Personal Reflections

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Is Australian archaeology too "white" and unrepresentative? If so, does it matter? Reflections on Australia's changing social structures

I wonder how diverse the archaeological profession is in Australia, not very... at a hunch
... and how much whitesplaining occurs as a result....
Post UNE Archaeology Society Page

This post was linked to this article, Why the Whiteness of Archaeology Is a Problem, focused on the US and to a lesser degree, the UK experience. Later, another member posted a link to this article Comments on Why the Whiteness of Archaeology Is a Problem

The articles and brief discussion made me uncomfortable. Rightly or wrongly, my first instinctive reaction was to think of them as part of the current culture wars. my second reaction was one of confusion. What exactly did the articles mean? How did that fit with my experience? To what degree did those articles based on particular individual and country experiences have relevance to Australia? This led me to a broader question:  to what degree do current debates about diversity actually reflect what has been happening in Australia? The thoughts that follow are not profound, simply some initial reflections. 

As an opening comment, we tend to forget the importance of lags. The position now reflects past changes. The position in ten or twenty years' time will reflect what is happening now. A few examples to illustrate. 

Australia introduced a mass migration program at the end of the Second World War initially focused on migrants from the UK and then Europe. Many of those migrants experienced discrimination, Today their children and grandchildren occupy positions across all segments and levels of Australian society. 

Sir Āpirana Turupa Ngata (1874 – 1950). First Māori university graduate (1895), first New Zealander to graduate with a BA LLB (1897).
If you read Jim Fletcher's Clean, Clad and Courteous, the history of Aboriginal education in NSW, you can see how Aboriginal education was neglected and indeed twisted by community attitudes and institutional structures.    

In New Zealand, the first Māori university graduate came in 1895, the first Māori doctor graduated in 1899, the first Māori women graduated in 1926. The Australian position was very different. 

In contrast, the first Aboriginal person to gain a university qualification was Casino girl Margaret Williams-Weir in 1959 followed by Charles Perkins in 1966. 

While much remains to be done, the position now is very different. By 2016, almost 25,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders held university qualifications. 

In 1966 I was a member of the first prehistory honours group in Australia focused on archaeology and Aboriginal prehistory. Our group was certainly European. Further, we were just on the cusp of recognising the extent of continuing Aboriginal knowledge, of the importance of Aboriginal involvement in the exploration of their own history. However, there was a joy in it because we were entering new fields.

Looking back, I would say that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement in Australian archaeology has changed along four key dimensions:
  • The first is the need to consult Aboriginal communities on archaeological work involving the history of their own communities. This is important, but also has costs, slowing the rate of advancement as well as reducing the level of archaeological activity outside digs and survey missions dictated by heritage and environmental considerations associated with developments. In 1966, the only archaeological positions in Australia were university connected. Now for every university position, there must be at least ten in the consulting arena. This is where the archaeological positions are. While I bemoan the way in which the focus on rescue digs has twisted the profession, without this work there would be far fewer archaeologists! 
  • The second is the progressive shift in focus from what used to be called prehistory, Aboriginal history up to 1788, to historic archaeology post 1788. I'm not sure how to weight this one, but it does seem to be a significant trend
  •  The third is the growing involvement of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal organisations in activities connected with the Aboriginal past. This includes formal involvement of organisations such as Land Councils, the use of Aboriginal people in activities associated with digs and survey missions and the rise of paid positions in areas such as national park services directly connected with Aboriginal history, culture and heritage
  • The fourth dimension is the increase in the number of professional Aboriginal archaeologists.
Within the limits of time I tried to quantify the last. The latest information I could find was this paper:  Mate, Geraldine, and Ulm, Sean (2016) Another snapshot for the album: a decade of Australian Archaeology in Profile survey data. Australian Archaeology, 82 (2). pp. 168-183.

 The paper contains some interesting information including shifts in gender balance. The number of Aboriginal respondents was about 2% of the total. The authors noted that this was almost certainly too low because pf a poor response rate. My best guess, and it is only a guess, is that the proportion of Aboriginal archaeologists concerned with Aboriginal studies is above 10% of those archaeologists working in the field.

I see nothing wrong with this, it is to be expected. Of more concern is what I see as a decline in interest in Aboriginal studies among the broader archaeological community, and indeed more broadly, due in part to a greater range of choices as well as perceptions that non-Aboriginal people are not welcome in the field. There is a risk that Aboriginal studies may be becoming a ghetto area.

Outside the field of Aboriginal studies, my impression is that Australian archaeology is less ethnically diverse than the total Australian university student cohort or the broader Australian population, something that applies to the humanities in general. I was going to say least ethnically diverse, but upon reflection I think that's wrong. 

Student composition reflects choices by students and parents, choices which vary between groups.  Perhaps the most striking example is the relative dominance of Asian ancestry groups in professions such as medicine, dentistry, optometry or even veterinary science. This reflects a cultural focus on the importance of education and the professions.   

 Again, I see nothing wrong with this, although it does have workforce implications. 

Some fourteen years ago I undertook a study of the impediments that prevented country areas attracting city professionals to fill vacancies. As part of this, I consulted various professional bodies including the AMA, the specialist medical colleges, the Law Council and the dental, optometry and veterinary associations. By then, women constituted a clear majority of students with Asian ancestry students also in a majority in a number of areas. The problem from a country perspective was that these two overlapping groups were least likely to accept regional appointments. 

To illustrate with a specific example, at the time Asian ancestry students formed a majority of vet science students while a majority were also female. Both groups and Asian students in particular tend to be less mobile. The result was an over-supply of small animal focused vets in suburban practice, an under-supply of country and larger animal vets. 

Heart surgeon Victor Chang. Born in Shanghai in 1936 to Australian-born Chinese parents, Chang was sent Sydney, in 1951 to stay with extended family. In 1962 he graduated from the University of Sydney with First-Class Honours and a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery, going onto a stellar career in surgery. 
I began this post with a reference to the importance of lags, citing the experience from the mass migration program immediately after the Second World War as well as the case of Aboriginal education. Asian migration is another case in point. 

From the early example of Victor Chang we are now at the point where Wikipedia suggests that  those of Chinese ancestry make up 20% of Australia's doctors  The proportion of the Australian population claiming Chinese ancestry is around 6%. 

I suppose in all this my key point is the need to look objectively at the evidence when we come to discussions about attitudes and trends, about representation and representativeness, to avoid becoming sucked into current tropes. Diversity is important as a general principle, but we have to ask what we mean by that. Australia is a new country if one with a long history so far as our indigenous peoples are concerned. We have to ask to what degree overseas tropes are in fact relevant. We have to recognise the existence of trends and lags.  

Is the archaeological profession in Australia unrepresentative? If so, does it matter? 

On my limited analysis, I think that both the current student population and the profession is more European, more Indigenous, than the respective shares of the Australian population. I have already indicated that I do not see the second as a problem. I would like to see more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders enter the profession.   

On the first, current student composition reflects student choices. Those choices will affect later workforce composition. It would appear to be the case that segments of the Australian population and especially the growing number of Asian Australians do not chose to study archaeology.   They prefer other choices. 

Does this matter? I suspect not.       



Tuesday, July 07, 2020

It makes me proud to be Australian: short reflections on just how well the Australian system of Government and our people have worked in managing covid-19

Like many Australians, I am struggling to manage the covid-19 pandemic. But there is one thing, I think,  that we can say with a degree of certainty and that is that Australian governments and the Australian system of government have worked. There have been mistakes that we will all return to later, but I do think that my assessment is a fair one.

I also think that the pandemic has brought out the best in the Australian character. 

I could say best and worst for indeed there have been responses that made me cringe to be an Australian, but for every bad there have been a hundred, sometimes many more, goods. I have seen so many acts of kindness. so many people stepping out to support others, so many working to maintain structures and activities, to create new ones in the face of challenges, that it makes me proud to be Australian.  

I know that these things are not unique to Australia, but give me the liberty of taking pride in the Australian response. 

I have been thinking about how I might describe details of the Australian response in ways that international readers might understand. 

I suppose the starting point is that Australia is a federation, one on which the Commonwealth and States share powers with many of the most important powers resting with the states. Shared powers can be a problem in federations, especially where one partner has disproportionate power, the Commonwealth in the Australian case. In this case all arms of government have worked together, facilitated by the mechanism of a national cabinet combining the Prime Minister and all the premiers and territory leaders.

Those leaders come from different parties. The absence of the sometimes visceral party and ideological differences that have so stymied coordinated action in some countries have been noticeably absent. The main parties have put political differences aside in the face of a universal challenge. Of course there have been political differences on the detail of responses, there should be because politics involves weighting of priorities as well as critiques of action, but these have not impeded a coordinated response. 

I have been particularly struck by the response to the latest outbreak in Victoria. It would have been possible, even tempting, to attack Premier Dan Andrews and his Labor administration for failures, but both the Liberal NSW Premier and the Liberal Prime Minister have refrained, focusing instead on what needs to be done to support Victoria.

Australia's administrative systems including the health system have worked remarkably well at all levels, aided by a lower number of cases. Again, there have been errors, but I think that my statement remains true. As one measure of this, I felt safe. Certainly I was worried at one point that I might catch covid-19, but I felt secure that I would be looked after if I did. And that's a bloody good thing compared with the position in many other places. 

Back on Monday, May 25, 2020 I posed this question: Monday Forum - what are the possible longer term changes from the covid-19 pandemic?  I think now that we need to focus on this and the best way of exiting the current crisis, recognising that it may recur. I think that good can come from this so long as we do not allow ideology and partisan divides stand in the way. 

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Saturday Morning Musings - a note on China

In 2008 I visited China. The Global Financial Crisis broke while we were there. I recorded some initial impressions from my visit in a series of short post. I will list these at the end of this post. They say nothing profound, just providing a snapshot of views at a point in time.

In many ways it was a golden trip, seeing a country that I had read about over many years but had not visited. I was very impressed.

Looking back now, I feel a sense of sadness. Two themes in Chinese history have been the shifting balance between centre and regions along with concerns about the preservation of social order. 

Naively, I had expected modern China to continue to evolve, balancing the desire of the Party to stay in power with the progressive development of institutions that might trammel, perhaps channel is a better word, Party power over time.

I had expected Chinese power to rise, but had expected that the exercise of that power would be more subtle, more centered within existing global institutions that, or so it seemed to me, benefited China. While I recognised that it was possible, I had not expected a return to the old imperial Chinese model with its inward focus and all its in-built assumptions about superiority. I also underestimated the degree of turmoil that would emerge in US foreign policy.  

Like many Australians, I am now struggling to work out what all this means. How should Australia respond? I'm not sure, but do feel that our approach needs to be more subtle, more nuanced, than it has been to this point.       

The China Visit Posts

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Statues, monuments and the need for real action

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley

The destruction of the statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721) in Bristol as part of  Black Lives Matter protests is part of a continuing process of destruction or removal of historical monuments that interfere with current sensibilities. By all accounts, Colston was a man who contributed greatly to Bristol and to philanthropic more broadly. Some of his foundations survive to the present time. He also made money from the slave trade, money that helped support his later philanthropy.  

As an historian, I may bewail actions such as the removal of the Colston monument. However, both the creation and destruction of monuments are political acts that form part of history. I am defining political acts in the broadest sense to include religious institutions and actions. 

In a very real sense, there is no distinction between the destruction of Buddhist relics by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the destruction of cultural heritage by ISIS, the dissolution and destruction of the monasteries by Henry VIII, or the removal of the Colston monument today.  I am sure that you could give many more examples.

I recognise that this may cause some people to bristle. How can you compare the destruction of monuments and historical relics by ISIS or the Taliban with removal of statues associated with slavery or the American Civil War?  That's crap, some might say. 

It's simple. In both cases you have monuments, structures that reflected beliefs and values at the time. Now you have a different set of beliefs that dictate destruction or removal. In both cases, you are dealing with absolutes. How one responds to those absolutes depends upon one's personal views and values. And that is affected by time. 

A Pharaoh may have been evil, a king evil, but we still flock to see their sites. Indeed, the worse they are the more the more we come. The further back in time things go, the easier it is for us to do this. Monument destruction occurs when monuments or sites gain current relevance. The Buddhist monuments may have been ancient, but to the Taliban they represented a current threat, something that had to be removed. To the demonstrators who want the statues removed, they represent symbols of a past that needs to be expunged. 

History just is, a far country that we seek to understand. Historiography, the writing of history, is always entangled in the present. If you look at national historical narratives across the globe you will find that they reflect national perspectives in ways that can confuse and distract to the point that the same events might have occurred on different planets. Even the "facts" themselves, things that you might think were certain, become blurred. 

The same things hold for particular historical schools and movements such as the debate about recent colonialism and the post colonial world. Other examples include childhood, the family, feminism and the role of women, family life or the sometimes convoluted debate linked to class and power structures. 

As an historian, I find the varied debate is helpful in highlighting different aspects of the human past, although it's difficult too. The history I am writing now is very different from that I was writing thirty years ago. Now I struggle to work out how I might fit all the new bits in!

At a personal level, I do struggle with the continuing changes that have taken place over my life time. I can agree with people on particular issues, but also reject the way that those different bits are strung together in new purportedly historical narratives that I think are fundamentally wrong. 

This links back to the question of monuments. The debate here has, to my mind, only a limited connection to history.  History is important, but it's really about perceptions and values. This doesn't make it easier to manage, but it does help a little. 

One of the things that has, I suppose, caused me most concern is the polarisation. I am a member of a Facebook group of past and present history students. It's a good group, a civilised group, that plays a significant role in student support where so many students are learning remotely. Yet here the question of statues and other monuments has become so contentious. so issue and value laden, that the administrators have had to terminate one member and then ban statues and monuments as a topic of discussion for the moment. 

I am fortunate that my friendship group spans from the far left to far right. Sometimes that's difficult. Do I let some views go without comment even when I greatly disagree with them?  I have noticed that friends on both sides have started unfriending others who disagree with their views. I have also noticed that one side effect is the hardening of attitudes. As part of this, views that were once peripheral on both left and right are becoming mainstream.

I think that this is unfortunate. It will be no secret that I think that we need a new compact with Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. That requires the capacity to listen, to accept hard truths on both sides. I wonder now if that is possible. Have we become so polarised, so locked into questions of right and wrong, that the twain cannot meet? I fear that might be the case.     

How to handle? 

To begin with, there is no point in getting entangled in macro value debates. The canvas is so broad, so value and emotion laden, that much discussion and argument lacks actionable content. Better to disentangle and deal with specific issues. 

Consider this. Most people agree that Aboriginal incarceration is a problem, with 28% of adult prisoners from indigenous backgrounds coming from 3.3% of the population. So what can be done? 

The first step is to actually scope the problem and this involves statistics. If we look at the statistics, we find that the growth in ATSI prison numbers is especially concentrated in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, Queensland to a lesser degree. These are also the areas that seem to have had the greatest focus on law and order, on things like truth in sentencing, three strikes policy. These things affect socially deprived communities in particular.

If I'm right, is is possible to change the basis approach to law, criminology and incarceration? If we cannot do that, how do we reduce the vulnerability of ATSI people to the application of the laws. Is that even possible given views and attitudes in the broader community in each jurisdiction? 

We have to ask these questions. They are hard questions. We cannot answer them by pap, I say pap advisedly. Arguments based on generalisations, on value assertions, just won't wash. At best, they may provide a climate for reform. At worst, they may actually impede reform. We actually need action, Do we want to reduce Aboriginal incarceration rates, recognising that this may be a slow process? 

I don't have answers to this. I just want to see us taking action, 



Saturday, June 06, 2020

Saturday Morning Musings - living in a random world

I was searching for an image around the idea of a random world and found this image from North Coast Rep.

We do seem to be living in a random world. In January things still seemed stable, predictable to some degree. Here in Australia we had suffered first from drought and then major fires, but while they were major problems they were understandable, even predictable. Our various governments responded to the problems, with the focus then shifting to recovery.

Internationally, the difficulties associated with shifting global fault lines including the rise of China and a sometimes erratic US president were constant but familiar. The world's trouble spots - Yemen, ISIS in Africa, Brexit, Syria as examples - were known and sometimes reported. 

All this was swept away by covid-19. Suddenly, there seemed to be just one over-whelming dominant topic of conversation. Everything else vanished from coverage. Every certainty that we had vanished in the midst of shutdowns and change. 

At a personal level, the things that I had been doing (and valuing) to start a new life in Armidale stopped. My history course was suspended, local organisations closed, the new human interaction that I so valued stopped. 

Perhaps the biggest biggest blow was the decision by Australian Community Media to close or suspend so many papers. This affected me at a very direct and personal level. I had to work out what would happen with my columns. As someone who has written on the history of the newspaper press, as  someone who has had family connections with the papers and knew their importance, the closure deeply saddened me. I was especially saddened by what I saw as another element in the continuing destruction of the social and community infrastructure, the broader linkages in an area that I love and to which I have devoted a considerable proportion of my life.

The sudden closure of the Armidale Express office is a trivial thing in a global or even an Australian context, but is deeply personal. It happened just so quickly. What do you do with all the stuff in the office including back copies of the paper? What should be saved, or should it all be sent to the tip? 

Fortunately and thanks to local editor Laurie Bullock and my colleagues at the Armidale & District Historical Society, God bless them,  the newspaper archive was carried across the road and installed in the History Society meeting room. Now the bound copies of the paper from 1970 survive, at least for the present. But what do we do with them? The Regional Archives are shut because of covid-19  and have in any case been under pressure following the University of New England's decision to vacate the old Armidale Teacher's College site.  The Archive was struggling to maintain the collection it had and had to turf metres of documents. 

I accept that I am lucky.

 In some parts of the world, "seniors" were not allowed to leave home because of the risk to their health. At least in NSW, the advice was advisory, so we ancients could make our own decisions. I live in a comfortable house with a backyard and nearby walking tracks. Some of my friends did not have these options. I am also computer literate and was able to shift things on line. 

Mind you, I have still faced a learning curve here, one that I am still to master. I am not into Zoom and next week I am meant to participate in a podcast. This requires me to download a new app onto my mobile and then learn how to use it. I know that I need too, but do not feel confident enough!

I said that I am lucky. The social and economic disruption forced on many has been enormous. 

Consider a young person enrolled at university who has lost her casual work and is now living at home with her parents. She can't go to classes, although on-line may be available. She is suffering loss of human contact, loss of independence. She fears for her future. Will there be jobs when she finishes?

These are first world problems compared with many countries where people are starving as a consequence of shut-downs, but they are still very real to the individuals affected.  Perhaps it's not surprising that there has been so much kick-back against social distancing and restrictions. 

In Monday Forum - what are the possible longer term changes from the covid-19 pandemic? I wondered about the real changes that might flow from covid-19. I suppose that my thinking here was Australian-centric. Globally, the economic effects flowing from the pandemic are likely to to be most important. My concern was more micro, the the extent to which the shut-downs and consequent responses would have long term effects on the way we live and work or whether things would simply snap back to the way they were as things improved. I suspect more of the second. 

While covid-19 was still raging, the death of George Floyd at police hands and the subsequent protests largely swept covid-19 off the front pages in many countries. I doubt that anybody could see the video footage of his death and not be moved. This was another of those random events that acted as a catalyst. If Mr Floyd had not been killed in that way, if the police had stopped, if his death had not been recorded, then the protests would not have happened. 

The media I generally follow is very Western-centric. Indonesia is Australia's nearest neighbour and yet there has been little coverage here of events in that country. You have to read the English language Jakarta Globe or Jakarta Post to find coverage of covid-19. Interestingly, there appears to have been very little coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests. The same holds for the Hindustan Times or for some of the other papers I have looked at. 

 Given the absence of international reporting outside covid-19 or the Black Lives Matter protests, you could be forgiven for thinking that all other matters were in abeyance unless they had direct domestic effects. However, if you dig down you find that other things are happening. The problem is to find the information required to make sensible judgements on their implications. For the moment, they remain random activities, some of which may come to bite us.  


Monday, May 25, 2020

Monday Forum - what are the possible longer term changes from the covid-19 pandemic?

I have let the Monday Forums alone in part because my posting and hence my audience has been right down. Time to resume I think, if in a limited way. I miss the red-herrings!

Back in the 1970s I was quite addicted to the TV program, The Good Life. Now the ideas of sustainability, then so 60s and 70s, appears to back driven by covid-19.

Here I must admit to a continuing sense of pique. I cam back to Armidale intending to develop my veggie garden.

My arrival coincided with level 5 water restriction which prohibited even the use of even buckets or watering cans for use on gardens. While I accepted the need for water restrictions, I thought that the Council had gone over the top at least in in terms of the composition of the restrictions. Now eight months later with winter dawning, with four months of above average rainfall and more rain forecast, with the main dam above 50% with other water supplies in place, the restrictions are still in place. I look at my little veggie patch and think about just how much water I have imported via the vegetables bought and all the costs involved in transporting them. So much for self-sufficiency!

Leaving aside that personal gripe, there has been much media coverage about the changes in behaviour patterns brought about by covid-19, changes that are meant to be long term. I wonder. As a trainer, i used to comment that most training programs had limited effect because people went back into their organisations and normal life and then dropped the new things that they had learned where these conflicted with existing patterns.

Now as covid-19 restrictions begin to ease, I think that we can see the same pattern. Still, I may be wrong, so here is the topic for today's Monday Forum, What longer term changes do you expect to flow from covid-19?   

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Armidale Diaries 8 - cold, council, chooks and bunker boxes

Snow, Armidale, 1949, Gary Bryant family photo

I had just had my shower this morning when next door neighbour Dave knocked on the door to collect me for a wood run.

It's been cold in our little city. Summer and autumn were warmer than average, but that warmth has been replaced by below average temperatures. Yesterday, the maximum stayed firmly below 10. At 10am the temperature was 3.8C, equivalent to -4.8C after taking wind chill into account. With the cold, I have had the wood heater in the lounge room going steadily from late afternoon, chewing through the wood.

We have have fallen into a routine. Dave has a ute, so we take that down to Ducats to pick up a load. At Ducats, the ute goes onto the weighbridge, then we go to the large wood heaps to load, back to the weighbridge to measure the new weight and then to the office to pay It's quite easy and not very expensive. A full ute load costs about $76 and keeps both houses going for several weeks.

Ducats' wood zone was  crowded. The firm gets much of its wood from trees cleared as part of road widening works, as well as wood from dead trees on properties. There is a fair bit of this because of the drought. The wood is split, trucked, and then dumped in big piles at the back of the lot. This morning there were half a dozen utes and cars, often with trailers, with more arriving all the time. Dave manoeuvred the ute between the piles and other vehicles and we started loading.

There is a lot of opposition in Armidale to wood fires, especially in the old city where the smoke collects in the valley along Dumaresq Creek. While I generally support moves to improve the efficiency of wood heating, I can't share the opposition to wood fires in general. I could mount a rational argument for this position, but in reality I just like fires!

I find that this love of fires is shared among those of us who grew up in Armidale. It exists even among those now living in areas such as Queensland's Sunshine or Gold Coasts. 

It's not surprising. Armidale can get quite cold, houses were generally weatherboard and not insulated, so wood fires and stoves were normal.

Central Park Rotunda in snow. Photo Caling Collection

We used to call it the Armidale flick. My girlfriends would come into the kitchen at Marsh Street, stand with their back to the fuel stove and then flick up the back of their skirts to allow the warmth to reach their bottoms!

Fires extended far beyond heating. We all lit fires in backyard and bush to cook or just to play. There were bonfires for cracker night, fires in 44 gallon drums cut in half to provide heat outside shearing sheds where dances were being held. Even though cold draughts came up through the gaps in the sheering shed floor, the cold wasn't too bad when dancing, but between dances the girls in their dresses used to huddle round the fire drums. 

My girls were young when we moved to Sydney.  My habit of building fires in the backyard continued after our move. Then I would dig a hole in the lawn, surround it with bricks and call it a BBQ, but it was really just a fire. My family laughed at me, although my daughters and their friends did enjoy things such as toasting marshmallows. 

I had to laugh, by the way. I received an email from Judy Grieve. President of the Armidale and District Historical Society to say the Society had held a committee meeting on the Central Park Rotunda. While not as cold as in the above snow photo, it's still pretty chilly. I suppose that's one way of preserving social distancing!

Armidale Regional Council Mayor Simon Murray

On other matters, while we were loading wood, Dave asked me what's the story with Armidale Regional Council? 

By way of background, a group of councillors (we used to call them alderman) unhappy with the management of Mayor Simon Murray and new CEO Susan Law moved a successful motion to dismiss the Mayor. The Mayor responded that the Council had no power to dismiss him and effectively ignored  the motion. The dissidents then moved a motion to dismiss the CEO. The Council (aka Mayor and CEO) obtained a court order blocking the move. The State Government then gave the Council notice to show cause why it should not be suspended and an administrator appointed. Meantime, Council and local government rules on public comment by Councillors effectively prevented dissident Councilors from public comment.   

I explained all this to Dave and then added that since our local newspapers were effectively suspended I had only Facebook to rely on for news. Here I am FB friends with most of the dissident groups plus members of many local organisations, so the slant I was getting was slanted. My personal view was that the conflict was all about the changing roles of Council and that nobody was really addressing this issue.         
In an odd way, this links to another issue on my mind, the humble chook.

I grew up with chooks. We had them in the backyard when I was young, most people did, Then chooks largely vanished from back yards, in part because we were all wealthier and more time poor, in part because the increasingly urbanised town and city dwellers on their smaller blocks objected to their neighbours having chooks on the grounds of noise and smell, in part because council regulations made chook keeping more difficult.

Now, in our covid-19 era, chooks are back. The idea of producing one's own eggs, of having the Sunday roast available in the backyard, has suddenly become attractive once again. Those producing chickens for sale are selling, out while thieves have discovered a new niche market, stealing home chooks for on sale.

Nostalgia can be a bad thing. While I am thinking about installing a chook pen, I also remember the downsides. I wondered how many people shared my nostalgia, so asked on the Armidale Families Facebook page. After 57 comments, it appears that many do!

One of the nice things about the covid-19 shutdowns is the way that regional businesses and locals in combination have focused on local and regional supply via on-line ordering.

One example, not the only one, is the way in which the Welder's Dog has combined with local producers to supply bunker boxes. This photo shows the contents of our first order. We have just ordered a second, attracted by the slogan "lamb shanks, lamb shanks, lamb shanks."  I really like lamb shanks. It's just the food for this cold weather.

I would like to think that this local and regional focus might continue as the shut-downs ease. If there is one lesson from this pandemic, it is the importance of local businesses and local supply.


Friday, May 22, 2020

Round the blogging traps - EM Lilien and fin de siècle, Ramana and fear of the other, Neil Whitfield's reminiscences

I have often mentioned Hel's ART and ARCHITECTURE, mainly. It remains one of my favourite blogs.

The illustration -  EM Lilien, Das stille Lied, c1900 - comes from a guest post on Hel's blog, Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation: EM Lilien, by (I think) Dr Lynne Swarts, a Sydney historian and academic.

I had not heard of E M Lilien. When I first saw the illustration I thought Aubrey Beardsley and fin de siècle. If you look at the Beardsley in this post, Monday Forum - fin de siècle, the decadents and other such matters, you can see why I had that reaction.

There is indeed a linkage between Lilien and equivalent movements in France and England, although Lynne is writing from a particular perspective, Lilien as Jewish and Zionist intellectual and artist. It's another thread.

I had not realised that Hels had broken her finger in rather dramatic circumstances. I quote:
This week I was walking down the street, never less than 2 metres away from the closest person. Yet two hoons ran up from behind, yelling about the stupidity of allowing elderly people out of their houses. In fear I fell over on the concrete footpath, breaking one finger, dislocating another finger, cutting the face above the eye and bruising the jaw like a boxer. 
Ouch!!!!!!!!  Seriously, while covid-19 has revealed much that is good in human society, it's also drawn out some of the stupidities. 

This graphic comes from Panic, a post on Ramana's Musings. I would add  Facebook and news! 

Written on 20 March at the start of Indian lock downs, the post takes a practical and philosophical view. Of course one should take sensible precautions, but in the end fear becomes it's own worst enemy leading to paralysis.

Another short Ramana post, A Common Enemy, deals with the fear of the other, the way in which this feeds into division. Ramana's blog features short posts that mix sensible commentary with personal reflections and details of personal life. Specifically on the fear of the other, we have to resist this for ir creates poison.

Finally in this short round up, I continue to enjoy Neil Whitfield's reminiscences and repeats of past posts on Neil's Commonplace Book. Neil and I met through blogging, later in person. After these years, Neil's posts are in part a journey through my own life.

It's been a while since I did a blogging round-up. Somehow, day to day pressures have changed my focus. Time I did some more!   

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Train Reading - Introducing John Buchan's Memory Hold-the-Door, Nevil Shute's Slide Rule

John Buchan, Memory Hold-the-Door
I fear that my reading has become sadly truncated. I blame covid-19, but in truth it happened much earlier. I suppose that it was associated with a broader ennui.

I have never, perhaps rarely, read individual books because I must. When told to do so, I find myself in rebellion, Sometimes, David Copperfield is an example, the book stays with me later. Mostly, they drift into the vacuum of my mind, there to be lost.

My train reading began because I had large bookcases of unread books on one side, a longish bus and train rde both ways on the other, The rules were simple: I had to select one book that I had not read, finish it whether or not I liked it, and then write a post.

The practice provided a liberal education because my remnant library is a meld of three generations, grandfather, father and mine with books over multiple ages.  I decided that I liked older styles of writing and that older views were not outdated simply by the passage of time and fashion. My knowledge of history also expanded because the older books ask different questions and have different assumptions. This applies to non-history texts as much as history texts.

With time, I started adding modern books that I thought that I should read. This was an error in some ways, diluting the original purpose.  I was no longer forced to address different ideas, some of which I profoundly disagreed  Then I stopped travelling. Drift set in because I was no longer travelling. I tried to create specific time blocks for my train reading, but found a curious thing. Train time had been dead time to be filled as I wished. Now I still had the time, but found that the thought that I should be doing something else productive kept intervening.

I know that this was silly, irrational. My train reading had been interesting, stimulating, valuable, but I couldn't help myself. I blame the whole thing on my protestant background!

A few weeks back I made a determined effort to begin again, plucking two books of my shelves to read in parallel. Both had been purchased from Boobooks here in Armidale. Each had cost the princely sum of $10. Both were autobiographies by prolific writers whose writing I had really enjoyed. Both dealt with the author's life outside writing, although the interconnections between their life experiences and their written work was clear.

The first book was John Buchan's Memory Hold-the-Door completed just before his death in 1940. Born in 1875Buchan was a prolific writer. publishing 100 works including nearly 30 novels, seven collections of short stories, and biographies of Sir Walter Scott, Caesar Augustus, and Oliver Cromwell. He was also a barrister, colonial administrator and diplomat, a member of parliament and, finally, a very successful Canadian Governor.

Memory Hold-the-Door focuses on aspects of Buchan's personal and public life, including his evolving beliefs. His writing is rarely mentioned. The book includes many vignettes, short biographies of his friends and colleagues, although he consciously chosen to exclude the living.   

Nevil Schute Norway to give him his full name, was born in 1899. As Nevil Schute Norway, he practised as an aeronautical engineer in the foundation days of aircraft production and civil aviation. As Nevil Schute, he published 23 books including On the Beach and A Town like Alice. He chose the shortened form of his name as a pen-name to avoid conflict with his aircraft and aviation activities.

As the name suggests, Slide Rule focuses on Shute's aviation experience. It's a rattling good yarn, to use a phrase both men would have appreciated.

I knew that many of Shute's earlier books had an aviation background including No Highway, Published in 1948, the book's hero is an eccentric boffin at RAE Farnborough who predicts metal fatigue in a new civil airliner but is not believed. Within four years, the de Havilland DH 106 Comet, the world's first commercial jet airliner, would experience metal fatigue related crashes, in so doing destroying the hopes of the British aircraft industry.

While I knew of Shute's background, I had no idea just how significant a figure he was in the early days of the aircraft industry as an engineer and businessman.

I will tell you a little more about these men and their autobiographies in later train reading posts.           


Monday, May 18, 2020

Sydney's Nanda\Hobbs Gallery presents the paintings of Caroline Zilinsky

Faceless, Caroline Zilinsky, oil on linen, Nanda\Hobbs Gallery, Sydney  

One thing that I have really missed since the covid-19 shutdown is gallery visits. I can no longer afford to buy, but looking remains a pleasure. I mention this now because I received an email from Sydney's Nanda/Hobbs, Gallery. It began:
Titanic by Caroline Zilinsky opens at Nanda\Hobbs—enigmatic and revealing portraits painted without without fear or favour. 
“The world started melting down and you said let’s have the show. I thought the world may not exist in a few months so I said yes but it felt a bit like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. May as well play the violin to the bitter end and go down doing what I love.”
I blush to admit that I hadn't heard of Caroline although she is an established painter. Now back in Armidale, I am struggling to come to grips with New England painters, past and present, let alone those from elsewhere. However, I was really struck by Caroline's striking paintings.
The Senator, Caroline Zilinsky, oil on linen
Both the paintings so far included in this post are realist in style with an underlying message. Of the two, I prefer Faceless, although The Senator is striking.

There are various descriptions of Caroline's painting. Her artist's profile states:
Caroline Zilinsky is the most enigmatic of painters.  She is obsessive, highly skilled, sharp witted and possesses an eye that drills into the very soul of her sitters, revealing their most intimate truths. Her unrelenting artistic drive is intoxicating—ten-hour days at the easel is the studio norm. 
When viewing Zilinsky’s paintings, one cannot be an innocent bystander. As an artist, she has the ability to metaphorically reach out and grasp the viewer, compelling us to engage in a dialogue with her protagonists.  Her works inhabit an interesting place in contemporary Australian painting. She echoes many of the themes of the Australian Modernism greats and stylistically, acknowledges a debt to their introspective investigations into an uncomfortable world.
I suspect all that's true, although as a result there is something uncomfortably ungainly about her work. Anthea may, but would I want her too?
Anthea may or may not, Caroline Zilinsky, oil on linen
There is something brave about Nanda/Hobbs proceeding with an exhibition in current circumstances, I am not sure whether the NSW rules yet allow open viewings, but you can visit by arrangement.

You can view the full catalogue of works here along with a short video with Caroline and Ralph Hobbs discussing the work in Titanic.

In person viewings in the gallery can be made by appointment—Please contact the Gallery on 02 8599 8000 to arrange at time. The exhibition closes on 5 June.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Saturday Morning Musings - covid-19 and the lucky country

I do not know what real changes will come from covid-19. I do know that this is one of those times that I am glad that I live in Australia.

The first thing I noticed on visiting the supermarket yesterday was an absolute mountain of toilet paper! Not only were the normal shelves full, but there was a special display at the front of the store. Flour was still in short supply,  the whole world seems to be baking!, but there was plenty of pasta and the meat shelves were well supplied. The early panic buying that led to drastic shortages has been replaced by a degree of normality.

Covid-19 has placed great stresses on supply chains in Australia and elsewhere. So far at least, Australian supply chains seem to have met the challenge. There are increasing problems in overseas supply, but domestic supply has held up. We can contrast this with the US where meat supply  has become a major issue because a concentrated supply chain proved highly vulnerable to disruption.

As in other parts of the world, covid-19 has highlighted issues associated with social inequality. In wealthy countries, the virus initially hit hardest among the global mobile who travelled for business and leisure. New York is perhaps the classic example, but you can see similar patterns in Australia. Then as lock downs came into effect the economic ripple effects hit the most economically vulnerable. Again, the US is the most remarkable example because of the absence of safety nets.

In Australia at least, the immediate effect has actually been a reduction in social inequality because of the way support measures have been designed. The income position of those at the bottom end has actually improved, in part because those on unemployment benefits have actually seen their incomes double. This may not last, but is at least one positive.

As in other western countries, Australia has seen virus clusters in aged care facilities. All countries will have to address longer term issues here. However, for the present at least infections and deaths have been less. The Australian examples stand out because they are single events rather than a universal pattern. This is small consolation for those who have lost loved ones, but is still a positive.

The Australian death rate has been quite low. As of last night, Australia had 6,914 confirmed cases of which 63% were acquired overseas, 37% from local transmission. Deaths totalled 97. This is a relatively low number of deaths both in absolute terms and as a proportion of total infections. It can also be compared with an Australian road toll of around 1,200 in 2019.

The relatively low Australian death toll is due in part to effective social distancing measures, in part to the quality of the health care system. I suspect that many Australians are very glad that we have our system compared to that applying in the US. I don't think that we are alone in this. Support for the NHS in the UK has also grown. I wondered how the crisis would affect US domestic attitudes to health care. Would it act as a circuit breaker? I suspect not based on the US reporting that I have read.

So far, so good. However, in this country as in the rest of the world attention is now turning to the best ways to unlock economies. The economic and social costs of the lock downs are not sustainable beyond the short term.

I wonder if Australia can manage this properly? I have reservations here in part because it requires a degree of subtlety and judgment, a recognition of geographic difference, To my mind, Australian governments do not have a good track record in this area.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Are current productivity measurements still meaningful in services dominated economies? - a note

Back on 22 April 2020, Winton Bates asked What are the implications of declining productivity growth in high-income countries? Winton had previously expressed some reservations about statistical measures that suggested a structural decline in productivity growth in developed economies, in part because of difficulties in measuring the impact of information and communications technologies including real price declines. Now more convinced, he looks at the implications for future income levels.

I am very out of touch now with productivity discussions, but felt that the rise of services created difficulties for productivity measurement and indeed for the measurement of real income growth. I saw three problems.

The first lay in the definition of capital investment itself where measurement based on physical capital underestimated real capital investment in services where investment in things such as improved processes had a high labour component, a low physical component. A second problem lay in valuing outputs especially in non-market areas. A third and related problem lay in the assessment of quality in outputs.

My feeling was that, in combination, these problems meant that the level of capital investment in services was underestimated, output was underestimated, leading to misleading conclusions about the nature and level of productivity growth in services. Overall, I thought that productivity growth in services had been considerably underestimated.

I still think that was right, but now I suspect that productivity growth in services has declined, in part because the previous gains from process improvement have been largely exhausted while the longer term costs from process improvement have become more apparent. Services have also suffered from a growing regulatory burden, especially but not just where Government funding is involved. I wonder, too, about the quality of services. Has this actually declined as I suspect. 

These are not insignificant issues now that services constitute such a significant portion of the economies in developed countries, some 64%. I wonder how much meaning conventional productivity measurements now have.