 AD with the abdication of the last Western Emperor. It did not. It continued in the eastern Empire for centuries yet.

I grew up thinking that the end of the Empire marked the start of the Dark Ages. It did not. The progressive collapse of the Roman Empire in the west did greatly affect the previously settled patterns of life that had existed for so many millenia in one area, but it wasn't all ruin. Trade, contact and indeed some technological advance continued in ways that fell outside my then mind-set.

This type of historical stereotyping continues today in in the uneasy and often virulent discourse between left and right where perceptions of history become a  weapon to be used to establish points, ascendancy, in battles based in part on intellectual constructs, more on shifting concepts of nationality and tribal identity and the idea of right and wrong.

These differing perceptions cannot easily be challenged by point to point rebuttal, Such rebuttals will be angrily rejected in an argument that is fundamentally a-historical, where history has become a device to support or challenge deeply held views, a weapon in current battles, a weapon used by groups including states to provide legitimacy. They can only be challenged through research, through the steady accretion of evidence, through conscious effort to stand outside particular perceptual frames. With time, this does shift perceptions, but it is a slow process.

The strength of Roesdahl's book is that it is written from a different perspective, from the viewpoint of a particular area, Scandinavia. It draws from multiple sources of evidence, combining historical records, archaeology and linguistic analysis.

The Vikings were traders, raiders and settlers depending on circumstances. Their long ships became a symbol of fear, although these were not the only Viking ships.

Roesdahl looks at the Vikings and the history of Scandinavia from all geographic sides, east, west, north and south. This was a time in which the current Scandinavian countries as we know them today were emerging. Viking raiders and traders established trading posts, colonies, bringing tribute and traded goods from all parts of the world, from China, from Byzantium and the Caliphate, from what is now France, from England and Ireland. They were players, forcing others to respond. The name Russia comes from the Scandinavian word rus. The imperial guard of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, the Varangians, were of Viking origin.

In tracing history and trading patterns from a Scandinavian viewpoint, Roesdahl provides a picture of economic as well as political activity over a wide space in the early Medieval period that breaks out of the national centricity of so much history. Yes, her history with its Scandinavian focus has its own centricity, but it is a different centricity that therefore informs and challenges.

1066 is often taken as the end of the Viking Age. All the main players had some Viking connection. English King Harold  had some Viking blood. He came to power in confused circumstances not long after England and Denmark had been one kingdom, creating a succession challenge involving many players. .

The king of Norway, King Harald Hardrada, believed he had a claim. He invaded England with a large force supported by  the English king's brother Tostig Godwinson. Newly crowned Harold took his army on a forced march north, catching the invading force by surprise. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066 the invaders were routed. Both Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson were killed. Meantime, William of Normandy was invading to claim the thrown.

Normandy had been a Viking settlement. While the Scandinavians had been partly absorbed into the general population, William had Scandinavian blood. William's forces landed on 26 September 1066, the day after the battle of Stamford Bridge. Harold now force marched his army south. On 14 October, the two armies clashed at the battle of Hastings. William won the day. Harold was killed.

I have often felt that Harold should have taken more time to regather forces, to regroup, but that is being wise in retrospect. The Viking age had ended.

Monday, December 24, 2018

A happy Christmas to you all

This will be my last post for 2018. I am shutting down fully until the new year to recharge my batteries.

While my output has been down here, at 88 now 89 the smallest number of annual posts since I started, I have valued my readers and especially my regular commenters. I may sometimes be slow in responding, but I do read and value.

I know 2018 has been a sometimes difficult year for many of us. I think for my part it has reminded me of the importance of love and friendship.

For those who celebrate this festive season, may I wish you a very happy Christmas? For those who are alone, and that can be just so hard, tomorrow is a time to remember our blessings no matter how few they seem.

We will continue our discussions and sharing in the new year.