Personal Reflections

Friday, March 27, 2020

Teleworking - a personal perspective

Back in 2006 I wrote a post on teleworking, working from home. While the post is a little dated, I thought that it was worth re-posting now that so many people are working from home because of covid-19. The challenges now are both more complex (whole families are at home and must be managed too) and a little simpler (organisations have had to adjust willy nilly whether they like it or not). However, some of the points are still valid.  

"Sometimes I wonder why I work so often from home because, frankly, sometimes it sucks! At other times, I wonder why the rest of the world does not rush to do it. So in this article I want to share with you both the pluses and minuses of the teleworking life style, focusing especially on the things required to actually make it work.

To do this, I thought that the best approach would be to focus on some of the challenges that must be overcome if teleworking is to work.

Teleworking: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Teleworker

I have rarely heard loneliness discussed in the context of teleworking. Yet teleworking can be a lonely and isolating experience.

Think of it this way.

In the normal working life, you say goodbye to the family, leave home and go to work. At work you say hi to your co-workers. You sit down and start working. Someone comes up to ask you something. You have a break chatting to colleagues. If, like me, you are still a smoker, then you pop outside to have a smoke often with colleagues. By the end of the day when you come home, you have had hundreds of small personal interactions. Exhausted, you collapse onto the couch in front of the TV and turn into a couch potato.

Contrast this with teleworking. The family leaves. You sit down and spend the rest of day in front of your computer alone. Your only interactions are email traffic and phone calls. At the end of the day your family comes home. You are ready to talk, to interact. They want to unwind, to watch TV.

Now none of this may matter to you. But the point in this story is that if you are a person who does like personal interaction but who wants to telework, then you need to find a way to build personal interaction into your weekly round.

Teleworking: The Need for Discipline

We all require structure in our working lives. In the office this is provided by the routines of daily work. We have to present in a certain way. There are working rules that we must comply with. Often, these things are implicit rather than explicit. But they are always there. We know that they are there and comply without even thinking about it.

At home these rules are all relaxed. Want to dress casually? Do so. Want to want TV? Do so. Weed the garden? Do so. Stay in your pajamas? Do so. Now all this may sound wonderful, but if you are a naturally un-disciplined person like me then you can run into problems. So you need to actively create your own working routines.

In my case, while I normally dress in casual fashion, some days I will put on a suit and tie just to reinforce the fact that I am at work even though I am at home!

Teleworking: Separating Work and Home Life

Going to work creates a natural divide between the home and work environment, a divide lacking for those who work from home. This divide is less than it was simply because the technologies that allow effective teleworking mean that even those working in conventional structures now work increasinglyï¾ at home. But the divide is still important.

The danger for the teleworker in forgetting this divide is that personal and work time can simply blur together, adversely affecting both. When the home and the office are the same, the dividing lines blurred, then it is very easy to start worrying about work matters, about the things that you have not done, during what should be personal time.

In the conventional working environment you generally have to put these worries aside because the office is elsewhere. Somehow, the worries become greater if the office is just down the corridor because you know that you can do something about the outstanding issue just by walking a few places.

Teleworking: Managing Family Expectations

Another linked problem is the need to manage your family's unconscious expectations and reactions to your presence at home. You are there, so you are available to do things that would simply not be possible if you were working elsewhere. Would you mind hanging out the washing? Can you pick me up at such a time? And so on.

Now normally you may be happy to do these things. After all, one of the reasons for teleworking is to give you greater flexibility. But at the end of the day you still have to work so many hours to achieve your targets. And every hour taken out of your normal working day makes that more difficult.

Take my own case as an example. I have a 45 hour weekly time target. This is a real time target, not just elapsed time during the normal working day.

Because of the nature of my work I keep time sheets. When I stop work for whatever reason I log off. So when I pick the girls up from school, tidy up the house so that the cleaners can actually clean, or hang out the washing, all this is dead time from a work perspective. The result is that I find that to achieve my 45 hour target I have to work in the early morning and at at weekends. The family then thinks that I am working excessive hours, that I am always working, when the reality is that I am simply trying to catch up.

Now I am not complaining. The point is that if you want to telework, you have to lay down rules with your family so that they understand that just because you are at home does not mean that you are available for other things. Unless, of course, you wish to be.

Teleworking: Managing Unconscious Work Expectations

Now something of the same type of unconscious expectation applies to the teleworker's work colleagues.

I first came across this problem some years ago when I was working with AT&T preparing their first Australian country plan.

AT&T were in advance of their times in that they were prepared in some cases to allow flexible working arrangements. My direct client, the manager in charge of the project, had been given approval to work from home because she had a new baby. She experienced some real problems because of the unconscious expectation at work that she would in fact be available in the same way as an on-site staff member.

Just to tease this out a little. When people work together, the assumption of almost instant availability is built into the working round. I am working on a problem, an issue comes up, I pop down the corridor or even to the next desk to sort it out. Both formal and informal meetings occur frequently, often at short notice.
Now the gearing of work life to this almost instant availability can be a major problem in the normal office because it can waste a lot of time. For that reason, most time management courses include various ways of minimising the problem. However, It remains a deeply entrenched feature of office life simply because it is so easy and useful.

The off-site teleworker can suffer as a consequence. Bosses and co-workers continue to work as they always have. Because the teleworker is not there, he/she may simply be excluded from relevant meetings. Work and responsibilities flow away from the teleworker to on-site staff. The teleworker becomes isolated and alienated.

In this context, it is not surprising that one area where teleworking has spread successfully is among senior managers and partners in professional services firms because they can control the game to some extent. So long as billings and management tasks are maintained, colleagues and staff have to adjust, to learn how to work with the teleworker.

Ordinary staff do not have this type of power position. The only solution is to ensure that the individual teleworker, his/her managers and the organisation itself work through the issues in advance. As part of this, the teleworker needs to learn how to proactively manage relations with colleagues downwards, sideways and especially up.

Teleworking: When Things Go Wrong

Murphy really was an optimist.

While overseas, burglars stole my wife's new computer. Fortunately, they left the office machines simply because they are older. A few weeks later, my main office machine hit problems requiring a full day to fix. As I write, the fax machine is away being repaired.

The point of these stories is that systems fail. In the conventional organisation, quick back-up including other equipment is usually available, minimising adverse impact. The position for the of-site teleworker is more difficult in that equipment loss or failure brings work to a halt until the problem is rectified.

To avoid unnecessary loss of time, these potential problems need to be addressed up front. This includes the organisation of access to service people, arrangements for replacement equipment if required and the development of protocols in regard to security including just what information can be held on a hard disk.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that teleworking can be of mutual benefit to both employer and employee. However, success requires conscious action by both organisation and individual to ensure best results."

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Armidale Diaries 5 - covid-19: one damn thing after another

Exactly three months since my last Armidale diaries entry. It's been a roller coaster. After drought and fires, the rain came and then corona. In the middle of all this, the local council almost dissolved in a firefight among councillors.

Covid-19 has affected us all. It's been a roller coaster.

Many consider that autumn is the best time in this little city with warmish days and cool nights. Yesterday was a truly gorgeous day, one of those days that support the popular view. I had been caught up in trying to sort things out. Now, stir crazy from being at home, I decided to go down town. There was nothing particular that I needed to do. I just wanted a break, time to reflect, perhaps see some people.

On the way into the council parking lot, I drove past the historical society chambers. I had planned to call in, but it was shut. Memo to self: find out what is happening. I think that we should stay open for drop-ins and if we cannot, I have to find a way of accessing a key to allow me to access the resources there. The more I have to stay at home, the more I should focus on research and writing. However,  reflecting, this raised another issue in my mind.

I am a member of the DE Stevenson discussion group. The generally older members are spread across the Anglosphere, which means that discussion provides an insight into the social impact of Covid-19 in a variety of countries. The night before I had been reading about self-isolation and self-distancing, including the decision by some Los Angeles counties to quarantine the over seventies to their own homes, allowing no external visits except to see the doctor.

Apart from the loss of agency involved, this raises a very particular issue in an Armidale context. Because of city's role as an educational centre, it has a very skewed demographic biased towards the young and old with not so much in the middle. This means, among other things. that the city's social infrastructure is heavily dependent on older people including those over seventy. The middle group don't have the time and are in any case focused on social activities and infrastructure relevant to their specific life position such as school or business groups. Remove older people through rigid self-isolation and you not only increase problems of isolation and mutual support but risk the collapse of the city's social infrastructure.

I found the Cinders Lane car park almost empty, a sign of things to come. I walked down the little side alley between Tattersalls Hotel and Boobooks into an empty mall.

At Boobooks, I got my coffee and chatted. Co-owner Debra said that they were staying open, but were reducing their opening hours. I think that both Boo and Reader's Companion are setting up home delivery too.

Sitting there with my coffee, I reflected on the roller coaster events.

Only ten days ago in COVID 19 Conundrums and failures in communications - a regional perspective (March 11 2020) I provided a personal perspective on the then pattern of events.

I mentioned the way that rumours stepped into the information vacuum. On 15 March I had a reasonably dramatic illustration when a neighbour called in to see how I was. These neighbours have been just so kind to me since I arrived in Armidale. I was spooked when I was told that I needed to be especially carefully because there were eight cases at the University of New England of whom four were in hospital. UNE is just up the road.

I knew the story couldn't be true, for that size outbreak would have attracted media coverage. One of the advantages I have is that I have both connections and my own platform. I then went to Laurie Bullock, Northern Tablelands' editor for ACM to alert him. I didn't think that we should attack the rumour directly, just provide factual information on the current position.

Laurie said that they had heard similar rumours and forwarded my email to UNE who came back to me with advice that there were no cases and also provided a link to UNE's Covid-19 information page. I drafted a form of words, cleared it with UNE and then publicised it as widely as I could. I have to say since then, and I am not claiming responsibility, a lot more factual information has been made available.     

In my 11 March post I also mentioned that we were pushing ahead with the history course I was running.  Within days, we had to shutter the course as Armidale U3A closed down for the duration. Armidale U3A has 650 older members and the risks had become to great.

I am trying to use a combination of emails and Facebook to keep some momentum going. One thing that I had not properly realised here is the patchiness of internet usage. When I checked at our last session, only three internal students were actually on Facebook for example.

One of the biggest problems we all face is the degree of uncertainty.

As I sat at Boobooks, youngest and husband were in self-isolation. Their personal trainer had a client who tested  positive, so the trained was being tested. They had therefore isolated themselves waiting for the results of the test on the trainer.

At the same time, eldest was in the Dominican Republic on holidays. Even as she was flying there the borders started closing. Now the question was could she get home to Copenhagen and would they let her in if she did?

As it happened, even as I was sitting at Boobooks the test of the trainer came back negative, while eldest was able to get onto a charter flight to Denmark arrange by Tui, She is now home with partner. Obviously I am relieved!

From Boobooks I decided to have  lunch at the Bistro on Cinders. I couldn't really afford it, but thought that this might be the last time for a while.

I arrived at 12.30, the only person there. Chatting to the owner, he said that they were closing table service that day. They had set things up so that they could provide takeaway. It's a popular place, but I did wonder how all the places now providing takeaway would survive.

We talked about the new council restrictions. The council is closing library, offices etc from Monday, relying on phone and internet connections. The various cafes in the mall were apparently closing down too. I did wonder how people were going to cope. Each morning just before opening there is a queue of people waiting to enter the library to read the papers, use the computers or just sit reading. For some, this is their main social outlet.

By 1.30, the numbers in the Bistro had increased to half a dozen. I let the conversations wash over me. The new support arrangements for small business are clearly important, as are the conniptions in council.

On the way out, I met a friend that I hadn't seen since my return. Like me an ex-board member of the New England Writers' Centre, her professional role is a graphic designer at UNE. We talked about how well the Centre  was going under the leadership of Sophie Masson and about graphic design at UNE. I also plucked her brains about some of the new software that might help me. It was nice to have a conversation that had little to do with covid-19!

From the Bistro I went down to Coles just to check the shelves. Again the car park was half empty, ditto the store, but while many gaps remained on the shelves it seemed clear that supplies were improving.

In all this, spare a thought for the Asian specialty stores dependent upon imported product. Chatting to the owner of the small convenience store near me that carries a lot of lines from the Sub-continent, he said that sourcing of Indian food had become almost impossible.

I finally got home. My half hour coffee had extended into multiple hours, but I felt better for it!

Postscript

At this time, this is funny. You need to start at the bottom, day one. Thanks kvd for the tip

Saturday, March 14, 2020

A Shakespearean take on content warnings


This made me giggle. I am sharing it because I thought that it might make you laugh too. we need some humour just at present.

I hadn't heard or freelance cartoonist Rob Murray. He is very good. You will find his website here, his public Facebook page here. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

COVID 19 Conundrums and failures in communications - a regional perspective


Vacant toilet paper supermarket shelves 
Sitting here in Armidale I have felt relatively isolated from the Corona virus scare. It's not as though I felt that Armidale would be isolated from the outbreak, although its distance from the metro centres does provide a measure of protection notwithstanding the university and boarding school, the volume of traffic in and out of the city. Rather, I simply didn't join in the panic fueled in part by media coverage and earnest politicians.

I am of an age now where I fit into the highest risk category. Despite that, I felt that the probabilities of catching the virus were still relatively low, while if I did catch it I had a 94% chance of surviving the experience. I am also fairly fatalistic. Beyond taking sensible precautions, I didn't think that there was much I had control over. I also didn't want to destroy my life style, including driving into town (at the moment, the statistical probabilities of being hurt there are higher than my risks of catching the virus) to shop or go to meetings.

Women fighting over toilet paper. Channel 9 News
Given my views, I watched the Great Australian Toilet Roll rush with a degree of bemusement. This emptied the shelves in Australia's supermarkets.

Why toilet paper? It's a product actually produced in Australia. Further, unlike long life foodstuff (another item being stripped from shelves), there are alternatives. I'm not sure that I especially want to go back to  newspaper, this was still around in some country loos when I was a young child; it's very uncomfortable, but there are other alternatives.

My attitude in all this was dinted a bit when I went into an Armidale supermarket and found the toilet paper shelves stripped. Surely, I thought. Armidale people are more sensible than this? I then suddenly realised that the local social media feeds were full of concerns and fears.

I could see the point in the discussion. At a technical medical level, the Australian response has been good. We have a world class health service and our civil institutions are still generally competent. But looking at the various comments I could see that people were concerned about inconsistent messaging, lack of information and a growing feeling of a rolling crisis that left them not knowing what to do. fearful for themselves and their families. The end result is extreme concern flowing into not very sensible responses and reactions.

At a purely local level and regional level, there is a problem too in that the coverage is very metro and state based. You can find out what is happening in Tasmania. it's a state, or in Sydney, its a metro, but Northern NSW is a blank within which rumor flourishes.

The presence of a case in Tamworth was covered before people realised that the Tamworth in question was in the UK. The presence of a case in Newcastle was covered, but only in the Newcastle Herald. The case of the Southern Cross University lecturer who reported positive was covered in the metros, but only because it forced the temporary first closure of university campuses.

As mentioned, rumour steps into this blank. Hunter New England Health has reportedly tested 2,000 people for COVID 19. Why haven't we heard anything about the results? Are they covering something up? London to a brick, the answer is no, but people worry.

Apart from inconsistent messages, the feeling of a rolling crisis is accentuated by the way that ministers keep on jumping ahead of themselves, This is a rolling staged crisis. In focusing so much on what might be done when things get worse, State and Federal Ministers (and the media) are adding to the sense of doom, placing people in the position where they are effectively making decisions on a what-if.

With the growing sense of crisis, people are rushing to get COVID 19 tests whether they need them or not. This has overloaded the health system, leading to official calls to people to exercise restraint, to suggestions that doctors should triage patients to focus on defined high risks categories.

That's fine, but an unwell friend who reported sick was told by her employer that she could not come back to work until she had done a COVID 19 test. She met none of the criteria specified for required testing beyond cold and flue symptoms, You can see the employer's point of view, and in this case working from home is a possibility, but it adds to strain on the health system.

So far there are no COVID 19 cases in Armidale or within a 250 mile radius. There is no point in being tested unless you have travelled or have met someone who has travelled in circumstances where they might have come in contact with the virus. Beyond simple sensible precautions such as hand washing, there is no need to alter your life style.

I am running a history course through U3A with 45 internal students of whom an average of 35 attend each lecture, all in the older higher risk age range. Obviously I have thought about my group, about the implications of COVID 19. If COVID 19 reaches Armidale, we will have to suspend classes. Meantime, it's full steam ahead. 

Postscript

 Of the many memes going round is this response to the advice that we should avoid touching our faces:
 

       

Sunday, March 08, 2020

What is the white supremacist patriarchy?

I have been bogged down here, nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel, on this introductory course on the history of Australia's New England that I am delivering. Yes, I know that this is an anatomically strange combination, but it captures how I feel.

The course itself is going okay. I have 45 internal students (around 35 come on average, which is more comfortable) plus 148 following along via Facebook.

That's not bad for what is, after all, a niche offering. However, the pressure not just of the delivery but the preparation of course ware for 18 lectures and nine discussion groups is very time consuming.

I console myself with the thought that once I am through all this I will not only have the base for future courses but also the structure of my long delayed full history of New England. Meantime, I was cleaning the house this morning preparatory to doing more writing when my attention was caught by an ABC Radio National program, the Minefield.

I may not agree, but I quite like this program because it explores ideas. It is normally presented by Waleed Alyand and Scott Stephens, but this morning it  was presented by Kaye Quek and Meagan Tyler both academics from RMIT in a special edition to mark International Women’s Day,   Program guest was Celeste Liddle, described as an Arrernte woman, feminist, opinion writer, trade unionist and public speaker as guest. The short ABC summary of the program reads:
 The corporate rebranding of International Women’s Day (IWD) couldn’t be further from the day’s revolutionary roots, or any meaningful discussion of women’s liberation. It negates any discussion of the nature of power under patriarchy, and how relations of power between women and men might be genuinely transformed.
During the discussion one of the presenters used the phrase "white supremacist patriarchy". As i listened, I wondered just what this phrase meant in general and in the context of International Women's Day. Clearly the speaker thought that the tag had meaning.

 If we take the individual words, both white and supremacist are adjectives qualifying patriarchy. Patriarchy itself can mean:
  • a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is reckoned through the male line.
  •  a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.
  • a society or community organized on patriarchal lines.
There are different elements in these meanings but the core elements from the speaker's perspective appears to be descent and power based on male gender. I suppose that as a factual statement, patriarchy rather than matriarchy  or gender equality (is there an equivalent word for that?) is still the dominant global social mode although there are many shades. The position in Denmark or Finland is different from that holding in Australia or Korea or Japan, still more different from that holding in Saudi Arabia.

White is a slippery term. At one level, it refers to skin shading. However, with the return and rise of racially based (and racist) language over the last fifteen years, "white' has become something of a pejorative racial insult. This is made clear in this case by the attachment of the word supremacist, normally interpreted in this context to mean someone who believes not just in such a thing as the "white race" but in its supremacy over others.

If we combine all this, we appear to have a presenter who appears to believe that:
  • there are patriarchal societies whose core element is that they are white and supremacist
  • and that such societies are a significant problem in the context of International Women's Day.
Subject to correction on the facts, I beg to differ.   




   

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Sydney dog friendly pubs face apparent councils' crackdown

When I first went to England one thing I noticed was the presence of dogs in some pubs.

I wasn't sure about this. It wasn't an Australian practice, but I decided that I liked it.

Over recent years there appears to have been a slow expansion of Australian pubs allowing dogs at least in Sydney.

I don't own a dog at this point so this hasn't been a problem for me in a personal dog owner sense. The only issue is whether or not I like it as a customer. Again, I found that I didn't mind. In fact, having a drink with a friend who does own a dog was an enjoyable experience. The dog himself was quite fun, the dog friendly staff petted him and provided water and doggie treats, while the dog provided a very useful way of meeting other patrons and their dogs. There were very few problems. Maybe it's time I got a dog? 

I see from a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald by Andrew Taylor, (Crackdown on dog-friendly pubs prompt renewed push to change law, 23 February 2020) that some Sydney councils are cracking down on venues that allow dogs. This has led Jamie Parker, the Greens member for Balmain, to re-propose a law to explicitly allow dogs in pubs.

While I am not naturally a Greens' supporter and do not know enough of either the current legislative framework or Mr Parker's proposed bill to know whether or not I agree with its detail, I am certainly in agreement with the idea that pubs should be able to allow dogs. It adds to the texture of life. If customers object, let the market decide.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Remembering Canberra's Bitter Lemons



The Bitter Lemons, Canberra

Unlike our friend marcellous, I am not especially musical. My exposure to music was limited to an old wind-up gramophone when I was young. Later we had a radiogram. That was mums and I rarely used it.

In 1965, brother David went to the Australian National University, staying at Bruce Hall  Our parents were away in Bangkok  I was working at TAS (The Armidale School) as a duty master.This involved me taking sport and acting as master on duty (it was still a predominantly boarding school) several days a week either in Broughton House or on lesser occasions for the whole school. 

In 1966 I was back home. David had left his little record player and a few records behind when he moved away, so I took them into my bedroom. There was one little 45 by the Bitter Lemons. I had never heard of them, but played it quite a bit.

Formed in Canberra in 1965, David must have bought the record that year, the Bitter Lemons were quite a feature of the then very small Canberra pop scene. This YouTube video may be one of their few clips that survives.

 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Drought, fires, floods and the coronavirus: "We'll be rooned (ruined) before the year is out"

Said Hanrahan is one of Irish-Australian poet John O'Brien's (Monsignor Patrick Joseph Hartigan) best known poems, one that has added the ironic phrase "We'll be rooned (ruined) before the year is out" to Australian English. The poem reads:
  
"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
In accents most forlorn,
Outside the church, ere Mass began,
One frosty Sunday morn.
The congregation stood about,
Coat-collars to the ears,
And talked of stock, and crops, and drought,
As it had done for years.
"It's lookin' crook," said Daniel Croke;
"Bedad, it's cruke, me lad,
For never since the banks went broke
Has seasons been so bad."
"It's dry, all right," said young O'Neil,
With which astute remark
He squatted down upon his heel
And chewed a piece of bark.
And so around the chorus ran
"It's keepin' dry, no doubt."
"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"Before the year is out.
"The crops are done; ye'll have your work
To save one bag of grain;
From here way out to Back-o'-Bourke
They're singin' out for rain.
"They're singin' out for rain," he said,
"And all the tanks are dry."
The congregation scratched its head,
And gazed around the sky.
"There won't be grass, in any case,
Enough to feed an ass;
There's not a blade on Casey's place
As I came down to Mass."
"If rain don't come this month," said Dan,
And cleared his throat to speak--
"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"If rain don't come this week."
A heavy silence seemed to steal
On all at this remark;
And each man squatted on his heel,
And chewed a piece of bark.
"We want a inch of rain, we do,"
O'Neil observed at last;
But Croke "maintained" we wanted two
To put the danger past.
"If we don't get three inches, man,
Or four to break this drought,
We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"Before the year is out."
In God's good time down came the rain;
And all the afternoon
On iron roof and window-pane
It drummed a homely tune.
And through the night it pattered still,
And lightsome, gladsome elves
On dripping spout and window-sill
Kept talking to themselves.
It pelted, pelted all day long,
A-singing at its work,
Till every heart took up the song
Way out to Back-o'Bourke.
And every creek a banker ran,
And dams filled overtop;
"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"If this rain doesn't stop."
And stop it did, in God's good time;
And spring came in to fold
A mantle o'er the hills sublime
Of green and pink and gold.
And days went by on dancing feet,
With harvest-hopes immense,
And laughing eyes beheld the wheat
Nid-nodding o'er the fence.
And, oh, the smiles on every face,
As happy lad and lass
Through grass knee-deep on Casey's place
Went riding down to Mass.
While round the church in clothes genteel
Discoursed the men of mark,
And each man squatted on his heel,
And chewed his piece of bark.
"There'll be bush-fires for sure, me man,
There will, without a doubt;
We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"Before the year is out."

It's been a strange topsy turvey time here in Australia, one that would do Hanrahan proud.

The fires spread south with remarkable footage caught by NSW RFS (Rural Fire Service) cameras. Then came heavy rain and floods in parts of Eastern Australia that have put most of the fires out. Despite the rain, drought continues in many parts of the country. In the midst of all this came the coronavirus. The number of Australians infected is still very small, with the real effects coming from the impact of supply chain breakages and border controls. Those Australian universities heavily dependent on Chinese full fee paying students have been especially affected.

The public discussion around drought, flood, fire and viruses has been quite febrile, not helped by national politics that has taken the idea of febrile to a new level. It's hard to keep up with ministerial resignations, political infighting, application of fixed positions constantly over-run by events and a rolling National Party implosion.  Australia is fortunate that our basic systems work quite well.

The difficulty with rolling febrility that reacts to events is that we respond with emotion and then effectively roll on before issues can be effectively discussed.

The drought, fires and floods revealed some of the best features of the Australian character, the responses to coronavirus some of the worst, fear combined with a degree of xenophobia that I find repellent. There are many issues that will need to be worked through from recent events. Still, as the present king tide of events moves on, I think that it pays us to remember Hanrahan and the ironic meaning Australians attach to the phrase we will all be rooned before the year is out.



Tuesday, January 14, 2020

When John Deere becomes too dear

Very slow getting underway in the new year. I'm working on a course. My apologies to all.

Interesting article in Vice by Matthew Gault, Farmers Are Buying 40-Year-Old Tractors Because They're Actually Repairable.

It's not a long article but it deals with the problems of repairing equipment when you need a computer for the repairs and where the digital rights software attached to the computer built into the equipment require you to take it to an authorised outlet for repair, adding to time and costs.

I must admit that I am getting a bit tired of the costs, risks and reduction in choice associated with new technology, Yes, I know that I am a troglodyte.  We have established that before. I am well aware of the gains associated with new technology, I am as reliant on the convenience associated with the technology as anyone else, But, still, I am in rebellion.

So far, that rebellion has taken no form other than bewailing and a degree of anger when things go wrong. I am reminded of old man Carson in R S Porteous's book Brigalow. I really like that book. Mr Carson can be irascible, especially where equipment breaks down or service is bad. He is constantly threatening to write to the manufacturer or supplier.

One day after a really bad blow-up he goes to his office and gets our a pad and pen. Normally, he only uses the office to write up accounts or keep that detailed weather log that forms the love of his life. There is a considerable pause and then he comes out onto the verandah to get a glass of water from the canvas water bottle that hangs there all the time to keep cool, "You know, Bob", he says to his manager Bob Anders, " one day I will write."

I guess that I'm a bit like old man Carson. Still, you never know.

Postscript 21 January 2020

kvd kindly pointed me to this 2015 link which shows that the John Deere problem has been around for some time: New High-Tech Farm Equipment Is a Nightmare for Farmers 

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Reflections on the end of 2019 - my garden


Toothless surrounded by Clare's plants
And so the year ends and possibly a decade too. I say possibly because these markers are the subject of debate.

When the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed on 1 January 1901, it was a nation for a new century. You see the century and hence that first decade began in 1901. 1900 was the last year of the nineteenth century, not the first year of the twentieth century. That reflected then counting techniques.

Today when we talk of the start of a decade or indeed century, it's generally the 00 not the 01 that marks the start. So 2020 marks the start. I will go with that while maintaining my in-principle support for the purist position!

This has been a tumultuous mixed up year at multiple levels, one in which I have found it difficult to concentrate on other than immediate issue including especially my return to Armidale. My writing has dropped away as a consequence, It follows a decade that has been troubled in both a personal and professional sense.

I don't feel much like talking about all that. Instead, I want to focus on a more important topic. Clare and I have developed a new rivalry beyond writing, gardening. She is again in front even though she does not have a garden as such!

When I moved back to Armidale I was determined to start a new garden despite the water restrictions. Just before I came back, the Council introduced new restrictions forbidding any use of water on gardens beyond gray water. I complained at the time because I thought that the restrictions were draconian, short sighted and likely to have perverse results. I stand by that view, although I am somewhat more sympathetic now. I hadn't realised all the demands on the town water supply, especially with the fires. Still, despite all the media hype about the city's water supply problems, with current water conserving techniques in place and assuming no further rain, we have 373 days water to "Day Zero." 

Note that in talking about gardening, I am not talking about even hand-held hoses, just the use of buckets or watering cans to keep small patches alive. It's possible to use very efficient water conserving gardening techniques, but only if you can apply water at certain critical points. For example, you can't use mulch effectively if you cannot first wet the ground to be mulched  and then wet the mulch to set it. Otherwise, it blows away. And you try creating a compost heap when you cannot apply any water.

I said water restrictions create perverse results. In the interests of conserving water, I have cut both the frequency and lengths of my showers. All I need to do to get the minimum water I want is to move to longer and daily showers with a bucket in the shower. I am then not breaking any restrictions, but can modify my shower routines to give me my minimum water requirements. I have talked about this before, but I wonder why Councils have to be so prescriptive? I would trade off my showers and other water usage if I could use the the water on the garden.

Despite all the problems, I did get a tiny veggie patch going with Rosemary (this is critical in cooking), mint and coriander. The mint bolted to seed because of the heat . but I did get a small crop. I started a compost heap using leaves around the property, nothing is decomposing because of the absence of rain combined with heat, but this blew away in the wind as did my attempts at mulching. I guess at that point I kinda gave up, accepting that I would just have to import water via my supermarket purchases.

Clare's gardening efforts provided a new incentive. I will do better despite the constraints.

Over November and December we had enough rain to cause the grass to grow. Looking out from where I write, you would not know that there was a drought compared to the brown, crunchy, stuff that I walked on when I first moved in.

A few days back, Dave (my next door neighbour) kindly mowed my back lawn. They have been very kind, something that I will talk about in another post. Suddenly, I have a pile of grass clippings large enough to form a proper compost base. Then, under Clare's influence, I bought more seeds, seedlings and lucerne mulch. Sugar can mulch is cheaper, but not so good.

We are not talking a huge garden. I am working in tiny patches, but I want to do it properly in a way that will really save water while improving the very bad soil.

There are things that I can do to further save water, For example, putting a bucket outside when it rains. The house has no tank. Tanks largely vanished in Armidale under previous council rules and are slowly coming back with changed rules, but there is no way that the owner of my property will pay to install a a tank because that would be dead money for him. But a bucket outside would give me a little extra water.

Beyond this, I think that the answer lies in more showers or even a bath. And while I cannot wash the car even with a bucket, I can wash the car windows. That is allowed for safety reasons. I have done so once. The windows are very bad. If I do that once a week, that's a bucket a week.

I have quite a lot of hard surfaces in the family room, the entrance area, the wet area. I sweep them all the time, but they do get dirty, dirt that is being tramped onto the carpets. I have mopped them, cleaning the mop under a running tap. That wastes water. If I clean them using a bucket, then I can put the bucket water onto the garden.  Those hard surfaces need cleaning once a week, each clean involving several buckets.

To compete with Clare, I need set-up water. After that, it's care and maintenance.  I think that I can find enough water within the rules, if with a bit of an effort. Of course, if the water position gets worse then I may have to prune, change my approach. I do accept the need for restraint. After all, I have been here before.

Postscript 3 January 2020

Following the start of the year Armidale had another 14 mils of rain. I just sat there on the front verandah, letting the storm sprinkle my feet, Looking out the window, it no longer looks drought ridden, although the deciduous trees lining Queen Elizabeth Drive give the lie to that. While green, the leaf growth is patchy, straggly.

Going out yesterday morning to the little side garden by the laundry door, I found the soil damp, a contrast to the baked earth when I first came up. This allowed me to plant my seedlings and mulch the small cultivated area.

 A friend used to laugh at me when I said went out the back door waving scissors saying that I was going to harvest the water cress. The current equivalent is cutting mint to add to the carafe of iced  water in the fridge.   

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Armidale Diaries 4 - fires, food and funerals: a mega edition



Extinction Rebellion Protesters,  Armidale Climate Strike

The noise caught my attention. I had popped into town to have a coffee in the Mall outside BooBooks, something of a ritual, only to find that they had closed to join the climate strike. Preoccupied with my writing, I had forgotten that it was on.

As I stood there working out what to do next, loud noises drew my eyes to the west. It was the climate change protesters marching in procession up Beardy Street. Led by the colourfully dressed ladies from Extinction Rebellion, they were on their way to protest outside the offices of Adam Marshall, the local State member and also NSW Minister for Agriculture.

I don’t think that the protest was specifically directed against Adam. His concerns about the impact of climate change are well known. Rather, it was a statement intended to make a general point, to attract media coverage, which it did.

Climate change, drought and fires continue as major topics of discussion in this small city. It’s hard to go past them at the moment.

The fire focus may have shifted away from New England, but social media continues to be full of some of the most spectacular fire photos I have ever seen from here and elsewhere in Australia.


Armidale airport has been a major centre for firefighting activities. Since August, the Rural Fire Service (RFS) has had to truck in 1.3 million litres of water for fire purposes, placing pressure on domestic supplies. Now the Council’s bore digging program has established a water source near the airport that can draw 288,000 litres per day and provide it direct to the RFS’s tank at the airport.

At Armidale Airport, State Government Ministers have joined together with personnel from New England RFS to officially open Armidale's new remote area fire fighting team training helicopter  winch simulator.

That's a mouthful, but hanging off a helicopter in wind turbulence is no easy feat. The simulator will be also used by other local emergency service operations.    

Down south as drought continues to bite, the Tamworth Regional Council has put a temporary weir on the Peel River, along with a pipeline to the water treatment plant to supplement the water supply. The sudden stop in flow not only affected downstream users, but also led to a major fish kill. 

It’s not been all climate change, drought and fires.

Driving visitors around Armidale, people comment on the number or preschools or child care centres, schools, churches and retirement villages. Those from metropolitan centres with younger children are especially struck by the number of preschools and child care centres, an area where many struggle to find places. I haven’t done a rigorous count, but Armidale has some fifteen for a population of around 23,000.

This pattern reflects the city’s history. It was a church and school place from its early days to which were then added a Teachers’ College and University. From the 1950s through to the mid eighties the city grew rapidly drive by education. Then came structural changes in education including a continued decline in boarding and the Dawkins Education Reforms. In the space of a few years Armidale lost close to a thousand jobs, a decline that created a vicious cycle.

Those who left tended to be the younger ones, while the older ones with permanent tenure stayed. They have been progressively retiring. Older retirees attracted to Armidale by cheaper costs, services and life style added to their numbers. Retirement villages became a growth industry. At a rough count, the city now has some nine, again for a population of 23,000.

The elderly with their walking sticks, walkers and mobility chairs are a very visible presence in Armidale. But so, too, are the young.

Sitting in Central Park I watched the mums, they are nearly all mums, gathering in groups with their prams and young children. Sitting on rugs they talked while the children played.

As older people retired, opportunities opened up for younger people, aided by the development of some new businesses. As they came with their kids or had kids, school numbers increased, requiring more teachers. The city began to rebuild. While the population has been growing again, there is still a degree of fragility, not aided by the drought. In 2018-19, the town's income dropped by 3%.

It's hard to get away from the drought. Central Park is still green, but when Council introduced Level 5 water restrictions they stopped watering the trees. Then when the trees started to die, they called upon the community to contribute waste or bore water to save them. 

The  drought and associated fires affect not just income coming in from farmers and graziers, but also income from travellers. I walked into the Armidale Visitor Information Centre through the smokey air. The free heritage tour bus was just about to leave. It was almost empty. It's usually full.

"How's business", I asked? "Terrible", was the answer. "People just aren't travelling because of the road closures."   Armidale's size provides a degree of insulation.

Some businesses along major traffic routes such as the Oxley Highway have already lost two months income because of actual or feared road closures associated with the fires. Apart from the fires themselves, people won't travel if they fear road closures, if they are warned not to travel because of risk of fires,  The National Parks, major New England attraction, are all closed or open only on an irregular basis. Across Northern NSW, we have lost an entire tourism season.

It's not all bad news. From the Visitor Information Centre, I walked down through the smoke to Granny Fi's Toy Cupboard (and here).

I wanted to buy presents for youngest and her husband. They have very particular tastes and I wanted something different that would mesh with their tastes. I can't tell you more, however, for fear of totally giving away what I bought.

Granny Fi's is becoming an Armidale institution, one of a number of nodules that form the core of Armidale's remarkable and varied cultural scene.

It's a difficult place to describe beyond saying that it has a focus on handmade crafts and other products designed to appeal to the nerds among us.

Setting the store up has been a bit of a battle. Obligatory attendance at  Comic-Con and various fan festivals  provides money and presence but also distracts from the shop itself. They were sold out of one key thing I wanted, but promised to make it over the weekend. Herein lies a little story.

"How's business?", I asked in the normal way. "It's been very quiet, but something marvellous happened" was the response.

One side-effect of the drought has been the establishment of websites asking people to buy bush in compensation for the drought. These have been remarkably successful, especially in niche areas. Down at Uralla, for example, sales of some New England food products boomed to the point that they had to call in volunteers and set up a temporary packing plant to meet the Christmas orders.

In Granny Fi's case, the post they put up went viral. In something like 24 hours they sold out entire stock ranges, In fact, they over sold. The next 48 hours were spent without sleep packing to meet the Christmas postal deadlines, while making the additional stock to meet the extra orders .People really are nice, I thought.

The large group of older people in Armidale means funerals.

While churches and especially the evangelical or Pentecostal churches that have been Christianity's recent growth area are spread across Armidale, Central Park is the traditional religious centre of Armidale. Surrounding the Park you will find the Roman Catholic and Anglican cathedrals, the Presbyterian church with the Methodists, now Uniting, a little way away down Rusden Street.
 
On the Monday I went to Ros Townsend’s, on the Friday Pam Harvey’s, funerals.

Ros's funeral was held in the Anglican cathedral. Designed by the famous Australian architect Horbury Hunt whose work played such a role in the Armidale built landscape, the cathedral is truly beautiful.

Pam's funeral was held at the Presbyterian church, a plainer building but still very attractive. 

Both women played a major role in the Armidale community and this was reflected in the attendance. I arrived five minutes before the start of Ros's funeral. By then, the cathedral was already full, and I had to listen to the service via speakers in a little meeting room nearby.

I was a little earlier for Pam's funeral. The church was again full, I was able to find a a spot in the choir stalls, but a few minutes later they started bringing in chairs from the Hall and putting them in the aisles. I am not good at estimating numbers. but there must have been close to a 1,000 people in total at the two funerals.

Some people find funerals distressing. I don't, although I did tear up at Pam's funeral. Funerals are generally celebrations of a life and, in a way, lessons for the future.. I am always amazed at the things I learn about the person.

I can't help being an historian. Obituaries are one victim of the decline in the print media. We will all be the poorer for that.


Bakers Creek Gold mine c1906, tram line in the background. At their peak, the Hillgrove mines were the largest gold producers in NSW producing over 15 tons of gold. Fortunes were made at Hillgrove, more were lost through speculation.  

The Saturday following the funerals saw the annual Historical Society excursion, lead by local historian Graham Wilson. We were to visit the old gold mining centres of Hillgrove and Metz.

To the east of Armidale, the coastal flowing rivers have cut deep spectacular gorges.This includes Bakers Creek. There deep lead gold was found, leading to the establishment of many mines especially at the bottom of the gorge, Hillgrove grew up on one side of the gorge, Metz on the other, both linked by steep tramways to the bottom. This was a big field that is still in recurrent operation today, if at a lower level.   

Some fifty of us gathered at the Visitor Information Centre to join the big, modern air conditioned coach for the trip. Some of the roads we would travel are narrow and dirt, creating problems for the bus. But with some backing and turning, the bus was able to get through.

Our first destination was Hillgrove. Here we followed the modern road. I much prefer the old road that skirts hge gorge and passes Bakers River falls, but I can see the logic of the route we took.

At Hillgrove, we stopped in spots to look at explanatory signs and listen to Graham telling the story. There was a fair bit of wind making it difficult for me to hear, but I picked up the gist. I know Hillgrove quite well, but it had been so many years since I was there that I had difficult in properly orienting myself. It had changed.

With a population of over 3,000, Hillgrove residents thought that their town would be permanent and built accordingly. Hillgrove became a major centre. A remarkable amount survives, more than I realised, now signposted for visitors because of work done by the Historical Society.

After our initial excursion, we adjoined to the community hall for a morning tea supplied by some of our members. This was a truly sumptuous repast that would have done credit to any CWA branch. This started a discussion on food that continued for much of the day.

The community hall lies in Brackin Street, Hillgrove's main street. I wandered outside. looking down the street, refreshing my memory, trying to fit things in.

Brackin Steet runs along a ridge. Water was constantly short in Hillgrove. Rubbish including sewerage accumulate along the street. When rain came, this was washed down towards the houses on each side. One result was typhoid, killing many.


Maypole dancing, Hillgrove Public School, Principle Tonkin looks on. The old school is now a rather spectacular museum.   

From the hall we drove to the old Hillgrove Public School, now a rather wonderful museum. It really is a gem, although it would benefit from better signage and more explanatory material on the machinery and horse drawn vehicles out the back,

Today, we forget our much physical labour was present in the past. I looked at some of the drays and wondered just how you would lift them up to back horses in between the shafts.

From the museum we visited the cemetery and then headed out to Metz along narrow dirt roads requiring our driver to have several goes at some point. I knew that lunch was included in the price,  assumed something like sandwiches, but not so!

After several goes, we ended up at Echidna Gully, one of the new accommodation and venue facilities established outside Armidale.  Because I have been away,  I don't know these places.

Sandwiches my hat. Nice roast pork with baked vegetables plus a rather luscious desert. And a bar with local wines, although we had to pay for that.

It rained while were eating lunch, That was good and good timing too.

Now rather full, I didn't need to eat much dinner, we rejoined our bus for the last stage of our journey, Metz, talking about food.

Things got a little bit confused.at this stage. Metz was founded later than Hillgrove, was never as big, and vanished earlier. Today, nothing remains. The town site itself is on private property. We had two locals as guides who had grown up in the area when more remained plus two maps. We also had members of the family that owned Tattersall's Hotel in Metz, the last hotel closing in 1928 (photo 1924). Our problem lay in our maps.

We had two maps prepared for different purposes that seemed to conflict. We stood there in the sun on the dusty road while our guides talked, turning the maps one way or another trying to work out where we were and the buildings had been. The end result was confusion, a total lack of orientation.

Later, I was able to work things out, but I really need to go back and just walk around. You actually have to walk the ground to understand.

From that stop we drove the short distance to the Metz lookout, looking back over the gorge to Hillgrove, It was interesting in part because so much of the landscape had changed from the last time I saw it. I stood there and tried to imagine the people from Hillgrove going down the gorge side in a cable car and then up via cable car the other side to go to Metz dances. The mines would allow this so long as it did not conflict with work.

From there, we came home. I thought that it had been a rather special exccusion.

This will be my last dairy entry for the year. I wish you and yours a happy Christmas and a peaceful new year.