Personal Reflections

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

That Australian life - the NSW nanny state

Tyler Brûlé's swinging attack on.the impact of Government restrictions on the texture of Australian life has attracted attention. I quote:
Australia is fast becoming "the world's dumbest nation" because of nanny state rules and restrictions, says Canadian journalist and magazine publisher Tyler Brûlé. 
He argued that Australians were increasingly being "mollycoddled" through health and safety laws, and that our cities were at risk of becoming over-sanitised. 
"This country is on the verge of becoming the world's dumbest nation. There will be a collapse of commonsense here if health and safety wins out on every single discussion," he said.
"People think it's a little bit nuts here."
I think that he is pretty right, although I would have thought that Canada suffers from the same disease. Here local government has become more and more a delivery arm of State based regulation and control. However, that got me thinking on a different if related topic.

It used to be the case that Melbourne was more restrictive than Sydney, Victoria more tightly controlled than NSW. Then things switched and I was wondering why. It wasn't until freer Melbourne with its growing life style started really threatening regulated Sydney to the point that Mayor Clover Moore that certain restrictions started to be relaxed.

There have been some really funny decisions in NSW, like creating a regulatory regime that encouraged drinking palaces while stopping pavement living. I am not talking about the clubs here, that's a different question, but the rise of the poker pubs along with the creation of cost structures that meant that only big venues could afford the regulatory cost burden. Yes, there has been a burgeoning of cafe strips, but itis very localised.  

So what is it about NSW?


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

UNSW grandly challenged

We appear to be heading into the University strategic planning cycle. The Australian Financial Review uses the headline "UNSW to set itself grand challenges" to introduce Tim Dodd's story on the planning process at the University of New South Wales.

The primary aim appears to be propel the University into the top 100 on the global ranking scales as measured by the Times and Jiao Tong indexes. UNSW wishes to join the four Australian universities already there - Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland and the ANU. I hadn't realised that it wasn't there, nor had I regarded UNSW as an up and comer vieing with Monash in seeking entry to this group. So I have learned two things already from the process.

Apparently, the green discussion paper circulated within the University outlines a strategy with three goals - academic excellence, economic and social impact and operating globally through research and international education. .The paper suggests more interdisciplinary research and stronger engagement with with industry and government to ensure research is successfully applied and produces economic benefit."We will be working extensively and seamlessly with industry, business and government, having become to 'go-to' university for a wide range of partners and funders."

The University could be a leader in digital learning technologies and should be the centre of a dynamic, entrepreneurial start-up community. International student numbers will be expanded via a combination of offshore teaching with digital learning. Various strategic alliances are proposed, with a possible "Grand Challenges Institute" to bring world leaders and experts together to identify solutions to Australia's and the world's biggest problems.

Various productivity improvement options are canvassed including extending scheduled study through summer with four ten week annual teaching blocks, shifting research resources from low to high priority areas, creating more teaching only positions while offering more blended learning and purely on-line courses.

While I don't have access to the green paper itself, I can see it in my mind with its diagrams and pastel colours, its interconnected goals and aspirations.I wonder where students fit in, whether there is room for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake including the areas I am especially interested in. .

This is one area where I accept that I am irredeemably old fashioned. The people who have most influenced me, whose knowledge I have drawn from and built on day after day down the years, would not (I think) have survived at UNSW. They wouldn't have wanted to be there.The need to meet agreed performance objectives flowing down from on high would have been totally inconsistent with their sometimes slow and reflective thought patterns.

Is there still room in a world where universities are first businesses concerned with organisational survival and growth for a university that is first a university?  I would like to think so. As I said, I am irredeemably old fashioned.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Thesis, hypothesis and scientific method in history

Note to readers: This post began as my Sunday Essay post, but I ended up rewriting it entirely. So now its both Sunday Essay and Monday Forum!
Recently on this blog we have been talking about evidence based approaches. In a postscript on
The application of evidence based approaches 2 - A note on evidence based policy, I referenced an article that came via Club Troppos' Nicholas Gruen: The Trouble With Scientists. I have been musing on that and, more broadly, the issues raised by my regular commenters on evidence based approaches.

I suppose that I could put the questions in my mind this way: how do we know what we we know, how do we know that we are right, how do we test that we are right, how do we correct when we are wrong?

By training I am both an historian and economist. Let me start with the history part in this post.

As an historian, I try to discover and tell the story of things that I am interested in. This involves analysis of evidence, the development of patterns and relationships that I can express mainly in writing for myself and the reader.

As an historian, I have always been uncomfortable with the thesis or hypothesis approach where that is defined first and then tested against the evidence. I am a curious person, I want to know what happened, why it happened, not prove a particular point. So I ask questions of the evidence. What happened? Why did it happen? What was connected? The idea that I must start with something that I want to "prove" or "test" or even that I must start with a single question makes me quite uncomfortable.

In working, I am always conscious of the problems of selection, perception and bias. This affects the questions I ask, the evidence I select and, to a degree, the way I approach the evidence. Working my way through, I work out the story that best represents the evidence as I see it. But am I right?

There are simple things that I can do to test my work. I don't especially want to refute my own work,  but I do apply certain simple tests that I have learned from experience are important.

The first is simply a date check. This may sound quite self-evident, but if a follows b, then it's sensible to check the dates of a and b. I said that date checking may sound self-evident, but we live in a world in which the idea of dates in history is sometimes treated in a rather cavalier fashion. You have to do it though. I still remember my total embarrassment a few years back when a simple later date check forced me to put a line through a total line of argument that I actually thought was rather good. I still blush.

 The second linked thought is to look at time linkages. Again, this seems self evident; a may follow b, but is there enough passage of time to make any connection between a and b? This is especially important if you are arguing causation rather then connection. Sometimes, a specific focus on time delivers apparently unbelievable results.

This is true of both the establishment of the Armidale Teachers' College and New England University College. I was very suspicious of some of the dates, I just thought they couldn't be right, but when I checked I suddenly thought how the bloody hell did you do that, it couldn't be done today. Our systems wouldn't allow it. The speed of action had suddenly became part of the story itself.

The third test is simply geography. This is a quite remarkable one that I was unconscious of  for a very long while even though I was interested in geography. At the simplest level, it's just this.Get out a map. Look. Think about climate. Look. What does it all mean for your story?

Let me give you an example. Those on the first fleet almost starved after arriving at Sydney. All the early explanations focused on things like lack of skills or equipment or the convict system. The reality, it seems, was that there was a drought, an El Nino event. Now the climate knowledge came later, but the drought stuff could, I suspect, have been picked up from the records if one had asked the right questions.

No matter how well I analyse the evidence, I know that my first pass description is my  hypothesis, a story based on evidence for later checking and refutation.

Those who wish to test my conclusions, the story I have told, may use the same evidence but operate in in a different way. They may test my story for internal inconsistency. Do the bits hang together? They may ask different questions of the same evidence, coming at the same pattern from a different angle. More often, they will find new evidence that challenges my view, leading to a new position. .

Sometimes, one can be very lucky. History builds on itself. I am still a bit staggered that some of the conclusions I drew in my history honours thesis, I was only 21, actually went on to form key building blocks in later analysis by people of far greater academic stature than me. My thesis wasn't especially well received at the time, .it got me a 2-2, but it has survived to the point that I am now using it and the subsequent discussion including opposition to create an entirely new hypothesis that can, in turn, be tested.

Quite remarkably, really! Bu that's what the study of history is about.

Later, I will extend this discussion by looking at economics.  

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Saturday Morning Musings – refugees, diplomatic trolls, the Middle East war

I am sorry that I haven’t posted since Tuesday.

The problem of the stranded migrant boats may have been resolved for the moment, but Mr Abbott’s dismissive “nope,  nope, nope” has become another strain point with Indonesia. This is Neil Whifield’s view on the matter: Random Friday (Thursday) Prime Minister. Neil provides a link to a piece by the Melbourne Age’s political editor Michael Gordon that is worth a browse for its different perspective. The Jakarta Globe has a short piece (the comments go both ways). Somirahatun and her baby

This piece from the Jakarta Post provides a broader picture of the human tragedy, giving a human face to some of Michael Gordon’s points. The picture of Somirahatun and her baby comes from the Post.

Regardless of what can or should be done, I thought that Mr Abbott’s comments were crass, unwise and inhumane.

Two interesting pieces on the Lowy Institute blog. Richard Gooding’s Diplomats, trolls and memes looks at the influence of twitter on diplomacy. I hadn’t come across the concept of diplomatic trolls before! I guess that it’s another small sign of what I have come to think of as the instantizing of life. It’s actually very frustrating, for it leaves people with the attention span of  a gnat.

When the kids were young, I commented on the way that their groups always had to be in touch with each other. I thought that it was very tribal. You know, messaging: where are you, I’m on my way, nearly there etc.  Then they grew out of it, well more or less. I wish the same were for true for their elders.

I really don’t know some managers or executives I have observed get any real work done at all. They are just so busy keeping in touch, responding, demanding, rushing, meeting; life is a busy whirl of constant interaction in which instant response however shallow is the requirement, Still, perhaps that’s a matter for another post.Palmyra

The second Lowy post I wanted to refer to was Vanessa Newby’s Summer in Lebanon: Holidays, beaches, clubs...and war?. This followed an earlier post by Bob Bowker, Assad's regime is brittle, and it may fall fast, written before the fall of Palmyra.

I have always wanted to visit Palmyra. It looks as though I many not get the chance now.  I find the destruction by IS of so many ancient monuments personally confronting. However, more worrying is the spread of conflict. I think that we should stop using the term terrorist, for the so-called war on terror has now evolved into a full scale if ill-defined sectarian war being fought on multiple fronts with multiple ripple effects.

Not a pretty prospect. 


The Melbourne Age had a powerful editorial this morning on the stranded migrant boat issue: Nope is not good enough, Mr Abbott.The words I used in this piece to describe Mr Abbott's comments were crass, unwise and inhumane. As an Australian, I felt a deep sense of personal shame at Mr Abbott's comments because he is my nation's leader.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The application of evidence based approaches 2 - A note on evidence based policy

This brief note continues my discussion on what are called evidence based approaches. At the start of  The application of evidence based approaches 1 - Evidence Based Medicine, I wrote:
The discussion on Monday Forum - more on evidence based approaches looked at some of the issues associated with evidence based approaches. One of the issues from my viewpoint in that discussion lay in the need to distinguish between the importance of evidence and the application in practice of what are called evidence based approaches whether in medicine, management or public policy. I thought therefore that it might be helpful, at least to me, to consolidate some previous writing on the topic, starting with evidence based medicine.
I have repeated these words to emphasise that I am concerned with the application of particular models, ways of thinking. The Wikipedia article on evidence based public policy is not especially good, but it does refer to the transmission of the particular form of the idea from  medicine to public policy.

A good expression of the idea in an Australian context comes from this Australian Public Service Commission piece, there is no date but I think its 2009, featuring Gary Banks. In her introduction, Public Service Commissioner  Lynelle Briggs  states:
Evidence-based policy-making, while not a new concept, has recently become more prominent in public debate in Australia. The Prime Minister has called it a key element of the Government’s agenda for the public service. He wants policy design to be driven by analysis of all the available options, and not by ideology. This explicit endorsement by the Prime Minister provides us with a valuable opportunity to advance the cause of evidence- based policy-making in the APS.
In Australia, the potential application of evidence based approaches drawn from medicine to policy dates back to at least 1998. As happened with me, it seems to have spread first from medicine to the idea of a discipline of practice and then beyond. 

Mr Banks and the Productivity Commission have played an active role in popularising the application of the the public policy sphere, claiming lineal responsibility for its application back to the old Tariff Board. In fact, the concept is much older than that. The economic historian C R Fay used the term evidence based public policy in 1919, and by then the approach was quite old. 

The differences between the old and new approaches is that evidence based public policy now involves the application of a highly structured top down model that, to my mind, is riven with potential contradictions that arise from its misapplication. 

I recognise that I have to argue this, I am as prone as anyone else to management fads and fancies. Someday I should write a mea culpa post looking at all the things that I have argued for that I then found did not work in practice. Because I have been a practitioner  working across a number of fields, I have found myself badly bitten by the very things I had espoused. The problem, to my mind lies not in the concepts as such, but always in their sometimes blind misapplication.

In my next post in this irregular series, I will look at evidence based management.


I should note, for the record, that I have a very high opinion of the work done by the Tariff Board though its various guises to the Productivity Commission today.

Postscript 2

This link came from Nicholas Gruen: The Trouble With Scientists.There are several points within it that bear upon our current discussion so I wanted to record it for later use.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Monday Forum - a very jaundiced forum

This Monday I really found myself out of ideas on just what to suggest as a Forum topic.

We could, I suppose have another go at Mr Abbott's views on refugees. It's hard to believe that Australians were once appalled when the Malaysian military forced Vietnamese boat people back into the water to drown. But then, we were admitting so many at the time. .

The sheer scale of the problem in the Mediterranean is hard to comprehend. At our purely local level, the militarization of Customs and the Immigration Service through Border Force, all the tough talk, is costing us quite a lot of money as well as harshening the fabric of our society.

The longer term problem for the Government is that if everybody else turns the boats around in the same way,  the flow of refugees etc to this country is likely to increase. There would come a point, and it might be sooner than we think, where the pressure would become unstoppable.

Still, we have been down this path before. Or we could talk about Parkinson's Law of Government. In my variant, as Governments can make less real difference their activities expand in areas where they might still have some control or at least where some form of political pay-off might be possible. One effect is that social control legislation explodes

But that would be jaundiced, so we might ask instead why Governments can no longer provide infrastructure in the way they did in the past. The only infrastructure now, well perhaps not the only but a lot, is that where someone can be made to pay for use.

Oh dear, I'm jaundiced again. Still, the problems with under-investment in the rail network that delivers the NSW wheat crop have been obvious for some time.

Perhaps I should stop and hand this Forum over to whatever jaundiced view you might have.


kvd suggested  that a G&T was a good solution,  He provided this link.Winton Bates suggested that "Perhaps our leaders are utilitarians who sincerely believe that they can reduce total human suffering by discouraging people from getting on boats to seek a better life".: This is the Wikipedia entry on Utilitarianism.

Are Messrs Abott and Morrison utilitarians?


Sunday, May 17, 2015

History revisited 2014 columns now on line

As regular readers will know, I write the weekly history column for the Armidale Express. This photo is of the 1965 Freedom Ride at Moree.

Most weeks, I have to turn out 500 words. It's not always easy. I get tired and the deadline seems too difficult, especially in the early hours of Friday morning when I have left it to the last moment.

I mention this now because I have finally brought the last of the 2014 columns on-line: 45 columns, over 22,000 words.

Obviously the standard varies. Further, I am writing for a local audience. I try to present things in a broader context, but the local is always there. Still, you may find the columns interesting, The column entry points are:
I hope that you find something of value in them.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Train Reading - Introducing The Travels of Marco Polo

My train reading used to be very disciplined. There was one simple rule. I had to pluck a book of my shelves that I had not read before and then read it until it was finished. No matter whether or not I liked it, it had to be finished.

It's taken me down some interesting by-ways. However, in the last few years my train reading has become spasmodic, less rigorous.

There are particular reasons for this. My main reading time is too and from work. It's hard to train read in the traditional sense when you are deeply embedded in, to take a current example, the late Pleistocene and what it meant for the Aboriginal settlement of New England. Material connected with that topic tends to dominate the brief case. Random reading is crowded out.

Feeling in need of something different this week, I plucked The Travels of Marco Polo off the shelves.Yes, no doubt I should have read it before, it's a famous travel piece, but I hadn't. I was far more familiar with the game Marco Polo, something I used to play with the kids and their friends. Mmmm, I wonder whether I will ever do that again?  It was fun.

My copy of  The Travels is the Penguin Classics edition translated and introduced by Ronald Latham. I don't know a lot about Ronald Latham, although he was clearly a well known classicist.
By melding various accounts together into a coherent story, he created what appears to have become something approaching a best seller. First published in 1958, the book was reprinted in at least 1959, 1965, 1967, 1972, 1974 and 1978 (my copy).

Marco Polo was born in Venice on 15 September 1254. Wikipedia reports that he learned the mercantile trade from his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, who travelled through Asia, and met Kublai Khan. In 1269, they returned to Venice to meet Marco for the first time. The three of them embarked on an epic journey to Asia, returning after 24 years. The map shows their journey.

There has been some controversy about the accuracy of The Travels. It was written after Polo's return to Venice, dictated to a fellow inmate Rustichello da Pisa while they were prisoners of the Genoans (1296-1298)  Rustichello da Pisa, described by Ronald Latham as a romance writer, incorporated tales of his own, as well as other collected anecdotes and current affairs from China.

I'm not sure the accuracy question matters greatly. It remains one of the great travel epics, painting a picture of a vast world that was then little known to those who lived in Europe.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Problems with ATAR

The ATAR or Australian Tertiary Admission Rank is still the main scoring system used in admitting students to Australian universities, although its importance has declined in recent years as many universities have defined alternative admission paths. Like many ranking systems, it's also become a competitive weapon in pecking order rivalry between universities and a topic of some controversy with some senior academics arguing that too many low ATAR students are being admitted to university..

Now George Messinis and Peter Sheehan from Victoria University have released a report based on VU student performance pointing to problems with relative ATAR scores as a subsequent predictor of university performance. This piece in The Conversation sets out the results. There is a link to the full report. The comments are interesting too

I'm not sure that we have learned something we didn't know, but its still a worthwhile piece. . .

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

That Australian Life - visiting workers, Aboriginal remote communities plus an El Nino event

Australia is large and diverse country. There were two recent ABC Four Corners programs that reminded me of that.

The first, Slaving Away, dealt with the working conditions of visiting workers on some large Australian farms. You will find the transcript here. I tried to stand back from the emotional overlay, it was quite hyped up, and listen to the facts. Two themes seemed to emerge.

The first was visiting workers, mainly young people, being paid less than the minimum wage. At the moment, this is $16.87 per hour. There was a thread about being paid less than award wages, but I lacked the information to be able to make a judgement on that.

The second was the role of labour hire companies. I can see why these would have emerged.They make it easier for employers. I actually work through one at the moment, Randstad, and they seem to do a pretty good job. But in the seasonal workforce case, there really seem to be some cowboys. Further, there also seem to be cases of misuse of power including harassment.

I had less sympathy for the long hours, physical exertion  and sometimes difficult living conditions because they are a feature of seasonal work. In the end, and I am guided here by the views of Nationals MP Keith Pitt, I concluded that there was a very real problem.

The second Four Corners program, Remote Hope, dealt especially with remote Aboriginal communities in WA's Kimberley region. You will find the transcript here.This was just plain depressing. This is an almost impossible area to comment on, but I will try my hand later.

And, maintaining the gloom,  the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has concluded that Australia may be entering an El Nino event. More on that too later.    

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Budget Night in Australia

Tonight Australian Treasurer Hockey will release his second budget. I haven't attempted to follow the various pre-announcements nor will I be listening to the budget speech.

That's a big change for someone who used to be something of a budget junkey. I have many memories of budgets past. I first started listening as a child, that's a sad admission I guess, because (or so my parents informed me) I wanted stuff to discuss with my grandfather. Later in Canberra I had a professional interest.

Those original budget speeches could be pretty boring, but they actually contained the information you needed to understand the budget. That's no longer true. It's all packaged now, shortened for TV, dominated by message. You can actually listen to the budget speech and at the end have no real idea of the changes that  have been made that affect you. It's only later that you find out.

So tonight I will do as I have done many times before. I will listen to the reaction to the budget, both political and from those who have been in the budget lock-up and have therefore had access to the papers. Then I will go on-line and actually read the budget papers.

To those outside Australia, the budget is meant to be "secret" until its delivered. The old reason for that was to prevent people taking advantage of changes, like going out and buying stuff before prices went up or shifting cash off-shore. That's still there, although there are so many leaks or pre-budget announcements now that some of the secrecy has lost its point.

The point of the budget lock-up is to allow people access to the budget papers so that they are ready to comment or analyse following the budget speech. That's actually a very good thing. It's why journalists and others have their analysis ready to go straight after the speech.

For my part, I like to do my own analysis. I find that I pick up things that others have missed or, alternatively, that I wish to place different weight on things. So that's what I will do tonight.


For those interested, Peter Martin in the Canberra Times has a very good explanation of the budget papers themselves.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Monday Forum - the unexpected things of life

I'm not feeling like being too serious this Monday. It doesn't suit my mood. Before going on, AC put up a companion post on the discussion that Winton and I were having earlier on whether or not Europeans were sadder - A sad, sad post. Its a very good post.

So leaving that aside, what are the things in your life that were unexpected, that you remember all those years later? I have many. I suspect that you do too!