Tuesday, January 31, 2012

New England glaciers, tent embassy & a Country Conscience

Over on my New England history blog, Did New England have glaciers? reports on evidence that Pleistocene New England may have been colder than previously thought. This gave me my theme for this week's Armidale Express column.

Writing a weekly newspaper column week in, week out, is an interesting experience.

I write all the time. You would think that a weekly piece would be easy. It's actually quite hard to keep it varied.

The lead for the story came from Rod's Northern Rivers Geology blog. In one of those small world things, it turns out that Rod's older brother Paul worked for me in Armidale as an industry analyst. I actually referred to Paul in Dreams past: Collective Wisdom, education & the NBN; Rod hadn't seen the post.

The affects of the Tent Embassy affray (The Tent Embassy mess, Sunday Essay - the long term significance of the Tent Embassy affray) roll on and on. With public opinion polling showing that ex-PM Rudd retains his lead over Ms Gillard as preferred PM, the whole thing is destabilising.

In Embassy new blow to PM's credibility, Age political reporter Michelle Grattan continues her long-running criticism of the PM. The column contains additional detail on the role played by Mr Hodges. To independent MP Andrew Wilkie still smarting from his defeat over poke machines, the Tent Embassy matter appears to have been a final straw: he has reportedly said that he will most likely support debate over a motion of no-confidence in the Gillard government following the "appalling events" of Australia Day.

Talking to a work colleague who was at the Embassy at the time, she wanted to know (as I had) just what bleeding idiot organised an official Australia Day function in an insecure venue metres from such a significant Aboriginal location. At the least, it displays remarkable insensitivity.

My train reading at present is Rod Kirkpatrick's Country Conscience: A History of the New South Wales Provincial Press 1841-1995.

It's an interesting book, one that has already inspired last week's Express column, Belshaw's World - newspapers' vital role in regional development.

Rod is an experienced country reporter and editor who knows the country press extremely well along multiple dimensions including the business side.

He paints the story of the NSW provincial press in multiple dimensions, drawing also from experience in other countries and especially the US.

I will write more in due course. For the moment, I'm just enjoying the book.    

By the way, as an inveterate reader I was struck by this Barnes Noble coupon offer. I miss my Borders’ coupons!

Monday, January 30, 2012

A few snippets

I missed the earlier reports on the Marieke Hardy case.

Apparently Ms Hardy last month apologised and agreed to pay a reported $13,000 to online music critic Joshua Meggitt for attacking him online, wrongly believing he was responsible for writing a slanderous blog. Now it appears that action has begun against the ABC's online and TV segment The Drum for allegedly repeating the defamation of Mr Meggitt.

Just another reminder on the need to exercise a degree of care in our public writing. With the New England blog having just passed 70,000 visits, this one coming up on 140,000 visits, it's a bit difficult to hide!

Jim Russell's Burgh Diaspora had an interesting short post Mating With Migrants on language shifts in the United States. I quote:

"The typical pattern for any language change is always the young women," says Lars Hinrichs, assistant professor of English language and linguistics at UT and director of the Texas English Project. "If you pronounce things the new way, you have power — you're hotter. The more popular girls lead the way." ...


In a short post in the New York Times, Paul Krugman compares recent GDP changes in some European countries with the great depression. This is the graph for the UK.

A bit depressing, actually!

My 18 January Armidale Express column, Belshaw's World - problems with colours, attracted some interest. It dealt with colours and personality.

Writing that column took my thoughts in two different directions, one personal, the other professional. At personal level I wondered about the possible roles of personal managers. At professional level, about the way that organisations end up recruiting similar personality types. Maybe more later.

The Stubborn Mule has continued his data scraping and statistical analysis, this time looking at the Triple J Top 100. I quote:  

For those outside Australia, the Hottest 100 is a chart of the most popular songs of the previous year, as voted by the listeners of the radio station Triple J. The tradition began in 1991, but initially people voted for their favourite song of all time. From 1993 onwards, the poll took its current form* and was restricted to tracks released in the year in question.

Since the Hottest 100 Wikipedia pages include country of origin**, I thought I would see whether there is any pattern in whose music Australians like best. Since it is Australia Day, it is only appropriate that we are partial to Australian artists and they typically make up close to half of the 100 entries. Interestingly, in the early 90s, Australian artists did not do so well. The United Kingdom has put in a good showing over the last two years, pulling ahead of the United States. Beyond the big three, Australia, UK and US, the pickings get slim very quickly.

I was actually a bit surprised at the popularity of Australian tracks since there is a common perception about the swamping effects of overseas especially US popular music. To read further, the first post is Hottest 100 for 2011, the second More on the Hottest 100.

In comments on Australia Day, columns and externalities, Winton Bates and I talked about the market for CEOs. I said that I would follow up with a post. I will try to do so tomorrow.

Well, it's 6am and the world is stirring. I need to turn to other things. 



Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Essay - the long term significance of the Tent Embassy affray

I have remarked before on the role commenters play in critiquing and extending some of my thinking. Sometimes my posts actually write themselves!

The Tent Embassy mess is a case in point. Here I have been able to add material, including a short eye witness comment from someone who was in The Lobby at the time. It was obviously a terrifying experience.

The role played by former Gillard press secretary Tony Hodges has become politically important. I quote from a piece by Stephanie Peatling in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Ms Gillard yesterday held a defiant press conference in which she described as ''grossly unacceptable conduct'' the actions of her now former press secretary, Tony Hodges, in relaying comments made by the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, to the union official Kim Sattler.

She said the point of Mr Hodges's call to Ms Sattler - whose role in Thursday's events remained unknown until yesterday - had been to suggest indigenous leaders should respond to comments made by Mr Abbott about the future of the tent embassy.

That telephone call sparked a chain of events that led to the evacuation of Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott from a restaurant that was set upon by angry protesters.

Sometimes in politics, when things go wrong they just keep going wrong. Whatever the facts of the case, in acting in the way he did Mr Hodges added yet another distraction to the Gillard Government's woes.

In what may seem a very disconnected comment, back in November I reported (Giving up smoking) on my decision to quit smoking. For a number of reasons that I won't bore you with, that decision became somewhat problematic.

Anyway, the day before Australia Day I popped out of the office for a smoke. I have mentioned before that I am presently completing an assignment for an organisation with a large number of Aboriginal staff. Standing there, I listened to people talking about plans for Australia aka Invasion Day, with one person going to Canberra for the Tent Embassy demonstration. The outcome made me very sad.

To my mind, the tragedy of the Canberra events lies in the damage done to Aboriginal interests. I was going to write black-white relations, but that would have been be both incorrect (the idea of "black-white" relations is increasingly silly in modern Australia with its diverse ethnic mix) and misleading. Misleading in that the real focus should be on Aboriginal advancement; the relations between the Aboriginal peoples and the rest of the community is just one element in the equation.

If the conversations I hear or the things I read are any guide, many Australians have simply lost patience. Their response to arguments about the past is simply "get over it". Further, an increasing number believe that Aboriginal people get special treatment and are opposed to that.

Those who read this blog on a regular basis will know that I believe that we need a new compact with Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

I feel no personal guilt about the events that followed 1788, although some make me sad. I do not share the anti-British view popular among some on the left. I certainly don't share the a-historical stereotypes now enshrined in so much thinking among Aboriginal people themselves, as well as in the broader community.    

My focus is positive. Yes, we need to recognise past wrongs. But more importantly, we need to make Australia's Aboriginal past accessible to all, to create an integrated picture that knits past and present to the benefit of all.

I suspect, I am not sure, that an increasing number of Australians have little real connection with or understanding of the basic underpinnings of Australia's past beyond certain stereotypes.

This is not a comment on the teaching of history, nor is it a contribution to Australia's culture wars. I am making a practical comment.

Australia is changing rapidly. The proportion of the Australian population born outside the country has been growing. Add their children, and you have a very large group indeed. Increasingly, our migrants come from diverse countries with often limited historical connection to the those themes once central to Australian history. Then, too, our increasingly metro concentrated population has lost connection with broader country, something central to Aboriginal thought.

Let me try to illustrate with a specific example.

You live in Sydney and come from China. Your family connections and historical memories are with China. Your Australian born children mix with the Chinese community as well as their school friends. You send them to Mandarin classes and bring them on visits home to see family. Neither you nor your children see much of Australia outside the area of Sydney you live in. If you map your connections and interactions, you have a narrowly defined spider web that links Sydney to your original home.

There is nothing wrong with this. It's natural. However, I think that it does mean that there is a disconnect between a growing proportion of the Australian population and what we might think of as knowledge of and interest in Aboriginal history and issues.

To test this further, and I stand to be corrected, look at those participating in debate on Aboriginal issues in the broader Australian community. They largely come from the diminishing Anglo-Celtic majority group. Australia's newer migrant groups are missing from the debate. So, and if I'm correct, we have an increasing proportion of the Australian population simply disengaged from this particular discussion.

Fundamental demographic change takes time, but is also inexorable.

At present, Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up around 2.6% of the Australian population. That proportion will diminish. The Anglo-Celtic share of the Australian population with some historical connection with the Aboriginal past will continue to diminish. I haven't tried to work out at what point it will become a minority, but I suspect that it will happen sometime in the next twenty years.

Where am I going in all this? I'm not quite sure.

I think that the Tent Embassy affair has damaged the efforts of those of us seeking a broader compact with Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I think that  the chances of getting a referendum through awarding some form of constitutional recognition to our Aboriginal peoples have been reduced. Frankly, unless it's very carefully managed I think that any such referendum is likely to fail.

I also think that demographic change means that the importance of, the emotional significance attached to, Australia's Aboriginal past is diminishing. This also reduces possibilities for real change.

In all this, I have the uncomfortable feeling that, looking back, events in Canberra may prove to be a negative turning point.     

Saturday, January 28, 2012

ABS column

Earlier I mentioned that I was now writing a column on the economy for Australian Business Solutions magazine. People asked me for the link. It's not on-line, but I have posted a copy in How do we break free from the ratings entanglement?

The Tent Embassy mess

Supplied to The Canberra Times - 26th JANUARY 2012 - NEWS - PHOTO BY VALERIE BICHARD ****PHOTO MUST BE CREDITED TO VALERIE BICHARD**** Valerie Bichard. 0412 170 874.  Prime Minister Julia Gillard is dragged away by her close protection team police to her car after hundreds of protesters from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy descended on the awards ceremony she was at.  ****PHOTO MUST BE CREDITED TO VALERIE BICHARD****  Valerie Bichard. 0412 170 874.

This photo is from the Sydney Morning Herald

The sight of the Australian PM and opposition leader being hustled away by the PM's security people in the face of an angry Aboriginal group have gone around the world.

Now Tony Hodges, one of Ms Gillard's press secretaries, has resigned after admitting he told a third party the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, was at The Lobby restaurant. The information was passed on to Aboriginal tent embassy protesters, who believed Mr Abbott had earlier called for the closure of the embassy.

I was astonished when I first saw the coverage and am still bemused. While the affray has been well covered in the Australian media, I thought that I should make a brief comment providing some context.

I need to set the scene first.

Australia's Old Parliament House overlooks Lake Burley Griffin. This is a much loved building that I knew very well when it functioned as Parliament. Now look at the following photo. It's not the best, but it will give you a feel.

You can see old parliament house with the lawns stretching up from the lake. The Lobby restaurant is In the trees on the right. Again, I knew it very well for it was a favourite Canberra hang out for politicians, staffers, journos and public servants.

You need to get this simple picture in your mind to understand what happened. Further comments follow the photo.   File:Old Parliament House Canberra NS.jpg

I now want to introduce the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. If you look at the photo, the original tent embassy was on the lawns directly in front of parliament house in line with the flag pole.

The full story of Aboriginal Tent Embassy is well covered in the wikipedia article (link above).

In summary, at 1am on 27 January 1972  four Aboriginal men (Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey and Bertie Williams) arrived in Canberra from Sydney to establish the Aboriginal Embassy by planting a beach umbrella on the lawn in front of the then Parliament House (now Old Parliament House). The Embassy was established in response to the McMahon Coalition Government's refusal to recognise Aboriginal land rights. McMahon instead favoured a new general purpose lease for Aborigines which would be conditional upon their ‘intention and ability to make reasonable economic and social use of land’ and it would exclude all rights they had to mineral and forest rights.

The beach umbrella was soon replaced by several tents and Aboriginal people and non-indigenous supporters came from all parts of Australia to join the protest. The Embassy opened and closed, but finally became a national site because of its significance to the Aboriginal protest movement.

I used to walk past it a dozen times a week. I was a bit bemused. I knew a lot about traditional Aboriginal life, but had very little knowledge of Aboriginal history in the late nineteenth or twentieth centuries. That came later. To me, it was just part of the colour of Canberra life.

The date of Australia Day, 26 January, was originally set to mark the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. For some obscure reason, many Australian Aborigines do not regard this date as one to celebrate. Instead, they call it Invasion Day.

Many Aboriginal groups use Australia Day as a protest device, a day to try to highlight the concerns they have. Oddly, perhaps not, the official use of the 26 January date is quite useful from an Aboriginal protest perspective.

The significance of the Tent Embassy makes it a natural site for demTent Embassy Canberraonstrations and protests. Now Here I need to factor something else in.

I said that The Lobby Restaurant was in the trees just to the right of old parliament house. In fact, it's just next door to the current Tent Embassy site. This photo comes from the Australian.

Now here I asked a very basic question. Just which idiot decided to organise a major official Australia Day function involving PM and Opposition Leader within metres of a major Aboriginal protest site? 

In response to a question at the function, Opposition Leader Abbott reportedly said:

Look, I can understand why the tent embassy was established all those years ago. I think a lot has changed for the better since then. We had the historic apology just a few years ago, one of the genuine achievements of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister. We had the proposal which is currently for national consideration to recognise indigenous people in the Constitution. I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian and yes, I think a lot has changed since then and I think it probably is time to move on from that.

These are quite cautious words. Sadly, it appears that Gillard staffer Hodge leaked the fact that Mr Abbott would be at the function. Someone, I do not know who, told the Aboriginal protestors that Mr Abbott had called for the closure of the Embassy.

The stupidity of ministerial staff and the ministers who employ them is hard to over-estimate.

Ministerial staff are meant to be minders, people who protect their boss and help those bosses pursue their policy and political interests. This requires discretion and judgement. It also requires a degree of objectivity. Once staff become involved as players in short term political games, disaster usually follows.

The news that Mr Abbott had reportedly advocated the closure of the Tent Embassy inflamed the Aboriginal protestors. There are, in fact, two very separate issues here.

One is the role of the Embassy as a site of national significance. I think that the majority of Australians would agree with this. The second is the role of the site as a current symbolic camping place. Here views are more divided.

I now want to introduce yet another variable. This photo taken from The Lobby web site shows a function as the restaurant.  

Please look closely at the photo. Note the plate glass windows. These pretty much surround the the building. The Tent Embassy and the original demonstration are straight through the windows shown in the photo.

Now we have an angry crowd surrounding a building with ground level plate glass windows so that the demonstrators can see the guests, the guests and security people can see the demonstrators.

We now introduce a new factor, protocols. In our modern world where we try to define every eventuality, we need protocols that dictate what must be done. These actually hold independent of circumstance.

Not all that many years ago, people would have gone out and talked to the crowd to find out what was happening. Now, protocols drawing from international experience dictate responses. This lead to delay and the nationally humiliating experience of seeing the PM and Opposition Leader, hustled even dragged away. This is quite a disproportionate response.

I am out of time now and will write a fuller response on the implications later. For the moment, I just wanted to get the story down.

Post script:

Commenters are good!

Evan wrote: Why didn't they just go out the back? Evan, the Lobby doesn't have a back entrance in the way you are talking about. It's surrounded by parkland.

kvd wrote:

Not to detract from where you might be going with this Jim, but a couple of points:

The quote from Mr Abbott was from a press briefing earlier in the day, not at the Canberra function.

The Canberra function was hardly a secret affair; it was to acknowledge emergency workers as I understand it, and TV cameras were in attendance.

Now, quite why the guy resigned is yet to come out, but one would hardly think 'alerting' a third party to Mr Abbott's presence at a public event is sackable.

None of which is to say anything more than there are a few facts missing from the public commentary at this stage, and that the thing is unedifying for all concerned.

Thanks both.

Another commenter was actually present in The Lobby:

I was there, inside the lobby, it was a frightening experience. Especially when protestors started banging on the glass walls with sticks and then began picking up rocks. My wife and myself were unsure at what point we may have had to defend our selves. Luckily with the departure of the PM and Mr Abbott the riot began to dissipate.

If you look again at the above photo of The Lobby and imagine demonstrators banging on those windows, you will get a feel for what the commenter felt. 

To give a perspective from the other side, see It is right to be angry; it is right to protest – land rights now!

For a further perspective, my thanks to kvd for this, see http://mike-stuchbery.com/2012/01/27/australia-day/.         

Friday, January 27, 2012

Navigating the economic forecasting mess

The ordinary observer could be forgiven for being very confused about the current economic outlook as forecasts and forecasters go up and down like yo-yo's. An example is this story from the Australian.

I discussed a little of this in an Armidale Express column, Belshaw's World - the economic version of the weather man. There are two issues on my mind.

The first is the misuse of forecasts and forecasting. The second is a very practical one: how does the ordinary business or individual navigate through all this mess?

In my Express column, I said in part:

Economic forecasting is a process whose role, is or should be, different from the actual numbers at any point. What is relevant is not the numbers themselves, but the way in which results diverge from the projections as they must.

Government and business have to make judgments about the future, about the likely impact of economic changes on their activities. Their needs are very different from those of market players betting on what might happen in the short term. Yet economic forecasts that are actually linked to and driven by the needs of market players have come to dominate the forecasting process.

Most prominent business economists work for financial institutions. Their primary internal role is to provide advice on what might happen in financial markets. The economic reporting that follows from their public utterances is also markets focused.

You see the problem.

I'm thinking of trying my hand at some practical advice here, in my new ABSM column or perhaps both, on navigation through this forecasting and reporting mess. You see, my feeling is that much of the forecasting and reporting should actually be ignored. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Australia Day, columns and externalities

I woke early this morning with a very bad cold and a fogged head. It's raining, and there are again floods in South East Queensland and Northern New South Wales.

I wonder where summer went this year? Our pool is clear and would be inviting if only it were warm.

Today is Australia Day. The hash tag #australianfacts started running early. The thread began with a suggestion by kedgie: "We should so troll the rest of the world with stereotypes about Australia tomorrow with #australianfacts." 

A few random examples for you:

  • The drop bear was introduced into Australia as a measure to stop the rampant pest The Cane Toad
  • Australian schools begin at 9am and close at 3pm to prevent children from walking to school during koala feeding times
  • Australian Rules Football was invented as a way for ladies of the CWA to exchange scone recipes by semaphor
  • When Australians feel they are about to vomit, they reach for a Murray-Darling basin
  • Phar Lap was actually a shetland pony from New Zealand
  • slip slop slap is the national child raising policy
  • the first draft of Advance Australia Fair read "Our land abounds in nature strips"

Today is also India Day. Last year we went to a lunch at an Indian friend's house that kind of combined them both.

Over at his place, our Indian blogging friend Ramana has been fulminating against Indian corruption. This cartoon comes from one of his posts.  I did laugh. 

In Queensland, Premier Anna Bligh has announced a state election for 24 March. On all indications, the Labor Government is likely to be heavily defeated, continuing the Party's national decline. This election has a number of interesting features, so I will do a round-up at some point for the benefit of international readers.

  In my last post, I referred to Winton Bates'  review of Robert Frank's new book. Now Winton has followed up with a second post, Should wasteful competition for positional goods be taken into account in tax policy?

I recognise that some of this can be pretty eye-glazing stuff for a non-economist. In any event, my thinking triggered by Winton's first post has been continuing in a different direction.

I wrote in my last post:

I found this (a quote from Winton) a useful point in clarifying my own thinking, the sometimes confusion I feel between my support for market forces as the best way of achieving results and the negative results flowing from relativist competition. This is aIMG_0005nother aspect linked to the continuing pernicious influence of Social Darwinism.

In an apparent digression, my first column has now appeared in  Australian Business Solutions Magazine.  It's quite pretty!

The column is on the impact of the ratings agencies. I will re-run it in another blog, for our Indonesian blogging friend Niar kindly wanted to actually read it!

The challenge I face in writing on the economy for a business audience is similar to the one I face in extending my response to Winton: how do I simplify so that my ideas are clear to a non-specialist?

This is especially difficult when my own thinking is just so clouded.

I see the negative aspects of the things that I am talking about every day.

I see it in the real reductions of choice in our supermarkets. I see it in real declines in public service efficiency. I see it in businesses that fail to meet customer needs to the point that very survival is threatened. I see it in the collapse of once great brands. I see it in once great universities that have become little more than degree shops. I see it in the ever increasing instability of our institutions. And I see it in the ever increasing burden of regulation as Governments seek to address what are in fact symptoms through direct controls.

If I had to crystallise my concern in a single sentence, I would say that we have substituted the idea of competition as the best way of meeting customer need for the idea of competition as the device for determining relative winners and losers whether at individual or institutional level.

We have also taken the concept of markets as a device for matching buyers and sellers and turned it into an overarching idea that markets are universally good.

In terms of the conceptual underpinnings to the the thoughts that I have, we start with the presence of externalities, something Winton has referred to.

In simple terms, an externality is a cost or benefit that occurs beyond, is not reflected in, an individual transaction or activity. Then we add to that the presence of multiple markets that interact and can conflict.

A firm survives because it meets market need for its particular good or services regardless of externalities. A CEO competes in a different marketplace, again regardless of externalities. 

The broad amounts a CEO is paid is determined by the market for CEOs. This sets a boundary. The actual amount a CEO is paid depends in part on performance. 

But what happens if there is a conflict between the firm and CEO market needs?  Here we need to introduce time.

The life expectancy of a CEO is actually quite short, whereas the life expectancy of the firm is much longer. Actions required to maximise the CEO return may not coincide with the needs of the firm. After all, in the long term we are all dead! 

At this stage I must pause. I will continue these thoughts in a later post.  

Maybe its time to look for an Orbitz coupon and get away.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A medley - the Caucasus, Burma, competition & a bit more

The GeoCurrents blog is continuing its fascinating series on the Caucasus.

As it happens, one aspect of the complicated politics of the region is presently being played out in the distant Pacific with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, on a five-country trip through the Asia-Pacific region. Reportedly, one aspect of the trip is seek recognition for the independence of the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia - the scene of Russia's 2008 war with Georgia.

I will do a companion post once the series is finished pulling out some things that especially interest me. It links to some of my own historical posts.

For those interested in Burma, Andrew Seth's Assessing Burma's reform program provides a rather useful overview of the changes now taking place.

Over at Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American Eye, Will Owen has been writing a series of posts reviewing books connected with the life and history of the Australian Aborigines. A click on the book tag will take you to them.

Staying with books, at his place Winton Bates has just reviewed Robert Frank’s new book, ‘The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition and the Common Good’.

In recent years, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the continuing emphasis on the virtues of competition. It smacks too much of beggar thy neighbour for my comfort. It ignores the virtue of cooperation, and seems to condemn us all to a never ending treadmill. Here I want to quote from Winton:      

The starting point of Frank’s analysis is the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, which Adam Smith had suggested in ‘Wealth of Nations’ leads self-interested individuals to promote the greater good of society, without intending to do so. Frank describes Smith’s invisible hand as ‘a genuinely groundbreaking insight’, even though, as Smith recognized, the invisible hand ‘breaks down’ to some extent in the presence of externalities, public goods, and so forth. The particular negative externality that Frank is most concerned about in this book is associated with circumstances where individual rewards depend on relative performance and result from the strivings of individuals to improve their relative position. He contrasts this striving to improve relative position (which he describes as Darwinian competition) with the benign competitive forces associated with Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

I found this a useful point in clarifying my own thinking, the sometimes confusion I feel between my support for market forces as the best way of achieving results and the negative results flowing from relativist competition. This is another aspect linked to the continuing pernicious influence of Social Darwinism.

Neil Whitfield (Ninglun) liked the SBS documentary on the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta: Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta Episode 3–SBS last night. I didn't watch the series. Too much competition for the TV! Given that I didn't watch it I cannot comment beyond noting that it was clearly gripping TV.

On ART and ARCHITECTURE, mainly, Helen is still maintaining her high posting standard. Her posts have clarity as well as a very high human interest element. If I haven't already persuaded you to visit, please do. I think that you will enjoy them.

I have written sometimes about the personal confusions created by changing gender roles. The examples I used included the way that courtesies once awarded to women such as giving up seats in buses or walking on the outside had been invalidated. Nigel Davies fulminates about some aspects of this in Hypocrisy 2 - naval disasters and feminism.

On Half and Hour, I quote from Stephen Downes' Data.

The problem is not with the use of data to make decisions - the problem is with the simplistic one-dimensional use of data to make decisions. Instead of attacking the data - which leaves you with no ground to stand upon - it makes more sense to attack the simple-mindedness.

Change the grounds! It's not that their approach is 'data-driven' or 'evidence-based' and yours is not, it's that they have very carefully selected a subset of the evidence that will 'count', while you are using a much broader, richer, and ultimately more accurate base of evidence.

I am not sure that one should abstain from attacking data, although Stephen was writing in a context. But the point about the simple-minded application of data is one that I have often made.

It's now almost dawn. I have enjoyed my wander, but it's time to move to the things that I must do before I leave for work. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Struggling with time

I really am struggling with time at the moment, time to read and time to write. There are also too many things that I am interested in.

I have gone back to my early morning starts, up this morning a bit after 4am. That allowed me to finish my Express column, but then I left for work a bit after seven.

One problem is that I am still going to bed too late for such early starts. I almost fell asleep at a meeting yesterday!

Hopefully tomorrow will allow me to do more. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Locked in an industry policy past

In discussion on yesterday's post, Footloose industries etc, I commented:

One of the difficulties, Evan, is that discussion is effectively mired in a paralysis created by the combination of Australia's past with certain neo-classical economic views.

I have written on this one before, but didn't have time this morning to check past posts.

In summary, for much of the twentieth century, Australian discussion on industry policy was dominated by the question of tariff protection. The need to unwind that protection, to create a more open economy, created a mindset that denied the validity of all forms of proactive industry development policies. This meshed with the growing dominance of certain neo-classical economic views that provided the theoretical underpinnings for that mindset.

One result has been a certain sterility in policy discussion and indeed in the policies themselves. We deny the validity of proactive approaches, yet events force them on governments regardless. We have no real alternative framework for considering such actions.

To illustrate, there has been considerable discussion recently about the failure of Australian industry to properly access the market opportunities offered by heavy resource investment. Governments have put in place mechanisms to try to facilitate access.

The problem is that approach adopted is yet another re-run of approaches that previously failed. Minister Carr trumpets their success, but they have only a small impact because they fail to address the real reasons for failure to sell.

You can see something similar with the Australian car industry.

I know from experience that it is extremely difficult to do new things, to generate new ideas, when the very validity of what you are trying to do is denied. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Footloose industries etc

For a number of reasons, I am finding it difficult to concentrate. My heart simply isn't in it. So this morning I am going to meander, wandering almost aimlessly through the on-line world. There is no rhyme nor reason to my path. It just is.

Ian Verrender's Global woes also down to rocks that shouldn't be there is another interesting piece by a columnist who so often writes well.

I first focused on the concept of footloose industries back in the mid eighties. Then in 1987 Aymever, my newly established consulting firm, published the Australia Communication's Environment as the first in what was meant to be an annual publication.  Events intervened, but I am still very proud of that work.

The idea of telecommunications as a traded service was then very new. The idea that new communications technology would create footloose economic activities that would shift around the globe newer still. The idea that Australia might not benefit from this was quite alien in a comfortable world in which competition and open markets was seen, somehow, as delivering maximum national benefits.

Don't get me wrong. I supported and support competition and open markets. Where I part company from my former Treasury colleagues lies in the fact that I have no special expectation that Australia as a nation will benefit. Quite the opposite.

Just as New England was adversely affected by structural change over the second half of the twentieth century, so I expect Australia to be affected. In the New England case, New England lost but the nation as a whole achieved higher living standards. In the Australian case, I expect Australia (like New England) to lose, but the global population as a whole to benefit.

Quite a bit of my writing over decades has tried to attack the comfortable assertion that Australia must benefit, to assert the need for pro-active responses. We cannot control global change, we can only control our responses.

I was listening to a radio program a while back. Poor King Canute! He didn't believe that he could stop the tides. He was trying to make a point to his courtiers about the limitations of power. Instead, he has come down in history as a fool. He would probably grin, actually,  His reputation makes just the point he was trying to make.

In early December in Malcolm Naden & New England's fugitive country I discussed the police search for Malcolm Naden. Mr Naden is still on the run, adding to what has become a mythic story. The police have moved their search headquarters from Nowendoc to Gloucester, but so far have had no luck in catching the man.

The poker machine saga rolls on. Julia Gillard has walked away from her deal with Mr Wilkie, he has withdrawn his support from the Government. None of this actually matters.

Mr Wilkie, a puritan who believes in absolutes, was never going to get what he wanted. He has, in fact, had a considerable victory, for he has achieved a trial of his desired solution. I don't think he sees it that way.

One of the vexed issues in this country has been formal recognition in the constitution of the rights of Australia's first inhabitants. A discussion paper has now been released. You will find the report here

I find that I am out of time. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - why multicultural Australia cannot be part of Asia

This morning's Saturday Morning Musings looks at some of the threads in present Australian life and politics

Here in Australia dairy farmers have been complaining for some time about the milk wars between Australia's two main supermarket chains.

For the benefit of international readers, the two big chains have been selling milk for $A2 for two litres. They have also been selling discounted store brand bread for prices as low as $1.50 a loaf. This has actually been a godsend for the growing number of poor Australians. However, at the time the milk and bread wars began, farmers warned that the lower prices must flow on to farm gate prices. This appears to be happening.

In yesterday's very short post, Woolshed Foreglen, I said that I must write something on woolsheds. That comment was triggered by a conversation at work.

A work colleague emigrated to Australia from the UK about eight years ago. I used some phrases in conversation that led to him looking at me quite blankly. He literally had no idea what I was talking about, had no idea of the importance of wool in Australia's past. But then, why should he?

I am still learning how to make that past live, to explain in short and interesting form providing the minimum information required.

Over on the Lowy Institute blog, there has been discussion about the Government's White Paper on 'Australia in the Asian Century', due to be released in the middle of this year. For those who don't know this blog, it is very good indeed, one of the best in the world with a special focus on foreign policy.

The Henry White Paper is interesting, for it's very existence is another sign of social and cultural change in this country. The dominant frames used in this country focus on the emergence of a multicultural Australia. To many, the discussion on Australia in the Asian century is seen as a natural continuation of this. The reality is a little different.

Leave aside all the problems involved with the word "Asian". It actually doesn't exist.

Accepting that, Australia is less an Asian country today than it was forty years ago. Then there was great interest in Asia, a fascination, a desire to learn. All that has gone. The reason lies in the nature of multicultural Australia itself.

Australia is a multicultural society and that alone means that we cannot be Asian. This is not a comment on Asia or Asian countries. It is a very Australian specific comment.

In that past Australia on which I so often write, there was fear of Asia, of the risk that the relatively homogeneous Australian population would be swamped by Asian hordes. That gave us the White Australia policy. However, there was also fascination with Asia.

As Australia opened up in the fifties and sixties, the fascination grew. We discussed what it meant to be part of Asia. The young in particular interacted with Asian students, visited Asia, were attracted by Asian cultures. It's actually quite hard to explain just how strong this was, another thing that I have to learn how to do.

All that has gone.

Australia chose to be an open society that allowed migrants from anywhere. Today, we take pride in the fact that our migrants have come from every country on every continent in the world. But that, of itself, limits Australia's emotional engagement with Asia.

Each Australian migrant group retains some linkages with home. They interact with Australia on one side, with their culture and home country on the other. To a migrant from Greece, the Sudan, Chile, Iraq or Tajikistan, the old fascination with Asia has no relevance. How could it? There is no context. It's just not relevant.

You would think that the growing number of Australians coming from Asian countries might balance this. It doesn't work that way.

Asia is a polyglot place. No one really agrees on what it is or was. Chinese Australians may have a generalised concept of Asia, but they are are first and foremost Chinese on one side, Australian on the other. To the degree that they do think of "Asia", they certainly don't see Australia as part of it.

Trying to get my mind around this, I think of Australia as an open society perched on the edge of very different and relatively closed societies that span the world.

I am not being pejorative when I say this. I am trying to make an objective judgement.

I think of Australia a little like one of the Greek Islands that I was writing about in my Greece series.

They lived in a complicated world of conflicting groups. The most economically successful islands had to be open to all, to attract traders from everywhere in the ancient world. Their wealth was directly linked to their openness. Their bankers, their investors, their traders spanned widely. The products produced by their artisans and farmers were widely spread. But by their very nature, they could not be an exclusive part of anything except in broad geopolitical terms.

I think that that's what modern Australia is. We are less than two per cent of the global economy, and our share must shrink. Our global population ranking will decline. That is our weakness. Our strength lies in our openness. The price we pay is not belonging.       

Friday, January 20, 2012

Woolshed Foreglen

Busy day. So busy that I didn't realise that I had managed to put yesterday's post up twice!

Today just a photo from cousin Jamie's collection. This is the wool shed at Foreglen. My grandfather sold the property when I was four, although this photo is a tad earlier.

I must write something on woolsheds.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


The death of Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash marks the end of an era. It is also another footnote in the troubled history of the Eastern Mediterranean where the overhang of the past is ever present.

The release of a World Bank report forecasting further global slowdown received extensive coverage in Australia, here for example. The reporting on economic woes in the EU and the consequent global flow on effects has largely ignored the political implications. One sad part of the weakening of the EU lies in the way it affects or might affect the role the EU has played in reducing the historical divides th<em>Illustration: Cathy Wilcox</em>at bedeviled Europe.

  Here in Australia, debate over controls on poker machines drags on (and here, here). Those in favour of change are trying to regain support, including a campaign from the ubiquitous GetUp. The point I made in earlier posts on this issue, the reason why I thought that Mr Wilkie's changes as proposed, lay in the differential impacts of the legislation.

This, the poker machines case, is an interesting one for those interested in the political and policy process. I have been meaning to return to it.

In a comment on Rules of the grocery shopping game, regular commenter kvd wrote: 

Reminds me that you used to occasionally throw in some really good cooking posts, Jim.

Not only were they fun, but they also caused me to revisit my normal purchases to try to share in the pleasure. Was it Oliver who said "More please, Sir"?

It has been a while since I did a cooking post as such. My writing on this blog in particular is influenced by what is happening around me, as well as my shifting personal interests.

I am not a foodie. I think Australian TV program Masterchef actually put me writing about food. Then, too, the cooking I have done in recent times has been fragmented and pedestrian. Still, maybe the grocery shopping game will re-ignite interest and give me some new ideas! In the meantime, A la mode frangourou remains my favourite food blog.

For a period, World War II Day by Day ceased regular publication. It's been back for a little while, and is again on my daily read list. On this day in 1942, the Japanese advance in Malaya continues inexorably. Maybe a post?  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A gentle indulgence - Australian farm life

Today is a day for gentle indulgence focused just on a few of my favourite blogs. I have mentioned them all before. No doubt I will in the future. For the moment, I Ron Vickers at Glenroy, c1950'sam just indulging.

Denis Wright had two more rather nice family posts.

To set the scene, here courtesy of cousin Jamie is a photo of Uncle Ron from the 1950s. The focus is on the equipment, but note the dog on the left.

Denis's two posts - Our family farm in the 1950s (1) and Our family farm in the 1950s (2) - are snapshots from the 1950s. Note the importance of machinery!

In modern days, Ochre Archives presents a picture of farm life now.

I don't want to, indeed I can't, spend a lot of time writing tonight. So I just leave all this with you.   

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Rules of the grocery shopping game

In yesterday's post, Introducing a special grocery shopping trip, I said that I was rewarding myself with a grocery shopping expedition! 

Last night I spent a pleasant hour browsing Stephanie Alexander's the cook's companion. Then I recruited eldest daughter to play as well. But what are the rules of the game?

Normally when I grocery shop, I first just scan the pantry to see what's needed and then buy the minimum required to fit within cash. The grocery game involves making a real ceremony of the whole thing.

The key rule is to buy at least some things that are new or haven't been purchased for some time. This often means shopping at more than one place, not just the standard supermarket. Since the game generally precludes buying store brands, the reduced range now available in supermarkets nearly always means some shopping elsewhere.

A second rule is research, to decide how to use new things. In my case, I was looking at the different types of mushrooms. Youngest doesn't like mushrooms, so I normally don't bother with them even though I like mushrooms. However, with our very busy individual life styles Clare is often not home for evening meals. In fact, quite often now I am cooking just for myself, a considerable adjustment for someone whose role as chief cook and bottle washer was central to life.

Involving eldest in the game extends it, for she is developing into a very good cook who cooks quite different things to me. So adding her in not only makes the game more fun, but also gives me another reward. Her cooking!

The final rule is to buy things, especially produce, based on quality not price. Shopping to a limited budget necessarily rules things out. The focus is always on best value at the time.

The grocery game relaxes that rule. Budget is still important, but the cash rule is relaxed to some degree for the purposes of the game . 

Pretty obviously, you can't play the grocery game all the time. Cash won't allow it. But it is fun to do from time to time, and always has some last effect on purchases.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Introducing a special grocery shopping trip

Sometimes I play games with myself. I do it generally when I feel the need to break-out from a mood or just want to try something new.

The technique is pretty simple. I have to write down just three things that I want to do or which might have useful short term results. I am only allowed to select three, and they must be simple and doable within a few days. I then have to do them.

There are obvious variants to this game, but this time my focus was on things I want to do. Grocery shopping came up number one!

Such a mundane thing, grocery shopping. It's something we do everyday. Why, then, did I select it?

Well, its partly the problems involved in cooking where people have different tastes and are not always home anyway. More importantly, I have been on such a tight budget recently that I simply haven't been able to buy what food I want or when I want it.

Take roast lamb cooked in the Weber as an example. I love this, but when you add the cost of charcoal to the $22 for the leg it just can't be done if you are trying, say, to feed three or four people and only have a budget of $14 for the meal.

This bears upon one point I made in Sunday snippets, my objection to paying $70 for a very indifferent meal. For $70 I can serve six people roast lamb plus trimmings twice. Since I have only been able to afford to cook roast lamb in the way I described once in the last two months, my reactions to that dinner out were quite visceral.

Happenstance including the desire to write has isolated me from the Sydney metro life style. I no longer belong. I want other things.

I can still enjoy it as I have done since I was sixteen. I can enjoy the beauty as I walk along the waterfront. I can enjoy a well done metro experience, a glass of wine or a coffee and aperitif. However, I can no longer accept paying (to me) big money for indifferent fashion or popularity.

I may seem to have come some distance from my starting point. However, I thought that I might share with you in one or two posts the sheer pleasure that can come from expenditure of a sum of money much less in total than the cost to the group as a whole of that indifferent meal.   

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday snippets

I feel a bit as though I am walking on eggshells this morning.

I have a very busy day in front of me, so only a few snippets.

Over on Geocurrents, Martin Lewis is running a series on the Caucasus. I am reasonably well informed, but I have learned things that I did not know. Have you ever heard of the Snow Revolution? Thought not!

Comments on Saturday Morning Musings - the change merchants, have extended my thinking. Did you know that during the height of the Great Depression in Australia over two Australians were still employed compared to one out of work? This may seem remote from my post, but it's still relevant. I will explain why at some point.

Also relevant is this story from the Sydney Morning Herald, Misha Schubert's Life on the dole a trauma, says Lib. On Friday night we paid $70 per head for a quite indifferent meal at a very popular Sydney eatery. That's almost a third of the total weekly New Start or dole payment. 

I am somewhat into self-help and self-improvement at present. Evan, one of my regular commenters, has a rather useful self-help blog, Living Authentically.

I really draw inspiration from my fellow bloggers. In Another new life opportunity, Denis Wright reports on the second recipient of Denis Wright Scholarship for Underprivileged Girls. I quote:

The second recipient .... through UCEP (in Bangladesh). Like the first recipient, she also wants to be a nurses' aide. She is the youngest of 8 children and lives with her sister in a tin shed. Her parents are dead. She works the longest hours of all the girls presented and seems to have it the roughest....

See what I mean?

In Out and about–doc, library, pho, Yours and Owls, Neil Whitfield wrote:

Down to the doctors. Aside from rotten teeth – waiting on dealing with them – and sore heel, and of course the heart, and other signs of decay, it turns out I am fine.

That's good to know!

The reference to rotting teeth struck a chord. I neglected my teeth for a period because of things like school fees. Most recently while I have focused on writing, I simply haven't been able to afford dentistry. Now I need to find over $A5,000 to fix the damage done.

When I was a child, dentures were common. Many people found it easier and cheaper to have their teeth removed. Now in modern Australia dentures are, once again, a booming business because of the very large and growing number of people who simply cannot afford to go to the dentist.

Whooping cough is another thing that is back in modern Australia, if for different reasons.

One of the group on Friday night had whooping cough. The disease almost vanished, but has returned courtesy of the anti-vaccination movement. As it happened, I recently had a whooping cough vaccination because it was bundled with the tetanus booster.

I had been preparing dinner when I applied a cleaver to my fingers instead of the chook. We men our meant to crack hardy, but it was quite a bad wound and hurt like blazes with blood everywhere. I swore and held my hand under the tap until I got it clean enough to bind. Still, I no longer have to worry about whooping cough. I guess that's an advance.

Well, that's all for today. I must move.       

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - the change merchants

My last post, Times of transition, attracted comments on one paragraph in particular. I have amended that paragraph to improve clarity. I want to take the amended paragraph for today's brief muse. I wrote:

It's odd, but generally those who push hardest for change are those who feel most secure in their own general life. This holds for most commentators, senior managers and policy advisers. Alternatively, those pushing for revolutionary change at the other end of the spectrum are often very insecure and wish for a new life, wish to overthrow the system. Both wish to force change on others.

There is a constant stream of stories in the Australian media that centre in some way on change and the need for change. This isn't new, of course, but the thread is ever present.

At national and state levels, we talk about competition, about productivity improvement, about raising standards. We package changes and call them, say, the education revolution. At firm level, CEOs from Qantas's Joyce to the ANZ bank's Smith announce restructuring and job cuts. In the case of the ANZ, the latest cuts follow the ''One ANZ'' program. Announced on December 5, 2008, this was designed to cut costs and restructure the bank in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Change is interesting and attracts reporting. A stable PM attracts no attention. The possibility of a change in PM does. Progressive incremental modifications up or down to head count attract no attention. Larger numbers do, especially when packaged as a project or program with a specific title. Stability is boring, change interesting.

Change is inevitable and necessary. Individuals, organisations and governments are constantly adjusting to changing circumstances.

What is new over the last forty years is the focus on change as a good thing. Change has been reified, tuned from an abstract but continuing process into discrete things that have a tangible and concrete presence. The very word "change" has acquired a new and palpable presence. 

Change always involves costs. These costs are always individual because specific individuals are affected. However, they can also affect groups including organisations and communities.

At present, for example, I know of two major NSW Government agencies that have gone into a kind of paralysis because of changes announced by the O'Farrell Government.

At personal level, individuals are worried about job security. They are also struggling to get their jobs done because the situation is so fluid and uncertain, because they can't get the resources they need to actually do their jobs.

The costs of change are up-front, the benefits come later. In a world of constant change, costs multiply while benefits can be constantly pushed into the future. Further, at a purely personal level, those who bear the costs of change often do not share in the subsequent benefits. There is a fundamental asymmetry in the process.

If you look at those who advocate the type of changes and change processes that I am talking about, you will see that they have a degree of security that in some ways isolates them from the specific change process or processes they are advocating or implementing. Individuals must bear pain in the interests of the nation or organisation, but they are generally not the same individuals as those advocating the change. There is a price to be paid, but it's not my price.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that ANZ CEO Smith as an example is not conscious that his decisions have human effects. However, I would suggest that Mr Smith is isolated from the practical, individual, effects. His pay, his standing with his Board, the achievement of the performance indicators built into his contract, all isolate him. He gains from others' loss.

To a degree, this goes with management responsibilities. If you are a manager at whatever level, you have a job to do. This may include firing people, something that I have done but never found especially pleasant.

However, I would argue that there is a balance question. We need to recognise that different interest are involved, that things are not clear cut, that there are winners and losers.

I would also argue that an imbalance has occurred, that in our obsession with reform, with achievement, with change, we have lost sight of the need for balance. I would also suggest that part of the reason for that lies in the relative security of the the change merchants, their isolation from the results of their advocacy and actions.                 

Friday, January 13, 2012


At work today, one reader (my only reader there!) commented that I hadn't posted since Wednesday. I will be posting tomorrow. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Times of transition

I completely missed yesterday's post, which is unusual. However, I am working full time on site again more than an hours travelling time from home. It is a while since I have done so, so I am having to adjust all my working and writing patterns. This got me thinking about times of transition.

I don't know about you, but I find that the pattern of my life is determined by routines, by habits. Some are good, some bad, but they do provide the pattern of life. Every so often something happens that forces change. Change is uncomfortable and requires adjustment, so there are lags while things shift around.

Human beings are creatures of habit. We are also territorial animals.

Look at the way we attempt to put our stamp on new areas. You move into a new office. You look at your work station. It's strange, alien. It remains so until you put your particular stamp on it. Then it becomes familiar, your territory.

We all know this, but we actually reject it when it applies to others. We push for change, for restructuring, for new things, and then wonder why we strike resistance,

It's odd, but generally those who push hardest for change are those who feel most secure in their own general life. This holds for most commentators, senior managers and policy advisers. Alternatively, those pushing for revolutionary change at the other end of the spectrum are often very insecure and wish for a new life, wish to overthrow the system. Both wish to force change on others. 

I accept that these are generalisations, but they are still useful. I will return to them in later posts.   

Monday, January 09, 2012

Three different Australian movies

Last night we watched Bran Nue Dae (and here) on ABC TV. Its a sort of a road movie set in Western Australia and especially the Kimberley. I must say that I enjoyed it. Still, I was frustrated when I went to the website to get more details. One day I will write a short piece on the stupidities committed by Australian films in their website designs.

Its a bit kitsch, but worth watching because it's quite fun. The official trailer follows. 

Another Australian film we watched over Christmas, one given to me by Santa, was Red Dog. This one is also set in Western Australia, but in the Pilbara region to the south of the first movie. This is a very different movie, even though both movies are in roughly the same time period.

I really enjoyed it. The official trailer follows.  Further brief comments follow the trailer.   

By the standards of local films, both movies were financial successes in local box office terms, with Bran Nue Dae taking $7.6 million, Red Dog over $21 million. Both are very Australian, with Red Dog striking a huge chord just based on the comments I heard from people.

The third Australian movie I saw at Christmas, again a present, was very different. This was the New England film, Lou the Movie (and here), set in the Northern Rivers. This is a very different film set in present times that was far less successful commercially. Again the trailer follows. 

I really enjoyed Lou. I also liked it because it shows part of the area that I know. There is an enormous difference between the colours and culture of New England and that in Western Australia.

Three very different movies, all Australian.

In writing this piece I tried to get some decent box office stats, buts struggled. I also found more visual material that means that I can better use film to illustrate New England life. But that's a matter for a post elsewhere.  

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Sunday Essay – obesity, fads and the failure of specialisation

According to an article the Sydney Morning Herald (A big problem calls for children on scales) by Rachel Brown, school children should be put on the scales and measured every time they have a health check, because parents and doctors can no longer identify weight problems purely on sight.

According to the Wikipedia article on the epidemiology of obesity, the World Health Organisation formally recognised obesity as a global epidemic in 1997. Obesity is most pronounced in developed countries (as early as 1962, 45 per cent of adult Americans were reported to be overweight; 13 per cent obese), but is spreading. It is largely an urban problem, and has spread with urbanisation.

The concern with obesity and with weight has become an obsession that affects every aspect of life.

In public policy and political debate, we look to ban or at least control junk food. We debate controls over advertising looking to protect children. Our papers, magazines and TV screens are full of stories about weight and diet and of ads for magical cures. The Biggest Looser reality TV show gains major ratings.

These concerns affect all aspects of domestic life: conversations centre on diet and healthy life style; the daily routines of life are affected by the need to accommodate specific weight loss diets; family cooking becomes more difficult.

One striking thing about obesity if the way it has been defined as a medical problem. The Sydney Morning Herald article appeared in the health section of the paper and focused on medical responses. The WHO uses the word “epidemic” to describe the spread of obesity, a word with specific medical connotations. Doctors have become the new gurus and advisers to us as individuals and to Governments.

Frankly, I am sick of it.

No one doubts that more people are overweight. No one doubts that obesity can have adverse health affects. Yet obesity itself is not a medical condition as such, it is not a disease. There are cases where obesity does have physiological causes, where it can be classified as a medical condition because the causes properly fall in the field medicine and can be addressed though medicine. However, this is simply not true in most cases. A best, medicine may help delineate some of the causes, may help deal with some of the results.

In my professional writing, I have explored to some degree the way in which specialisation affects the way problems are defined and responded to.

In law, for example, lawyers automatically look at the legal aspects of issues. They give legal responses to problems that are not in fact legal at all. Something similar happens in medicine. The problem and suggested responses are forced into the professional’s mental frame.

To counter this, I have argued in part that we need to develop a general discipline of professional practice, one that applies across professions. I have suggested that one aspect of that should be the diagnostic, the proper identification of the problem to be addressed. This includes the proper identification of those aspects of the problem actually relevant to the professional in question.

The rise of “the professional” was one of the defining features of the last few decades of the twentieth century. We saw a proliferation of specialisation and specialists to the point that much of the work force now carries some professional claim. We also saw an explosion in of Government enforced credentialism to the point that nearly everything now requires some form of ticket; the role of experience and broad based skills has been devalued as a consequence.

In another part of my writing I have focused on the importance of multidisciplinary approaches, trying to explore just what was required to make these work. Central to this was the need to define common frames that would allow different professions to work together, to overcome that blindness created by training and professional practice.

I still regard this as important. However, I also think that it’s sad that interest in multidisciplinary working peaked in the 1990s. Then many of us thought that such working would be central to future work. The explosion in credentials and in professions has increased the need for multidisciplinary approaches, but also reduced real interest in and capacity to actually do real multidisciplinary work.

If we apply this analysis to the obesity issue, you will see that the proliferating “solutions” are dictated by the professional backgrounds of those involved, as well as the perceived need to control actions and symptoms through direct controls.

To my mind, there is remarkably little discussion that looks at obesity in a holistic way as one subset in a range of social issues. Without such discussion, fad and fancy will continue to rule.

Note to readers:

This brief Sunday Essay draws together some of the threads in Belshaw thought. I will add a few links later.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - tweet not lest you be twatted

Starting today's meander with a list of my posts elsewhere over the last week. There aren't a lot of them:

Over on on Scepticslawyer, deusexmacintosh's post Cameron’s First Law of Twitter Personified drew a comment from skepticlaw:

I must admit I’m with Lorenzo on this; tweet not lest you be twatted. Technology has a habit of conferring some ambiguous ‘benefits’ at the same time as all the good stuff, while the people using that technology haven’t changed very much, hence the problems with foot in mouth disease.

This got me thinking about sometimes ambiguous nature of Twitter and the love-hate relationship I have that that particular medium.

I don't follow a lot of people on Twitter, just sixty five. Even with that number, the volume of tweets sometimes swamps me - thirty in the last two hours. With the time I have, I don't understand just how people can read so many tweets when they follow six hundred or more people!

Still, that's not the point of today's muse.

I know when I write  - short or long - that there is always a tendency to be frank. It is at tendency I have to discipline, for I know that the things that I write are public. Yet this is one reason why Twitter is so insidious. The very form of Twitter encourages the illusion that what one writes is actually a conversation, limited but still a conversation. We think of the conversation relationship as between us and our followers in general, particular individuals in particular, yet it's not. It's a public dialogue with the world.

The biggest problem comes where people tweet for immediate effect. Grab attention now, repent at leisure. Twat follows tweet.

The tendency is always there. I know what will attract attention, whether in tweet or post. I am tempted to go for the instant grab. Yet it's also very silly.

I really do need to finish cleaning the swimming pool. It is such a nice day. I am feeling happy and don't want to write serious stuff! Facebook, blogs, Twitter - get behind me!

Friday, January 06, 2012

Threads - Armidale Express, language, marginal economics & a damaged hand

Just some threads today.

I see that my Armidale Express column has been given the honour of a front page teaser for two weeks in a row. Here is the first front page.


And here is the second. The tennis story is mine.


I know that it's a bit egotistical of me to like all this, but just at present I need some boosts. 

Turning to other things, I am not a linguist. Indeed, the complexities of that discipline and the languages it studies are quite beyond me. I mention this because a post on GeoCurrents, Speculative fiction and language, looks at Star Treks' Klingon and the relationship between that and human languages. In so doing, it provides taste of linguists and human language variety. It's an interesting piece.

From time to time, I write about economic developments and the changing nature of economics as a discipline. Here a short links piece in The Interpreter led me to this article in The Economist, Heterodox economics - Marginal revolutionaries. Part of its theme is summarised in the sub-title, "The crisis and the blogosphere have opened mainstream economics up to new attack." I found that interesting, but was more interested in the discussion of the different schools of thought.

It's time I updated my higher education page again. Today's Sydney Morning Herald carries an article by Jen Rosenberg, Uni caught out trying to poach students using private database.

I am not in a position to comment on the accuracy of the story, nor on the issues involved in the apparent use of confidential data by Sydney University to try to attract students. However, the story is indicative if the tensions and conflicts that can and indeed have arisen many times already as universities attempt to behave like market based corporations.

Following a discussion thread that began here with The best of Neil Whitfield's least read posts, Neil has posted So wise, so true. Have a look at the Jewish teacher's story in the middle of the post. I found this just so sad. Obviously I don't know all the facts, but it was depressing.

At a personal level, I struggle to handle the way that social and official sanctions combine with prejudice to enforce certain types of behaviour. See what you think.

I began this post a bit before 8am. Then my brother-in-law and his son came across to help me fix up the garden here. I was very grateful. We will all be moving from this house some time in the next few months, and there is a lot to be done to make the moves possible.

I worked out that the next place will be the sixth place that I have lived in in a bit over six years. These constant moves really suck. It's not just the disruption, but also the costs of moving that have to be added to already very high Sydney rents.    

To add to the pervading sense of gloom, a week back I managed to apply a cleaver my fingers instead of the target chook. It hurt like blazes and blood spurted everywhere. Still, I was very luck that I neither broke bones nor lost fingers. Even so, I haven't been able to swim or do certain things.

Enough complaining.I need to do some work.        

Thursday, January 05, 2012

"Things were a lot looser then" - the New Zealand hippie movement

My thanks to Lynne for this one.

I was never a hippie in the true sense of the word, but like many of my generation I was strongly influenced by the hippie movement.  These four youtube videos tell part of the story of the hippie movement in New Zealand.  I think that you will enjoy them. I have inserted a few brief background comments between the clips.

I was eight when I first went to New Zealand. I returned eight years later, and then from 1970 visited New Zealand nearly every year. On those trips I stayed with family, at youth hostels and with New Zealand friends, so I was exposed to some degree to the trends presented in the documentary.

New Zealand is an interesting place. Very socially conservative, it yet had a strong social reform tradition that manifested itself in a variety of ways from the very early days of European settlement. Australians tend to forget that. Further, New Zealanders had and still have a closeness to the countryside that Australia has long lost.   


Australia dwarfs New Zealand in population terms. In 1970, the New Zealand population was 2,852,100, rising to 3,176,400 in 1980. In part because of that smaller population, in part because of the travelling young, the counter culture elements were more visible in New Zealand.

The Whole Earth Catalog was first published in the US in 1968 and became something of a bible. I remember one year when we arrived at the youth hostel at Kakoura (I was travelling with two mates) on the South Island, we found a group huddled around a heater drying flowers that the WEC suggested would give a high if smoked. One of the group was a long term resident at the hostel who used to run each day to the top of a nearby mountain to meditate and commune with nature. People were into that sort of thing.

Drying finished, the flowers were rolled into a joint and passed around among the group. A little later, we ran into one of the girls at the Queenstown YHA. She told us that they had apparently used the wrong flower; the high effects were totally psychological!      

The world changes. The emergence of hard drugs, the demands of family, conflicts between residents and drop-ins, the unremitting nature of the hard work involved in making an alternative life style work, all combined to bring the period to an end. Society, too, was closing up, becoming less accepting, more controlling, and yet at the same time more individualistic.  

Nostalgia runs like a thread through the videos. There is a sense of loss, but also sometimes bemusement at things done. 

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The best of Neil Whitfield's least read posts

I am in a somewhat random mood this morning. I am going to limit myself today to just one thing.  In a comment on Introspection on the start of a new year, Winton Bates wrote:

Some bloggers point their readers to the most popular posts they have written, but one day I think I will make a feature of the 'most ignored' posts I have written - the ones that I think more people should have read!

This lead Neil Whitfield (Ninglun) to write My most ignored posts of 2011. For my own pleasure, I decided to review the posts Neil listed and select three that I thought were best.

Let me start with my favourite post, Being Australian 21: inclusive multiculturalism Aussie style 12 – video interlude. With this post, you must watch the videos. If you do, you will get a feel for modern Australia with its complexities and confusions. Neil and I may disagree on certain things, but both of us are concerned with what makes Australia Australia. 

My second favourite is Reflections, mostly about a chequered teaching career: Part Five + Salinger. It's not a long post.

Neil is first and foremost a teacher. I have been reading and responding to him since soon after I started blogging. We have only met once, at Lord Malcolm's funeral. I went not because I knew Lord M, but because I thought that I should to show support. I am glad that I did, although it was in some ways an odd experience. After all, why was I there?

The third post is another English post, Performance poetry has its place.

L eave it to you to enjoy Neil's work. 

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Personal Reflections - what's coming over 2012

My thanks to regular reader and commenter kvd for his kind donation to the keep belshaw writing fund. I really do appreciate it. It's not just the cash, valuable though that is, but the affirmation that there is some value in what I write.

While I am not making any major new year''s resolutions nor setting firm targets, I really am out-targeted, I thought that I would share with you some of the things that I expect to write about this year across outlets and interests. Most will not come as a surprise to regular readers.

Major Writing Projects

Like most writers, I have too many projects for my own good.

My main project remains my history of New England. For a number of reasons, this effectively stalled in the personal doldrums that marked the second half of 2011. I did write some material, but my heart wasn't in it.  Apart from the lack of motivation, I faced a difficulty in that I am at the point where I need to allocate large blocks of time.

I actually had the time, but found that I couldn't maintain the concentration required. This year I expect to do better!

There are two other book projects behind the major history. One isIMG_0298 editing for publication my biography of my grandfather, the New England politician David Drummond. The second is a history of the New England New State Movement. Both will have to wait until  I complete the major history.

Another longer term book project is the story of the Belshaws. I have a raft of material here including the work my father did on the Belshaws; this runs to the best part of 100,000 words. 

In case you haven't worked it out by now, we Belshaw's are a somewhat bookish academic, writing family.

This is a recent photo of cousin Cyril Belshaw with daughter Diana taken at Cyril's eightieth birthday party. Cyril has documented part of his life, while his brother Michael also published an autobiography.

All family stories are potentially interesting if well written. However, the story of the Belshaws is especially challenging because it spans not just time, but also space across four countries. It also deals with the history of ideas and of the varying roles of individuals.  

The next photo is a red carpet photo taken at this year's Canadian Dora awards.  Presented annually by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, these honour theatre, dance, and opera productions in Toronto, Canada. Diana Belshaw is on the right with partner Thomas Hauff. Both have been considerable figures in Canadian film and theatre.

There is a considerable gap between the grimy world of industrial England that I presented in Musings on photos past 5 - Leaving Lancashire and that Toronto red carpet!

For the moment, I am just posting background material, but I am conscious that time is passing and that I need to get some material while I can.   

As the year ended, I added two new book projects. You see, I cannot be trusted to stay focused!

For Christmas, eldest gave me a copy of the Lou the Movie DVD.

Set in New England's Northern Rivers, this is a simple tale, well told. The photo is one still from the movie.

Some time ago, I began a blog series called the Colours of New England. Here I tried to link art, poetry, novels, photography, film and geography to make the area that I love accessible to outsiders, to make them want to visit and to set a context for that visit.

Lou is a very area specific movie. As I watched it, I realised that Colours of New England was actually a book demanding to be written.

The second book project is more problematic. For the first time for a while, I suddenly found myself with a novel in my mind. Loosely based on events in my own life, it is the story of love lost and the confusions that result.

I said that it was more problematic. All writers mine their own life for material. I know that I do, although I try to conceal to a degree. In this case there is an issue in that those involved in the real world events may recognise the links between fiction and reality.

Sitting on the bus, I drafted a quick synopsis. I know that it's a good story. It really is. Women dominate the space that we are talking about. Everything is written from a female perspective. But we men no matter how inarticulate we may be when it comes to emotional issues also have a story to tell. I think that I might tell it.

International Economic Events and Domestic Impacts

Changing focus entirely, I know that I am going to be writing on economic developments this year. My new economics column in a national business magazine provides one focal point. However, I have two broader interests.

The first lies in my continuing need to understand just what has been happening, what might happen. A long time ago I pointed to issues associated with the Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the Indian economies. Economic activity in both countries has slowed.

I have also written about the thinning out of the Australian economy. Australia has become dependent on a very limited commodity base in a way not seen for many years. You can expect these things to continue to feature in my writing.

I have also tried to explain the linkages between international economic developments and specific domestic policies. My point has been that domestic policy at all levels cannot be seen in isolation from events elsewhere. Obviously, I am not the only person to have made this point. However, that does not detract from its importance.

Travel Writing

I enjoy travel writing. My main writing this year was the Greece series, although travel stories featured in many posts.  The Greek series suddenly stopped on 18 October 2011, leaving us stranded on Rhodes.  Five days after this post, on 23 October, events occurred that left me with no desire to continue. I do not expect to finish the series.

I do plan to do more travel writing, however. In February, I plan to enrol in a continuing education travel writers' course.

In the short musings that began with So you want to be a writer part 1, I said that there were some forms of writing that I did not want to do just to earn money. Travel writing is different: I enjoy it; I may be able to earn some money; and the tax deductibility for certain expenses is attractive. So expect more here.

Australian Politics and Public Policy

I do expect to continue my writing in this area, focusing both on systemic effectiveness and my traditional policy focus in areaUS Theatrical film posters like education.

There is a fair bit to say here, including the consolidation of some of my earlier material.

On Boxing Day we went to see The Iron Lady, a film based on the life of British PM Margaret Thatcher. It was a good film, if not quite what I expected.

I noticed two things about the audience at the showing we went too.

The first was the age of the audience, with the majority sixty or more. The second was that the young ones in our family group found the movie confusing because they lacked context. They knew nothing about Margaret Thatcher, nor the events that she was involved in.

You see something similar with the 1975 dismissal of the Australian Whitlam Government. Those Australians who have the events seared into their consciousness struggle when they meet younger Australians who do not know who Gough Whitlam is, let alone the details of the dismissal.

  I do attempt to provide some historical context to my political and public policy analysis. I want to do more of this this year.

Social and Cultural Change

With 247 page views,  Kate Bolick on the decline of marriage - and men (21 October 2011) has been one of my most read recent posts. This post is one of a number of posts that I have written centred on family structures, gender roles and the changing patterns of personal relationships in Australia.

I write on these matters because of my general interest in change patterns, but also because of my own interest in and sometimes personal confusions about the issues involved. Often, I sit and listen to discussions that seem to me to be shallow and stereotypical. I say nothing because there is no point.

I also get annoyed at a personal level because people assume that my age dictates my views. This actually involves the application of two very different stereotypes. One is ageism itself, the second the belief that there are sets of views that apply to particular generations.        

For my own interest, I want to consolidate some of my writing in these areas. I feel that Australian society is at something of a tip point, one in which excesses and confusions associated with past views and campaigns have led to reactions that, among other things, are actually making society more conservative.

New England Issues

My New England focus will continue. However, I will do a separate post here on the New England Australia blog.

Other Writing

With the aim of having more fun this years, I want to do two things.

The first is just spending more time reading and promoting my fellow bloggers. I do this to some extent now, but would like to do more. All we bloggers tend to be at least a little solipsistic. It goes with what we do, with the desire to write and publish our thoughts. Yet there is some interesting and sometimes very good stuff out there that we often ignore; we live in a time poor crowded world in which only the prominent gain attention.

I would also like to do more in my train reading series, consciously reading and writing in an almost random fashion to break out from current bounds.

Well, this has become a very long post and I am out of time. All for now.