Monday, September 21, 2015

Copenhagen bikes 1

It's been a while since I've run a writer's desk photo. This one is in Copenhagen. I'm on my way to Esplanada and I have stopped for a coffee and to write up my notes.

I gave my initial impressions of Copenhagen in my last post. I was wise to do so.

Have you ever noticed how impressions blur when you are travelling? It's like being in a cocoon. At any point we establish a familiarity; known haunts, identified corners, places to shop. And, then, suddenly, we move and a new cocoon forms, replacing the old. That previous cocoon vanishes with speed.

This shot is another Copenhagen bike scene. I want to write a proper follow up post on bikes, but have yet to find the time to do supporting research. Why, for example, does Copenhagen have so many bikes compared to most other places?

It's partly a matter of terrain. Copenhagen is flat, so you can scoot along at a fair old speed. No grinding hill climbs when it may well be easier to walk. This means (among other things) that you can use simpler bikes. Most Copenhagen bikes do not appear to have gears.

It's partly that a decision was made back in the 1990s to modify roads to include cycle ways. In some cases, this involved physical modification  to roads, in others clear markings.

Integration of car and cycling road rules helps as well. But overall, the key ingredient is simply making cycling as easy as possible. No special planning is required, just hop on your own bike or hire one at the many bike hire places.

But now there is a problem. it's called parking! Copenhagen simply does not have sufficient places to park all those bikes! More parking space is required! There is also a problem with disposal of old bikes. This leads to a cheap way to start cycling. Buy a second hand bike at a police auction! This gives you a start for as little as $10 or $20.

In my next post I will look at some of the weird and wonderful variety in Copenhagen cycling life.


Ramana kindly sent me this link recording the Japanese solution to the bike parking problem.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Initial impressions of Copenhagen September 2015

I learned about Mr Abbott's removal from eldest on my arrival in Copenhagen. When I wrote Saturday, I had not expected it to be that quick. Upon reflection, it made sense to act before the Canning by-election.

I have mixed feelings about Mr Turnbull, something that I will explore in another post. Presently, I want to give you my first fragmentary impressions of Copenhagen before they become dulled by familiarity.

The photo is of of one of the galleries, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek just down the street from where I'm staying.

My first impression of Copenhagen was the attractive architecture. While some buildings are older, much older, many of them are neoclassical, dating to the growth period during the nineteenth century. My second impression was the the bikes. They are everywhere. I mean everywhere.

Following moves that really began in the 1990s, the streets and road rules are designed to accommodate cyclists. Nary a helmet in sight, cycling is integrated into the road rules, including hand signals that I was taught at school but which have now, I think, been largely forgotten in Australia. There are bike racks everywhere, bikes leaning against walls, bikes for hire and in some cases what are clearly graveyards of old bikes. There are locals on bikes, tourists on bikes, babies and pets carried in containers set on or linked to bikes, men in business suits on bikes, laptops in the rack on the back.

They are not your standard Australian bikes of the type so beloved by Australian cyclists all dolled up in lyrcra riding in packs, but simpler and more old fashioned bikes with baskets at the front for shopping etc. So you see people popping out for groceries or riding along listening to music or indeed chatting on their headsets with briefcases or other things in the basket.

It's all very convenient and indeed heathy. There seem to be no fat people in Copenhagen. It's also a little nerve wracking until you get used to it. It's quite easy to stray unintentionally into a bike lane. You are more likely to be clobbered by a bike than a car!

Early yesterday morning I went for an orientation walk. I found myself by accident on what is called the Royal Route around the area known as Slotsholmen. It was about 7:30 by then. Central to this area is the Christiansborg Slot or Palace. Originally the home of the Royal Family, it now part museum but also houses Parliament and various offices including that of the Prime Minister.

I had no idea of any of this. I had just gone for a walk. However, conditioned as I am by Australia, I started to get very uncomfortable. I was clearly in some official area with people going to work. There were open gates displaying new vistas that looked interesting. There were no signs to indicate that I shouldn't be there, but I kept expecting to be pulled up by some uniformed figure.

It was then hat I found signs indicating that I was travelling around the Royal Route. It was then I found out that the big building was (among other things) the home of Parliament and held the PM's office. I walked on, finding a big gate that led to a large quadrangle with horse areas and beyond that a large statue and then the very impressive back facade of the Slot.

I stopped. Again, there was nothing to say that I couldn't enter, but as an Australian I have been conditioned to expect authority, guards and warning signs. As I obviously hesitated, a high vis coated man who had been checking cars entering said go in, you can go in. Obviously very proud of the building, he pointed out to me where Parliament was and the PM's Office and other special features including the tower and stables.

I walked in and around the large quadrangle. It was then that I realised I hadn't so far noticed any police in Copenhagen. They are omnipresent in Sydney. Later I was able to identify police uniforms, but they are very different from Australia's police with their flack jackets and kit including capsicum spray, large pistols, tasters etc. NSW police uniforms and associated kit are intended to convey authority and install order over and indeed fear among potential wrong-doers. This does not appear to be necessary in Denmark. No doubt Australians are less law abiding, the threats to our security greater.

More relaxed attitudes extend to smoking and drinking. There are anti-smoking rules and indeed I am sure that there are campaigns too, but cigarettes seem to be a quarter of the price in Sydney, there are more receptacles for buts, while it is still possible to have a cup of coffee outside with a fag.

Drinking rules are more relaxed too. Danes like to drink, although to this point I have seen no evidence of public drunkenness of the type you might see in some Australian cities. Drinking in public places is allowed including along the canals, while all the convenience stores carry alcohol. Mass grog shops of the type we know may exist, but I haven't seen them.

Finally, Copenhagen seems prosperous with cranes everywhere. At least in the parts of the city that I have seen, there is no evidence of the abject poverty and homelessness that you now see in parts of Sydney, nor have I seen any beggars. There are homeless people, but the problem does not appear to be at the same level.

I accept that these are superficial assessments. However,  they do provide a base for further observation.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Saturday Morning Musings - Naledi Man, continued troubles in the Abbey, ministerial offices

While I may be able to post from time to time, this will be my last regular post for a month. I leave the country tomorrow for my first significant trip since the Greek Islands in 2010 and also my first extended break. Five years! That's a long time.

So this post is a bit of a round-up on things that we have talked about from time to time.

The Origins of man

This is an artist's impression of Naledi Man. By all accounts, this is a most remarkable find.

When I first studied prehistory, so little was known of the deep human past. Since then, we have had discovery after discovery, including those coming from the application of DNA techniques.

From time to time I have referred to some of this, but I find myself a little lost now. There have been so many discoveries, some conflicting, that it is hard to keep in touch.

What is, I think, clear is that the process has absolutely ripped apart assumptions previously made, conclusions drawn, that are still deeply embedded in current thinking.

The Gillarding of Tony Abbott

During the last stages of the Gillard Government, I used to talk about the need for her to find that quiet place in the middle of turmoil that might allow her to think without pressure  It didn't happen. Now Tony Abbott finds himself in a similar position.

At one point, I spoke of the weekly crisis.that the Abbott Government was experiencing, wondering what might come next.

Last week the Government's response on the European refugee crisis provided a brief positive, even bi-partisan, positive point. Then came Minister Dutton's gaf in cracking nervous jokes, not realising that a boom mike was on.

The nature of the remarks ensured unsympathetic media coverage, as well as responses from Australia's political neighbours and Aboriginal groups. At the same time, the apparently official leak on possible ministerial changes, a move perhaps intended to show Mr Abbott in charge, seems to have just created angst and more speculation about another possible leadership challenge.

The by-election next Saturday for the Western Australian seat of Canning was being seen a litmus test on Mr Abbott's leadership. Now I don't think that it matters. Even if the Liberal Party holds the seat without the expected swing, the present Australian government is probably just too accident prone for Mr Abbott to survive.   .    

Role of the Ministerial Office

One of the issues that has become important lies in the dysfunctional nature of modern ministerial offices. 

 I am not in a position to talk about the running of Mr Abbott's office or the role played by Peta Credlin as Chief of Staff. I have had no contact with the office. I am in a position, however, to comment on ministerial offices in a general sense having dealt with so many over such a long period.

The emergence of the modern ministerial office is relatively new, the replacement of the term Principal Private Secretary by Chief of Staff even newer. There are two connected problems.The first is that they have become power centres in their own right, the second lies in their focus on winning the immediate political battle regardless.Instead of supporting the minister, they want to manage the minister. 

Mr Abbott's office is not the West Wing. The Australian system of government is not the US system. Modern ministerial offices simply don't work very well.

Productivity and all that

Finally, a brief note on productivity and economic growth.

The latest round was triggered by discussion over at Winton Bates' place.

Because of time, I'm not going to be able to follow up on our discussion in ways that I would have liked. However, I thought that I should make make a few comments since I am trying to pull ideas together in my own mind, if in a rambling way.  

I have written quite a bit on the way that human constructs such as "countries" or "economies" affect and indeed distort our thinking. Part of my aim here has been to clear out my own head, partly to challenge certain forms of thought.

The discussion in comments on "Productivity and technology in a globalised world" draws out some of the issues. I am not going to be able to comment properly now, but will try to do so later.


Interesting South African reactions to the Naledi story. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Louis Pratt's Data Blocking - Sydney Contemporary art exhibition

I have been enjoying my return as viewer to the Australian art scene. This is Louis Pratt's Data Blocking.  I mentioned another of his works in Monday Forum - art, ideology and politics.

I am talking about this now because Sydney Contemporary began today and will run to 13 September. Sadly, I will not be able to go since I will be leaving the country at the weekend. However, I see that James O'Brien has already visited. Hat tip to Neil Whitfield for alerting me to James' visit. James was clearly impressed!

The Louis Pratt piece is included in the Nanda/Hobbs display. Nanda/Hobbs was better known as Art Equity until the middle of this year.

Louis's piece is quite striking. My instinctive reaction was to say ouch!

One would really need to walk around it and think about before commenting properly. Maybe, I will see it at another time.


Wednesday, September 09, 2015

That Australian Life - that's quite a spider!

I couldn't resist this story from The Canberra Times.

It appears that Australian National University scientists have discovered a possible new species of funnel-web spider dwelling near Jervis Bay.

Biologists uncovered the unusually large specimen of the spider's tree-dwelling genus Hadronyche while canvassing Booderee National Park.

The 50-millimetre female was burrowed inside a rotting log in a silk-lined nest up to two metres long. That's quite a  spider! Something else to look out for in the bush!

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Productivity and technology in a globalised world

This morning's post is triggered by Winton Bate's recent summary post, Will future technological advances provide widespread opportunities for human flourishing?, drawing together some of his recent writing and thinking. It seemed an appropriate point to use Winton's arguments to draw together some of my own arguments and thinking. None of my points are especially profound, they are just points in the evolution of my own thinking.

I have chosen as my entry point this conclusion of Winton's: "Technological innovation is likely to destroy a substantial proportion of current jobs, but it will not necessarily be more disruptive than it has been in the past."

Looking at history, I have to agree that technological innovation is unlikely to be more disruptive of existing activities than in the past. To illustrate my point, consider the impact of the internal combustion engine and, more specifically, the motor vehicle. In two decades, entire industries were largely wiped out, while the very pattern of human life in developed countries began a process of reshaping that is still working its way through.

I put existing activities in bold for a very specific reason. In the case of the motor vehicle, more jobs were created than lost. They were in different places and involved different people, but the net employment gain was still positive.In the current case, that outcome is less clear to me. I note that Winton has considered this issue. I am just less sanguine than he.

In considering the case of gains versus losses, we need to make a distinction between the wealthier countries and the rest of the world. So far as the world as a whole is concerned, improvements in transport and in computing and communications technology makes it easier for activities to shift to take advantage of differences in factor prices and especially labour. This suppresses labour price increases in certain countries while increasing incomes in other places. Whereas trade used to be the transmission mechanism, we now live in a world where entire industries or economic activities can shift.

If we now turn to the wealthier countries, I can see no a prior reason based on economic theory why we should assume that wealthier countries will (or can) continue to get wealthier. I would have thought that the most that they can hope to achieve as a group is to hold their own, to maintain current income levels with zero or low increases.

Demographic factors contribute to this result. Many developed countries face declining populations and work forces Their challenge is just to maintain GDP. If they can do that, per capita incomes will increase, if slowly. Japan can be taken as a case in point. Japanese economic growth has been relatively stagnant, but per capita incomes have actually increased.

Beyond the demographic challenge is a more fundamental one. How do you continue to grow, even maintain income standards, if other countries can do things things more cheaply? We talk about this in the context of productivity. We must raise productivity so that we can compete, to continue to grow. But what happens if those productivity increases have the effect of suppressing wages? In this case, productivity improvement becomes the device necessary to assist a country to adjust to its decline in relative and perhaps absolute incomes.

We speak of the hollowing out of the middle, the way that structural change in developed countries has created a gap between the top and bottom.  My history of New England maps this for an area, tracing the decline of middle income jobs. In Australian terms, this is seen as as an inevitable and indeed necessary result of structural adjustment. Jobs lost in New England are replaced by jobs created elsewhere in Australia. But what happens if Australia is New England writ large?

If we look globally, there are more middle class jobs now than there have been at any time in human history. I stand to be corrected, but it seems to me that the hollowing out of the middle class in wealthy Western countries is a localised phenomenon. For every middle class job lost in Australia or the US, one or more is created elsewhere. Those jobs may be paid less, but that is part of the adjustment phenomenon.  

I have spoken before about the way boundaries affect thinking.We should not assume that technological advances will lift average real wages in high income countries.The key issue is the way that technological advances create prosperity across the globe. The adjustment processes in a country like Australia. a political construct, will be determined in large part by those global trends.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Monday Forum - The Limits of Power

Somehow it's much more fun writing on Thea Proctor (Musings on Thea Proctor) than it is on current events. Certainly it's more relaxing.

The sheer scale of the migrant/refugee problem unfolding in Europe is mind-boggling. I deliberately used migrant/refugee. The BBC feels obliged to explain why it is using migrant as a term  I quote:
A note on terminology: The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.
Meantime, Al Jazeera has decided to stop using the term migrant and instead use refugee: Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean 'migrants'. To quote: "The word migrant has become a largely inaccurate umbrella term for this complex story."

Here in Australia, Prime Minister Abbott has been quite wrong-footed. Instead of recognising the complexity of the European problem, his instinctive reaction was to restate the stop the boats mantra. This time, his own side has broken away. Again I quote:
It was Craig Laundy​, one of Abbott's own MPs, who articulated the public response to those harrowing images of a dead toddler washed up on a Turkish beach in a single phrase: "Can we please do more?" 
Laundy's emphatic view is that the Australian response should extend above and beyond the existing refugee intake. It is shared by many others in the Coalition, including New South Wales Premier Mike Baird.
More importantly, it resonates with the broader community reaction to the largest forced movement of people since World War II.
Mr Abbott is moving, being dragged, I guess, but he was too locked in to his domestic rhetoric to be able to respond in a compassionate way. Even now, he is emphasizing that an extra refugee intake must fit within existing quotas.We control our own borders, he says.This resonates with some, but is increasingly being seen as a limited blinkered response.

The human tragedy unfolding in Europe, Africa and the Middle East is significant. However, to my mind the bigger tragedy lies in the progressive erosion of trust in existing institutions. In the Middle East, there are increasing responses on social media pointing, rightly, to the failure of Gulf States in particular to do anything to assist the refugee crisis. In Europe, national and EU institutions have been placed under great strain, accentuating already existing divisions within and between countries. In Australia, there has been a progressive diminution of trust in the national government.

I am not being a bleeding heart liberal when I say this, although my own views are reasonably clear. One can ignore the constant social media stream from those opposed to the Government's position on refugees, terrorism, citizenship and the borders, although it does have an erosive effect. Of more importance are the increasing doubts and concerns held by those who are traditional Liberal Party supporters. I cannot give you hard evidence here, I am basing my view just on those I talk too.

Things tend to balance over time. As an optimist, I feel that the EU institutions will, finally, emerge stronger, while the current position of the Australian Government will come to be seen as an unfortunate aberration. For the moment, however, the loss of trust is quite palpable.    

I think that one of the lessons to be drawn from the current turmoil is the limits of power.As a traditional liberal, it is a tad humiliating too conclude that the world would be a better place if Colonel Gaddalfi or Saddam Hussein had remained in power, if the Arab Spring had not occurred, if the Ukrainians had been more subtle in managing Russia. The West's reliance on air power as a weapon of choice has severe limitations. You can destroy, but you can't build.

In the end, the West is not prepared to put boots on the ground. It would be easier if the West did not suffer from an imperial angst dating back to the break-up of colonialism. Then the gun boats could go in, withdrawing if the calculus of power dictated otherwise. Now we have to just oh-so polite. We talk the talk, but can no longer walk the walk.

I am not arguing for ground troop military intervention in Syria. I am saying that we need a realistic assessment on the limits of power. Australia should not commit war planes within Syria because there is no military gain that I can see. Better to spend the money on dealing with the collateral damage from decisions already taken.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Musings on Thea Proctor

My Armidale Express history revisited columns this and next week are on the Australian artist Thea Proctor.

Thea Proctor was born in Armidale on 2 October 1879, the oldest child of William and Kathleen Proctor. Her father was a lawyer who was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly in December 1880 as Member for New England, a position he was to hold until January 1887.

The portrait is by an unknown artist. It was painted in 1896, the year the seventeen year old Thea enrolled at Julian Ashton's arts school.

I originally became interested in Thea in part because of the Armidale connection, in part because I was then buying Australian art.  My collection included one of her line drawings.

Over the last twelve months, my train reading has carried me through aspects of Australian and European cultural life in the period up to and after the first World War. One aspect of that has been the role of and complexities faced by female artists who also wanted human relationships.

In her book, Stravinsky's Lunch (2001), the Australian writer Drusilla Modjeska explores the life of the Australian painters Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith. The book, written from a feminist perspective, explores the nature of choice. This is especially true for Stella Bowen and her relationship with the writer Ford Madox Ford.

 The English artist Dora Carrington was considerably younger than Thea Proctor, although they shared some common experiences of studying art in London, if separated by time. Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina's biography of Carrington (1989) again draws out the nature of complexity in relationships, as well as the way that gender stereotyping affected Carrington's choice in artistic endeavour with a bias towards the craft and domestic.
Looking at Thea Proctor, I wondered to what extent her problematic relationship with the Australian painter George Lambert affected (limited) her work.This self portrait of Lambert dates to c1906. He seems to me to be a little smug, self-satisfied.

Thea first met Lambert at the Julian Ashton Art School, following him to London in 1903.There she studied with him
and often sat for him. This Lambert portrait of Thea dates from 1905.

I do not pretend to understand the nature of the relationship between Proctor and Lambert, nor between Proctor and Lambert's wife Amy. I do feel, and this may be be no more than prejudice, that the relationship with Lambert may have limited Proctor's own career potential.

In this context, I wondered too to what extent gender roles and perceptions mat have affected Proctor's own choices of subject and style. I base this on no more than Gerzina's picture of art student life in London and the subsequent reactions of the Bloomsbury set to Carrington. Women could be artists indeed, but with a bias towards design and crafts.

Thea Proctor died at Potts Point in Sydney on 29 July 1966. She left behind her a considerable body of work, as well as a record of assisting younger artists. She retained her beauty to the end.   .


A comment from Jude, aka JC, aka JCW took me back to my art collecting days. This is a piece that Judi bought at the time. It's called Reverie, c1919, one of thirty.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Leverage, China and Australia's universities

This morning's post is a round-up.

The Australia-China Free Trade Agreement continues to attract local controversy. I haven't commented on the latest discussion because, lacking knowledge of the detail, I have no value to add. My view is that we are locked into the agreement and, bar any tinkering at the margin that might be possible, let's just get on with it.

On Tuesday 1 September, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest Australian Balance of Payments data. Associated with the release was a discussion paper on the interactions between the Australian and Chinese economies. It's worth a quick browse for those interested. Understandably, most of the discussion on the Australian-Chinese economic relationship has focused on Australia's resource exports. I think that's a mistake. The most vulnerable sector is education, now worth around $A4.4 billion per annum so far as the Chinese marketplace is concerned.

If, as seems likely, the rate of growth in the Chinese economy continues to decline, Australia as a low cost producer will continue to sell resources if at lower prices. However, Australia is not a low cost education provider. There is a significant risk that those institutions most dependent on Chinese students will suddenly find themselves forced to contract. That is one of the reasons why certain leading universities have been arguing so strongly for deregulation of university fees. If their international and especially Chinese student numbers drop sharply and they cannot increase income in other ways, their cost structures will become instantly unbalanced.

Why do I say that a continued decline in the rate of Chinese growth is inevitable? It's all a question of leverage.

Let me tell you a little story. In the middle of 1987, we created Aymever as a consulting, training and information services company specialising in the electronics, aerospace and information industries.

We were on a high growth trajectory, growing fees from zero to $75,000 per months over eighteen months. At that level we were profitable, ploughing everything back into business development. To maximise capital usage, we leased furniture and equipment. It seemed sensible. Then came Mr Keating's recession. This hit professional services first. In just three months, our monthly fees dropped by two thirds. Financing costs that had been comfortable suddenly became crippling.

The Chinese economy is Aymever writ large. Chinese balance sheets at all levels are highly leveraged. That has funded rapid investment led national growth. Now, however, the process is going into reverse.

As it does, the financing strains on enterprises and governments at all levels escalates. National governments have somewhat more flexibility than start-ups, but the reverse leverage effects are still the same. As firms are forced to contract, so does the economy.

The photo shows practice for Chinese celebrations marking the end of the Second World War. We all hope that that China works its way through current economic difficulties. We need the stability. But in the meantime, I wouldn't buy any shares in Australia's G8 universities. What goes up, does have a tendency to come down.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Operation Fortitude update - ABF and the problem of mission creep

This morning I updated the this piece, Saturday Morning Musings - Border Force and the Operation Fortitude fiasco, drawing especially from this piece by Peter Hartcher. It is, I think, a good article. Certainly I learned some new things from it.

Chatting to people, one of the common responses is that other countries have the equivalent, the implication being that so should Australia. The first time I went to mainland Europe I was struck by the presence of para-military forces.The first time to the US, the firepower on display with police and also the extremely officious customs and immigration service. Although Australia is more "armed" than say the UK or NZ, I found it very strange and a bit off-putting. Since then, we have gone down the same route and I don't like it.

All this may sound naive, but it doesn't make me feel safe. I am just too conscious of the way in which state institutions have been corrupted, co-opted in the creation of totalitarian states. There have been a number of Australian thrillers, can't remember the titles at the moment, postulating this. While I quite enjoyed them, I thought them silly at the time. Now I'm not so sure.

One of the problems of organisations like Border Force, or the police for that matter, lies in mission creep. The organisation acquires its own momentum that inexorably draws it outside the boundaries originally set. It also acquires the structure and skills to argue its case in public. A second problem in this particular case lies in the increasing risk of jurisdictional conflict between multiple bodies with overlapping powers. A third problem is that of co-option, the way in which other bodies are drawn in outside their original role, in so doing creating new mechanisms for coercion and enforcement.

Operation Fortitude was a classic case in point. A train inspector's primary role is to reduce fair evasion. Later, train safety was added. The use of train or taxi inspectors to enforce immigration law all in the name of public safety is, to my mind, a rather dramatic example of mission creep. The inability of the ABF Commissioner, or of the ABF staff involved in the fiasco, to recognise the conflicts that they were dealing with, suggests that the ABF has already become lost within the labyrinth of its mission.


Victorian Police have put on hold any future operations with Border Force until roles etc are clarified. I quote from the ABC story:

Commissioner Ashton told 774 ABC Melbourne the bungle was alarming and could not be repeated. 
I've said look we won't be doing any more operations together until we sort of understand what they might look like and what the differences are now between Border Force and what Immigration might do" 
"Until we do that we won't be doing anything further together."