Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sunday Essay - Howard, history & the national curriculum

My main post today is on my history blog, Train Reading - Gammage, the Aborigines & the environment. The post took a long time to write. Here just a personal comment.

By it's very nature, the present imposes a mind-lock on our interrelation of the past. It determines the questions we ask of the evidence. It also leads us to reject things that don't fit in with our views, to argue for things that do fit. Historiography, the writing of history, is always personal and political.

I haven't attempted to chart the reactions to Bill Gammage's book. Clearly he thinks that there is a problem with acceptance of his ideas, that they are too far outside current frames for easy acceptance. Why else devote an entire appendix to a self-defence? For my part, I found them self-evident, if very stimulating.

During the week, former Australian PM John Howard re-ignited what has been called the Australian history wars with his attacks on the national history curriculum. Frustratingly, I found the text of the speech twice, but didn't bookmark it. Now I cannot find it again! Maybe one of my readers can!

The speech upset Neil, one of my long standing blogging friends. Looking at the language in the speech, I can see why. What I had intended to do with the speech was to strip out all the rhetoric and look at the assertions made. I fear that I cannot do this without the speech. I can say that I find the national history curriculum bitsy and selective.  But there are two very different problems here.

As I said earlier, by its very nature, the writing of history is always personal and political. The people and committees that developed the national curriculum selected the topics that they considered to be important. I may disagree, but that is their view. This problem can actually be addressed through debate, something that Mr Howard was trying to do in his own polemical way.

For example, the history of Aboriginal Australia breaks into two parts. The first part is the very long history of Aboriginal occupation of the continent up to 1788. The second is Aboriginal history in the two hundred years since. From my reading of the curriculum, by the end of year 10 you are likely to know very little about the first and have only a very partial view of the second. If I'm right, I think that is a failing. But these issues are actually debatable, testable.

There is a second, more complicated, problem. Many people naively think that the purpose of the Australian history curriculum is to give people a knowledge of Australian history. The reality is a little different. If you look at the curriculum, you will see that it breaks into two parts, knowledge and skills. Knowledge, the part that Mr Howard attacks for its perceived selectivity, is actually secondary to the skills component, the things that the student is meant to be able to do. It would. in fact, be quite possible to complete the course with only a very partial knowledge of Australian history, but to end it with very specific historiographical skills.

When I first did history at school, the focus was on knowledge. I learned to write to a degree, I learned certain skills associated with critical thinking, but history method as such was something I covered at university.

In his speech, Mr Howard referred to the fact that he answered two questions in the old Leaving Certificate on Asian history. His point was in part that the "Asian focus" wasn't new. In fact, I think that he is right here. The history I did at school in the old Leaving Certificate days was broader and deeper than that provided by the current curriculum. But then, I was learning history, not the writing of history.

There are further problems with the curriculum beyond those that I have referred to already. One is the sheer time scale covered however partially, from go to woe so to speak. This combines with the emphasis on concepts and methods that I have referred to already. To illustrate the difficulty, let me quote from the year 7 curriculum where students study the ancient world:    

The Ancient World

The Year 7 curriculum provides a study of history from the time of the earliest human communities to the end of the ancient period, approximately 60 000 BC (BCE) – c.650 AD (CE). It was a period defined by the development of cultural practices and organised societies. The study of the ancient world includes the discoveries (the remains of the past and what we know) and the mysteries (what we do not know) about this period of history, in a range of societies including Australia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China and India.

The content provides opportunities to develop historical understanding through key concepts, including evidence, continuity and change, cause and effect, perspectives, empathy, significance and contestability. These concepts may be investigated within a particular historical context to facilitate an understanding of the past and to provide a focus for historical inquiries.

The history content at this year level involves two strands: Historical Knowledge and Understanding and Historical Skills. These strands are interrelated and should be taught in an integrated way; and in ways that are appropriate to specific local contexts. The order and detail in which they are taught are programming decisions.

A framework for developing students’ historical knowledge, understanding and skills is provided by inquiry questions through the use and interpretation of sources. The key inquiry questions at this year level are:

Key inquiry questions
  1. How do we know about the ancient past?
  2. Why and where did the earliest societies develop?
  3. What emerged as the defining characteristics of ancient societies?
  4. What have been the legacies of ancient societies?

In this mix, teachers are expected to provide an overview of the whole period, but this should constitute no more than 10 per cent of total time. Crikey!

The method focus comes through even more clearly in the year 7 Achievement Standard. Again I quote:  

By the end of Year 7, students suggest reasons for change and continuity over time. They describe the effects of change on societies, individuals and groups. They describe events and developments from the perspective of different people who lived at the time. Students explain the role of groups and the significance of particular individuals in society. They identify past events and developments that have been interpreted in different ways.

Students sequence events and developments within a chronological framework, using dating conventions to represent and measure time. When researching, students develop questions to frame an historical inquiry. They identify and select a range of sources and locate, compare and use information to answer inquiry questions. They examine sources to explain points of view. When interpreting sources, they identify their origin and purpose. Students develop texts, particularly descriptions and explanations. In developing these texts and organising and presenting their findings, they use historical terms and concepts, incorporate relevant sources, and acknowledge their sources of information.

  Once again, crikey! Yes, I could define a teaching program that achieves these outcome within the bounds set by the topic choices as specified. But I very much doubt that I could give my students any deep knowledge of the pattern of history over the period. But then, that''s not required. There is no requirement to actually have any knowledge of the history of the period in question, just slices within it sufficient to demonstrate understanding of the learning outcomes as specified.

Now whatever My Howard's weaknesses and biases may be, I think that he believes as I do that some knowledge of history should be an integral element in any broad education. He is also concerned, as I am, at the apparent decline in historical  knowledge among modern Australians. However, to my mind, his focus on historical topics misses the point. Instead of history being the centre of the curriculum with method second, method is central to the curriculum with history second. Therein lies the real problem.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Train Reading - environment, mental maps & Bill Gammage

I finished my introduction to Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth (Train Reading - introducing Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth, 11 September) with these words: "It's a fascinating book." I have now read it twice, and that remains my conclusion.

Just a reminder that the book examines the Aboriginal impact on the Australian landscape. The central thesis is that over the millennia the Aborigines modified the landscape to suit their needs. The book examines how they did it, as well as what happened when they stopped. The book has been somewhat controversial because it poses a fundamental challenge to some streams in the environmental movement by suggesting that their attempts to preserve the Australian environment are actually changing the environment, creating a new environment. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is a different issue. Gammage's work simply challenges the premises built into many environmental campaigns.

One mark of a good book is the extent to which it causes the reader to stop and think. For that book and this reader, The Biggest Estate passes the test with flying colours. I found myself stopping to gaze out the train window and just think, testing what he wrote against my own knowledge. I also found myself digging around to find my ancient honours thesis on the economic structure of traditional Aboriginal life in Northern New South Wales. There I addressed some of the issues that Gammage would raise all those years later.

My honours class was the first at any Australian university to study Australian prehistory.

Isabel McBryde came to the University of New England in 1960 as a lecturer in classics and prehistory. Our knowledge of the human history of the Australian continent prior to 1788 was then very limited. Isabel believed that we needed detailed regional studies to provide the building blocks necessary for the development of a national picture. This view fitted with the the then ethos of UNE as a university with a regional focus, while also being part of an international community ofarchaeological survey, Mick Moore Jim Belshaw teaching and scholarship.

One of Isabel's problems was the absence of any ethnohistorical studies of the North. As Isabel put it, New England's proto-history was tragically short because of the speed of collapse of traditional Aboriginal life. The writing that did exist describing traditional Aboriginal life was very fragmented. Despite this, Isabel believed that we could gain enormously from the material that was there, and therefore recruited students to help her. I was one such student.

I have run this photo before, but it shows me (right) with History Department tutor Mick Moore on a survey mission. It's a very New England scene and one that brings back to me the sheer excitement in what we did.

My thesis with its attempt to apply structures drawn from economics to traditional Aboriginal life was not especially well received. I looked at capital formation, at economic specialisation, at the distribution of population, at Aboriginal farming, at trade and exchange, at the Aboriginal impact on the environment. Re-reading, I take some pride in it's clarity. I think that I did pick issues that would become important later. And yet!

Memory is an imperfect beast. Thinking about my perceptions of the evolution of my own thought, I realised that  I had not quite said the things that I thought I said. I knew the source material, and as people wrote later I interpreted their views against that material, not against the things that I had written. In doing so, I assumed that I had said things when in fact I had not. The environment is a case in point.

Part of the thesis centred on what was then called man-land interaction. I recognised the importance of the environment,  but explicitly rejected the determinist idea that Aboriginal society was based just on the local environment and that, consequently, culture and society must vary as the environment changed. I recognised, too, that the Aborigines changed their environment, but I really didn't recognise the scale of the change when activities are thought of in terms of millennia.

Later I will look at some of the conclusions or assumptions in the thesis, for it's actually an interesting case study of thought frozen in a past time when so many current fields of Aboriginal study did not exist. For the moment, though, it was the environmental aspects that fascinated me.

As I gazed out the train window looking at the familiar scenes, my mind went back to 1788. Knowing the country as I do, knowing a little of the evidence and of the change processes that have taken place since 1788, how did I apply Bill's arguments to the area that I am writing about? The big paradigm shift lay in the rejection of the idea that the regional environment as I knew it was necessarily representative of past environments.

I knew that Aboriginal land management was far more active than was normally allowed. But how does one assess that and its impact when measured in thousands of years?    

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Test - Netgear technical support is great!

I am having very real connection problem just at present to the point that I struggle to do anything at all on-line. I put the computer on wireless and moved it to the front room That has weakened the signal, cutting the nominal bandwidth from 100 to 54 Mbps per second. I say nominal because the real speeds were always a lot less. However, it may also be that I have just run out of my download allowance.

I am trying to run a test to see actual speeds, although downloading the test connection is proving difficult. It has been downloading for ten minutes!

While I'm waiting, the practical effect is that I simply can't post properly. I don't want to return the computer to the previous configuration, I really want to work in the front office. If I'm right about the choke but still have some upload capacity, the wireless connection status shows that  70,000 data packets have gone out in the last four hours as compared to just 19,000 in, then I may be able to work round the problem to some degree.

This post is a practical test. If I'm right it should upload. The speedtest download has just failed again. Signing off to post.


Well, it did upload. It was slower, but within acceptable limits. However, the blog front page itself did not load properly. I am going to focus over the rest of the month on preparing material that I can then post, so actual posting will be limited until I sort this one out.

Postscript two

The amended heading says it all, but I will do a proper thank you post. I may not have solved the problem entirely, but Netgear technical support is superb. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Snippets - gangnam, a case of spurs, currency & bohemians

I am very short of time this morning, so just wanted to pick upP1000892 a few snippets.

Have you watched PSY - Gangnam Style? Alternatively, is there anyone who hasn't! I mention it now because the kids were dancing it yesterday at youngest's birthday BBQ. Youngest was mortified that I knew about the craze before she mentioned it, and from the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) no less. I am not sure what surprised her more, that I should know or that the ABC should have caught up so quickly! If you haven't heard it, have a listen. It's quite catchy.

I have watched with sympathy the technical problems that struck our friends at skepticslawyer. You will be pleased to hear that they are back on line now. Back in my home country, Denis Wright has maintained his high writing standard. If you haven't already done so, take a look at  "Five Sentence Fiction" or Spurred on.

In this morning's Sydney Morning Herald, Ross Gittins has a useful piece on the stubborn rise of the Australian dollar. I mention this now because I want to come back to this topic.

I have now added Don Aitkin's Don Aitkin to my regular read list. I wasn't in fact aware until very recently that Don had his own blog. I think it's actually quite new, starting in July, so a lot of people probably aren't aware of it yet.

Finishing today's very brief post, for those interested in Australian history, ‘Dancing with Empty Pockets: Australia’s Bohemians’ by Tony Moore from the Resident Judge of Port Phillip is worth a read  because it brings out another thread in Australian history and culture, if with a very Sydney & Melbourne focus.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

kvd and now LE's chairs revisited

Back on 6 August (An outbreak of gardening at Astrolabe Road)P1000870 I reported on the start of my gardening endeavours. This led kvd to offer to supervise so long as I supplied the beer!

I reported on this in kvd's chair. There I accepted David's offer and put out a chair for him. Subsequently, Legal Eagle offered to assist if I supplied dry white!

Time has passed. This is the same bed with kvd and LE's chairs. Sadly, there is no alcohol. It's actually a bit early in the morning for that!

When I lived in Queanbeyan, friend Sue used to laugh at me when, scissors in hand, I went out to the back yard saying that I was going to harvest the water cress! But it's true. It is harvesting.

Last night I cooked roast pork. As part of the vegetables, I cooked silver beet from the garden. I love silver beet, but my daughters detest it. So it's been a while since I had it.   

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - Westacott, public service reform, defence with a dash of writing

I really don't know what happened to this week. It just seemed to vanish! Then I thought about it and realised that I had just been very busy, leaving lots of stories untold, threads untied. So bear with me this morning if I just meander, picking up threads, pointing to things that I noticed but didn't respond too at the time.

During the week a friend lost her job as part of the Queensland Government's public service cuts. She held a "temporary" position. These are the first to go. Why did I put temporary in inverted commas? One of the side effects of past cuts and restructures is the presence of a very large number of people occupying temporary positions. Some were brought in from outside to fill gaps left by previous organisational changes. Others hold substantive positions, but haven't occupied them for years, constantly shifted around. I know of one case where a person has been acting in positions well above the nominal position held for five years.

The problem is that when you get cuts of the type we have seen in Victoria, Queensland and, to a somewhat lesser extent, NSW, a domino effect sets in. Fred or Freda is told that they must return to their substantive position because the agency no longer has the funds to employ them in their current role. That substantive position was long ago filled on a temporary basis. Now the person held against the substantive position has to move. They may exit stage left if they are a contractor or temporary employee. Alternatively, they may have to move back to their substantive position, thus triggering another set of moves. Replicate this process in the thousands, and you get a feel for what can happen.

I must say that I have been quite astonished at the degree of staffing instability that I have observed.

I know that I have written a lot about the need to change current approaches to public policy and administration or risk continued degradation in performance. I mention it now because Jennifer Westacott, the CEO of the Business Council of Australia, has mounted a stinging attack on current approaches, calling for reform. You will find some of the coverage here, here, here, here, here, here and here. I don't have time to respond properly today, but I have actually thought of Ms Westacott herself as part of the problem!

Changing direction, Belshaw's World returns to Express in new form simply records my pleasure at my return as a columnist in the Armidale Express. My first scene setting column will appear Monday. The need to write for a print environment under a weekly deadline created a different focus and discipline and also brought me a different audience and a different form of interaction.

Sometimes I wish that people would not say things!   US Defence analyst Edward Luttwak is a case in point. I quote from the start of John Garnaut's article:

AUSTRALIA has been quietly building a regional defence coalition to restrain China's increasingly ''aggressive'' and ''autistic'' international behaviour, an influential adviser to the Pentagon says.

Edward Luttwak bluntly contradicts Australian and US denials that they see China as a threat or want to contain its rise.

''Australians view themselves as facing a strategic threat,'' he writes in his coming book, The Rise of China v The Logic of Strategy.

I don't write regularly on trade, foreign or defence policy, but over time I have traced out the strategic challenges facing Australia and the nature of responses. My problem with Mr Luttwak is that he has taken one element, defence, and made that central, Of course China is a potential strategic threat to Australia, but it is not the only one. Further, Australia's evolving relationships with Asia are a complicated multi-faceted web requiring adroit management. It doesn't help us to have one part of that web blown up as the central strand.

My post Visit a bookshop week starts 22 October - spread the word has garnered some initial support. In a comment, Jody wrote: "I came here via Ramana. I'm a writer, and of course, I do love bookstores. But, mostly, I also just love BOOKS. I find the library as compelling as bookstores, and even as a writer hoping to make a little money, the library sales in the U.S. can be significant."

Earlier in September in Nicholas, Fisher Library & a sense of sadness, I recorded my reactions to Sydney' University's Fisher Library book clean out. Our reactions to these things are always personal. I have been trying to work out how to explain this in, to use modern jargon, not helicopter terms, but at the personal micro-level. I use the new technology all the time, I rely on it to do the things that I do. Increasingly, however, there are things that I can no longer do as a consequence of the impact of the technology. It is those things and the possible responses that I am focusing on.

It's a beautiful day here in Sydney. The lawnmower next door has just started up. I fear that I must leave you for more domestic activities.


In a comment, Rod wrote:

2. regarding the disposal of old books - I recommend looking into the consolidation of several libraries into into the Dorothy Hill Library at UQ. During the process ironically vast amounts of irreplaceable material was destroyed... including the private library of Dorothy Hill herself that was donated to UQ when she died. The UQ library webpage uses the typical excuses and apologies:

The link is worth looking at, for this appears to have been a fairly monumental stuff-up that led to the loss of irreplaceable material. Now, and at considerable expense, the Library is struggling to rebuild the destroyed collection.

I recognise the problems that libraries face in coping with a growing volume of publications and, at the same time, finding the funds to invest in the provision of new on-line services. Library capital costs used to be driven by costs of buildings plus cost of acquiring collections. Now you have to add in the cost of acquiring and then maintaining the new technology. All this makes culling of the physical collection inevitable.

I accept that. However, in the process, many libraries ignore a simple and most basic question: is the culled material available on-line? If not, the disposal or destruction means permanent loss.

The problem is most acute with what we might call niche material. This is rarely available on line and is also less used; the second is important for it is the less used material that is often the first to meet the culler's axe.

Libraries have multiple roles. At present, the role of custodian of human thought is completely subservient to that of service provision to the immediate generation of users.

I see this all the time. The interests I have, the history of New England is an example, are niche interests. The key material that I use is rarely available on-line and, indeed, only partially available in the big libraries. That makes the preservation of the material that is there more important. The destruction that I recorded in Nicholas, Fisher Library & a sense of sadness is not just a personal loss, but a loss of another part of history. As I wrote at the time: "In throwing it out to clear space, Sydney University's Fisher Library took away another little piece of our own history. See why I'm sad? "

There isn't an answer. Were it not for the fact that I have been buying New England books for a long time and now have a collection of over four hundred, I could not write some of the things that I do. We may live in an information rich age, but it is also an age of information destruction. The people who make the decisions about what to keep and what to destroy have their own concerns. They have a job to do, targets to meet that focus on the greatest need as defined. The fact that they sometimes destroy the very things that I am most interested in is just collateral damage, an incidental result.  

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Visit a bookshop week starts 22 October - spread the word


This is a bookshop, in Gunnedah.

Remember bookshops? They are places that sell printed books, things that you can buy and take away to read.

They are also places that you can visit when you are bored and want to pass the time. Standing there, you can browse the shelves, accessing a wide world of imagination and knowledge. You may not buy a book, but you at least pass the time and may emerge with new ideas.

Bookshops are dying. The big Westfield Eastgardens shopping centre is just down the road from my place. Millions of shoppers pass through its doors every year. Outside a very limited range at the ABC shop or the few mass publications carried by the chains, you cannot buy a book there. Its only bookshop closed in the commercial mess that flowed frP1000714om Borders' commercial games. Think of it. Millions of customers and there is, apparently, insufficient demand for just one place selling books.

This is a bookshop, one of my favourites.  It is in Armidale. Armidale still has a number of bookshops. Maybe country people are just slower to adjust to change. Maybe, just maybe, they are more discerning.

Visiting Armidale last weekend, I did as I always do, I went book shopping. I was looking for books about New England or written by people from New England. There I purchased Yve Louis's latest book of poems, A door in the forest. The English is absolutely wonderful.

Yve Louis is one of Australia's best poets. Sydney born, she now lives in Armidale and is a member of the Armidale poets. Reader's Companion doesn't make any money out of her work. They carry her as a service, something bookshops used to do because she is now a local.

This is important. The economics of the net combined with the technical constraints associated with e-publishing work against small niche publishers and especially against poetry. The physical design of the poem on the printed page can be very important, and this is hard to reproduce in common electronic formats. You will only find some of this stuff at bookstores.

Call me a troglodyte if you like. Say that I am old fashioned and that, like the dinosaur, I am bound to go extinct. But I do think that we need to draw the line if we can. 

I am declaring the week starting Monday 22 October Visit a Bookstore Week. In that week I want you to visit bookstores near you and browse, talk to the staff, and buy a book. That's nearly all I ask. I say nearly all because I want my on-line colleagues to something additional.

Will you join with me in promoting the idea? Will you spread it? Can we make this a worthwhile? 

Please join with me. Promote it in every way you can. 


Both Ramana and Neil and have already put up companion posts. Neil notes that Dymocks are opening again in Wollongong. For his part, Rod wrote:

I remember the Readers Companion in Armidale, wonderful books... it sells such a variety - not just the standard boring mass published ones. There is a few places in New England where an independant book store still graces the streets: Armidale, Gunnedah and Inverell spring to mind. Alas, there are no independants where I live and there is only one chain store. 

Rod is right. Peter Langston is another Australian poet carried by Reader's Companion. My enthusiasm is not shared by all. In a comment on Ramana's post, Cheerful Monk wrote: "I’ll pass. I’m hooked on Amazon, both real books and e-books. I also buy a lot of non-books from them–they have a great business model. That’s hard for brick-and-mortar stores, but great for those of us who live in the boondocks."


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Curious cows Walcha-Nowendoc Road


Sunday 16 September 2012. On my way back to Sydney I stopped early morning to stretch my legs. It was warm and bright, the air still.

I stood looking back up the road - the southern end of the New England Tablelands is little known but very pretty. Turning round, I found that I had attracted interest from a group of curious cows.

I stood there and watched. As I did, the herd began to move towards me. They had obviously been attracted by the sound of the car stopping. Hand fed stock learn to associate motor vehicle noises with food. The countryside was reasonably lush, but the effect still held.

Getting out my camera, I moved to the front of the car and down the fence a little to see if I could get a decent photo. As I did, the herd moved with me. I watched them, they watched me. P1000853

I couldn't stay long. Getting back in the car, I drove on. It had been a curiously satisfying experience. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Old boys, young boys & a bright, sunny day - TAS OBU weekend September 2012

I drove to Armidale Friday for an Old Boys' reunion at TAS (The Armidale School). I took my camera and took a lot of photos; a few were okay, although I had difficulty balancing light on a very bright day. This is a photo from the rugby. Downlands College from Toowoomba (red stripe) were visiting as part of the weekend.  P1000808

As you might expect, I cam back with many possible stories, some of which I may even write up! This next photo taken in Big School is a shot of my group.  People had travelled from Hong Kong, Canada and the US for the reunion, as well as from different parts of Australia. Few people who go to school or university in Armidale stay there. Their subsequent journeys are part of the changing fabric of life in Australia and well beyond. P1000845

I suppose that it's inevitable now, but in both Armidale itself and among the TAS group I learned of deaths that I had not known. Australian writer Gwen Kelly, Jim Burling, Rennie Barnes. That added to my sense of refection; I will record some of that too.

All of us were struck by the changes in the school, changes that also reflect the changes in Australian society. The last photo is of the TAS Stage Band. The school has a very strong theatre tradition.P1000802

We sat in the sun, drank beer and talked, listening to the music and the more distant sounds of the cheers and war cries from the nearby sporting fields. I was glad I had come, even though getting away had been a bit of a battle. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Train Reading - introducing Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth

This print by the convict artist Joseph Lycett shows a scene near Newcastle. It has that somewhat European feel of many early Australian painters.

Australian art historian Bernard Smith and others have argued that the early European settlers had to learn to see the light and the country, that initially they imposed European norms on the new land. I'm sure that's true to some degree. But what if they were right and modern Australian views of light and landscape wrong, a creation of the changes wrought since European settlement? What if current views of the Australian landscape, views that influence politics and drive the environmental movement, were just plain wrong?

I mention this now to introduce my current train reading, Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia.  It's a fascinating book.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hype, technology & the importance of people

Browsing in a second hand book shop some years ago, I found a battered management book. Published at the start of the eighties, it argued that IBM would become the world’s dominant corporation because of its dominance over information technology. Ten years later, very similar arguments were being applied to Microsoft.

Both IBM and Microsoft benefited from a technology shift. Both rode a wave of success. Both remain successful corporations. Neither achieved that long term commercial dominance forecast by the popular management pundits.

The creative destruction unleashed by the application of new computing and communications technologies is huge, dramatically altering the business landscape. However, it is not the first such shift, nor will it be the last.

To illustrate, the invention of the internal combustion engine had equivalent effects and in much the same time horizon as the IT revolution. Over the first two decades of the twentieth century, entire industries vanished as new ones were born. The human landscape was reshaped. How we lived, where we lived, what we ate all changed.

The rolling effects of the internal combustion engine revolution continued for decades. New industries and activities continued to be born. New fortunes were made. The motor vehicle, aircraft, the shopping complex all became natural and apparently fixed features of the human landscape.

If you look at the hype surrounding the internet as the latest manifestation of the computing and communications revolution, there is a huge focus on winners and losers and on the fads, fashion and social implications of the new technology. I am as fascinated with this as anyone else, yet it helps to keep a sense of perspective.

From a practical personal and business viewpoint, the key thing is the way we use the technology to achieve our objectives. We know that a lot of the froth and especially the kit will vanish. That’s just a fact. What is important is how best to take advantage of it all.

My local tennis club is a good example. I play tennis badly, but enjoy the game and the social interaction. Like many of us, I spend far more time in front of a computer than I really should. I need to get out to do something physical and to talk to people.

My tennis club has an on-line presence. I use that to find out what is going on and to make court bookings. They have a simple system that I can use easily. That’s important. However, that’s not why I go back, that’s not why I am such a supporter.

In simple human terms, there are people behind the technology. I am called Jim. If I have a problem, I can call a human. They recognise me when I come to play. We chat.

The technology helps the club because they get more cash up front, have fewer cancellations, make the courts accessible to more people, Yet it works because it helps me as a customer do the things that I want to do without taking away the things that I value.

I think that we all need to remember this when we consider how we might use the new technology to our own advantage. In the end, it all comes back to people.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Cultural change in Australia - a dearth of bookshops, Gunnedah & the rise of the olive


Do you know, I don't think that there is a bookshop left within a ten or fifteen minute drive of where I'm now living? This includes the big Eastgardens shopping centre. The ABC shop has a few books, but the range is very limited.

I want to buy two books this morning for birthday presents, but blowed if I know how. I could drive to Bondi Junction, but that's just a bit far given time constraints.

This is one case where I would have been better off living in Gunnedah. There I was pleased to see  at least one bookshop.

I did buy one book this week at Parramatta, but didn't think to buy presents then. The book, by the way, was suggested by one of my regular commenters. I apologise, but for the life of me I cannot remember this morning who actually made the suggestion. The book? Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia.  So far it's very good.  P1000600

Returning to Gunnedah and one element of the themes in my last post, Saturday Morning Musings - Coal, Gunnedah & that boom, I was struck by this Gunnedah shop front.

If you study it, it's really a most remarkable cultural mix, incorporating Australian, country and noodles. I stood outside in the early morning light just studying it for a while before taking my photo and moving on. It made me grin. 

With cultural change, it's often the small visual things that provide clues. In it's way, this is an old fashioned shot with its emphasis on Australian and country, but it's still a sign of change.

The somewhat upmarket Gunnedah cafe and wine bar with it's breakfast, lunch and tapas is another sign of change. But then, so are some of the colours used in the paint work.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts on the spread of olive growing in Australia. This is an example from December 2006 - Olives in Regional Australia - Introduction. The post begins:

When I was growing up in Regional Australia olives were still an alien product. Yes, we ate them sometimes, but we never used olive oil. In fact, as a child I confused olive oil with cod liver oil, a nasty tasting substance that our mother used to give us sometimes when we were off-colour.

P1000603 Now look at the photo on the right. This is a pub outdoor cafe. Note the name, but also the colour of the sign. The cafe and wine bar that I referred to earlier carries the same colour at its entrance. That's a sign of change, as is the dull olive colour of the olive groves to be found outside Gunnedah. The olive tree proved to be so suited to Australia that we now have a problem with feral olives, wild olive trees. The idea of feral olives made me smile when I first heard it for it created visions of wild olives storming across the landscape. I still smile, yet it is an issue.

At the time I first wrote on olives I had never seen them growing. Now they are instantly recognisable. Twenty years ago, I ate olives but never used the oil in cooking. Now I use it all the time and indeed would not use anything else for most purposes. The brilliant yellow of the canola crops outside Gunnedah, the duller yellow of the sunflower, have largely lost me.  I have become an olive person. And so the changes roll on.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - Coal, Gunnedah & that boom

This morning's muse starts with a photo from my recent trip to Gunnedah.P1000613 Just a simple shot of a fairly non-descript building in a smallish New England country town. Yet this shot is an on-ground sign of the changes taking place in Australia.

Gunnedah sits on the Sydney-Gunnedah-Bowen Basin. Without going into the geology of it all, before the Gondwana supercontinent broke up, a 3,000k foredeep or rift that ran from modern Sydney deep into Queensland filled with seawater. The sediments that resulted formed vast coal seams that provided, after iron ore, the second leg supporting Australia's recent mining boom.  

The building is the local headquarters of Shenhua Watermark Coal Pty Limited, a subsidiary of the Shenhua Corporation. Founded in China in 1995, Shenhua claims to be the world’s leading integrated coal based energy company. Its main businesses include production and marketing of coal, power generation, railway transportation and port operation.

The next shot is an inside shot of Gunnedah's Bitter Suite restaurant. It provides breakfast, lunch and tapas. Now that's a cultural melaP1000619nge! Like all modern institutions, Bitter Suite has its own Facebook page. 

This shot was taken just after we first arrived to plan the day. A little later, one of the tables on the back left was occupied by a Chinese Shenhua executive sitting there in the middle of the Liverpool Plains working on his lap top.

In a way, that's the story of the Australian mining boom. Forget the statistics, important though they may be. A boom like the one we have had works itself out on the ground. It affects locals, but also those who come and do such as our Chinese executive, as well as those who feed off the whole thing in the big metro centres in Australia and elsewhere.

Australia has come to the effective end of the current boom, although the effects will continue. Gunnedah locals know boom bust cycles all too well. During the 1990s, Gunnedah was hit be the closure of mines and the abattoir. Had the resulting job losses occurred within the easy travel range of Australia's metro located reporters, they would have been national stories. Here they went unnoticed. Only stories relating to insecticides and the local cotton crop made national news at the time, and then because they were sufficiently sensational to demand attention. P1000589

Shenhau is not the only big company in town. This is the local Bhpbillition office. As I walked past in Gunnedah's glorious early morning sun, I wondered about the people working here. There must be such a huge gap between them and the heavies making the real decisions. For the locals beyond the office whose very livelihood depends on those remote decisions, the gap must be larger.

This is a muse, by the way. I am not writing a highly structured piece, simply letting my recent thoughts take me where they will.

Over the last few years, I have written a fair bit on this blog and elsewhere about issues associated with the mining boom and the consequent changes within Australia. I have spoken of the thinning out of the Australian economy. I have spoken of the clashes that arise between those who pay the price of change and those who benefit. I warned of the ending of the boom when euphoria's golden glow still covered  official forecasts. I claim no prescience, simply the caution generated by experience and a tendency to look at the evidence. Plus, I suppose, an interest in looking at and trying to understand the on-ground impacts in areas that I know and love.

I regret that we were not able to capture all the benefits before the boom ended, that the fight to achieve some balancing of costs and benefits has failed. I regret that our obsession with big picture items, with simplified national measures, has derailed the process of discourse. Yet it's not all bad.

in a piece in the Lowry Institure blog, Australia's economy: Crash or crash through?, Roger Donelly compares the contrasting domestic and international views of the Australian economy. I was surprised at the apparent international pessimism about  Australia's economic outlook. I actually think that the end of the current mining boom is no bad thing, nor would I be distressed if the value of the Australian dollar fell. It slows the pace of adjustment, gives the country time to catch up, punctures certain balloons.

Mind you, I want to resume my travel writing, and to do that I need to travel. I had begun to work out how I might return to the Greek Islands next year, adding Turkey. That way I could resume my Greek series and then extend it geographically. I fear that a lower dollar might put a cramp in my plans.

Meanwhile, in Gunnedah candidates for the Shire Council elections have been spruking their wares, explaining where the town and shire should go now. But that's another story. 

Friday, September 07, 2012

Old school photos & modern electronic clutter

Old photographs are dangerous things. This photo of my second Leaving Certificate class, I repeated the LC even though I had a university scholarship because  my parents thought me to young to go to University  was emailed to me today and really took me back into a now distant past.We are having a reunion this year and I hope to go to Armidale for it next week. I am second on the left in the second back row.

1962 LC_0001

Tonight I had dinner with Clare at her place, a share house. As I looked around the place I was struck by the contrast between the world of that school photo and the modern life style. P1000636 And no, this is not an exercise in nostalgia although this particular trip down memory lane was triggered in part by initial nostalgia.

Some things remain the same; books, clutter, if not the art works in progress. Others are very different. Perhaps the biggest single change, the one with the greatest behavioural implications, is simply the volume of electronic clutter. I tried to count the pieces of electronic kit in the house, but lost count at about eighteen items.

One behavioural effect lies in the way that the devices affect household dynamics.

After coming to Canberra, I lived in a share house for the first four years and then again a little later. Shared houses, especially mixed sex share houses, were less common then. My mother in particular was fascinated with stories of shared lives. We used to congregate in the lounge room where the TV was. Now people are much more likely to be in their own rooms playing on or with their electronic kit. And then, even when in company, they do the same!

This is not a critical comment, merely a social observation. I accept that I have odd tastes. Only someone with odd tastes would spend time on public transport counting the number of people doing what out of the total carriage! And yes, at least in Sydney, hand held mobile devices dominate. I don't quite know what people do with those devices, although I know eldest window shops! You can't really learn over and ask.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Let's assert basic manners in Australian politics

On August 13 in Big Birds, regional politics and the futility of "Freedom Wars", I wrote in part of the work done by Alison McLaren. There I concluded:

Alison and I do not share the same political persuasions. She has been a doughty fighter for the ALP. Yet I do wonder why the ALP has not drafted her for political service despite the factional divides that bedevil that party. Alison is withdrawing from her council and community roles after long service to pursue other interests. I think that's a huge loss. If the ALP were to persuade Alison to run in a half-way decent seat, then she would have my total and active support despite party differences. We just need people like her.Alison McLaren

Now  a piece in Sydney's Daily Telegraph, You can run, you'll need a tough hide, provides part of the answer to Alison's withdrawal. The story begins: "For eight years they called her a "bitch", a "whore" and a "slut" - now one of western Sydney's political leaders has had enough." I leave it to you to read the story. In a Facebook comment, I wrote:

I know Alison well and wrote a tribute to her in one of my posts. She has done some remarkable things. However, I had no idea of any of this. Maybe I'm just getting old but I think that there has been a coarsening of the tone. It's not that people didn't think and sometimes say things - I remember as a kid on a polling booth being told by someone from another party who did not know who I was that my grandfather had killed his wife (Gran died in a car crash when Fah was driving) to marry his secretary; Amie had been his secretary decades earlier. It's that people now feel that they have a right to say things directly. We see it in the on-line world all the time. This is associated with a level of censoriousness and public scrutiny that makes public life impossible for many. I'm so sorry, Alison.

One of the stupidest phrases in the English language sometimes applied to politics is "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."  This crassness provides a justification for all sorts of extremes. We saw how it almost destroyed former NSW opposition leader John Brogden, something I wrote about back in 2007 in one of my depression series - Professional Services - Value, Culture and Depression 4: Guidelines. It seems to gone on and on and just get worse. We are going to have to find a way to stop it or no one with any shred of sensitivity will enter public life. Why would you bother?

I don't have a general answer. I don't think that we are going to stop it through laws, protocols or codes of conduct. I don't think that we should try to stop people expressing very strong views that we find distasteful in private. That's their right. I do think that we should demand respect and manners in public discourse, that we should call those who do not display them.

I also suggest that we start at the top, with the political leadership and the commentariat. The next time a commentator calls the PM or opposition leader dismissively by their surname, object. The next time a commentator refers to you dismissively as the punters, object. The next time Treasurer Swan or PM Gillard or Mr Abbott play the game, object. I know that this probably sounds a bit silly and futile, but groups exercise their control in this way. And Australia is just a big group.  

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Gunnedah Streetscape

Tuesday I flew to Gunnedah. I am going to write a couple of stories from the trip. Here I want to share just one.

Look at the architecture in this shot. Comments follow the photo.P1000596

In the very front, you have the modern grounds completed by the Council as part of it's street scaping process.  Just behind it is the original war memorial.

On the left, you have what I think is a classic school building from the 1920s. Just behind it is McDonalds. This dates, I would guess, from the 1990s. So we have a streetscape that actually spans a considerable period with four different architectural styles.  

Monday, September 03, 2012

Gonski lost in guitar's golden glow

Coming home in the train tonight, I had planned to write on the Australian Government's response to the Gonski report on school education. You will find the details here and here. I started to write down questions to ask: what were the objectives; how  measured; if every defined target were achieved, would education be better off? Then I put my writer's diary aside.

It had been a good day after several good days over the last week. One day I bounced into work last week very chirpy. "What has happened", I was asked. I couldn't really say. Perhaps I wouldn't for fear that it would sound all so trivial.

Today it was late afternoon. It had been a warm, bright, day. Now the sun streamed into the carriage. The trees and bushes by the side of the line, the parks, glowed. Then, softly, a guitar started from the back of the carriage. I didn't look around for fear of seeming rude, but I did look at my fellow passengers. There were startled looks and craned heads, then everybody settled down.

I put my serious papers back into my bag and just sat there, enjoying the experience. Even after he left the train, I let the golden glow continue.    

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Twitter, trolls and the hardly normal - 2

This post continues the round-up that began with Twitter, trolls and the hardly normal - 1.

In a comment on the last post, Rod Holland wrote:

Regarding the Trolling that goes on on:

Get off your high horse Jim and get a real job. Your regular drivel complaining about trolls makes me sick. And you smell funny.

That was a bit too easy!

Yours Anonymously,
Rod Holland.

Mmm. Actually, Rod's comment does capture one element of trolling, emotional engagement. Perhaps I should get a job and stop the drivel.

Winton Bates wrote:

Hi Jim
I wonder how Gerry can complain about low internet sales at the same time as he complains that internet sales by foreign competitors are hurting his business. Perhaps he needs an internet spin doctor!

Re the Express, if you can get the content free on line, there isn't much incentive to buy the paper. Perhaps the strategy is to charge for content after customers get hooked on the online version. Meanwhile, the price of Fairfax shares continues to decline.

Before responding, Winton is onto the last chapter of his book (smile, but also sigh because he is so far in front of me), but is suspending blogging until he finishes. I thought that kvd's comments on Winton's last post, What fantasies are associated with the modern pursuit of happiness? were incisive. kvd, you do get around! I know that our little group of bloggers would be much poorer without your presence.

Because this is a round-up, I don't want to comment in detail at this point on Winton's comment. My concern is that in their desire to defend what they have, both Harvey Norman and Fairfax have lost sight of one most basis thing, the customer or reader.

The Shire - and a Farmer Gets a Wife

Back in July (What did you think of The Shire?, Are critics of The Shire just showing their age?) I responded to Channel Ten's new reality show set in Sutherland Shire in the south of Sydney. I finished my second post With these words: "I think it time to return to a more fulfilling topic, the economy".

I was interested in The Shire because reality TV is one way in which I track changes to popular culture in Australia and sometimes beyond. Yes, I accept that this is part excuse for watching things that I shouldn't watch, but I am prepared to defend my position! Well, the show has now been canned after a ratings collapse. In the meantime, the Australian version of The Farmer Wants a

The hit Channel 9 television show Farmer Wants a Wife.

Wife has gone from strength to strength.

This links to a post I wrote a little earlier, Musings and directions, where I referred to the rise of Romance.

In a piece in the Brisbane Times, Are romance novels as bad for relationships as porn?, CityKat writes in part:

Forget 50 Shades, it’s Farmer Wants a Wife that is the real warm, fuzzy, dreamy, creamy, M-rated, well-produced, internationally successful “pornography” for women.

I won't say more. I leave it to you to read Katherine's piece. Like me, she is a professional people watcher. I really liked it.

Well, on this Saturday morning I have a list of to do things as long as my arm. This includes getting the garden bed set up for another photo of kvd's and now Legal Eagle's chairs (kvd's chair). Have a good one. I suspect that I will be talking to you during the day.


The first post in this series, Twitter, trolls and the hardly normal - 1, has got a useful comment thread running that will generate a purely professional post in due course. Feel free to comment there or here.

Over on skepticslawyer, sckepitclawyer's Credit where it’s due reports on a flame case with a happy ending. Well done Perth Now.

I am not going to post tomorrow to see if either of the Twitter etc posts attract further comments.