Personal Reflections

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Further Palmes d'or for silliness in Sydney’s hostage crisis

I will bring yesterday's posts up at the right date. For the moment, I am distracted by the continuing fall-out from the Sydney hostage crisis. This post is a follow up to Palme' d’Ors for silliness in Sydney’s hostage crisis. I have, following advice from kvd, corrected the heading.

My first new Palme d'Or for supreme silliness goes to Senator David Leyonhjelm for his views on guns. It’s not that I agree with Stephanie Peatling nor necessarily disagree with all aspects of what Senator Leyonhjelm says (I opposed Mr Howard’s views on gun control), but the timing was remarkably stupid. As, I might add, were the reactions of US Tea Party supporters.

My second Palme d'Or for supreme silliness goes to for their email encouraging me to support a petition on tighter bail laws. Now as an organisation they need to run with popular issues to get cash, and I understand the position of those suddenly reacting who is responding to. But at a time when Australia has been rife with proposals and actions to restrict bail, many of which have very adverse effects on particular individuals or groups with little social gain, we need another anti-bail campaign like a hole in the head. Let’s just wait until we know the facts.

My third Palme d'Or for supreme silliness goes to the neo-conservative commentators for their comments on the #illridewithyou campaign. The term neo-liberals is sometimes applied to them, but that has an economics connotation that I don’t always disagree with. I like neo-conservative better because they wish to freeze Australian society into that particular past model stuck in their mind. To attach neo-liberal to those views is an insult to liberalism.

This is not, I might add, an attack on my regular commenter Rod who has been engaged in a conversation with me on the issue. Rather, the neo-cons attack the very goodness of the human spirit. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Palme' d’Ors for silliness in Sydney’s hostage crisis

I don’t want to write a lot here tonight and especially on the results of Sydney’s hostage drama, but a few comments.

I'll ride with you

The first Palme d'Or for supreme silliness goes to the Australian’s Chris Kenny for  this piece: Sydney siege: Alarm bells should ring over latest Islamic wake-up call.

It is a silly piece at multiple levels. Of course Australia needs to be aware of the dangers of Islamic extremism. In fact, how could we be otherwise? But what are we to do with Mr Kenny’s arguments? What is he actually suggesting? I’m not sure.

His attack on the #illridewithyou. hashtag is both gobsmackingly petty and stupid. It was a human response to a tragedy, something that people could do.` It also reflected a fear that there might be an irrational response, a coming together to prevent that.

My second Palme d'Or for supreme silliness goes to Mike Baird, the Premier of NSW and others like him, for describing this in some way as Sydney (or Australia’s) lack of innocence. I’m not sure what that means. In fairness to Mr Baird, I’m sure that he was very tired and trying to strike the right note, but it was all very strange.

Probably the oddest thing in all this has been the discovery of Mr Monis’s troubled but well known past. The instinctive reaction is to ask why the authorities didn’t take some action. Perhaps they should have, we have to wait on this, but we also have to be aware of the constant present Australian tendency to demand more restrictions on freedom to avoid what-if's.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Monday Forum - what is it about villians?

As I write, the Sydney hostage drama is till unfolding. I don’t want to comment until more is known, but it has been an interesting exercise in human psychology.

As the news broke, it ran around the office like wildfire. People started trying to contact relatives in the city, while rumours spread that the Church Street Mall in Parramatta and/or the big Westfield Shopping Centre were being evacuated. Neither was true.

I watched the twitter feed for a while, as well as the live media blogs. There was just too much misleading and in some cases quite distasteful stuff, especially on twitter, so I switched it off. Someone asked me why I was so calm. Had I contacted my daughters to find out if they were okay?

Well, no. One works in Strathfield, the other in the city, but it would be incredibly unlucky (and unlikely) for her to be involved in what appeared to be an isolated action by a single individual. And, in any case, what could I do? I also remember London during the IRA blitz. In this case, wll we can do is hope for the best. 

Events in Sydney quite blew away the intended topic of this Monday Forum, the villain. The topic was triggered by this comment from DG: “Well, in the case of the lascivious Cesare Borgia, apart from his patronage of Leonardo de Vinci (through ill-gotten gains through his awful family), there certainly wasn't much else in his favour or worth remembering.” 

This got me wondering. The Borgias including Cesare and Lucrezia have always got a very bad press. Certainly their morals were somewhat relaxed to put it mildly, but did they deserve the coverage they got? And, if so, why are we so fascinated with them at the expense of other, more worthwhile souls?   Why do we remember Captain Thunderbolt while Constable Walker is almost forgotten?

So for the purposes of today's discussion, what is it about villains that so fascinates us? Who are your favourite, least favourite villains?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Saturday morning musings – meander through Belshaw’s writer’s diary 2

Continuing the muse that began last Saturday with Saturday morning musings - meander though Belshaw's writer's diary 1,  I find that my writer’s diaries are littered with dates; dates that I wrote, dates of publications or articles, dates of events. I seem to be obsessed with dates. It’s partly the academic in me  that makes me want to record chronology, partly that I need dates to fix things in my head, partly that I get things wrong if I don’t have dates right.

I also like to know the days on which things happened. Sometimes it just makes things seem more real if I am reporting on past events as though they were just happening. For example, 10 October 1845 was a Friday. So if I was reporting on the opening of the Naval School (now called US Naval Academy) at Annapolis (I’m not sure why I would, but who knows!) I might begin the piece Annapolis, Friday 10 October 1845….

Dates are important for another reason. We live in a world where ten years is very past, twenty years remote, fifty almost inconceivable. I don’t mean that people don’t know objectively that certain events have happened, they simply can’t attach context to them.

I mention this now because of the current Australian debate over whether the current generation however defined will be the first to be worse off than their parents. When I first saw it, my first reaction was that this was a-historical. Surely that can’t be right? As I dug into it for a piece that I am writing, I concluded that as framed it was a meaningless discussion except to the degree that policy prescriptions were being based on it. That had an objective reality.

In writing, I constantly struggle with the difference between causation and correlation. This leads to diagrams and charts as I try to sketch possibilities. They are always rough, often just lines and squiggles. The kinship relations of the Kamilaroi are in a case in point. I have page after page of relationship trees, written on trains in the morning and afternoon. Most now mean nothing to me. However, it’s not wasted, for if I go back to my source material, the writings of Michael O’Rourke, I know that they will.

Michael features heavily in my writer’s notes at certain periods. Michael, it may give you a certain satisfaction to know that your kindness in sending me copies of your books on the Kamilaroi has been repaid by hours of reading, thought and writing. I have no idea as to how many hours, but it’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds.

I don’t think that Michael and I have ever met, if we have it was just in passThea Proctor Charles Davis 1909ing along our different tracks, but I know how to place him in my firmament, and an important place it is. So, Michael, time to do more writing?

As a writer, I struggle with context.  This is a 1909 portrait of Australian artist Thea Proctor by Charles Davis. I struggle with fitting her into the multiple places she occupies. As a human being, I struggle to deal with the texture of human experience with its moments of happiness, challenges and despairs.

I tend to leave what I think of as my angst moments to my personal diary, not my writer’s log. Inevitably, the two overlap. How do I understand Thea Proctor (she is a very pretty woman) and try to explain? Inevitably, I mine my own experiences, for that is only way I can understand, to give an emotional context.

I find that as I re-read my writer’s diaries over the years that I have been keeping them, it is the political and, more broadly, the current events that have the least long term value. It’s partly the ephemerallity of current events, more that it’s so hard to bring about change.

I don’t believe that our current system is sustainable, it’s too entrenched in cost and rigidity. But how do you explain that?  How do you show what needs to be done when the answer is not doing better, but simply not doing, accepting limitations?

I am vehemently opposed to some of the current nostrums about the role of the state, the structure of social control, the application of simple models. Grattan gives us disaster, as do the Greens. The solution lies not in models with their universal solutions nor in a constant search for improvement. While improvement is always possible, the real immediate need is simply simplification, the need to stop doing stuff. The second need is to get rid of command and control.

As an example, it took more time and resources to introduce a simple $A1.84 million subsidy to support a narrowly defined range of activities to help Aboriginal housing in NSW than it did to restructure the entire training program for ophthalmologists in Australia and New Zealand?  Sorry, I don’t think that’s very useful.   

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

CEDA announces results of its 2014 business big issues survey

Yes, the following is a CEDA press release. I actually get a lot of press releases now. Because CEDA has been hammering some of the same issues that I have, I decided to run it in full for comment and later follow up. Interesting, however, that you can always tell something is a press release!

Results of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) 2014 Big Issues survey of the business community show long term policies around our future workforce, such as driving innovation, R&D and education and training, accompanied by taxation reform should be priorities.

On releasing the results CEDA Chief Executive Professor the Hon. Stephen Martin said they strongly indicated the business community want long term policy solutions rather than blunt cuts or use of fiscal policy levers.

“Survey respondents again ranked the top four policy priorities for the Federal Government as enhancing productivity, improving our competitiveness, encouraging innovation and reforming taxation,” Professor Martin said.

“What is interesting is that the response to addressing these key areas has now clearly shifted to focus on innovation, skills and R&D.

“Respondents said the best way for Government to respond to below-trend growth was to incentivise innovation and R&D and invest in education to support workforce capability rather than use traditional fiscal implements and levers.

“Again in response to improving Australia’s international competitiveness, the results show incentivising innovation and R&D and enhancing workforce capability through education and training ranked much higher than policy changes such as lowering the corporate tax rate or reducing the burden of government red tape.”

More than 875 people completed this year’s annual CEDA Big Issues survey, conducted over a two week period starting in late November. The survey’s aim is to capture a snapshot of the business community’s views on the critical policy choices – the big issues – in the year ahead.

Professor Martin said the survey also showed rising support for increasing or broadening the GST compared to last year’s survey.

“This is probably a combination of concern about the Federal Government cuts and recognition that they alone will not be enough to balance the Federal Budget if we are to maintain the same level of services and infrastructure,” he said.

“Eighty per cent of respondents support increasing revenue by reforming taxation with priorities being broadening and increasing the rate of GST along with removing middle class and business welfare tax breaks.

“The Federal Government’s Tax White Paper process is critically important but it must look more broadly than the GST and look at taxation reform in a more comprehensive way so that the burden of taxation is spread appropriately.

“With respect to reforming our Federation, an issue being driven by CEDA, the survey clearly showed removing areas of duplication between the states and Federal Government should be the priority.”

Professor Martin said while assigning a portion of income tax to states specifically for key areas such as school or public transport – hypothecation – has not had much support from government, it was the highest ranked response to how imbalances in revenue allocation and collection could be fixed.

“Obviously there is wider support for this change in revenue allocation beyond government and it should be one of the options considered in the Reforming the Federation White Paper,” he said.

Professor Martin said other key results from the survey included:
  • With regard to which tier of government should be responsible for key services such as education and healthcare, most responded that they should stay the same with the exception of vocational education and hospitals, with the responsibility to be more evenly split between the State Government and Federal Government for each of these areas. 
  • More than half of respondents think Australia suffers from entrenched disadvantage and that current government policies do not sufficiently address this issue. 
  • The majority of respondents ranked early intervention, education system reform and better targeting of welfare as more important to address entrenched disadvantage compared to housing programs or restricting welfare arrangements. 
Professor Martin said the results around entrenched disadvantage again point towards the business community wanting long term solutions that deal with the root cause of issues rather than simply the symptoms. This matter will be further investigated in CEDA research, to be released in April.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

28 months on Mars

I watched this New York Times feature on NASA's Curiosity Rover with fascination.

It provides evidence written in red rocks and sand of a warmer, wetter, more habitable Mars.

On discovering sculpture

My continuing efforts to document artists with New England connections led me to Bronwyn Oliver (Another New England artist – Bronwyn Oliver (Gum Flat via Inverell). This is an example of her work, Globe (2002) at the University of NSW.

Bronwyn Oliver is very well known indeed, both as a sculptor and for her sometimes troubled life. The fact that I had not heard of her is an indication of my own lack of knowledge of the field.

I came to sculpture quite late. Growing up, I had considerable exposure to art on the walls of family homes or at the nearby Armidale Teachers' College. However, the only sculptures I saw were in ancient history books, mainly Greek or Roman heads with staring eyes. I wasn't attracted, regarding them mainly as historical artifacts.

I didn't really discover sculpture until the opening of the Australian National Gallery in Canberra. Then I spent many hours in the sculpture garden, often eating my lunch while looking at the pieces. These were very different from the sculptures of the classical world. I would sit in one spot for a longish period just enjoying and then move. The lines fascinated me with their shifting perspectives as I shifted my position.

This piece, Song Cycles, is in the main street of Walcha. The Walcha Shire Council has been turning the whole town into a sculpture gallery. So far, there are 41 pieces on display.

Again, I have only just discovered sculpture Walcha. A while back, a friend and I stopped in Walcha on our way back from Armidale. It was then, walking the streets, that we found it.

We couldn't stop for long, but influenced by a recent visit to the National Gallery's sculpture garden, I thought and then wrote that Walcha should promote itself as the sculpture town. It was quickly pointed out to me Walcha was trying to do just that! Ouch!

 I said that I was fascinated by the lines. It's an addiction, but one that I value. Enjoyment of the addiction requires a number of things.

To begin with, you actually have to look. If a sculpture is presented to you, you know that you are meant to look. But lines whether in nature or the built environment don't always present themselves in obvious ways. It may be the tracery of the trees or some configuration of buildings or, indeed, a combination, but you have to look.

Then you have to pause and take time to absorb. I am constantly amazed at the way people living in what are, in fact, highly visual worlds just let the whole thing go by. They miss so much.  


Monday, December 08, 2014

Monday Forum – what are your favourite blogs, why?

This post began as Sunday Snippets focused on history blogs, but has now become the Monday Forum post. The topic today is what are your favourite blogs, why?

The History Blog reports Shackled remains found in Gallo-Roman necropolis, along with Lost avant-garde painting found in Stuart Little’s living room.Stuart Little & the sleeping lady The piece begins:

Art historian Gergely Barki was watching Stuart Little with his daughter Lola on Christmas Day 2008 when he recognized a painting above the living room fireplace as Sleeping Lady with a Black Vase, a lost masterpiece by Hungarian Avant-Garde painter Róbert Berény. Berény painted Sleeping Lady with a Black Vase at the turn of 1927/1928. The model was his second wife, cellist Eta Breuer who posed for several of her husband’s post-Impressionist works, often with her cello even though she had stopped playing professionally when she married Berény.

In History News, Christopher Moore muses on the Canadian position:

There used to be an arm's length principle in public funding for art and culture: the funders of culture should not get to determine what gets produced. But that has been going by the boards. Funding is tough to come by, and where's the harm in a little compromise? But gradually all our independent historical and heritage agencies begin looking like government advertising.

Here in Australia something of the same thing has been happening. Sadly, the focus on remembering the events of the First World War has become yawn-making. Is any one listening or watching out there?

A lot of history is actually quite boring, except to the specialist. It is only later when all the bits are fitted together that it becomes of interest to a broader audience. Then it challenges our basic conceptions.

John Hawke’s blog does a pretty good job in combining the immediately technical with the broader. These are the titles of some recent posts:

I suspect that most of us still carry the perception that Neanderthal man was wiped out in a Darwinian style battle. In fact, we are all  Neanderthal. The genes live within us.

ART and ARCHITECTURE, mainly continues to be one of my favourite blogs, although it had been a little time since I visited. That was a mistake. If you just browse, you will see what I mean.  

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Saturday morning musings - meander though Belshaw's writer's diary 1

My writing output is well down at the moment, as is my reading of other people's blogs. I apologize, especially for the second!

I keep a writer's diary. Nothing profound, simply jotting down things that interest me that may or may not go into stories or some other aspect of my writing. This morning's musings trawls through that diary,

The painting is Judy Cassab's 1955 portrait of Judy Barraclough. I have always liked Judy Cassab. She is part of that rich intellectual flowering that came to Australia as a consequence of the Second World War and its aftermath.

I have been reading her diaries. This is my bed time reading, so I rarely get more than a few pages completed before I have to to put the book down and turn out the light. After all this time, most of the people she writes about are very familiar. In a way, it's very much an insider's book, for she became part of the establishment.

Unexpectedly, the book became part of my ever evolving history of New England. Judy's son, John, was drawn to the counter culture movement that flowered in Northern NSW following the Aquarius Festival. The exhibition Rainbow Dreaming celebrates forty years.

At Nimbin, John became involved in the establishment of Bohdi Farms. His son, Bohdi, carries the name. This photo, Two Women of Blue Springs, 1992, is connected with the farm. Judy's diaries have a fair bit on Bohdi Farms, so what was an exploration of another Australian painter has actually become part of my New England history.

Mind you, I do wonder about my capacity to complete this project. It seems to grow and grow, with ever increasing interconnections. Still, its not going to be your conventional state, regional or local history, and that's what I wanted.

Over at his place, Neil Whitfield has been exploring the last twelve months as seen through the eyes of his blog. Well, really his eyes as expressed through the blog. Looking at my writing as well as my notes, the interaction between Neil and myself has been important.  

Another Australian art related book that I have been reading was Drusilla Modjeska's Stravinsky's Lunch. This book, part of my Train Reading series, examines the lives of two very different Australian painters,
Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith. The illustration is Grace Cossington Smith's 1916 "Study of a head: Self portrait". 

So far I have used one quote from the book plus discovered two artists (neither Stella or Grace) with New England connections!, but have yet to write up my thoughts. Presently I have just random jottings from the book or inspired by the book.

"The textures of people and connection. How to break free from the imposed isolation of the intellect?" 
"In telling the stories of these two extraordinary women, it asks how an artist finds a balance between her art, love and daily life."(Dust jacket)
"SL is a biography, really two biographies,but it is also a muse. This gives M freedom to insert herself into the story."
"The story of the two visits (p179) illustrates the way the world changes around us. It also illustrates....." 
 As you might expect, there is a fair bit on politics and economics, but not as much as you might expect since a lot bit of my writing here is instant. Much of the jotting is reference, especially to Financial Review stories.

For example, on 12 November I noted Egyptian militias, RET, iron ore prices - Mr Hockey, student numbers, rouble; Indian red tape. The following day murdoch mess, student cheating plus multiple infrastructure references. Then there are lines, circles and squiggles linking things together, along with comments and instructions to myself and links to commenters and fellow bloggers.

A lot of this never makes it into any form of writing, but its not a bad resource. Well, time to move on. I have a rather large check list for today.      

Friday, December 05, 2014

Hat on Cat

Christmas insanity is breaking out at work.

Hat on cat, courtesy of Dr Suess and Alison O.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Strange disconnects in the swirling world of Australian reporting and politics

This post began Tuesday. I ended up holding it back because so much was happening. Since this post is in part a way of ordering my own thoughts and covers many topics, I am using headings.

Mental Health Numbers Overstated

Psychiatry professor Jon Jureidini argues that popular mental health campaigns are misleading the public into thinking that serious mental illness is more widespread than it actually is. I am sure that he is right and it’s not the only case. It all leads to some very distorted policy making, as well as making people obsessive and unhappy. Current economic reporting in this country is a case in point.

Global Economy

Oil, oil, oil! The collapse in global oil prices is having all sorts of ripple effects. Saudi Arabia and OPEC seem to be doing what the iron ore majors have been trying, expanding production to drive out high cost producers. Countries such as Russia and Venezuela who have been using oil to fund social or military adventures are in a degree of strife.

Commentators are focusing on the positives in the oil price move. Lower oil prices mean more disposable income for consumers, lower transport costs. I think that’s right, although lower oil prices also add to deflationary pressures in some countries.

The thing to remember with oil, LNG, iron ore and coal is that they are all commodities and behave that way. High prices draw new supply that progressively comes on stream as demand begins to fall, compounding subsequent price falls. We have seen it before. No doubt we will see it again.

There is something almost breathless in the reporting of international economic activity at present. Commentators have barely got one sentence out before events over-run them.

Australian Economy

If the commentary and reporting on the international economy is almost breathless, that on domestic economy and politics is more so.

Reserve Bank Governor Glen Steven’s statement on the reasons why the Bank had yet again kept official interest rates on hold had a more negative if still balanced tone. It’s not surprising.

The global economic scene has become more clouded, while the latest national accounts figures show that real Australian incomes are falling. Lower commodity prices are hitting government revenues, while many Australians are beginning to suffer lower real incomes. You can see this from the latest national accounts figures. The economy is still growing if at a low rate, but real incomes are falling.

Over the last two weeks, domestic reporting has become increasingly frenetic. As happened with Senator Ricky Muir’s attempt to open a motor show on the lawns of Parliament House, the press flock swarms, swoops and wheels around every new development. Senator Muir and the swarm

I find it all quite distracting. It makes it hard to think straight. Get over it, guys. There are significant issues, but we are also dealing with a natural end boom process that Australia has seen before. Each boom is different, but the pattern does repeat.

To my mind, the distinctive feature of this end boom is the absence of major crash. I don’t expect one, just a slow and sometimes painful adjustment.

Strange disconnects in Australian politics

All this means that there are some strange disconnects in Australian politics at the present time.

Down in Canberra, Public Service Minister Eric Abetz is engaged in a bitter dispute over public service pay. The Minister points out that public service pay increases have out stripped the rate of inflation by 14% over the last ten years. He clearly regards that as excessive. I'm not sure that people would agree: If you think about it, that's an annual increase in real wages of a bit over one per cent per annum during a long boom period. That's not a lot and is well below the overall rate of real economic growth during the period.

I think that the comment says more about Minister Abetz than anything else.

Meantime, the Australian Financial Review fulminates about the Australian Government's inability to bring about real reform, largely blaming the cross-benchers in the Senate. The paper is seriously disappointed. It's not just the failure to bring about change, it's a failure to bring about the changes that the paper has been advocating!

Disconnect comes in because the Australian population does not accept the argument as framed. Disconnect comes in because, as in the mental health case, the swirling arguments bring about their own behavioural responses. The paper seems to put its arguments, as does the Government and much of the media, in the context of the need to respond to the now when we are actually dealing with longer term processes and issues.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Monday Forum - the death of email

This is actually something I have written about before, but I now have another case study.

We were talking about communications at Sunday's New England Writers' Center Board Workshop (Lunch in Armidale).Some time ago, we switched from print and post to email. It saved time and cash. It allowed us to "communicate" with members more frequently, providing them with a wider range of information.

Now the results of a survey were in. Our members absolutely hated email. Few read the emails, few opened the newsletters on which so much time had been spent on content and design. Consulting some of our sister organisations, they told us that around 5% of emails were opened and read. The equivalent figure for print and post was about 95%.

Looking at these stats, we decided to stop using email as a communications device. We are going back to the old print and post. It just works better even though it is much more expensive.

I wondered about you. Do you hate emails? How on earth do you manage your email traffic? I can't.

Are we seeing the death of emails?