Personal Reflections

Friday, December 06, 2019

Armidale Diaries 3 – the varying taste of lamb

Have you ever been to a blind tasting carried out to measure consumer reaction to different types of lamb? Certainly I hadn’t!

It all came about because the University of New England needed volunteers for the tests, a lot of them. Normally with market research, the testers go out searching for volunteers offering them individual payment. This can be a bit of a hit and a miss process that can also be expensive and time consuming.

The University came up with quite a clever solution to these problems. It went to local organizations and said if you find and organise 60 volunteers, we will give you $1,000 for your funds. This meant that the University did not have to recruit, pay or manage volunteers. It was done for them.

A thousand dollars is a lot of money for most local organizations, so from Zonta to the History Society they lined up to try to organise recruits. This was more easily said than done. Sixty is a large group, so it took a fair bit of effort to find the necessary volunteers. One friend went to his contact group only to find the first four he asked were all vegetarian or vegan. 

I was immediately attracted.

Growing up in Armidale when this was sheep country, lamb and especially mutton were staples. Chicken and beef were reserved for special occasions. Yes, I know that that reveals my age. Who would have thought that chicken would become so cheap?

In recent years, lamb has become so expensive that I rarely eat it. I do like my lamb, so here was a chance to get a free lamb feed while possibly avoiding the need to cook dinner! However, I had no idea what to expect.

Like most Australians, I am used to thinking of meat in terms of cuts. I wondered: how do you do taste tests in these circumstances? 

We were broken up into groups of twenty, each sitting at a little work station blocked off from the others to limit discussion.

Each work station was coded and had some cracker biscuits and a glass of watered apple juice along with a questionnaire carrying the work station code. The questionnaire had some demographic questions at the front, then a ranking scale for each sample along a few key dimensions such as tenderness or taste with a final ranking scale from unsatisfactory through to premium. It finished at the end with some pricing questions around how much you would be prepared to pay for each meat rank.

Once the first part of the questionnaire had been filled out, staff came round to individually check each response to make sure that it had been properly filled out. We were then given guidance on the process to be followed in testing.

Each small meat sample would be grilled in the same way and came from stock slaughtered at the same time. The paper plates would be number coded with our workstation number. We would not receive samples in the same order, so there was no point in checking what our neighbour thought.

Before starting and then between each sample, we were to eat some cracker biscuits and drink some apple juice to clear the palate. Our questionnaire would be checked and marked off before the next sample was brought out.

I was surprised at the variation in taste and tenderness between the samples. I only ranked one as unsatisfactory, one as premium, with the others falling between.

As we left, we gathered in little groups to review the experience. We had all enjoyed it, while the combination of some nine samples plus the cracker biscuits and apple juice had indeed been a satisfactory early dinner. They are running similar tests on beef so we have to organise to get another meal!

There is an entire back story to these tests, linked to the pioneering work of Rod Polkinghorne. We all know that the same cut of beef or lamb can taste very different depending on breed, what they have eaten, the time of slaughter. Polkinghorne’s work spelled out some of the variables involved focused on consumer testing. One outcome here was the Meat Standards Australia label that you will see in supermarkets. 

There are some interesting issues here that I will tease out later in a blog post. For the moment, I just note that I enjoyed the experience.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Living in an age of systemic complexity - the news

Listening to news reports and commentary over the last few days I find myself submerged.

I am reasonably intelligent with significant experience and yet I find myself struggling when listening to the news to disentangle what's really important from the dross, to know how much weight to place on things, to understand how bits fit together. Let me try to illustrate by selecting a pastiche of stories.

A survey shows that children are not getting enough sleep. This is meant to provide guidance to parents and policy makers. Did the Greens muff the chance of giving Australia a working carbon price? As protesting farmers demonstrate around Australia's Parliament House over the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, reporters and commentators try to explain within time and word constraints how the bits fit together within a cacophony of claims and counter claims. The Government is investing time and effort to repeal the medivac legislation on the grounds of national security from an uncertain threat. After some 50 pieces of security related legislation, Australians are less alert as weariness sets in but are more alarmed.

The Disabilities Royal Commission has highlighted problems in group homes for those with disabilities. This follows earlier stories on problems with the National Disabilities Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The NDIS is a very complex scheme that few understand. Meantime, the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety has highlighted problems in the current system that led the Government to increase home care packages and take some further action to get younger people with disabilities out of old people's homes.

 Australian Energy Minister Angus Taylor remains embroiled in the question of whether or not his claims about Sydney City Council travel expenses involved falsified documents, but has now somehow managed to embroil US writer Naomi Taylor in the discussion. Worries about obesity and sugary drinks continue. There seem to be new moves to broaden the system of TV classification to give parents better guidance than just the PG (Parental Guidance) classification.

The Australian Prime Minister apparently has blood on his hands because these bush fires might have been less if Australia had acted earlier on climate change. Bush fire smoke over cities has led to health warnings with plentiful advice on how to manage the problem. More dairy farms have closed down because of pricing issues, while many are concerned about Chinese investment in Australian agriculture. More broadly, people are worried about China and Chinese involvement in Australian agriculture, technology and politics. leading to new Foreign Interference laws.

Labor is calling for a Royal Commission into veteran suicides, while Australian Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt has become embroiled in the award of a $ 2.2 million Aboriginal eye care contact to people connected in some way with the Liberal Party. The allegation relates to the way the contract was awarded and the price for cataract surgery. Aboriginal eye care has long been a problem, something I have written on, while I actually know some of the people in this case. Meantime, the dispute has attracted from less important matters such as reconciliation and positive action to address Aboriginal disadvantage.

Westpac, one of Australia's major banks, is under attack because it allegedly failed to comply with anti-money laundering regulations on some 23 million occasions. Of these, a small number (13?) involving small numbers may have involved paedophilia. The scandal has forced the resignation of the ban's chair and and CEO.

The Australian Government's attempts to introduce a religious discrimination bill have been deferred for further consultation following criticism from all side, while the Israel Folau case proceeds through the courts, Folau is a rugby player dismissed for propounding anti-gay views, proceeds though the courts. meantime, the Macquarie Dictionary has selected "cancel culture", community attitudes that "call for or bring about the withdrawal of support from [for] a public figure, such as cancellation of an acting role, a ban on playing an artist’s music, removal from social media, etc., usually in response to an accusation of a socially unacceptable action or comment by the figure" as its word of the year.
   
I will stop here for the moment. I accept that those from outside Australia may find some of my references somewhat cryptic, but I am just trying to illustrate a simple point: in all this, how does one select what is important, see how the bits might fit together? 



Saturday, November 30, 2019

Armidale Diaries 2 - Fires and water

Watching the weather radar has become something of an obsession in our little city. Will it rain? Where will it rain? When will it rain? Then if it does rain, the conversation switches to where did it rain, how much did you get?

A remarkable number of people have brought rain gauges or home weather stations. There is a difference between the two, although I’m not certain of the difference. These provide ammunition for our constant discussions about the weather, plotting results across space.

Monday it did rain, enough rain that the gutters ran. I drove out through the rain just to see if the creek was flowing. It was!

The rain was not enough to ease the drought, but with other smaller falls (Armidale has had 25.6 mm so far over November) the grass has turned green and started growing. As have the weeds!

For some reason, Armidale has become ground zero in stories in the Sydney Morning Herald and on the ABC about towns likely to run out of water. Armidale has also featured in stories dealing with water problems in the Murray Darling basin.

The reality is a little different. Armidale does not lie in the Murray Darling basin. Further, on current water restrictions and assuming no rain, Armidale has enough water in the main Malpas storage on the Gara River, part of the coastal Macleay  River system, to last 371 days before Day Zero when the city runs out of water from that source.

Because of the publicity, Sydney Irish businesses have just organised a truck convoy to deliver 600,000 litres of stock water plus 200,000 litres of bottled water to Armidale. While one could argue whether Armidale is the centre of greatest need, locals were very grateful.

The Armidale city supply has been providing water for rural and stock needs as well as firefighting. The bulk water was unloaded in a dam near the airport for firefighting needs, while the bottled water was distributed around the district to meet local needs.

Armidale Regional Council has been drilling for ground water to provide emergency back-up.
One SMH story on Council’s plans to tap ground water suggested that Armidale was too high to have good ground water. This added to the trope about Armidale’s desperate water problems. Mmmmm!

It is true, I think, that height and geological fragmentation affect supply, but prior to the building of the Dumaresq Dam (1896-1898), Armidale relied on the combination of wells and rainwater tanks. As reticulated water spread, wells were filled in, but some remained in use for domestic or industrial purposes into the 1950s.

Independent of Council plans, Rosemary Johnson from the Historical Society has been mapping the previous distribution of wells and springs across the city. This led to an active discussion on the Armidale Families’ Facebook group where some 140 past wells or springs were quickly identified.

At a personal level, I have spent much of the last two days watching my neighbour over the back fence put in an apparently successful bore. It was quite distracting because of the kit involved and also the noise. I actually hadn’t seen a bore sunk before.

Council’s drilling for ground water has had sometimes unforeseen consequences.

The University of New England Archaeology Department has a new ground penetrating radar. This was to be tested on Curtis Park, part of the Creeklands that run through Armidale. Curtis Park was the site of the original bridge across Dumaresq Creek and of early buildings in colonial Armidale. The survey was to be done before construction of a new playground.

Chatting to friends, they said that the radar and the Council drill contractor arrived at the same time, with a bore put down in the middle of the survey site. The spoil from the bore hole included pieces of broken crockery and other historical material. Oops!

We have come to the point now with the fires that they are all on advice level.

Saturday I drove down to the local servo to discover some twenty fire vehicles parked in the road or refueling. They came from all over Northern NSW and beyond. Talking to the owner next morning, he said that the firefighters had taken 2,000 liters of diesel. He was wondering how much to reorder. He also said that the firefighters were from South Australia, using the vehicles of the firefighters they had relieved.

Apparently there was some distress among the South Australian crews that they were not back in South Australia to fight the fires there. Some had been directly affected by those fires. I can understand that.

Fighting these fires has been a huge effort.

The Armidale regional airport was used as a hub for both RFS and contracted fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters flying around the clock as they fought fires from the Queensland border to Tamworth.

Between September 8 and November 17 there were 81 extra charter flights into the airport carrying firies in addition to those travelling on scheduled flights. Aircraft included a RAAF Hercules whose size mean that it had to park on the taxi way.

I couldn't finish this entry without mentioning another of those fire related human stupidity stories.

Bundarra is a small town to the west of Armidale. Friday last week a trio, two men and a woman, were allegedly driving at high speed through Bundarra.  Police gave chase, but were forced to stop when the car entered rough terrain. There is some pretty rough country around Bundarra.

The trio abandoned their car and then allegedly confronted two women on a nearby property at knife-point, stealing another knife, cash and a Toyota Prado, the later version of the Toyota LandCruiser. When the police spotted them, they took-off across country, smashing gates and fences and then crashing the vehicle which burst into flames.

The trio left the vehicle and fled on foot, with one allegedly lighting fires behind him to slow pursuit. One was captured in the pursuit, the other two were found two hours later sheltering in a dam from the bush fire they had created. The fire burnt out 1,400 hectares.       

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Monday now Wednesday Forum - how do we make up the exercise deficit?

From left to right, Carol Douglas, friend Beverley Marshall, Carol's cousin Richard Clark ready to leave 129 Jeffrey Street for Armidale High. c1965. Photo Keith Douglas. Distance about 3.1 k  
There has been much worry about the poor exercise among Australian teenagers. This story is an example: 140th out of 146: Australian teens do close to the least physical activity in the world. This worry is associated with worries about poor diet, obesity and our failure to allow our children to take risks or, more precisely, to learn how to to take risks. The answers provided generally go to the need for special activities or programs with associated measurement.

I think that I got a lot more exercise than, say, my daughters did and they got more exercise than many kids. Most of my exercise came outside organised sport, although I played a fair bit of that at  secondary school. But am I right or have I been caught in a popular myth about the past?

I thought that I would test this by plotting my daily routines as a child and young adult. I will draw a discrete veil over what happened when I got to university.

Today we seem fixated on paces, with many people striving for 10,000 paces. In measuring I am using 2,000 paces to a mile as a rough approximation, recognising that this varies. I use a mile because that was the core measurement then. I haven't plotted my routine in detail. I might try that later. I'm just looking at indicative numbers.

Walking to primary school in the morning, coming home for lunch, returning and then coming home again. depending on which way I went, I sometimes took a longer route, around 660 yards each leg. about 2640 yards per school day. That's about 1.5 miles or 3000 paces.

When I went to secondary school the walk was a little longer, about 880 yards or half a mile. Again, I would normally come home for lunch. That's about 2 miles or 4000 paces. Sometimes I would bring lunch, We have to deduct that. On the other hand, I would run to school sometimes if I was late.

At that point, TAS was predominantly a boarding school. I was one of the relatively small number of day boys. It wasn't unusual for me to walk back to the school for sport, to go the pictures on a Saturday night, to attend a play or some other event or detention on a Saturday morning.

Whichever way it goes, during term time I averaged between 3000 and 4000 paces per day just getting too and from school. Many kids are driven to school now or travel by bus or public transport. That can involve walks, but its probably still fair to say that a base 3,000 paces has been taken out of the exercise routine.

The city centre was a mile, 4,000 paces return, from home. That was where the library was, a place I visited at least once a week in primary school. In secondary school, I had so many books at home and the school library that  visits dropped off.

Then when we wanted to do shopping we would head down town, although sometimes we would be drive. Sunday was church, also about 4,000 paces return. My parents did not go, but thought we should so we walked. For a period after going to secondary school I stopped going, I had enough at school, but then started going again.

Memory is a tricky beast. Looking at what I wrote, going to sunday school and then church was a big ask. I had forgotten that sometimes in primary school I used to head out for a walk early on Sunday with the  aim of getting back to late to go to church, arguing that I had just forgotten the time. Memory is that I got away with it at least some of the time.  Those were quite long walks, they had to be. A 3 mile, 6,000 paces, walk was not unusual.

For a longish period.  scouts were once a week.  That was about 1,800 paces each way. Then at scouts there were the usual games including wide games. The last carried across into the church youth group where a couple would be cent out to mark the pavement with widely spaced arrows. Only they knew the end point. The rest followed after half an hour.

Especially at primary school we played very widely. Calculating this is quite difficult because the varying pattern makes it quite fiddly. Excluding organised sport, there was very little of that, we played cricket and tennis, my grandfather had a tennis court, hide and seek across wide areas and played with billy carts.

Getting a bike in fifth class made a difference because now we roamed much more widely. Not as widely as some, mind you. Secondary school made a difference too because of the changes in structure. There was less free play, more organised structures. Outside school sport, we played tennis and squash but still walked long distances. Sunday afternoons during school term, a border friend and I would see how far we could walk after lunch in the time available before he had to be back in school. From memory, I think our record was 14 miles, 28,000 paces.

None of the exercise I have been talking about involved parental supervision. We did not expect it, now would we have welcomed it in most cases. My father did play with us sometimes in games such as backyard cricket, but that was about it. 

In saying all this, I am not saying that we exercised all the time. We did not when it rained! Further, I've been an avid reader since an early age and spent much time curled up on my bed.

I have left organised sport out of this discussion. I did play that at secondary school and especially in the last years with rugby when there were two training sessions plus one to two 80 minute games per week during the season.

 I hope that this hasn't been too boring. Just based on the rough analysis I have done here, I got sufficient exercise excluding organised sport to keep me very fit. Mind you, I wasn't exercising for the sake of exercise, just doing other things that I enjoyed. Organised sport was effectively an add-on. Herein lies the rub.

The world changes. The life style I had is no longer possible for most given current living styles and cultural and parental patterns. So a question: if we take out of the equation the free exercise that I enjoyed, can organised exercise and sport substitute for the loss? I suspect the answer is no.

In saying this, I am focusing on young people at school which is the time basic fitness is laid. If I'm right in my basic calculations, I was somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000+ paces per day before any form of organised exercise or sport. That's a big gap to make up via organised exercise or sport.

I think that I will pause here to allow for comments. I had started to dig further, but I have simply run out of time. 



 

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Armidale Diaries 1 the smoke rolls in

I was sitting here yesterday (20 November 19) working away at the computer when I suddenly realised the world had gone from clear to very smokey.

Armidale has been very lucky in terms of smoke considering how relatively close some of the big fires are. At first, I wondered if there was a nearby fire, but no. The wind had shifted to the east, bringing in smoke from the big fire near Ebor.

That was a strange fire. It allegedly began when an Ebor local decided to back burn to protect his cannabis crop. He made no attempt to control the fire but went straight to the Ebor pub for a drink. It seems that he expected to make some money from post fire reconstruction. The police picked him up at the pub about 5.

Concentration broken, I decided to brave the smoke and head into town to do some shopping.

The smoke really was very thick. This photo by Tara May from the ABC web site shows the view from the lookout looking down into the basin in which the Armidale town centre sits.

I decided to have a coffee before doing my shopping. The mall was both smokey and deserted. I had forgotten how late it was.

Armidale has a remarkable number of coffee places, too many for the size of the city. They are full in the early morning and at lunchtime, but tend to close early. With so many coffee places the competition is fierce, I was talking to a lady a week back at a history society do who has just taken one over.

I know it. It has music and attracts a younger student audience who like sitting outside when it's fine, Talking to a Council person, the University apparently has some 4,000 internal students at the moment of whom 2,000 live on campus, 2,000 in town. She is reshaping the cafe widening food offerings, removing the music and making it all vegan. Oooh, I thought, that's not going to work.

Armidale's demographic means that there is demand for vegan food, a number of places serve it, but she is effectively replacing the existing customer base with a hoped for new one. I don't think that the demand is there.

Wandering down the Mall past a group of Chinese visitors who were struggling with the smoke and also (I suspect) wondering where everybody was, I found a coffee place open in the Richardson's Arcade. It was very much a modern coffee place with its displays of tea and coffee, speciality foods and nick-knacks. Still, the coffee was okay.

It was almost empty. There was a woman working on her Apple mac. She was obviously chatting to someone online because every so often she would chuckle. A little further away were two men in high vis, obviously involved in some way with the land, but not necessarily farmers.  They knew the waitress and chatted away with her.

I didn't properly understand the snippets of conversation I heard, but did pick up references to tanks and water as well as an obscure discussion about the relative size of halls for what appeared to be exercise classes.

I did pick up that the waitress's Gran knew the person charged for the Ebor fires. Apparently he was a strange person who had had a very troubled life.

After coffee, I walked back to the car to drive the few blocks to to the shopping centre where I planned to do my shopping at Coles. The smoke was still thick.

I parked outside as i normally do and walked through the smoke to find that the shopping centre had its eastern doors closed because of the smoke. Back to the western entrance.

The smoke wasn't bad inside, although some of the staff and customers were wearing face masks, something that I had not seen before. Customer numbers were down a bit, but were still the usual mix. A lot of older people, although there were not the usual walkers and mobility chairs, women doing what was clearly the weekly shop from the size of their loads, some young families and a few gaggles of students. I followed some Chinese students around while they worked out what to buy. It appeared to be their first visit.

Homewards again. One thing that I found interesting was the way that people appeared to be taking the smoke in their stride. This photo from the O'Connor Catholic School shows students waiting for their buses.

Driving along Dumaresq Street past the Creeklands, the stretch of parks and playing fields that run along the creek through the centre of the city, there were still people walking or practising at the cricket nets,

Don't get me wrong. The smoke really was a nuisance, strong enough to sting the eyes in spots. But people did seem to just ride with it. 


Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Moving to Armidale - reflections on the changing media landscape

Each change in life situation brings shifts in perspective. This shift to Armidale is no exception. This short post reflects on one element, the changing media landscape, something I have written on before.

It will be no secret that I am a news junky. At first, I did not have an internet connection, so for several weeks I relied on the mobile for my news. Even now, I still use the mobile to check the news because I can do so in the kitchen while sitting in the sun.

Some of my friends argue that we don't need the NBN because of the increasing power of mobile coverage. To me, using the mobile to access news is like an addict being promised a hit and then served a placebo! Part of the problem is structural: stories are designed to fit the small screen, reducing content and making it more difficult to scan to quickly to identify content of interest. Part of the problem is the general decline in content across the media in general.

Whatever the reason, I find that I can scan five main media outlets (BBC, ABC, Al Jazeera, the Guardian and the Conversation) in ten minutes. I also scan the Canberra Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, Newcastle Herald, Glen Innes Examiner, Northern Daily Leader and the Armidale Express mainly to see what's there that I might want to visit. I don't actually visit because of fire wall limitations that limit the number of visits. If I see something that I think that is important I will visit later withing my ration.

When I do have the main computer fired up I will sometimes look at a broader spread. I don't look at the Australian because there is no point given their firewalls. Actually that's a problem. Because I don't read the Australian (I do buy it sometimes) or watch Sky News (I do have local access to the second via free to air tv) there is an entire significant segment of Australian discourse that escapes me. I guess that my justification here is that twitter gives me a heads-up on what those outlets and their readers think.

Both Sydney and, more broadly, NSW politics have suddenly become remote. I pick up a little from the ABC, a little from my scans of the Sydney Morning Herald story headlines, a little from friends, but after just three months away it all seems a bit abstract. Mind you, the on-line version of the SMH at least actually doesn't have a lot of Sydney or even NSW stories preferring broader coverage unless there is a scandal. There is nothing wrong with that, it's a matter of market perception, but if I want to read about Prince Andrew I have rather a lot of choice. If I want to learn what's happening across Sydney, I won't find it in the SMH.

Something similar has been happening in the local and regional media. Looking at today's Glen Innes Examiner website, there are very few local stories, although there are a number of regional stories drawn from other mastheads. Most of these I have seen. There is also a lot of stuff on non-Glen or even regional issues. The restructured website makes it harder to find things. If you go across all the Australian Community Web sites and dig down into some of the category headings you will find old stuff and constant repeats.

 I have to do a proper statistical analysis on this. I will do that on the New England blog. For the moment, I am just reporting a perception.

All the papers have become so thin. I have felt for a while and have written about my perception that the papers have lost sight of their markets and especially the segments in their markets.

Just before I moved to Armidale I went down to Canberra. There I read the print edition of the Canberra Times for the first time in several years. I was a bit appalled. I had been following the Canberra Times website, it was actually my first go-too outlet. This had built up a large following because it had no pay walls and included a range of stories local and drawn from other Fairfax papers. 

When Fairfax introduced paywalls on the Canberra Times website, I suggested that this would destroy the paper's on-line presence. I think that it did. Since Fairfax sold the paper to ACM, I think that it has deteriorated further.

I need to stop here for I am running out of time and this is meant to be a brief post. Still, these are issues that I suspect that I will be coming back too.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Reflections on the current New England fires - the need for evidence before action


William Strutt, Black Thursday, February 8, 1851, These fires burnt approximately 5 million hectares, or a quarter of Victoria; 12 lives were lost, along with one million sheep and thousands of cattle.

Like many Australians, I spent a fair bit of yesterday Tuesday 12 November glued to the live fire updates. a focus intensified because so many of the fires were in the broader New England.

This photo shows fire fighters at Tyringham east of Armidale.

Because of its regional airport as well as its proximity to some of the fires, Armidale has been something of a logistics hub. The planes have been full of firies and National Parks staff coming and going.

On Monday I manned the Armidale & District Historical Society office. A group of Canberra firefighters passing by came in to look at the exhibits. They were obviously going home after relief service. Instead of the usual high viz with smoke smells, they were all in neat uniforms!

In the midst of the fires there have been the usual stories of courage, of endeavour and humour and hope as well as personal hardship and tragedy. One such story about the borrowed milk has been widely carried on the media in Australia and overseas. 

 
In all the media coverage on the fires, I have become very annoyed with the nature of some of the discussion.

Before going on, I have been back through my past posts dealing with bush fires. I have listed these at the end of the post. They are concentrated in the period 2006 to the end of 2013. I'm not quite sure why I stopped writing then. Was it because of shifts in my interest or because the questions had become somehow less current?

The posts are necessarily fragmentary, but I think they provide a picture of events and issues that are still relevant today. I also note that fellow blogger Neil Whitfield had a useful piece today, The million (and more) hectare fires.

The first point I noted in reviewing past material is the frequency with which the word unprecedented has been used. I find this a slippery term. In literal terms, it means never done or known before.

The declaration of catastrophic fire conditions of the the Greater Hunter, Greater Sydney and Illawarra Regions was unprecedented in the sense that it had never been done. This particular condition classification was only introduced in September 2009. This was the first time it had been applied to such a large area. However, it says nothing about fire activity as such.

As I understand it, the term is used to describe particular sets of conditions (high temperatures, very low humidity and possible winds) which both make fire likely and extremely difficult to control. Thus does not mean that fires will start, nor that those fires will run wild. Indeed, and I stand to be corrected on this, I am not aware of any really major fires in areas covered by code red. Those big fires that have occurred have been in areas classified as high or extreme fire danger.

Code red is a risk assessment classification. Its use in in this case combined with school closures and other precautionary measures had the effect of adding drama to an already dramatic scene. It was only human to watch the code red areas waiting to see what might happen. I am not being critical of the NSW Government's decision on the categorisation, I am sure that they had expert advice, but it is important to distinguish between a risk assessment and an actuality.

The mixing of climate change and the immediate fire position is another problem area, one that I dealt with in Fires, drought and climate change within New England. As I said there, climate change is a macro long term global problem. It's an input into fire policy and associated mitigation policies. No matter what climate change policies had been adopted by Australian Governments they would not have affected the likelihood  of these fires. although they may have affected mitigation measures to some degree in the sense that management of the possible effects of climate change such as hazard reduction burns might have been pursued more vigorously with less red tape. 

Beyond the effects of the climate change debate policy towards both drought and fire policy, there is a broader issue. How do we translate the short and medium term implications of climate change into effective policy dealing with drought or fire mitigation, recognising that the on-ground effects are very uncertain. For example, if we need more fire fighters, how many more, where do we place them?  We have to take the general arguments and conclusions about climate change and give them specific geographic content. Here I put forward a specific hypothesis for test so far as the broader New England is concerned linked to movements in weather patterns.

If you read and think about that hypothesis, it has some quite profound implications in areas such as the Murray-Darling basin plan. I said hypothesis for test. I am getting a bit tired of generalities. I need things that can guide real action beyond the very macro. And that needs geographic specific analysis and test.

I note for the benefit of my climate change sceptical friends, and I have a number, that there is a distinction between what is happening and the reasons why it's happening. You can address what is happening without agreeing why. The two are separate questions.

Finally in this post, I want to turn to fire mitigation members. I note that I have a certain sympathy for some of Mr Joyce's views, although his language is unfortunate to say the least. Neil referred to a Guardian piece, Factcheck: Is there really a green conspiracy to stop bushfire hazard reduction? I did not think that this was a sensible piece in the sense that the question and answer were skewed.

I first came across the clash between environmental considerations and fire management in 1972 when meeting with sets of graziers who adjoined the Kosciuszko National Park. Their argument was that the withdrawal of grazing and the absence of proper fire management in the Park had greatly increased fire risk to their properties. In the years since, I have heard many more examples, including the inability of people in bush fire prone areas to extend hazard reduction steps into narrow strips of adjoining state land as well as frustration from farmers unable to do burning-off on their own land. There have been more examples this time, including the disappearance of fire trails that once allowed access within national parks in particular.

Where Mr Joyce misses the point, however, in his political attack on the Greens and other environmentalists is that the current position has evolved with time, changes over time and includes a variety of factors including cash constraints on National Park Services and the rise of new regulatory cultures focused on minimisation of risk and legal liability. Environmental considerations whether expressed by the Greens or anyone else are only one factor in the equation,

In this context, ABC Radio National carried an interesting interview this morning with David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania, on Hazard reduction burns just one piece of the puzzle. One of his points, if I interpret him correctly, is that individual fire reduction activities carried out by people who know their land is no longer possible because of the regulatory constraints, This is the price we have to pay for our evolving regulatory approach designed to manage risk and legal liability.

I am sure that these issues will be debated once we come to the end of the current fire season. They need to be, especially if you accept that climate change is a problem. However, that analysis needs to be based on evidence, recognising that clashes in objectives will arise. I would also argue that action needs as much as possible to be pushed down to local level.   

Postscript

 This ABC story by Kate Doyle, Fire, climate change and prescribed burning: What do the experts have to say?, contains some interesting material.         
 
Previous Posts   

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Armidale, drought and the need for balance in thought and reporting

It's been very dry up here on the New England Tablelands. Trees are dying that have survived previous droughts.

Having been through previous droughts, I was sceptical of some of the claims around this drought. I will leave it to the statisticians to decide whether this is the worst drought in the historical record, recognising that the intensity varies from place to place.

It's almost certainly not the worst drought we have had over the last few thousand years. The material I have read, I'm sorry I can't give links: I just picked it up in passing, suggests that there have been a number of very long dry spells since the ending of the Last Glacial Maximum. By long, I mean a thousand or so years.

What I can say is that this is a very bad drought, worse than I had realised. I know Northern NSW well and have been following the media reports and the social media feeds. I don't mean to be  rude, but I don't think that most urban folk have any real understanding of the on-ground position. I didn't until I returned to once familiar walks and saw the dying trees, until I listened to country people talking in passing about areas that I knew and the problems they were experiencing,

I am not happy about the approach to drought policy. At local government level, the councils (at least Armidale Regional Council) have been so caught up the hype that they have introduced what seems to me to be silly restrictions. There seems to be little sense of timing, little focus on addressing the complexities involved in the composition of water restrictions.

The Council web site carries the banner headline 398 days to day zero, the day Armidale runs out of water, down from 420 a few weeks back. That will not happen. It assumes no rain for a very extended period. There will be rain in that period, even if drought continues through out. Water restrictions can be tightened again. The Council has been putting down bores. Some water is available in Puddledock dam.

Mind you, I may be wrong and if so I will acknowledge it. It is a bad drought. It is also a drought that covers a wide geographic area. Water supplies are having to be shared between towns and between towns and country. Scarce town and farm water is also being used for firefighting.

Again to use Armidale as an example. Built to supply Armidale, the Malpas dam is now also supplying Guyra as well as some outlying farming areas where water for household consumption has run out. Water has been trucked for considerable distances. The Puddledock dam, previously Armidale's main supply, is reserved for emergency purposes, including firefighting. 

City folk have picked up all the hyperbole. This includes presentation by the media of Armidale as a basket case (who can resist day zero?) when, in fact, the city is equal to or better off than other places with lower level water restrictions. 

The problem is that at a time when we want people to move to the regions, people have begun to argue why go when there is no water. Better to concentrate in places like Sydney where there is water. This type of argument has begun to worry some of the country mayors who, while recognising current problems, are trying to strike a balance between the short term problems and longer term needs and objectives. 

The argument is in fact silly at multiple levels.

Consider the case of Sydney which is presently on level one restrictions as compared to Armidale's level five, prospectively level six.

The Sydney desalination plant has been fired up to provide supplementary if expensive water. However, 87% of Sydney's water still comes from rainfall. At present, the Sydney water storages are just over 47% capacity as compared to a Malpas dam level of a bit over 38%. Both have been falling. Sydney is wetter than Armidale, but it has a faster growing population and a much heavier water usage in industry and construction. Why then the differences in hype?

This is not meant to be a Sydney v the bush argument, nor am I saying that the drought is not bad. It is simply an argument for balance in reporting. To my mind, some of the emotion surrounding current discussion is interfering with longer term thought, with the development of solutions to meet needs that vary greatly across geographic space as well as time. 



Tuesday, November 05, 2019

On vanishing down rabbit holes - the case of Arthur Ransome

My family and friends laugh at me because of my ability to find connections between New England and apparently totally disconnected figures.

This is the English children's writer, Arthur Ransome. I really liked his books as a child. My favourite was We didn't mean to go to sea. It was a present from my parents.

Later, I tried to share Ransome with my children, buying Swallows and Amazons. It didn't grab. It was too remote.

Now what has all this to do with vanishing down rabbit holes? Well, I had an email from Cathie L asking me whether a certain homestead near Walcha still existed because it was once owned by Ransome's grandfather.  I had no idea that there was a Ransome connection. That was where the rabbit hole came in, for with info from Cathie I was off on a web search combined with emailing local historians.

 I have a total new story, although I can't write about it yet because I need to clear it with Cathie. But it involves a Dutch battle field, a New England station that carried its name, a squatter and early Australian painter. With the Russian revolution and espionage thrown in.

The only problem is that none of this was on my writing agenda including this blog. Sigh! this is happening all the time now that I am back on the New England.   

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Clare Mulley tells the extraordinary story of Krystyna Skarbek (aka Christine Granville)

In this YouTube video, award-winning author Clare Mulley tells the extraordinary story of Krystyna Skarbek (aka Christine Granville) - the first, and the longest serving, female special agent working for Britain in the Second World War. The talk was delivered as part of the Lunchtime Lectures series, - a programme of free talks that takes place at the National Army Museum in London every Thursday at 12.30pm.

I am sharing it with you because this is one of the best talks I have seen. It's just over 49 minutes long, but is absolutely gripping. Enjoy!

 

Friday, October 11, 2019

Trying to understand foreign policy in a Trumpian and febrile environment

To say that I find President Trump unsettling is an understatement. It's not just what he does, but how he does it.

Since coming to office, he has launched trade wars that are now dragging the global economy down. He has launched a detente with North Korea whose effect appears to have been an entrenchment of the regime without any reduction in its arms program. He has begun and then partially withdrawn from attempts to bring peace to Afghanistan whose primary effect to this point has been a strengthening of the position of the Taliban. He announced that the US would develop a new circuit breaking deal between the Israelis and Palestinians while taking steps that would seem to preclude any such deal. He withdrew the US from the deal with Iran triggering a new round of sanctions and uncertainties. Now President Trump appears to have triggered the long planned invasion by Turkey of parts of Syria designed to break the power of the Kurds.

These various moves have taken place against a backdrop of a rapidly changing international scene and have added to the pace and uncertainty associated with those changes. They have been delivered with a mixture of bluster and blandishment expressed through tweets that I sometimes feel have been composed by a lonely man sitting alone at night seeking to establish relevance and satisfaction through the artificial sugar hits that come from twitter audience and responses. Others have responded, making twitter the dominant news mechanism of this new age. Who would have thought?

Millions of words have been written analysing the man, his policies and actions. I don't have a lot to add here, especially on immediate events  I agree that his approach is transactional. I agree that he has delivered on things he promised during his election campaign. I agree that US domestic political issues including the Muller Inquiry and the impeachment moves play into his responses. To my mind, none of this matters. We just have to wait it out.

The current international scene is as uncertain as I have seen it in my life time. To a degree at least, Europe and the UK are paralysed over the UK's departure from the EU as well as political divides within the UK and EU countries. Relations with Russia are uncertain as President Putin continues to push his own agenda. Fighting continues in the Ukraine.

The Middle East can only be described as a mess with both Syria and Yemen humanitarian disasters. Further west, war continues in Afghanistan, while the sub-continent is tense following Indian actions in Kashmir. China continues its expansion despite US trade actions, has become more authoritarian, is dealing with internal ethnic tensions and faces problems in Hong Kong and potentially Taiwan. South Korea and Japan, two key US allies, are at each other's throats.

Without going further, this simple list indicates the scale of global problems and uncertainties. Within this mix, President Trump has become a random wild card. As I said earlier, it's not just what he does, but also the way he does it.

I suppose that I could make guesses as to what might happen, but with so many cards in play it's perhaps better to wait on events, It must be creating nightmares for the planners and policy advisers in Canberra and other capitals.

From an Australian perspective, this is a time for caution. It is not clear to me that Australian Prime Minister Morrison is capable of exercising the caution and subtlety required to work through the shoal waters we face. I don't have a really solid evidence base to support this conclusion. It is based on his US trip, on his attacks on globalism, his arguments for the reshaping of the trade order, some of his responses to China.

To a degree, the Government seems locked in a time warp still driven by concepts such as the "war on terror", the need to propitiate and manage hard right ideas within the Liberal Party as well as sometimes xenophobic fears within the Australian community driven in part by the Government's own previous rhetoric, fears shared by those on the left as well as the right.

Managing all this requires a clear articulation based on a combination of principles and pragmatism, as well as the capacity not to say things, something that is very hard in Australia's sometimes febrile    political and media environment. It's not easy.

Postscript 13 October

In  a comment kvd wrote:
"Judges 15:16
Twitter is Trump's "jawbone" - in more than one way."
You will find the reference here. I had to laugh.

The BBC's Anthony Zurcher had a useful summary of the apparent confusion of the US position on the Kurds and Rurkey over the last week. Mr Trump's suggestion that he might mediate struck me (and I suspect the Turkish President) as very odd. Meantime, the roller-coaster continues with President Trump proclaiming that a phase one deal had been agreed with China on the trade war. We will have to wait and see what this actually means. 

 

Monday, September 23, 2019

Monday Forum – as you will


I let the Monday Forums lapse in the turmoil of the move. I think it time to reinstate them, recognizing that my irregular posting plus loss of some commenters means that responses are likely to be very slow initially. I have found them valuable in a personal sense in alerting me to new things, generating new ideas.

This first Monday Forum after the break is an as you will. Feel free to comment on things that have interested/ annoyed you!