Thursday, January 30, 2014

Snippets - nostalgia, industry policy and the importance of shared returns

In the midst of the chaotic aftermath of the Arab spring, I almost missed the fact that Tunisia had ratified a new constitution. The process has been sometimes chaotic, but it seems to have been a considerable success in the end.

Ramana (Going To Seed.) has been to a reunion of his old business class. Paul Barratt, too, has been caught up in aspects of his past; A day trip to Dangar Falls takes us back to January 1962; Those were the days takes us to his early days in Canberra; while On final for Armidale introduces you to our joint home town. Somewhat unexpectedly, Armidale was named top third Australian visitor destination for 2014. Paul's nostalgia trips are dangerous, given our shared history.Aymever 10

Email during the week from Karl Reed during the week reminding me of some 1984 events. At the time, we were trying to introduce new approaches to encourage the development of Australia's electronics, aerospace and information industries.

This diagram from the 1980s provides an overview of the areas we were interested in. Karl's focus was especially on the computing sector, reflecting both his academic interests and his role in the Australian Computer Society.

I argued at the time that industry policy constantly failed and was bound to fail because it was either too general (economy wide horizontal measures) or to firm or industry specific to be be really effective.

Part of the solution lay in taking a broad but related group of industries, focusing on shared opportunities and problems, integrating the policies affecting the group, thus facilitating development. Note the way that the diagram integrates manufacturing and services and links together broadcasting and TV with communications and information services. The internet had yet to arrive, but by the mid eighties the key convergence trends were emerging, as was the digital revolution. How might Australia best take advantage of these new opportunities, recognising that in a let the flowers bloom approach, we couldn't assume that the flowers would bloom in Australia. In fact, they didn't beyond a few scraggly blooms! 

This work has a certain resonance today as the Australian Government wrestles with industry and firm specific issues in automotive and fruit canning. The Government has no intellectual or policy framework for dealing with these matters beyond the traditional tension of let the market prevail vs specific industry or firm assistance.

At his place, Winton Bates has taken a brief respite from his blogging holiday with  How do peaceful societies come about? I think that one message I take from Winton's post is the importance of shared returns. Winton puts it this way:

If you want to start a virtuous cycle where peacefulness supports the growth of economic opportunity, you first need to have sufficient numbers of people who are able to perceive of opportunities to engage productively in mutually beneficial activities, and hence, to want to live in peace.

It's not an especially profound message, but I think that it is an important one. Shared benefits are central. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

King hits, alcohol, bias and subtlety in Australian politics

Tonight just a round-up.

The appointment of Peter Cosgrove as Australian Governor General has been widely welcomed. However, New Matilda wonders (How Will Indonesia Take Cosgrove?) about the Indonesian reaction. John Menadue took a similar position - Is another Indonesia faux pas imminent?.

I must admit I did wonder about the wisdom at this point, given current sensitivities and General Cosgrove's role in East Timor. I suspect that he is well enough known as a person at official level that this will work its way through.

In NSW, the O'Farrell Government has gone the law and order route in trying to combat "alcohol and drug violence", effectively forced into it by campaigning in the main stream media. I quote just the first bullet point. You can find the full release here:

This tough and comprehensive package includes:

  • Eight year mandatory minimum sentence for those convicted under new one punch laws where the offender is intoxicated by drugs and/or alcohol, plus new mandatory minimum sentences for violent assaults where intoxicated by drugs and/or alcohol;

This means that a sober bikie who king hits someone gets treated more leniently than a silly young person. Frankly, this is silly stuff of the type we have come to know and love from all NSW Governments (and other Australian governments of all political persuasions). They go the narrowly defined penalty route because they feel it's about all they can do and it's immediately popular. But it's also totally stupid.

Like many Australians, I am worried about alcohol fuelled violence. I was going to say a few years back, but it's more than that, oldest had an eighteenth birthday party. We did the right thing as defined. We hired security people. We had door checks. We let the police know. And then a few young drunken yobbo gate crashers actually damaged the venue where we were holding the party.  It was a bit of a nightmare.

Much later, I thought that we had done the wrong thing and its partly connected with the way that we as a society have shifted responsibility. In the new society, eighteen has become the new fifteen or younger.

As parents, we wanted eldest to have a good time. We took responsibility for organising, worrying about rules and risks. That was arguably wrong. It wasn't our party.

What we should have done is hand over key responsibility to eldest and her key friends. This is H's party. You organise it. You control. We help. Could they do it? Of course they could. They know the people, they know the scene. We didn't.

The blood sport that is Australian politics leaves little room for either nuance or subtlety. Mr O'Farrell's sledgehammer is one example, Foreign Minister Bishop's comments on the Australian-US relations (We’re all the way with USA) appears to be a second. There are different ways of putting things, depending on your target audience. Did Ms Bishop intend to grab the headlines she did with their focus on the US vs China? I wonder. In any event, it wasn't helpful.

Mr Abbott's apparent spray against the ABC (Prime Minister Tony Abbott says ABC not on Australia's side in interview with 2GB) is grabbing today's Australian headlines. The similarity between Mr Abbott's and Ms Bishop's views on Edward Snowden and the timing suggests a collaborative approach.

I suppose I should declare my own biases here without arguments in support.

Do I think that the ABC should have run the Snowden material? No, I don't. Do I think that the ABC has a centre left bias? I don't know that the ABC itself does as an organisation. I do know that many of the reporters and commentators on the ABC do as measured by my own reaction to their stories and opinions. After all, one of my favourite ABC programs is Counterpoint. The very fact that the ABC has to have a single alternative view program is instructive.

Do I support Mr Abbott's spray against the ABC? I do not. I thought that it was actually un-prime-ministerial and also unwise. Later, I will come back to this and to a fundamental and, I think, insufficiently recognised shift in Australian political commentary and analysis that has changed the political dynamics. For the moment, I will defend my ABC!   

Finishing with Indonesia, the Jakarta Globe reports (Indonesia Facing Populace Larger Than US Revives Birth Control) on  Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono desire to have families stop at two children to prevent a burgeoning population overwhelming schools and services. Indonesia's population is already 250 million and could double by 2060. That's a lot of people!

The article is worth reading for what it says about the dynamics of the situation in Indonesia. Australia has to manage those dynamics.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Freedom in the playground

In New Zealand, it appear that a university experiment in common sense, School ditches rules and loses bullies. has had some unexpected results. This was really a breath of fresh air.

When the girls were at school, I fought as best I could to give them what used to be a normal life, at least something approaching the freedom I had known. It was a little easier In the first part of their life before risk aversion became totally dominant. Later, it became very difficult indeed.

Hat tip to Legal Eagle for this lead. Mind you, Katy, lawyers have a lot to blame for all this.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Neanderthal within us

In January I referred (Lewis on the Indo-European controversy) to my feeling of discomfort that came from reading Martin Lewis' posts on the Indo-European controversy. My discomfort came from the realisation that elements of the controversy and the underlying models had affected the things I studied and hence my thinking in ways that I hadn't quite realised. On this, I said in part:

Lewis's central focus in this chapter is on linguistics and the way that linguistic analysis has influenced and been influenced by other debates. His time period extends to the present day. This is where the discomfort came in, for I studied some of the things he talks about at school and university. I used those atlases. I looked at some of the concepts in my studies. Now I wonder a little about the possible distortions created in my own thinking.

Anatomical analysis, the differentiation between peoples based on physical appearance and especially on skeletons, has always been problematic. It continues to be used because in many cases skeletal remains are the only evidence we have, despite the advances in DNA technology.  Yet the classifications used actually derive from and in turn influenced the debate that Lewis is talking about. You see my problem?

When I wrote this three weeks ago, I hadn't properly realised how much science had moved on, in so doing turning our views of the human past on its head.

Over on Helen Dale's Facebook page a commenter, Brian Hanley, directed me to a blog that I had never seen, John Hawke's blog. John described his blog in ways that I could identify with:

I started writing this blog for two basic reasons: first, because there are some really interesting issues in paleoanthropology that are not well covered in the mainstream science press, and second, because I needed a good way to organize my notes.

It turned out that the solution to the note-taking problem also made a nifty solution for writing about interesting issues. Blogging software is one of the best methods of content management around. It became very simple to take notes on things I was reading, spice them up with a bit of information and context, and blog about them. In large part, what you see here are my own notes, the very ones that I use to write my research papers and books.

This is a very, very good blog written by a highly skilled academic who makes the results of new work in his field accessible to the lay reader. And what work that is. It is turning our understanding of the evolution of the human species on its head.  As a simple example, Neanderthal man is not dead but living within us in our genes, if in varying proportions between human groups.

Do have a browse!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The importance of silliness - being silly together is the best foreplay

Today is Australia Day. I really don't want to write about it. Three threads come across my various streams: those who call it invasion day and do things like burning the constitution as a symbolic act; those who treat it as a somewhat jingoistic national celebration; and those who just want to party. I suppose I'm with the latter!

So while I won't write on Australia Day, I wish India and Indians a happy India Day. The dates are the same.

In a tweet, @bossy_boots99 wrote "being silly together is the best foreplay." I think that's dead right.

I am, by nature, a fairly  serious person. I can also be very self-absorbed. That's caused difficulties in relationships. That's why being silly together is so important.

When you are being silly with another person or persons, two things happen. The first thing is that you are focused on them, for they are your audience; their responses determine the success of what you do; you move outside your own space. The second thing is a release of tension; laughter breaks out and, if you laugh, balance is restored.

It works at work. Try it sometime. You will generally find that it leaves people feeling better. It might be something as simple as Happy Monday. It might be a simple performance, a slightly exaggerated story or dance.

In personal relations, it breaks through the dross that inevitable gathers around relationships. We become locked into patterns. Being silly can break or at least ease the pattern.The other person laughs and relaxes; intimacy reappears.  

Try it sometime. It mightn't work the first time, but it will work!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Saturday morning musings - woozy musings on a competitive world

I often wake very early. By nature, I am not an early riser. However, there was a period in my life when the only free undistracted writing time was between 4 and 6am. That period has passed, but the habit of waking early has become entrenched.

Up a little after 4am and feeling somewhat woozy, I staggered to the kitchen and turned the jug on. It's been a very busy, busy, week. I don't know about you, it depends on your age, but as I get older I find that I can't quite maintain the same pace.

Objectively, I'm still no slouch. I still wrote thousands of words this week across print and electronic outlets. As a university student, I found a two thousand word essay a challenge. Now I write the equivalent of several such essays each week, all outside the time bounds set by daily work needs.

The world changes. I know that must seem dreadfully obvious, but it's still true.

I was interviewing this week. It was a short term contract project officer position, low level. I looked at the CVs and blinked. In fact, I read them several times. Every single applicant was grossly, I mean grossly, over-qualified for the position. Some had been out of work for almost twelve months. We interviewed four. 

My fellow interviewer, the boss of the area, looked at me and said "I wish that I could employ them all!"  I agreed. Put the four together and you would have a very powerful team.

Want project management skills? Try multiple qualifications in project management with capacity demonstrated in multiple projects. Want mapinfo? Got it. Want high level Excel?  Got it. Want statistical capacity in analysing the results of major national data collections? Got it. Want to set performance standards, develop contracts and then manage contracts against standards? Got it. Want to map a process so that you can improve it? Got it. And so it goes on. 

Remember, this is a low level position we are talking about, 

Interestingly, what you didn't get was experience in managing others, That rarely happens now. This wasn't necessary for the position, but once you would would have expected such capacity and experience  with the roles that these people had carried out. Management used to be considered important. We have redefined this from existence.

Water boiled, I carried my cup across to to the computer and started to explore the internet. There was some interesting stuff, but this will have to wait until later.     

Friday, January 24, 2014

Problems with science education

Rod Holland writes one of my favourite blogs, Northern Rivers Geology. In a recent post, Our Clarence-Moreton Basin and Middle-Earth, he reports that a researcher from the University of Bristol has released a paper comparing the climate of Earth with that of Middle-Earth (As in Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit).

There was one quote that I really liked. Reporting on one aspect of the study, the researcher concluded that "Mordor would have had an inhospitable climate, even ignoring the effects of Sauron".

In terms of the continuing discussion on the review of the Australian curriculum, Rod wrote a comment on Monday forum - how would you introduce Gaia worship into schools?. Subsequently he apologised for letting his anger get the better of him. Still, I think that the comment is worth running in full because it does illustrate process problems. Comments follow the quote;

Rod wrote:

Step 1 - introduce education of the using "popular science"... e.g. Environmentalism and String Theory.

Step 2 - make the "hard sciences" unpopular by creating a "geek" stereotype.

Step 3 - Since so few people study the "hard sciences" stop teaching these because they are now uneconomical or;

Step 4 - replace "hard sciences" with "popular sciences" to keep the number of science students (and teachers artificially higher).

Step 5 - Find that "science" teachers now can't understand "hard science" and therefore dumb down maths, physics, chemistry etc to home finance, welding, and pollution studies respectively.

Step 6 - come to the realisation that we are no longer teaching science but philosophy and therefore include concepts such as Gaia as integral to the learning experience

Step 7 - Science is now destroyed since "science" is now dominated by un-disprovable philosophical hypotheses.

Science education is bit of a sore spot.

I do not know to what degree this is an accurate reflection of the process that has happened. Still, I suspect that Rod has a point re the dynamics of the process. This holds independent of the current debate about the Australian national curriculum.

Part of the problem lies in the crowded nature of the curriculum, including the focus on process. There is less and less time to study content in depth, making it harder to achieve higher knowledge levels in particular areas.

I suspect, too, that part of the problem lies in misplaced expectations. Some subjects are simply harder, especially at a higher level. You can't dumb down a subject without penalising those capable of achieving at a higher level. With much higher participation rates at higher school and university levels, you have to set subjects studied at levels that best suit the majority of students. The inevitable result is a dumbing down process.

Maybe with some subjects you just have to set a high bar independent of demand, then let the results flow regardless.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Stop the boats, rot the relationship?

When writing as an analyst, I generally (not always) try to divorce my personal views from my writing. Still, there is something rather depressing about the way in which the Australian Government's aggressive stop the boats policy seems to be complicating relations with Indonesia, playing into domestic politics in both countries.

This story from the ABC, Indonesia probes asylum seekers' burns as Scott Morrison rejects 'sledging' of Navy, together with this story from the SMH, Tony Abbott to Indonesian President SBY: We will continue to secure our borders, will give you a feel for some of the reporting on the Australian side. This piece by Stephen Grenville in the Lowery Interpreter blog, The role of the press in Australia-Indonesia relations focuses on the attitudes of the Australian

On the Indonesian side, the Jakarta Globe reports Indonesia Steps Up Patrols, Lashes Out at Abbott for ‘Sovereignty’ Statement, while the Jakarta Post headline reads Tension with OZ escalates as RI deploys warships. The Jakarta Post also reports in TNI gears up, sets sights on foreign threats on plans to restructure the Indonesian Defence forces to increase defensive and potentially offensive capabilities. I quote from that story:

House of Representatives defense, intelligence and foreign affairs committee member Susaningtyas Handayani Kertopati said the TNI should strengthen its “outward-looking” approach at a time when there were signs of escalating threats.

“The greatest threat will obviously be from Australia,” she said.

Just recently, Australia apologized to Indonesia after its border patrol boats entered Indonesian territorial waters without permission in their bid to stop migrants.

A Defense Ministry official has warned that Australia’s “tow-back” policy may soon ignite conflict.

In the midst of all this, Australia appears to be trying to counter at Indonesian grass roots level: Australia to Aid Jakarta, Makassar in Water Management Programs. One wonder about the success of these efforts.

In the end, Mr Abbott may well stop the boats; he is prepared to be ruthless enough. However, I do worry about the longer term costs to both countries. 

And the winners in all this? The Jakarta Globe and Jakarta Post whose on-line Australian readership seems to have grown very rapidly! 


Today (Friday 24 January 2014), the Australian media is full of this story. Some of the reporting is quite breathless; look at this piece from Robert Gottliebsen -  How Indonesia will control Australian migration. This is actually very silly stuff. Note the use of the Jakarta Post as a primary source.

In the Australian Financial Review, Laura Tingle's We are prepared for a clash, Jakarta warns is far more objective.  Note again the use of the Jakarta Post as a primary source.

Far more damaging to the current Australian Government is a later opinion piece by Laura Tingle in the same paper, "Australia crosses a thin blue line of credibility." I can't give a link. Why more damaging? Well, based on my reading of her pieces, Ms Tingle is hardly a bleeding heart liberal.

The underlying question she poses is can you believe the Australian Government or, indeed, the Australian Defence Forces? Her answer appears to be no. I actually find it incredibly hard to believe that Australian Defence Force personnel would force asylum seekers to hang onto hot engine pipes while being towed back.

But that view has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether or not I would trust the Australian Government when it asks who do you believe? I certainly wouldn't trust the Australian Government on this issue. It spins porkies. My view is simply based on my judgement of Defence personnel. 

The Government is fighting back as best it can, This report on ABC, Government claims five-year record in stopping asylum seekers from reaching Australia, is an example. However, I don't think that it matters beyond a hope that it will be true because of the need to avoid complicating things further, including the risk of inadvertent military clashes. Who would have thought that a purely domestic issue, if a key campaign pledge, would be mishandled to such a degree that it becomes a major foreign policy problem?

Mr Abbott may still win this one in purely domestic political terms if the boats stay stopped. However, that success would come at a price of a damaged relationship, a wounded and distracted Government. Mr Abbott has spent political capital that he needed to bring about other changes. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Mind sailing, curiosity and the curious case of Canterbury

Continuing from yesterday's mind sailing theme (Mind Sailing), one of the interesting things about the human brain lies in its patterning ability. To understand and remember things, we have to impose order, to create links. The more links there are, the easier to understand and to remember. Further, once we have created a pattern, we look for things to slot in that will reinforce that pattern. Things that don't fit in are ignored.

This can have odd results. Conspiracy theories are a case in point. I have known a good many conspiracy theorists. Once the theory - the pattern - is established, the holder goes in search of things that will support the theory, leading to some weird and wonderful results. Sometimes, just often enough to make me cautious of all rejection without checking, the theory proves to be correct in whole or part.

All societies have explorers, people who feel restless and want to learn or experience new things. The young warrior In Aboriginal Australia who, restless at the daily routine, goes travelling is an example.

European society in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries was full of explorers driven by insatiable curiosity to find new things, to extend the bounds. I am not talking just about those who actually travelled in physical terms. Behind them lay hundreds of thousands, millions, of people who shared the thirst for discovery in one way or another. They bought the books and magazines, they created or laboured in the new factories, they emigrated to find a better life. The results were not always good, but the end result was one of the transformational points in human history. Ernest_Rutherford_cropped

All human exploration begins in the mind, begins by wondering. That is where mind sailing comes in. We wonder, then we plan or just write. 

A remarkable thing occurred on New Zealand's Canterbury Plains in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The population was very small, measured in the hundred's of thousands. Yet, somehow, that place became the centre of an intellectual endeavour that influences the world to this day.

Physicist Lord Rutherford of Nelson, to give him his official title, is an example, but he is not the only one. By nature, I am insatiably curious. I wonder why Canterbury should have been such an intellectual centre? Was it something in the water? Remember, pound for pound, Canterbury greatly out weighed Australia in the same period.

As with all these things, it was probably a combination of factors. looking at the people and the history of the period, there seems to have been a complicated interlock between intellectual freedom, curiosity, a desire to achieve and the availability of competitive channels that allowed people to advance.

The last was critical. We are dealing with a world where only a small proportion of people had access to university education, but those who did had relatively greater opportunities than exist in today's mass competitive world. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mind Sailing

kvd wrote a comment that I thought was worth reproducing in full:

"Hi Jim

I started out this a.m. with every intention of distracting you, but instead got distracted myself.

In searching for a reference to my intended distraction, I somehow ended up on Schulz: The 5 Best Punctuation Marks in Literature which of course meant that I had to refresh my understanding of participle, and that lead me somehow to JS Bach's "it's not difficult - you just have to hit the right note at the right time, and the organ does the rest" - which itself is quite a remarkable view of genius - no?

And the above voyage took a little over an hour, before it struck me that what I was doing was 'mind sailing' - a phrase I now claim authorship of (noting the dangling, but ignoring it for the moment).

Anyway, what I wanted to mention was a small book I've just finished reading which I think you would find quite interesting: "One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw" by Witold Rybczynski. Do make a note of it; one hundred pages of enlightenment about the evolution of a very common household and workshop tool.

Oh, and I nearly forgot to say thank you reproducing my photograph: evidence yet again that there is no job too small that it can't support a supervisor or two :)


Mind sailing, I like that. It's quite descriptive and describes what many of us do, if not always to the same extent as kvd! Note the careful use of the colon in the last paragraph, a sign of the influence of the Schulz piece; that piece is worth reading.

I actually discovered the full use of punctuation quite late.

kvd, I haven't heard of Rybczynski. There seems to be something Polish in the air at present; Radwanska won the tennis last night. I actually like histories of domestic items. They inform the bigger picture. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Monday forum - how would you introduce Gaia worship into schools?

It seems that Nauru has deported its sole magistrate, while also refusing its part time Chief Justice a visa to enter the country.

Meantime, Minister Pyne has defended his curriculum review, while Liberal MP Craig Kelly has used his public Facebook page to announce (and here) his discovery that the national history curriculum mandates Gaia worship in schools. ''This ideology, this neo-pagan religion is set to be indoctrinated into all Australian children,'' Mr Kelly warned.

''With the business community expressing concerns about the inadequate literacy & numeracy skills of school leavers, and with Australia falling down the international rankings for educational standards - it's great to know that the new Rudd/Gillard/Greens NATIONAL CURRICULUM ensures that GAIA worship is preached to all Australian children.''

I first came across the Gaia concept some years ago via science fiction. Yes, SF has indeed had an influence on me! Perhaps reflecting that influence, Mr Kelly's statement created very strange visions in my mind, of students in kaftans sitting cross-legged in a heavily incense laden atmosphere facing an Indian image. Okay, certain aspects of my past may be coming out.

Still and just for fun, how would you teach Gaia worship? Feel free to go in any direction you like. Word pictures would be good.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Welcome to visitor 200,000

Last month I clicked over 100,000 visits on New England Australia. This morning, I clicked over 200,000 visits on this blog. I couldn't work out just who it was. A stats problem. Still, it's a biggish number. Who would have thought it when I was just trying to get somebody, anybody(!), to come. 

Sunday Snippets - gardens, a loss, problems with policy and management, all with a dash of schnapps

I have been away, and just catching up. The hose is on kvd's garden bed kvd gardenwatched by his and LE's chairs. kvd sent me  some photos of his son's garden bed. This is one sample. Now that's what I call a garden bed! Feelings of inadequacy?!

Having explored the concept of elegance, (Elegance and tennis), our Polish-Australian blogging friend AC has been out exploring the Australian countryside: Getting to know Australia – Thredbo. I really have to visit the Wildbrumby Schnapps Distillery.

Ramana, another of our blogging friends, has suffered the loss of his sister-in-law, A Death And A Reconnection, although Sudhira's death re-established old connections. It's a bit sad that so often this has to happen through deaths and funerals. Perhaps something to think about there?

My post on the current Australian curriculum review, The Pyne curriculum review - Dr Donnelly's challenge, has continued to attract visits and comments. Neil Whitfield wrote in a comment:

I am getting weary of this..... we are all wasting our time and energy on this tripe. If I can stomach it I may do a post along these lines soon.

I can see his point of view. However, I would argue that one of the key things with questions like this is the need to delineate the issues. Otherwise it becomes one set piece in opposition to another set piece.

It seems that the Indonesian Government has sent a warship to protect its southern boarders against Australian incursions. Meantime, the Australian Government has apologised to Indonesia- again.Indonesian foreign minister Natalegawa, Juile Bishop

In writing on this topic, I have tried to make a difference between the stop the boats policy and the way it is applied, focusing my criticisms on the second.

This photo from the Jakarta Globe (link above) shows Australian Foreign Minister Bishop meeting her Indonesian counterpart on 5 December.

Look at the body language. It must be bloody uncomfortable for Ms Bishop to deal with all this. How often can you get on the phone to say sorry?

In a comment on Problems with project management, DG pointed me to this paper by David Gadiel and
Jeremy Sammut, How the NSW Coalition Should Govern Health: Strategies for Microeconomic Reform. I haven't had time to read it properly yet.

As it happened, over coffee on Saturday I was trying to explain the failures in current management (public and private) and policy development as I see them.  Yes, i know that this is a hobby horse of mine, but I so hate inefficiency. Still, I will let that hold to a later post.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Things to watch in 2014 - the Chinese economy

It's been a quiet time in the bloggosphere. That's normal for this time of the year, although the slowdown this year has been more pronounced. Now things are slowly picking up.

Chinese economic growth will be one of the key things to watch this year. Michael Pettis has been arguing for some considerable time now that the imbalances in the Chinese economy mean that growth must slow, perhaps to 3 to 4 percent. His views were featured on the ABC yesterday. Stephen Grenville (A mug's game: Forecasting China’s economic future) takes a different view.

I have been following Michael Pettis for some years now, and know his views quite well. Stephen is right that Michael has been projecting a slowdown for some time, including having a bet with the Economist on the matter, a slowdown that has yet to occur at the scale projected. However, that doesn't mean that Michael is wrong in the longer term. Accepting my lack of detailed knowledge on China, Pettis' arguments strike me as reasonably persuasive.

Australian reporting focuses on the potential impact on the resources sector. However, the issues involved and potential impact on Australia extend well beyond this. One to watch.

In parallel news, some are now predicting that the New Zealand dollar will reach parity with the Australian dollar this year, driven in part by demand for milk products again linked to Chinese demand. Milk has become New Zealand's equivalent to iron ore, the rebuilding of Christchurch the equivalent of Australia's mining investment boom.

While I haven't commented on it, I have been watching the heated takeover battle for Warrnambool Cheese and Butter with fascination. It's part of the same pattern.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Populating a landscape

I have been writing a short piece on Australian singer Kathleen McCormack. I vaguely remembered the name, but had not realised her connection with my own area. Its been frustrating because of lack of information.

This is an example of her work. A brief comment follows the clip.

After all these years, I think that I can claim to be a reasonably proficient historian. So far as Northern NSW is concerned, the New England I write about, I can claim a substantial degree of expertise.  Yet I am always learning.

As I learn, I populate the landscape. This is quite difficult to explain. Kathleen sings of the bushranger Thunderbolt. Like Ned Kelly, he has become something of a mythic character.

I know the geographic names in the song. I know the country. I like the song because it talks about part of my country. But its more than that, for the landscape has become populated in my mind. Each place or name mentioned has multiple things attached to it. There is a texture. My own experiences meld with history. I go to new places because I want to add the physical memory, to connect locale with the things i read.

The personal effect is quite profound. It's not just my writing. Each week, I write between 500 and 2000 words on New England history. Then I read and read. I cannot drive a road anywhere in Northern New South Wales without having some history attached.

I am using the word history in its broadest sense, Increasingly, it includes thought, literature, film, song and painting and the trivia of daily life. This is a painting of a wool dray on the black soil plains. It's bogged. Why? This is another painting of the Upper Clarence goldfields. Look at the techniques they are using to search for the gold. Now follows a lecture on water shortage.

The distinctive thing about my writing is that it's regional, using that word in its broadest sense, I write because I am populating my landscape and wish to share. This year my big writing target is to finish my New England history, to share that populated landscape.

I am constantly distracted. That is why I am sharing my objective, setting a most public target so that  shame might overcome overcome problems of distraction and focus. We will see how we go.         

Monday, January 13, 2014

Problems with project management

Some months ago, my old friend and colleague Noric Dilanchian pointed me to a story in the Australian Financial Review. I meant to comment at the time, but I put it aside because of other pressures. Essentially, the story said that Australian Governments had lost the capacity to project manage complex projects and that, consequently, it should outsource more. The piece focused especially on Defence spending. Here the proposed solution was the purchase of off the shelf equipment.

I agreed with the first, but disagreed with the second. How can you outsource if you no longer have the capacity to properly manage the outsourced work? Now Professionals Australia has reached a similar conclusion. I quote:

The body representing engineers, architects and consultants, Professionals Australia, says mismanagement of public infrastructure projects costs $6-7 billion a year.

Its CEO Chris Walton says governments have outsourced so much infrastructure work that they now do not employ enough people to properly procure projects and monitor their progress.

"It's like renovating your own house, not being clear what you want, changing your mind, re-working, not managing it properly and giving the builder a blank cheque," he argued.

"It's just simply penny wise but pound stupid for government - and that's federal, state and local government - to cut the people who are actually critical to managing the projects and saving that money.

Professionals Australia is a union body representing engineers and project management professionals among others. It has a bias. Nevertheless, that doesn't invalidate its point.

If you are going to let an engineering contract, you have to have the in-house capacity to define the tender, evaluate the responses and then manage the contact. Otherwise, you are in just the same position as the private home builder or renovator who becomes totally dependent on the builder or trades people involved. And we all know what happens here.

Sadly, Australian Government agencies and many companies have lost the core capacities required. This problem has become worse with time as those with actual doing experience leave the scene through restructuring or simply age and retirement. They are not being replaced.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Pyne curriculum review - Dr Donnelly's challenge

I should say at the outset of this post that I am not an automatic supporter of an Australian national curriculum nor, indeed, of national uniformity in a general sense. I do support uniform national approaches where a case can be made, but broadly I like diversity because it allows experimentation. Let the states do their own thing, and then focus on the best. National schemes with their attempts at uniform benchmarks do not allow that.

The announcement by Australian Education Minister Pyne that Professor Ken Wiltshire AO and Dr Kevin Donnelly had been appointed to review the Australian national curricula and the associated curricula setting processes has been greeted with a degree of outrage. This is one example of reporting. here a second, while my old blogging friend Neil Whitfield provides a blog example. As an aside, isn't it interesting how the Guardian in Australia has become the voice of the Australian left? It seems that we don't have a local newspaper to fulfil that role.

Putting aside my general reservations about national curriculum, I have no especial problem with the Minister's announcement. For background, this is the official ministerial announcement, Here are the terms of reference, here the bios for Professor Wiltshire and Dr Donnelly, while this is the transcript from the press conference launching the review. Note from the terms of reference that there are two aspects to the review. I quote:

The reviewers will consider the robustness, independence and balance of the Australian Curriculum, including:

  • the process of curriculum shaping, development, monitoring, evaluation and review.
  • the curriculum content from Foundation to Year 12 for subjects developed to date, with a particular focus on the curriculum for English, mathematics, science, history and geography.

There has been little response in the commentary to the first terms of reference. I don't think that anybody would actually argue that we shouldn't look at the process of curriculum setting and review. It is slow and cumbersome. To a degree, it has to be. If we are going to have national curricula where the states and territories are responsible for delivery with the Federal Government attempting to provide command and control, then the process will always be slow. However, we can always improve. Both men and especially Professor Wiltshire would appear to be well qualified to address this aspect.

The angst comes from the second bullet, content.

In answer to a question at his media release, Minister Pyne made this revealing comment:

Well I’m very hopeful the states and territories will want to work with us to have the best curriculum possible. And this is a very objective process. We have a national review, it’s for people that are outside the current system, and I think having fresh eyes is always a good approach.

Leave aside the "very objective process" comment, it's the last sentence that is revealing. The review is "for people that are outside the current system." That is why I have no especial problem with it.

To my mind, the present approach to curriculum setting is confused at a number of levels. To illustrate this, let's take Minister Pyne's own views, for he seems to be as confused as everyone else. To begin with, he seems to conflate two very different things.

The first is the effectiveness of the education system in delivering measurable results. Here the Minister attempts to link the review to questions of national economic performance. The Australian education system is falling behind measured by global standards. We must improve if we are to be internationally competitive. The second is the general content of what is taught, much of which has little to do with measurable performance narrowly defined. It is in this area that we come to in part to values and world views, areas that have little to do with either economic performance or educational performance as measured by current tests. 

Mr Pyne puts all this together. On top of this, he seems to suggest that the current curriculum setting system actually precludes alternative views. This is the justification for a review that is "for people who are outside the current system". I believe that Mr Pyne is correct on this point, if not quite for the same reasons. As I have argued in other contexts, our current systems of public administration and of policy setting have become rigid and sclerotic. They only allow things that fit within current frames and can be expressed in appropriate ways. Everything else is excluded. There is actually very little scope for new thought. That is why I am comfortable with this review, for there is a chance to challenge prevailing orthodoxy.

Can Messrs Wiltshire and  Donnelly do this? I wonder. Dr Donnelly faces the biggest challenge. In arguing against what he perceives to be ideological bias, I suspect he has become locked in to particular positions. Now he has to put his own positions aside and work first as an analyst, clearly defining the issues. In doing so, he also has to put Minister Pyne's positions aside.  That's a hard ask, since Minister Pyne seems clearly attracted by Dr Donnelly's previous positions. I do wonder whether he can manage it. To add to his difficulties, both he and Professor Wiltshire are relying for resources on an Education Department that is itself locked into current systems. Who, there, might provide new ideas or even the rigorous and challenging analysis required as compared to simple summaries of submissions received?

We will see.


Interesting to watch this one evolve. David Crowe in Friday's Australian had no doubt about Minister Pyne's motivation: Christopher Pyne tackles leftist 'bias' in classrooms. This view is shared by regular commenter here, DG: The educational system is now becoming an avenue for infiltrating a Green / Left agenda as a proxy for teaching essential skills that pupils need to learn before they can start to make discriminating choices for themselves.

Interestingly, from a short survey of right/right leaning blogs, the issue has so far been dealt with by deathly silence. All the commentary is from the left or centre left, and all has focused on the cultural war issue. I find myself in the slightly unusual position, at least on the surface, of being the only source outside the Australian's normal partisan position to attempt to mount a counter view on the whole thing.

Over at his place, Neil Whitfield's More pieces on the perturbing Pyne Probe, provides a useful perspective written from the present dominant position in the commentariat. He includes links, including to Darcy Moore's The 21st Century Education ‘Debate’ in Australia. Neil also quotes the Sydney Morning Herald editorial on the matter.

In my post, I quoted the Minister's comment that this review was "for people that are outside the current system." I also said that that was why I had no especial problem with it, noting the way current systems locked out alternative views. Now if you look at Neil's piece, at the SMH editorial, at Darcy's piece, at the links they quote, you can see the process at work, at the defence of both current process and indeed content.

This doesn't mean that I actually disagree with them on all points. Far from it, although I have expressed my own views about the failures in the current system. I just don't like imposed, rigid, uniformity.

To illustrate this, I agree with Scott (and Neil) on the dangers of education by mechanical measurement. As one anon noted, I certainly agree that education and current schooling are not the same thing and am opposed to the entrenchment of privilege in schooling. Perhaps, too, the "soi-distant" experts should spend time in some inner city or rural schools, although in fairness to our polllies many do. I would also agree with some of Darcy's stated priorities.

All that said, I strongly support the admission of alternative views as a way of breaking the mind-lock imposed by current systems. I am also far less concerned about the risks and dangers that appear to concern others. After all, at the end of the day, what can Minister Pyne actually do?

He can simplify to some degree, he may shift focus at the margin, but to bring about change in an area like the national curriculum he has to deal with the states and all the other stakeholders. This requires judgement and tact. Australia is not the UK with its central systems, nor is Mr Pyne (or Mr Abbott for that matter) a Maggie Thatcher. At worst, the next Australian Government and it will come, will simply roll elements back.

The old rule as laid down by Yes Minister is never start an inquiry if you don't know the results and what you might do about them. I am not sure about Mr Pyne's wisdom here. If the views of critics of Messrs Donnelly and Wiltshire are correct, then he will face a mess that might derail the national curriculum movement. I wouldn't mind that too much. Alternatively, he might find himself facing recommendations that actually reduce his already limited power to dictate. I wouldn't mind that too much either.

As I said in my post, we will see. 

Update two

I see all this has finally dragged Catallaxy into a response:

I don't feel like analysing the posts or the 300+ comments garnered so far, although there are some points on which I agree.

I think that the most useful thing that I can do now is to let the matter rest until there is more on which I might make a useful comment.

Update three

In today's Financial Review, (Wednesday 15 January 2014) Jennifer Hewett had a piece entitled "Education Minister Pyne has a point on schools."  I have given the link, although it is behind the firewalls. Ms Hewett rights from the right of politics on economic matters and usually reflects the views of the business community at the bigger end of town. While I hadn't intended to comment any further at this point, I thought it worthwhile summarising her views since they are representative of one stream of thought. I am paraphrasing.

The starting point is that our education system has failed, constantly falling behind in areas like literacy, numeracy and science and this despite all the money spent on it. The education establishment that has been in power for the last 30 years has failed. It's time for a fresh look.

It is easy to parody arguments such as why the current curriculum underplays the importance of Western civilisation, but the underlying criticism is valid. As a parent, Jennifer has suffered through frustrating years of her kids essays on topics like "imaginative journeys" using the required "key words". This provides a segue into criticism of of the central themes that are meant to integrate all aspects of the national curriculum - Asia, indigenous culture and sustainability. For the record, this is the description of these from the science curriculum

"Cross-curriculum priorities

The Australian Curriculum is designed to meet the needs of students by delivering a relevant, contemporary and engaging curriculum that builds on the educational goals of the Melbourne Declaration. The Melbourne Declaration identified three key areas that need to be addressed for the benefit of both individuals and Australia as a whole. In the Australian Curriculum these have become priorities that provide students with the tools and language to engage with and better understand their world at a range of levels. The priorities provide dimensions which will enrich the curriculum through development of considered and focused content that fits naturally within learning areas. They enable the delivery of learning area content at the same time as developing knowledge, understanding and skills relating to:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures
  • Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia
  • sustainability.

Cross-curriculum priorities are addressed through learning areas and are identified wherever they are developed or applied in content descriptions. They are also identified where they offer opportunities to add depth and richness to student learning in content elaborations. They will have a strong but varying presence depending on their relevance to the learning area.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures

Across the Australian Curriculum, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures priority provides opportunities for all learners to deepen their knowledge of Australia by engaging with the world’s oldest continuous living cultures. Students will understand that contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities are strong, resilient, rich and diverse. The knowledge and understanding gained through this priority will enhance the ability of all young people to participate positively in the ongoing development of Australia.

The Australian Curriculum: Science values Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures. It acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have longstanding scientific knowledge traditions.

Students will have opportunities to learn that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have developed knowledge about the world through observation, using all the senses; through prediction and hypothesis; through testing (trial and error); and through making generalisations within specific contexts. These scientific methods have been practised and transmitted from one generation to the next. Students will develop an understanding that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have particular ways of knowing the world and continue to be innovative in providing significant contributions to development in science. They will investigate examples of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander science and the ways traditional knowledge and western scientific knowledge can be complementary.

Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia

Across the Australian curriculum, this priority will ensure that students learn about and recognise the diversity within and between the countries of the Asia region. They will develop knowledge and understanding of Asian societies, cultures, beliefs and environments, and the connections between the peoples of Asia, Australia, and the rest of the world. Asia literacy provides students with the skills to communicate and engage with the peoples of Asia so they can effectively live, work and learn in the region.

In the Australian Curriculum: Science, the priority of Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia provides rich and engaging contexts for developing students’ science knowledge, understanding and skills.

The Australian Curriculum: Science provides opportunities for students to recognise that people from the Asia region have made and continue to make significant contributions to the development of science understandings and their applications. It enables students to recognise that the Asia region includes diverse environments and to appreciate that interaction between human activity and these environments continues to influence the region, including Australia, and has significance for the rest of the world.

In this learning area, students appreciate that the Asia region plays an important role in scientific research and development. These can include research and development in areas such as medicine, natural resource management, nanotechnologies, communication technologies and natural disaster prediction and management.


Across the Australian Curriculum, sustainability will allow all young Australians to develop the knowledge, skills, values and world views necessary for them to act in ways that contribute to more sustainable patterns of living. It will enable individuals and communities to reflect on ways of interpreting and engaging with the world. The Sustainability priority is futures-oriented, focusing on protecting environments and creating a more ecologically and socially just world through informed action. Actions that support more sustainable patterns of living require consideration of environmental, social, cultural and economic systems and their interdependence.

In the Australian Curriculum: Science the priority of sustainability provides authentic contexts for exploring, investigating and understanding chemical, biological, physical and Earth and space systems.

The Australian Curriculum: Science explores a wide range of systems that operate at different time and spatial scales. By investigating the relationships between systems and system components and how systems respond to change, students develop an appreciation for the interconnectedness of Earth’s biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere. Relationships including cycles and cause and effect are explored, and students develop observation and analysis skills to examine these relationships in the world around them.

In this learning area, students appreciate that science provides the basis for decision making in many areas of society and that these decisions can impact on the Earth system. They understand the importance of using science to predict possible effects of human and other activity and to develop management plans or alternative technologies that minimise these effects." 

To Ms Hewett's mind, this type of approach  has little to do with and detracts from fundamental issues such as teaching science. She is highly critical of outcomes based jargon (she suffered as a parent because no one could understand this stuff, teachers included) and believes that the system is failing to teach in the best ways.

So far as Minister Pyne is concerned, she obviously feels that some of his key concerns are correct. However, she doubts that he is sufficiently adept to bring about real change.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Internet interuptions

Frustratingly, my internet connection went down. It proved remarkably disruptive. It's back on now, so posting can resume.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Lewis on the Indo-European controversy

From time to time I have mentioned GeoCurrents. Subtitled the people, places and languages shaping current events, it really is a very good blog. 

Lead author Martin Lewis has been working on a book on the Indo-European controversy.  Having now finished the chapter on the history of the debates, he is putting it on line in a series of posts. The first post begins:

Debates about Indo-European origins and dispersion have played a surprisingly central role in modern intellectual history. At first glance, the ancient source of a group of languages whose very relatedness is invisible to non-specialists would seem to be an obscure issue, of interest only to a few academics. Yet it is difficult to locate a topic of historical debate over the past two centuries that has been more intellectually provocative, ideologically fraught, and politically laden than that of Indo-European origins and expansion. Although the controversies have diminished in the Western public imagination since the middle of the 20th century, they still rage in India, and elsewhere their reverberations persist. As a result, the Indo-European question is anything but trivial or recondite. To understand the significance of the current controversy, it is therefore necessary to examine the historical development of Indo-European studies in detail, paying particular attention to the ideological ramifications of the theories advanced to account for the success of this particular language family.

Reading the first three posts, I will give the links at the end, created a feeling of discomfort.

I am no stranger to the way that intellectual analysis draws from current views and then feeds back into those views. I am also well aware of the importance of myth and of the creation of myth, of the way in which myths come to dominate debate, to even determine what can be said and how. Current Australian Aboriginal studies is a classic example, one in which present needs and views can control and distort discussion to the point that it destroys the pleasure of discovery.

I was also aware of at least some of the things that Lewis covers in his history of the Indo-European controversy and have indeed written on aspects of them, including attitudes to race and the importance of social Darwinism in refining those attitudes. These can be uncomfortable topics in their own right. However, this was not the cause of my discomfort this time. That came from a rather more direct personal connection, the significance of Lewis' analysis to some of the academic disciplines that I have studied or been interested in including history, prehistory and anthropology. 

Lewis's central focus in this chapter is on linguistics and the way that linguistic analysis has influenced and been influenced by other debates. His time period extends to the present day. This is where the discomfort came in, for I studied some of the things he talks about at school and university. I used those atlases. I looked at some of the concepts in my studies. Now I wonder a little about the possible distortions created in my own thinking.

Anatomical analysis, the differentiation between peoples based on physical appearance and especially on skeletons, has always been problematic. It continues to be used because in many cases skeletal remains are the only evidence we have, despite the advances in DNA technology.  Yet the classifications used actually derive from and in turn influenced the debate that Lewis is talking about. You see my problem?

I haven't formed a final view on Professor Lewis'  analysis, although I found it very interesting, including the way that the controversy has apparently affected modern feminist mythology. That was a surprise. For the moment, I leave it to you to browse the posts. They are:

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Joy, sharing and the goals for 2014

And so the year begins! I do like Peter Black's blog title, freedom to dither! Last year seems to have been a pretty good year for Peter measured by 2013: a year of fun and fitness.

For me, 2013 was in some ways a year of recovery, marked in the second half by the mantra fun and sharing. This was my attempt to restore a little balance to my life. On Christmas Eve, I wrote on my personal Facebook page:

I am going off line for the next few days. Just too many things. But to all my FB friends, happy Christmas and my thanks for your love, friendship and support over the year. From Beijing to Singapore, Armidale to Illawarra, Pune to Edinburg, libertarians and socialists with a dash of Country Party and new staters, writers and painters and those just struggling to survive, from South Grafton to Bellingen, for those who have lost or found, you have enriched my life.

Your stories are part of my story. I think that's special.

I have laughed with you and grieved with you. I have enjoyed the detail of life. Sometimes I have tried to help. Sometimes I have felt helpless. I have enjoyed old memories, of plates thrown, of lakes named, of joint work or campaign experiences, of community endeavour.

I cannot explain where you all fit in my personal memory and experiences. I cannot explain why I value you. There is neither space nor time. I can say that I do value you.

We all know that life is uncertain. Nothing can be taken for granted. Shit happens. But let's take joy from what we have, let's share, let us work together. Joy and sharing. I guess that's my Christmas message.

I think all that's pretty right.

I am not making major new year's resolutions. I never mange to stick to them and, in any case, they breach a fundamental principle. If you lock yourself in too rigidly, you preclude action on better choices that come from your own endeavours.

I began 2013 with apparently limited choices. I did not set major goals, but simply tried to move forward within a frame set by my values and interests. I ended 2013 with Tuesday tennis 2multiple choices, multiple possibilities, so now I do have to set at least some rough priorities.

That said, I have set only one target. I wish to beat both my daughters at tennis, thus restoring the status quo! I became so unfit during the year that my game deteriorated to the point that the girls could beat me.  As you get older, you have to wok harder to stay in the same place. So I am going adopt one of Peter's 2013 objectives.

In many ways, 2013 was the year of people.

I am insatiably curious.  I need to understand. I am also interested in people; I find very few people boring; when I do, I tend to think that that's my fault. Generally, it is. I also like to help. Writing as I do, I actually get to meet people and, sometimes, I can help. I have been given so much pleasure as a consequence. It's hard to explain, although my FB quote explains a little.

By nature, I am a fairly serious person. I can't help that. I am also a little insecure. This can make it difficult to talk to people. I am better with strangers rather than acquaintances: with strangers, you have things to discover; I can fall into roles that help me; with acquaintances, you have to adopt the roles they expect.

Sometimes when I write something that I hope will explain, solve a problem, I get hurt when people don't understand. I think that's human. Yet, overall, it's hard to explain the joy that I have been given. I am just so lucky.

If fun and sharing were my mantra for 2013, what will it be for 2014?

I don't have a full answer. I want to keep the joy and sharing, For the moment, I have set just one additional target. I want to complete the first draft of my history of Northern New South Wales, of the broader New England. I want that out so that I can draw a line under that part of my life and move on.

I think that it's a good history, a different history. That view can only be tested through publication.

I hope that you and yours have a good 2014. I am looking forward to our interaction.