Saturday, December 31, 2011

Musings on photos past 5 - Leaving Lancashire

It is, I suspect, something of a curse to be blessed with an interest even obsession in family history. It is more of a curse to find that one's own agendas have in fact been set by a family past, agendas reinforced by the very act of discovery.

To set a context for what follows, a modern shot taken in September 2011 showing me beside the big Maori war canoe in the Auckland Museum.

I am probably one of the few people who have sat in this canoe, at least in modern time.

I mentioned Uncle Vic Fisher in my last post, Musings on photos past 4 - Puhoi & Tahekeroa. He was curator of ethnography at the Auckland Museum and took my brother and I in one Sunday when the museum was closed and allowed us to sit in the canoe. I must have been around eight at the time. 

In an earlier post on family history I said that the Belshaws were an Imperial and Commonwealth family. Doesn't that sound grand?  Well, it's not quite like that. We weren't an imperial family like, say, the Murrays. Rather, we were a family to whom the Imperial and Commonwealth connection opened up opportunities, a small family that spread across the dominions.Walthew Lane Platt Bridge 1936 2

This photo was taken in, I think, 1935 or 36. The inscription on the back reads "You are quite welcome to two cups of tea at 103. when you come over ER." I think that it was sent to Dad just before he left for England on scholarship.

Walthew Lane is one of the Belshaw streets, Platt Bridge along with Ince and Abram are places where the Belshaws lived. All are suburbs of Wigan.

This is the gritty world of industrial England. The card was sent just before or around the time writer George Orwell stayed in Wigan in February 1936, researching the book that would become The Road to Wigan Pier.

By now, my part of the Belshaw family had broken out of the industrial poverty trap. Emigration and education were central to that. The next photo taken in Auckland (New Zealand) in 1943 shows three generations of Belshaws. In front is grandfather James Belshaw, behind him Uncle Horace Belshaw, James Horace Cyrilthen Horace's son, cousin Cyril. By now, my father was living in Armidale.

James Belshaw was born on 6 February 1867. He started work at the pit head and went below ground at eighteen. He was the third generation of Belshaws to do so. He remained working there until sometime after his marriage at the age 30. His wife, Mary Pilkington, was a weaver in the mills at the time of her marriage.

Today we are used to mass education. We forget that this is quite new. My great grandfather James Belshaw's likely wedding certificate (27 June 1850) has only marks, no signatures. When my father visited his Aunt Ellen in 1936, his father's elder sister explained that her inability to write meant that she had lost touch with her family.

Grandfather James Belshaw could write and seems to have been ambitious, as well as strongly religious. He left the mines and became a greengrocer.     

On Monday 3 April 1905 he stood for the Abram Council as a candidate for the new Labour Party . A leaflet produced by him stated:

Reasons why you ought to vote for Belshaw.

1. Because he is a life long resident among you.
2 Because he himself is a working man.
3. Because he goes in for Direct Labour Representation.
4. Because he is the choice of workers.
5. Because he Disbelieves in Cliqueism.
6. Because his Pclip_image002rinciples and interests are identical with yours.

In July 1905, a bit over thirty years before Orwell visited Wigan, James Belshaw sailed for New Zealand. This family photo was taken in 1905 before his departure. In front is Uncle Horace (b1898), with Mary holding Aunt May. (b1904).

The family followed a little over twelve months later. My father was born in New Zealand in 1908.

I have always wondered a little if the family would have broken out of the poverty trap had they stayed in industrial England. I suspect they would have, but I doubt that they would have had the opportunities that opened up in New Zealand.

Given their backgrounds, my Belshaw grandparents had a strong belief in education. They also focused on security. All three children initially became teachers, a secure job. When Horace as eldest wanted to give up a secure teaching position to become a WEA (Workers Educational Association) tutor, his parents were distressed. Later, they opposed my father's desire to become a journalist.

I can understand my grandparents' concerns. They knew industrial England, whereas the children had grown up in the more open environment of early New Zealand. They had a different perspective, although my own father's concerns about job security were deeply entrenched.

I am out of time today. I will continue this post tomorrow.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Musings on photos past 4 - Puhoi & Tahekeroa

In my last post in this series, Musings on photos past 3 - James Pilkington Belshaw, I mentioned that my father played provincial Rugby in New Zealand.

The little village of Puhoi lies 50km north of Auckland. The area was settled in 1863 by Bohemian settlers and retains its Bohemian character today.

The early settlers had to clear the thick Kauri bush, with timber being cut and floated down the Puhoi River.

The farming district of Tahekeroa lies not far to the west of Puhoi along a winding dirt road. It is a pretty area.

Tahekeroa lies on the North Auckland Railway line and used to have its own siding and school. Dad was posted there as a teacher in the 1930s. 

The school itself was locatIMGed in a railway carriage, while the school teacher lived in a fettler's hut.

The photo shows the hut with Dad sitting outside to the left. The conditions could hardly be called luxurious!

Dad was completing external masters at the time time.

He got one first class MA, first in New Zealand, but it was not sufficient to give him the scholarship he needed to study in England. There was just one full scholarship for all of New Zealand providing travel, all fees and a reasonably generous living allowance at any English University.

He therefore did a second MA, again gaining first class honours and first in New Zealand. From memory, the first MA was in history, the second in economics. This got him his scholarship. Because brother Horace had studied at Cambridge, my father chose to do a PhD in economics at Manchester instead.

The advantage of living on a railway line lay in the way that books could be sent up from the university, essays and thesis material sent back.

In the 1970s I visited Tahekeroa with Aunt May (Dad's sister) and Uncle Vic Fisher. Dad and Vic had met through the Worker's Educational Association. There Dad introduced Vic to his older sister.

May could remember visiting her brother at Takekeroa, although no obvious sign remained of the fettler's cottage when we were there. However, we called in to see the Straka family, one of Puhoi's Bohemian families, to see if anyone remembered Dad. As it happened, Mr Straka did indeed, remembering his football and also the fact that they tried to marry him off to a local girl. He was seen as far too serious for his own good.

In September while Helen (eldest) and I were in New Zealand for the weekend to see Australia play Ireland in the Rugby World Cup, we found our way first to Puhoi and then to Tahekeroa.

With the passage of time since my previous visit, I found it difficult to locate things. However, I was at least able to show Helen the area where her grandfather had taught!

Maybe on another trip we will have more time.              

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Musings on photos past 3 - James Pilkington Belshaw

JPB Mayfield 1926

I am absolutely awash with paper, photos and memorabilia of one type or another.

Over on the New England Australia blog, New England's Air Wars records one piece I found.

This first photo here is one taken of my father at Mayfield in 1926. He was then 18. I had to look Mayfield up. It is a small farming settlement about 35k from Ashburton on the Canterbury Plains in New Zealand's South Island.

One of the difficulties I face is simply organising the material to make sense of it. For the moment, it's still all very scatter gun.


The next photo comes from a post of Paul Barratt's, New England University Rugby Team 1939. Comments follow the photo. 

   Dad arrived at the newly established New England University College in 1938, the first staff member to do so. He had played Rugby at provincial level in New Zealand and became, among other things, foundation coach of the Rugby team.

Paul identified those in the photo as:  

Back Row: Lewis Border, Consett Davis, Max Hartwell, John Rafferty, Jim Belshaw (Coach), Alf Maiden, Les Titterton, Frank Rickwood, Ken James
Middle Row: Ralph Crossley, Paul Barratt, Pat Thompson, Alan Sutherland, Peter Durie
Front Row: Ed Scalley, Harry Savage

Paul's post includes details on the players. His father is second on the left in the middle row.

The next and final photo is a studio shot of Dad taken at Solomon's Studios in October 1942, so three years after the football team photo.

You can see what I mean by scattergun. I really need to spend more time organising the material before rushing to post.

In organising material, I am sorting by time, but also by country and particular family line.

I am also trying to add notes so that the photos make more sense.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Musings on photos past 2 - English Belshaw Christmas 1952

We all had a very happy and relaxed Christmas. Now I am back to sorting photos.

In my first post in this series, Musings on photos past, I commented that a photo without a context was often just a piece of visual wall paper.

In 1952, Dad went overseas on a Fulbright Scholarship for a year, leaving the family in Armidale. Before he went, he chopped a year's supply of wood for the kitchen stove and the two open fireplaces that provided a measure of heating during the cold Armidale winter. As kids, we stacked and re-stacked those wood piles to create forts and other constructions.

In England, he spent Christmas 1952 with some of the English Belshaws. At the back from left to right people are listed as Arthur, John, Bob, Joyce, Jim (my father). At the front from left to right Andrew, Alice, Mother, Self, Gwyn. Comments follow the photo.   English family, Christmas 1952

This photo is unusual because it actually has names attached. When in 1906 my Grandfather Belshaw and his family emigrated from Wigan in Lancashire  to Canterbury in New Zealand in search of a better life, they did retain contact with those remaining in England. When Dad did his PhD at Manchester in the the 1930s, he visited them. So contact continued.

We have lost contact since. Of those in the photo, I knew only Bob and Joyce (Meade), for they sent my brother and I Christmas presents as kids and in fact Sue and I stayed with them when we visited England in 1979. However, I lost all contact after Bob and Joyce's death.

All this means that I have a box of fading black and white photos from my father that presently sit there without context, frozen in time. So, for the moment, I cannot tell a proper story that might bring them all back to life.    

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Belshaw's Christmas thanks

Today is the usual chaotic Christmas Eve.

I am not going to mention individuals, but I just wanted to say thanks to my readers, my commenters and my fellow bloggers. You have enriched my life, and I am truly grateful.

It's difficult for me to explain just how important you have been. You have been there when I was down. You have provided stimulation and friendship. You have been central to the very texture of my life.

As we track into the new year, I look forward to working and sharing with you. I am, I suppose, something of an idealist. Yet it is also an idealism based on personal experience. I believe that we start with the individual and then broaden. I believe that sharing is central. I believe that we we can make changes to ourselves and to broader structures and events that can make a difference. My experience tells me that these things are true.

Regardless of faith or belief, regardless of circumstance, I wish you and yours a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and successful new year. I look forward to 2012 and our interaction.         

Friday, December 23, 2011

Musings on photos past


As we enter the Christmas period, I feel very disinclined to be too serious. I can also see from the stats that the usual December traffic decline is already in effect.

Over the Christmas break I want to indulge myself here just on those things that interest me personally without serious intent of any type.

One thing that I want to do is to complete sorting and digitising photos.

Photos are funny things. A photo without a context is often just a piece of visual wall paper.

This is an official Departmental photo of me taken in 1984. Obviously it has meaning to me, but taken as a photo on it's own, it's just a bloke. If you think of it as one of a series of photos taken at the time of SES (Senior Executive Service) officers in the Department it has a little more meaning, but not much more unless you have some reason for being interesting.

This next photo is a shot from the 1970s of a bloke reading while leaning against a car in what appears to be a suburban backyard. In fact, this photo is full of stories, but again they have special meaning to me or to others connected with this period.

This is the backyard of the Ross Road house I was living in in Queanbeyan at the time the official photo was taken. Those who know Canberra will realise that this could not be a Canberra shot. You won't, or at least wouldn't, find that type of garage in Canberra.

The photo in A PhD student, 1983 was taken in the back room at Ross Road.  I mentioned Sue in that post.

I shared this house with Sue for the best part of fourteen years, the longest time I have lived in one spot outside the Marsh Street family hoIMG_0001me. This was also the first house I owned.

Later I sold my share in the house to Sue after I moved back to Armidale. 

I was heavily into gardening at this time. You can just see in the foreground the little low glass house that I used to grow early stage seedlings. It was very effective.

The red car is the Datsun 180B that I owned for a number of years. The previous car, a Datsun 1600 fell to bits when I was campaigning for Country Party pre-selection for Armidale.

On thirteen weekends in a row I drove from Canberra to Armidale, leaving straight after work on Friday and then driving through the night. Saturday and Sunday were spent driving around the electorate, driving back to Queanbeyan Sunday night to get there in time for Monday work. I added 56,000 miles to the speedo over the whole pre-selection campaign. The car collapsed as a consequence.

I have written on some of my pre-selection experiences. This photo brought them back. I wonder how I managed!

Richard Hield is the bloke in the photo.

I have been truly blessed, I think, in the people I have known. It's not just the friendship, but also the variety and indeed eccentricity that now provides fertile if often disguised material for my writing! Richard is one such.

I remember Richard and another friend, I think that it was Barry Hess, describing the firing characteristics of the US M16 rifle. I was curious, and asked where they had used one. As I remember the story, they were touring Vietnam during the Vietnam War and ended up at an ARVN (South Vietnamese) hill fort. The Vietcong attacked while they were there. The Vietnamese lieutenant gave them each an M16, pointed down the hill, and suggested they take action!

  Richard joined the Australian Foreign Service as a diplomatic cadet. I met him the following year when I became an administrative trainee. Richard's flat on Northbourne Avenue was a major hangout out. It was there at a party that we learned of Australian PM Holt's disappearance as some of our colleagues were called back to work.

I had already had significant exposure to Asia, something that was still a little unusual in the 1960s and 1970s, although not as unusual as people think today. In fact, I think we probably had more real exposure.

Richard's then girlfriend Louise was Vietnamese, while others in the group had Vietnamese linkages. We helped the girls prepare Vietnamese food, still my all time favourite Asian cuisine. As the South was falling, It was in that flat that people planned campaigns to try to get the Whitlam Government to admit those to whom Australia had obligations. As I have written before, my limited role was to use my Country Party linkages to enlist Ian Sinclair's support.

In many ways, Australia is a very small world especially for those of us drawn together in Canberra at the time from all parts of the country. Another in the immediate group was Stephen Grenville who later became Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank. I suspect that if you ask Steve you will get another linked but very different slice.

Time passes, but overlaps continue. Richard married Sarina who was in the same cohort as my wife at Sydney University's International House. Last year, Richard and Sarina's son was in the same UNSW mixed netball team as my eldest, although neither knew of the parental connection!

To a biographer, photos are the staff of life because they give physical appearance to the characters we are trying to understand. However, they do more because they hint at linkages, at texture, at personality.

Yes, most photos inevitably decline to visual wall paper, pieces frozen in time without personal context. Yet they retain a fascination as we try to understand them.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review of the Fair Work Act announced

Yesterday, Bill Shorten as Commonwealth Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation announced a review of the Fair Work Act. This act governs industrial relations in Australia.

The review was foreshadowed at the time the legislation was originally introduced and will be conducted by Reserve Bank Board Member John Edwards, former Federal Court Judge, the Honourable Michael Moore and noted legal and workplace relations academic Professor Ron McCallum AO, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. If you follow the above link, you will find the terms of reference of the review.

In an opinion piece in today's National Times, former Treasurer Peter Costello takes a swipe at Europe over their failure to follow Australia's earlier industrial relations lead. I think that he is probably right in that lack of labour market flexibility has impeded structural adjustment within Europe. However, it's not as clear cut as that.   

I normally don't comment on industrial relations issues as such because I lack specialist expertise. I am also not especially interested in a day to day sense. Still, at some point it might be worthwhile providing a non-rigorous historical overview of the broad issues involved.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On daddies & daughters


Some time ago eldest won a competition prize, a professional model shoot to create her own portfolio. Not that she wants to be a model, at least I don't think so, but the young are into this sort of thing.

Out of this process, I collected a small photo that might fit in my wallet, although I think that it is in fact too good for that.

As anybody knows who reads this blog, I am very proud of my girls.

The relationships between dads and daughters is a special one, as it it is between mums and daughters. However, it is different from that relationship.

I while back, one of the girl's aunts who has only boys commented that she missed not being able to go shopping and talk about female things. Listening to the girls and their mum talk reminds me just how different men and women are. They chatter in ways and on topics that I cannot.

You would think that being married would give you an understanding of women, and in a way it does. Yet for many men, me included, the relationship with daughters, the interaction between daughters and their mum, provides far greater insights into the female psyche.

The relationships between men and their fathers are often complicated, far more complicated than relationships with mums. Often mum just is, a source of accepting love. By contrast, in the relationship between sons and fathers, there are often real issues of authority and acceptance as the sons attempt to carve out their independent roles and personalities.

Women may be bitchy and sometimes downright vicious. Yet they also understand the need for emotional support in a way that men do not. They are far better at articulating and acting on emotional needs. It is no coincidence that in most marriages, women provide the social glue.

I think that one of the special features for men in their relationships with their daughters lies in the way that daughters provide the type of accepting love that men crave, but are often unable to articulate properly. Accepting love does not mean unquestioning love, just love that is in some ways simpler and uncomplicated.

The love between fathers and daughters is forged from birth and grows through experience of the natural stages in a girl's life. Not all fathers experience this, or not to the same degree. Some are just too busy, others too protective, some don't have daughters.  But for those men such as me lucky enough to experience the process, it is a wonderful thing.  

Monday, December 19, 2011

Galilee coal & Australia's mega developments

I was fascinated by a short report in the Australian (Paul Cleary, 16 December 2011) on Clive Palmer's China First coal development in Queensland's Galilee Basin. You will find another story by David Wroe (SMH, 19 December) here.

Before going on, this map shows the distribution of the Queensland coal fields. The Galilee Basin is marked by the light brown on the left. The China First Coal project itself is about 400 k inland from Gladstone.   

The scale of these developments is enormous.  In this case, the project will apparently:

  • cost $A7.5 - 8.8 billion (estimates vary)
  • generate 6,000 jobs during the construction phase, 1,500 during operation
  • boost coal exports by 40 million tonnes per annum worth approximately $A4.6 billion dollars
  • occupy some 55,000 hectares.

Unusually, the First China impact statement includes modelling suggesting that will cause a "considerable decline" in manufacturing because the extra coal exports from July 2013 will put upward pressure on the exchange rate.

Modelling produced by the consultancy AEC group says the project will cause the loss of 2215 manufacturing jobs in Queensland alone between 2013 and June 2018, and a further 1666 jobs over the next 18 years, with some job losses elsewhere in Australia as well.  Agriculture will also lose about 450 jobs.

At the same time, and this is not referred to in the newspaper reports that I have seen, the project will create its own jobs beyond the direct employment numbers.  

This is actually about what you would expect during a process of fundamental structural change since this means basic shifts in economic activities. The recent Australian Bureau of Statistics National accounts figures contained some remarkable statistics showing the scale of the changes now underway. The following table shows the increase in state final demand seasonally adjusted over the last twelve months ranked by the percentage size of the increase.


State, Territory % increase final demand year ending Sep 11
Western Australia 16.4
Queensland 9.3
Victoria 1.8
ACT 1.3
NSW 1.2
Tasmania 1.0
South Australia 0.1
Northern Territory 0.1

The numbers bounce around, with part of the Queensland increase due to recovery from the floods. Even so, you can see what I mean. That WA number must be one of the highest growth rates in the world.

Meantime, Greenpeace is worried that the development of mega coal mines in Central Queensland will destroy the world's chances of keeping global warming to 2 degrees. According to newspaper reports, calculations made by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney, on behalf of Greenpeace conclude if the proposed mega-mines in the Galilee Basin run at full pace, by 2035 they would be eating up 4 per cent of the world's carbon budget and 9 per cent of the emissions set aside for coal.

The weakness in the Greenpeace analysis lies simply in the assumption that if the Galilee mines do not proceed, things will be different. If the demand for coal is there, production will expand. Remove Central Queensland, and other mines will expand in their place. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Problems with swimming pools

Somehow yesterday escaped me, at least in a blogging sense. There were just too many domestic things I needed to do.

When we moved into our current house last March we inherited a swimming pool. It became the bane of my life, always green. Over the last few days with some professional help we have at least made it swimmable.

To finally fix it, I dumped two entire lots of chlorine in, then painfully cleaned the bottom and water. The water was tested, leading to the addition of acid, and will be tested again Tuesday with further chemicals to be added.

During the peak Sydney water restrictions, I complained about the way in which pool owners were given preference over gardeners. Having now gone through the whole process of pool fixing, I wish I had known those details at the time. I had no idea just how much pool water gets put into drains, nor the technical complexity of it all.

I really don't feel comfortable dumping all these chemicals into water just so that I can have a swim. The prices are also somewhat horrendous. Had I known what I know now about private swimming pools, I could have been far more sarcastic and indeed targeted in my attacks on water restriction. That's life, I guess.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

Is Federal Labor finally NSWalesed?

I wonder how many of us have been in situations where our own desire to improve things, to respond to events, actually makes things worse? Certainly I have in both my work and professional life.

In a relationship, for example, situations arise where one partner is upset, has grievances, where the other responds in ways that hurt and complicate despite best intentions. Similar situations arise at work where our attempts to do things, to respond to challenges, actually blows what we want do out of the water.

These types of problems are common and normally pass. However, sometimes a pattern of behaviour (a pathology) is created that leads to a reinforcing downwards path. Pecking away at the problem, we make it worse. 

I have put this in a personal sense, but similar processes happen with organisations, including Governments and political parties.

I don't know if I was the first person to coin the phrase the New South Wales Disease, although it was original to me at the time I first used. Similarly, I don't know if I was the first person to talk about the NSWalesing of the Federal Government, although again it was original to me when I first applied the term.

By the New South Wales Disease I mean simply a political and government world that was increasingly disconnected from reality, a world in which the internal games came to dominate. This was also a world in which the increasing disconnect was accommodated by constant shifts to try to adjust to perceived public opinion, to respond not by some central compass, but by what might sell best immediately.

As things got worse, there were constant changes, responses to external events, to symptoms. By the end, the only thing left were the internal games.

I applied the term NSWalesing to the Rudd Government early because its style was so reminiscent. In saying this, I am not intending to doubt Mr Rudd's energy, to doubt that he had ideas, to doubt his integrity. I am talking about a pattern.

Mr Rudd's initial problems were largely personal, a failing in management. However, he also inherited two things from NSW.

The first was what I call mechanistic management, an approach to public administration that centred on simplistic targets wrapped around in big words. The second was a political culture that focused on the game, on the need to package for immediate advantage. We use words like spin or focus groups, but they are simply symptoms of a broader pattern.

As problems emerged, the Labor Party responded by selecting a new leader, a very NSW things to do. That addressed the specific issues associated with Mr Rudd's management style, but left other elements unchanged. Consequently, similar problems emerged. These were exacerbated by Opposition Leader Abbott's ability to simplify, to go for the jugular.

Despite all the problems, it seemed to me as the year moved to an end that the Government had established a certain stability. Things were being done, while Mr Abbott had begun to lose his ability to set the terms of debate. Since then, the wheels seem to have come off and in a very NSW way.

I do not pretend to understand the full dynamics of the Australian Labor Party. What does seem to be clear is that the internal machinations within the Party, the games now being played out, have again put the Government on the back foot. This time the focus is on Julia Gillard's leadership style, on her failure to mention Kevin Rudd at the ALP's National Conference, on the fall-out from the ministerial changes.

Anybody who has been involved in a storm, in a downward spiral whether in personal or professional life, will know that the hardest thing is to find a point of calm, a flat space. Without that point of calm, that flat space, it becomes impossible to establish any form of equilibrium. You end by running desperately across the shifting sands, veering from one point to another in response to changes in the sand. Finally, the in-coming tide swamps you.

Politics is no different. I do not understand why the PM felt it necessary to reorganise the ministry just before Christmas, apart from very minor changes to accommodate one departing minister. She had nothing really to gain at this point. The consequence has been further destabilisation.

I do wonder if Federal Labor has the capability anymore to stop the rot, to find that quiet space required to regroup. If not, the NSWalesing of the Federal Government will be complete.     

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Old fogies, blogging & current events

In today's post, I simply want to pick up a few things that have interested me.

First, on a purely personal note, I have agreed to write an economics column for each issue of Australian Business Solutions magazine. I hesitated to add another load, then decided that it was probably a good thing. I have found with my Armidale Express column that it actually helps my other writing.

They asked me because I did an earlier longer piece for them at the height of the Global Financial Crisis taking a counter view to the common reporting at the time. I must say that it was actually a nerve-wracking experience, for there was a six week lag between writing and publication. In a fast moving world, that's a long time, especially where you are quoting stats. As it happened I was right, but I still remember the nerves.

Turning to other matters, my old friend and blogging colleague Paul Barratt (@phbarratt, blog here) had a very useful piece, Government tendering: the importance of being earnest, on The ABC's The Drum. I say useful, because it's a good summary of issues. I promised Paul that I would pull together the material I have written on key performance indicators because he, like me, has come to the conclusion that their influence has become quite pernicious. I will do so.

A tweet from Media Hunter (@mediahunter, blog here), led me to Brian Solis's The State of the Blogosphere 2011. It's an interesting post for all of us interested in blogging. However, it also made me think of another point.

The common feature of bloggers such as myself, Paul, Winton Bates and Neil Whitfield is what I have come to think of as the rise of the old fogies. We are not all old of course, there are many others who are much younger, but the distinctive feature is that blogging provides a platform through which we can make our experience available to others.

Now I have been watching this trend, and there is a feature to it that I haven't seen discussed all that much. To use a phrase coined by Don Chipp, the founder of the Australian Democrats, we keep the bastards honest.

Of course, we don't agree on all things; our views vary greatly. But what we do do is subject things to analysis. We also cross-promote. Many of us can still actually write, and do so outside the bounds imposed by power point and 140 characters.

The audience reach is actually quite remarkable and is growing all the time. I was trying to explain this to someone the other day and struggling a bit. I would put it this way.

The audience reach for any post is small. Further, the formal stats reflect search engine traffic most of whom appear in the stats as time 00:00. Put most of the search engine traffic aside. It is the cumulative effects that count.

Start with me, someone whose reach is relatively small:

  • There were 520 page views on this blog yesterday, probably something just a bit under 800 across all my blogs. The number of regular readers is quite small. 
  • I have my newspaper column published on Wednesday that reaches, not all readers read it all the time, several thousand people.
  • Then I have facebook and twitter. I haven't attempted actively to build twitter, I primarily put links to posts there, so I only have 107 followers.
  • And any other writing I do.

As I said, not big. But consider a few examples as to reach:

If Paul Barratt retweets a post of mine, it goes to 1,566 followers. If MP Richard Torbay (@RichardTorbayMP, website here) retweets, it goes to 484 followers. If Denis Wright (@deniswright, blog here) retweets, it goes to 572 followers.

These are not large numbers. However, it doesn't end there. For fairly obvious reasons, Richard is followed by the Northern Tablelands media, some of whom already follow me. So if Richard retweets a post, it goes direct into the local media pot. Now this illustrates a broader point: it's not just the absolute size of audience, but the actual slice of the audience reached.

Of course, its not just the audience reach for any of my posts that is small, but also the impact. I know this from my newspaper column, for example. I know many people follow, but few read every column, fewer still remember what they read. With exceptions where the column has struck a particular chord with a particular individual, they have impressions only. But this is where the old fogies really come in.

In writing, we generally write below the horizon, although all regular bloggers are becoming increasingly drawn into the main stream media. While all of us do address current events and particular hobby horses, it's also true that we have the luxury of adopting independent positions, of sometimes taking time to investigate. An individual post or view may not have impact, but is is clear that there is impact over time.

While the main stream media swirls around like a flock of chooks feeding on the latest event, something that I described in this week's Express column, the old fogies dig away, clearing the ground. Their bite, and it is a bite, comes later.


In a comment, Neil pointed to the difference between the daily visits to this blog that I reported and the sitemeter numbers.

The attached chart shows the daily page views on this blog according to the Google stats. These numbers are far higher than the sitemeter numbers, twice as high, for reasons that I don't understand.

For the purposes of this post, the numbers don't matter all that much, for I am trying to explore the patterns of cumulative influence. I just think that these are significant. I also think that it provides an incentive for thoughtful bloggers and not just we old fogies to keep blogging.

Neil commented:

Me: I have steered away lately from solving the world's problems, or even the country's. I am happy now just to have a bit of a conversation space, or somewhere to share a bit of what I see or read.

Now I think that this comment, in a way, understates Neil's impact. The Ninglun influence is far more subtle.

The posts that he has written over time may not solve the world or country's problems. That's not how it works. What he has done is to influence particular individuals including me. I respond, and then that affects others. The numbers affected may be very small, but influences accumulate.

During the last years of the Howard Government I followed cases like the Hicks case. Writings in the blogosphere were far more analytical than much of the general reporting because they reflected the confusions of people trying to think issue through. They contributed to a change in thought. 

If one person affects another person's views, then that person affects a third, you have a chain effect. The point about blogging is that, in combination, it has impacts on perceptions across time and space.

Where the blogger has a genuine claim to expertise, then the impacts are accentuated, for others accept that blogger's views.     

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ratings agencies, standards & the gridlock of the past

Weather started nice, but is overcasting again. Summer, where are you when I need you!

The main post that I am working on today is on economics and will appear on the Managing the Professional Services Firm blog. Here I just want to record a few random jottings.

At the end of November in Ratings agencies & market instability I expresses my continuing concern about the way those agencies had become such important players. My Armidale Express column of 30 November, Belshaw's World - ratings madness, expressed similar concerns.

I see that Australian Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson shares at least some of my views. I quote:

Dr Parkinson, the Secretary to the Treasury, also took a swipe at ratings agencies he said were trying to overcompensate for past mistakes. ''They are becoming mechanistic and excessively simplistic, running the risk of moving from excessive optimism to excessive pessimism every time they look at a country or firm. If you've got a small checklist of indicators and you bang through it, you never really understand the circumstances.''

Dr Parkinson is right, but he would be in a stronger position if his boss, Australian Treasurer Swan, did not quote Australia's ratings from those agencies with such approval. 

We use the term institutionalised to describe the way that welfare recipients or prisoners can become captives of the system. One of the things that I think is insufficiently understood is that this term also applies more broadly.

The impact of the ratings agencies is so pernicious just because their role and judgements have become institutionalised in just the same way.

I find it ironic that  I used to be such a strong supporter of what is known as standards based approaches. I never realised, although I should have, that such approaches would become so entrenched, so institutionalised, that they would exert similar distortions to those arising from the ratings agencies. After all, what is a rating but some form of proclaimed benchmark or standard?

Silly me. Now when I look at the stagnation in public policy, at the way that policy has converged around the interlinked concepts of standards, benchmarks and key performance indicators, I shudder.

Don't get me wrong. I am still a supporter of standards based approaches, but only in their place.

The ratings agencies once performed a useful role, but this dropped away as their ratings were institutionalised. Standards in service delivery once played a useful role, but this fell away as the standards process became institutionalised, focused on a narrow range of measures on one side, a tick process on the other.

I have got to the point now that as soon as someone uses the word standard I shudder. Concepts such as standards and quality accreditation have become a barrier to new thought, a barrier to real improvement. They lock in the past.

One of the reasons why there is presently such a strong official focus on innovation lies in the way innovation is so clearly in decline.

By its nature, innovation is messy. It challenges the status quo. Yet how do you challenge the status quo in a world in which everything you do has to be related to standards and measures based on the past? It can't be done.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In praise of sub-editors

Another gray damp day in Sydney. It's hard to break gray moods when the day is gray.

This short post is dedicated to Christian Knight, editor of the Armidale Express and to all the sub-editors around the world.

Just completed this week's newspaper column. Christian selected Seagulls from fish and chip wrap become part of the story as headline. I had to laugh. The whole point of a headline is to make the reader go to the first para, and I think that will do it.

There is, it seems to me, a real conflict between headers designed to encourage people to read once they have brought the paper and those designed for search engine usage. If someone were to come to my column after searching on seagulls or fish and chips they would be gravely disappointed!

I do admire the skills of sub-editors. Those skills have been crafted over generations in newsrooms across the world. Even today when their entire sub-craft is under threat of extinction, they continue to generate headlines that attract and interest.

I was thinking how best to describe the change that has taken place in the broader field of editing over the last twenty years.

Twenty years ago, editing focused on words. Today, so much editing focuses on appearance.

Twenty years ago, those concerned with proofing and editing addressed questions such as spelling, grammar, clarity and reader interest. A good sub-editor would try to capture a thought, a message, in just a few words. A good literary editor would agonise over suggested changes to a sentence that might best capture the writer's intent. A good proof reader would take pride in the avoidance of a single error.

Today we worry about visual appearance. The words are less important. Readers are no longer expected to be able to read, rather the document must look pretty. If it's not pretty, then readers won't read. If it's too long, readers won't read. If it's too complicated, readers won't read.

Today the time that was once spent on content is now spent on packaging. The result is documents and especially official documents that are, quite frankly, dreadful. They all have that dreadful pastel appearance full of photos that actually add nothing to the text. They take twice as long to say the same thing and then say it badly, They also take twice as long to read.

Think of all the consumables involved. Twice as much paper is involved, and then there is all the ink. Think of the extra printing time.

Of course, we all now live in a paperless world. The paperless office is here. None of this should matter. And yet, most of us actually do download and print important documents. Why? Because it's just easier.

I must sound crabby and I am. However, and for so long as they may continue to exist, I will praise sub-editors and all those concerned with editing in general. I admire their skills. Once they are gone, once we have fully retreated into the Orwellian world of packaged message pap, I will mourn and commemorate them.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Gay marriage & conscience votes

It's raining again here in Sydney, with further heavy falls forecast. Our swimming pool has gone completely green. Youngest and I had planned to do something about it yesterday afternoon, but after a bright start to the day, the heavens opened again at lunchtime. Sigh!  

In yesterday's post, Sunday Snippets - writing, Naden, shield laws & problems with investment, I mentioned that I had a piece appearing in On Line Opinion. This came up this morning -  Santa's coal, country protest and the patchwork economy. I noticed a few typos that I missed in editing. Never mind.

Early in December I mentioned that the ALP National Conference was to consider the issue of Gay marriage. As people were forecasting at the time, the Conference did agree to support Gay marriage, but also decided to allow MPs a conscience vote.

The latest opinion polls reported in the Sydney Morning Herald shows strong support for the idea of a conscience vote (81%). However, support for Gay marriage itself has dropped to 57%. At the same time, Opposition Leader Abbott has indicated that he is opposed to a conscience vote for the Opposition. That is clearly going to create problems for Malcolm Turnbull.

One of the problems that I had when writing on this issue back in 2007 was a feeling that too overt a push on this issue might end in defeat. I think that's going to happen. A gentler incremental approach was more likely to be successful.

Back in the days when I wanted to be an MP and ran for pre-selection, I found issues based around questions of values and moral beliefs very difficult to handle. Obviously I had my own personal values and views and articulated them in a general sense, but I disliked the way in which strongly felt single issue views could derail the broader things that I and others wanted to achieve.

A core difficulty then and now lies in the intensity of feeling, the extent to which this can have quite variable effects in terms of votes. If we take the Gay marriage question as an example, my feeling is that it won't get up at this point simply because the net vote equation in the electorate is against it. The number of votes to be lost through support is greater than the number of votes to be gained from support.

I actually don't know when the concept of a conscience vote first arose. It's actually quite recent in this country. To my mind, it was a very important development because it allowed certain classes of issues to be effectively taken outside party politics and the normal business of Government.

Mr Abbott's opposition to a conscience vote appears to based on the fact that the Coalition opposed gay marriage during the last election, and so has made a commitment that needs to be honoured. Even so, I think that he would be wise to allow it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Snippets - writing, Naden, shield laws & problems with investment

It's a cool but bright morning here in Sydney, lifting my mood. For reasons that I won't bore you with, I have had some difficulty in concentrating this week. I haven't been very productive at all. With the light brighter, I spent some time wandering around the internet, just reading.

Staying with the writing theme that began with So you want to be a writer part 1, fellow New England writer Denis Wright's Chutney, decisions, and writing looks at another aspect of the writing bug. It's a short piece, but worth reading.

In the midst of what has been a gray week, I did manage to dash off a 1,200 word opinion piece for On Line Opinion's December feature topic, Christmas: Naughty or nice: what should Santa bring Australia this Christmas? is the topic's theme. I will post a link here once its on-line.

The search for Malcom Naden, Malcolm Naden & New England's fugitive country provides background, continues. Tim Barlass's latest story How police stumbled on fugitive provides something of an update.

It's been very wet in the area. This photo from Gordon Smith's lookANDsee is further north and in more open country, but will give you a feel for the conditions. Where Gordon lives outside Armidale, the annual rainfall is around the 770 mm mark (30 inches). So far this year it's been 1100 mm (43 in.)

Not pleasant conditions to be outdoors, especially if you can't light a fire!

On 6 December, Curtis Cartier reported on the case of US blogger Crystal Cox: Crystal Cox, Oregon Blogger, Isn't a Journalist, Concludes U.S. Court--Imposes $2.5 Million Judgement on Her. The story includes a link through to a copy of the actual court judgement.

The case is very much linked to US shield laws that protect journalists and sources, but is still interesting because it bears upon these questions: are blogs in fact part of the media; can bloggers especially independent bloggers claim to be journalists; where should the line be drawn? If you have time, have a quick browse of the judgement itself. Having read some of Ms Cox's material, I wouldn't classify her as a journalist myself, but that's just a personal opinion independent of the broader arguments.

The Australian media has been reporting on developments in Europe at some depth. I haven't commented at any length because I haven't had a great deal of value to add. However, European events over the Euro and EU are taking place against a background of broader economic change.  

On Wednesday 7 December in one of my presently rare posts on the Managing the Professional Services Firm blog, Why Chinese over-investment is important, I reported on the views of Michael Pettis on imbalances in the Chinese economy. On 8 December, a report in the Indian Economic Times recorded that Indian industrial output fell by 7% in October, dragged down by a fall in the capital goods sector. Then on 10 December in the Sydney Morning Herald Ian Verrender's The madness that lies at the heart of the super system provides some interesting insights into problems with Australia's national superannuation scheme.

Three apparently disconnected stories, but each indicative of elements in the change process, with investment the common link.

By way of background to international readers, Australian has a compulsory national superannuation scheme under which employers must pay a proportion of salaries into a superannuation account chosen by the workers. The numbers involved are now quite mind-blowing.

China has a bit over $US2.3 trillion in overseas reserves. By contrast, the value of Australian super funds is now around US1.3 trillion. That may be smaller than the Chinese number, but its still a very big number and growing.

Now the growing size of Australia's accumulated superannuation funds raises all sorts of issues, some of which are explored by Mr Verrender. However, the thing that is niggling at my mind is the nature of investment and returns on investment itself.

I don't have time to spell this out today, so I will finish with a simple statement.

Global economic change requires a rebalancing of investment in a general sense. That's not new. We have seen it before. But what happens if at the same time the global desire to save exceeds real global investment opportunities?

Here my focus is not on the conventional macroeconomic effects, but on returns to investment itself. On the surface, surplus capital can only be accommodated via a fall in returns on investment. What does that mean? Further, what happens if there are market imperfections that actually prevent effective matching of savings and investment?

I guess that you can expect more on this later.  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings - a question of identity

My thanks to Ramana's post Where Are You From? for this link - Ariane Sherine's It may not be racist, but it's a question I'm tired of hearing. The piece begins:

Looking a bit brown still means being asked where you're from. So here's a ready-made answer for the overly curious

Now Ariane's remarks struck a chord.

For many years, I did ask people where they came from. However, as Australia has become more diverse, I stopped doing so. Even language no longer provides a certain clue.

Oddly, I now get asked quite regularly where I come from. You see, as Australian English has shifted, my own version of Australian English has become less common. The linguistic clues that people use to place me no longer work very well.

All this got me musing again on the complex question of the changing Australian identity, including the patterns of transmission and identification.

I have nothing very profound to say. I am first generation Australian on my father's side, second on my mother. Despite that, I had no problem identifying with Australia's past, as well as the other threads in my ancestry.

I wonder if that's still true today?

My feeling is that we have sufficiently discredited the country's past for that identification to be problematic. In its place we have put a new patriotism, wrapped in flag and predominantly military symbols. Of itself, that has become something of a problem to my mind, for the new patriotism can actually divide since it can be used as a rallying call by those opposed to an inclusive Australian society.

A key point, one that I do not understand, is just what vision of Australia is actually carried in the minds of the young of the newer groups in Australian society. I would be interested to see some research on this.

A second key point is the relative weighting of emotional links to Australia and the home countries. My feeling is, and this time it's a feeling based on some experience, is that the linkages to the original home countries are relatively more important now. I think that this is especially true for Australians of Indian and Chinese ancestry.

If I'm right, and I'm not sure that I am, my explanation is this.

Earlier Australian migrants were often escaping economic hardship, war and persecution. They came in search of a better life. Of course that's still true today. We are talking about shades of views, relative proportions, not absolutes. While the incentive to return to the home countries was always there, people were still better off in Australia.

That's not so true today, for growth in places like India and China actually opens up opportunities that can dwarf Australian possibilities. So the young move back to the original homes.

As I said, there is nothing especially profound in all this. It's just a muse! 

Friday, December 09, 2011

Malcolm Naden & New England's fugitive country

Even though I have completed the short three part series that began with So you want to be a writer part 1, I find the issues still niggling away at my mind. However, my focus has now shifted more towards making extra income from my own writing as compared to writing done for others. However, I won't bore you you with this beyond noting a link provided by kvd, Would You Pay Dymocks $499 To Publish Your Book?

Here in NSW, the exploits of Malcolm Nadentext are attracting great media interest. The photo shows armed police at Nowendoc in the search for 38 year old Naden who has been on the run since 2005. If you read through these stories, you will get a feel for the case. 

The map shows just where Nowendoc is in broad terms.
View Larger Map

I know this country reasonably well in the sense that I often drive through it on my way to and from Armidale. I have actually spoken to a local CWA group at the community hall where the police have made their headquarters, while we used to stop there so that the kids could use the adjoining bush toilets.

Nowendoc itself lies at the southern end of the New England Tablelands. To the east, the rugged escarpment runs from the Barrington Tops in the south north. A number of major rivers have their headwaters in the country around Nowendoc. It's beautiful country, but quite rough.

This is fugitive country. The road up from the coast past Nowendoc is named Thunderbolt's Way after bushranger Captain Thunderbolt. The Aboriginal bushrangers Jimmy and Joe Governor were hunted across this country. Their story was immortalised in Thomas Keneally's book, the Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and in the subsequent Fred Schepisi film based on the book.

Malcolm Naden is obviously a very skilled bushman to have survived in the way he has. I must say, though, that I never gave him a thought  when driving through or stopping in the area. It's a slightly odd thought.   

Thursday, December 08, 2011

So you want to be a writer part 3

Note to readers: This is the third of a three part series exploring my desire to become a writer. You will find first post here.

I finished my last post  saying that, through blogging, I found myself writing for the sake of writing. In the end, I decided that writing was what I wanted to do in this last stage of my life. The long but partially submerged itch had developed into a fully blown disease.

This post describes the confusions and conflicts that resulted.

Let me start with a very basic question, what do I mean by writing and writers? This may sound a simple question, but it lies at the heart of my personal confusions.

In my first post in this series I said that my original desire to write was little more than a romantic dream. In my second post, I said that one reason why the dream receded to the background lay in the fact that my work required me to write all the time. There was limited time, less desire, to write outside the purely professional. Those two posts encapsulate the confusions I now face.

It's fair to say that my original romantic dream centred on the romance of writer as Writer. As I said then, I was fascinated by the lives of the writers I read about. They weren't always attractive people, their lives were often confused, most struggled with money, but some found wealth and fame.

To a boy from a secure middle class academic/political New England family, this was a window into a new world. They might be strange, but they were interesting. I dreamed of writing the great novel, indeed a great anything, that might lead to fame and success. Even starving in a garret (a concept originally applied to writers rather than painters) seemed somehow romantic.  Not, mind you, that I had any real idea of what a garret was!

While the dream receded, I still carried through elements of it into the present in a way that I did not properly realise. We now come to the second element, my subsequent writing. Here I because I was writing for a purpose, the writing was a means to an end. No matter how good the writing might be, I did not classify myself as a writer because I wasn't writing as a Writer.

When I decided a bit over two years ago that in the last stages of my life I wanted to be a writer rather than someone who simply wrote, the original dream was in fact alive and well. However, the major projects that I had in mind were not writing projects per se, but rather specific pieces of work intended for other purposes. My writing was in fact, as it had been before, a means to an end.

This may sound confused, and indeed in some ways it is, so let me try to illustrate.

My history of New England is a history whose genesis lies deep in my past. I am not writing that history because I want to be a writer. I am writing it because I want to write a history of New England; my writing is a means to an end. However, because I now classify myself as a writer, I find myself focusing on the writing process rather than the specific result, the delivery of the history.

I could have focused on my role as a free-lance historian in the way that the Canadian historian Christopher Moore does. Instead, I chose to focus on my writing.  Mind you, Christopher classifies himself as an historian and writer.

The nature of the confusions created were highlighted in a simple way. Once I started describing myself as a writer, people asked me what I wrote. Was I a novelist, a poet, a playwright? Well, clearly no. I mainly write non-fiction. Further, I write across genres. After I had explained all this, questions often shifted to money. How did I earn my living?

This raised another difficult issue. I used to explain that I was doing contract work to provide an income stream to support my writing. That's true enough, but it also conceals.

There is very little money in professional writing. Most writers are like isolated chooks, scratching a a few crumbs on the margin of the flock. Those who do make something approaching a living often do so by contract writing, using their writing skills to deliver things like manuals or documents that the client cannot do themselves.

When I shifted my mental classification of myself to that of writer, I started looking for writing jobs. Here I struck a problem. It turns out that I actually don't want to do many of the jobs advertised.

For example, I am a reasonably good editor, I have done a lot of it, but I really don't want to spend hours in front of a document trying to turn it into good English where my role is limited solely to the editing task. Mind you, it does depend upon the document to some degree.  My problem lies with the stock-standard document, especially where I have some professional knowledge of the subject matter. 

It's not just that the task is sometimes as boring as bat shit, although that may be unfair to bats. More importantly, I find that my pen itches to improve the content to the point that it's actually quite painful. I find that I take very little satisfaction in turning badly written crap into well written crap when it's still crap! I would be better off with the original content creation task where my writing was actually a secondary factor.

I found another problem as well.

I have quite a high-powered basic CV. That shouldn't be surprising, given the things that I have done. Now that I wanted short term contract work to support my writing, I found my CV to be a real impediment to getting work. Finally, I sought advice from a colleague occupying a senior management role in the area that I was targeting.

His advice was blunt: "Jim, no manager is going to give you work when you obviously have so much more experience than them and probably a great deal more basic ability.They may not say it, but that's the reality."

I intend to write something on this properly at some point for it's actually quite important in considering labour market flexibility, especially for older people. For the moment, I simply note that it is a problem that was further compounded by my attempts to rewrite my CV to better reflect my immediate aspirations and especially my desire to be a writer.

Now where am I going in all this? How do I pull it all together?

Regardless of whether or not I capitalise it, I am clearly a writer: I have let that genie out of the bottle; I cannot go back; I must write. However, I am also more than that. I am both a writer and a person who writes with intent. I am an historian, a sometimes economist, a consultant and a manager. I am a father, a partner, and an often very confused person.

In this next stage in my life, I have to learn how to use these various roles to support what I want to do. I find this confusing, but also exciting. 

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Back tomorrow

So much to write about, and so little time! This includes updating past posts to capture latest information.

Talk among yourselves. I will be back tomorrow.

Monday, December 05, 2011

So you want to be a writer part 2

Note to readers: This is the second of a three part series exploring my desire to become a writer. You will find first post here, the next post here

In my last post I said that one of the reasons why my desire to be a writer moved into the background lay in the fact that I was, in any case, writing all the time even if much of that writing was purely professional. That thought marks the starting theme for this post.

All writing has to be fitted to purpose and, increasingly, the medium used. Apart from some rather bad poetry, my initial writing was at school or university and had to meet the canons laid down for such writing. Even in the early days, my writing was reasonably good. I was, after all, taught by the same teachers who taught and inspired Alex Buzo.

My academic writing was much diminished after I left Armidale for the first time, but even so it continued. By the time I returned to Armidale to complete my PhD thesis, I had done one thesis (my master's qualifying), three journal articles plus a chapter in a book.

My exposure to Canberra changed my writing style. More precisely, it added to it. It seems hard to believe today just how much emphasis was placed on good writing. This wasn't universally true, but it was at places like the Public Service Board and Treasury.

On the Administrative Trainee Program we had entire longish training sessions devoted to effective writing. Ernest Gowers was then king. The focus in Gowers' work and the style manuals that emerged was on clarity and fitness for purpose. Later, the Public Service style manuals would become clogged with requirements intended to avoid offence and to comply with what was perceived as acceptable forms of expression. We really didn't have to worry about that beyond a few simple guidelines and common sense.

In Treasury, one of my key bosses was Chris Sharah. I have written of his influence before. An English honours graduate from Sydney university, Chris meticulously red-penned my drafts, explaining with care just what I had to do to improve. I shortened my sentences and paragraphs always trying to achieve what was called the instant read test: clarity such that a quick skim would give the key messages.

Later I learned to dictate. All our secretaries had shorthand. Some people were actually scared of this, of being able to dictate in a way that did not require constant stops and rework. From my viewpoint, it was a blessing. In two one hour session I could dispose of an entire day's correspondence, leaving me time to think, to prepare longer pieces, to work with others and especially staff. in all this, I learned to write first drafts that were close to final. This was a necessary requirement for the work that I did.

My return to university to work on my PhD thesis affected my writing. Now free from the constraints of official writing, I rediscovered punctuation including the semi-colon, the use of longer paragraphs. I was now trying to write material that was not only clear, but also interesting. During this period I discovered writing as a craft, the careful balancing of words to achieve specific effects. I became addicted.   

After I left the Commonwealth Public Service to work as a consultant my writing broadened further: articles, presentations, manuals, training courses, press releases and PR material were all grist to my mill. Much of this I had done before, but it was the constant variation that was now important. At this stage I first became aware of what I was to call the pernicious effects of the computer.

If you are using pen and paper or dictating, if what you write then has to be be typed, edited or processed by others, you learn to accommodate later stages in the process. The computer dictated a different process: write what you like because you can then edit on the machine. The problem from my perspective lay in the way this encouraged laziness. Instead of planning what you might say and then writing, now you wrote and then corrected.

My problem as an editor, and a fair bit of my work was actually editing writing done by others before the work went to the client, lay in the time question. I found that I spent more time editing than it would have taken me to rewrite the piece from scratch. To a substantial degree, the apparent time savings yielded by computer process automation were more than offset by the later time costs.

Let me take a a simple and apparently trivial example. You can write percentage as % or per cent. It doesn't matter. The important thing is consistency. This holds regardless of the equipment used. However, I found that computer based writing actually encouraged inconsistency, adding to editing time. In the end, I also found myself letting material through that I knew could be done better because of time constraints. Understandably, clients would not pay for editing time. 

I accept that there is a balance question here. Things don't have to be perfect in a literary sense, they just have to be understandable in the context of their purpose. And yet, if you cannot achieve clarity and consistency you risk misunderstanding on the other side.

In all this writing and editing, I never once classified my self as a writer: I would have regarded this as pretentious; writing was a means to an end. The dividing line came when I started blogging.

My initial blogging focus was purely professional. I wanted to use the blogs to generate income from my professional work. Increasingly, I found myself writing for the sake of writing. I had things to say, but I also just wanted to interest. In the end, I decided that writing was what I wanted to do in this last stage of my life. The long but partially submerged itch had developed into a fully blown disease.

In my next post, the last in this series, I will describe the confusions and conflicts that resulted.           

Sunday, December 04, 2011

So you want to be a writer part 1

Note to readers: This is the first of a three part series exploring my desire to become a writer. You will find the next post here.

I had always been interested in writing.

It was, I suppose, little more a romantic dream in the early stages. As a child I lived in a world of books and was fascinated by the lives of the writers I read about. However, I had no idea where to begin. How, for example, did one actually write a novel?

My old friend Alex Buzo was different. He wanted to write and knew what he wanted to write about. Alex also loved words, and had an eye for the cadences and idiosyncrasies of language.  I was more interested in ideas. I also had a range of aspirations, of often conflicting dreams; politics, business success, academic success.  All this meant that my ill-formed desire to be a writer was swept away by my entry to the world of work and the excitement of establishing myself in a new city.

Despite all this, the dream never quite left me. It was always there, bubbling away in the background. In Treasury I honed my drafting skills, learning to write simple clear English. Then, at night, I would sometimes experiment with other writing forms. By now, Alex had become a successful playwright and writer. I read his columns and purchased his plays, somewhat in awe of his ear for sounds. While I loved the sound of language, this was something that I could never match.

In 1981 I went back to Armidale as a full time PhD student. Now researching and writing all day, my desire to be a writer re-surfaced. I also had things that I wanted to write about, and not just history. At the end of 1982 I had to make a choice: stay in Armidale or return to my Canberra job.

My relationship with my father was always complicated. While I loved him dearly and still miss him, we also fought. In one of her diary notes from this time, my mother simply recorded "Jim and James are fighting again."

I remember one fight clearly. We had been to the launch of Geoff Bloomfield's Baal Belbora: the end of the dancing: The agony of the British invasion of the ancient people of the Three Rivers--the Hastings, the Manning, and the Macleay in New South Wales. I commented that what I would really like to do was to set up a small specialist publisher focused on New England. Prof, we all called him Prof, went ballistic.

To understand his reaction, you need to understand a little about the Belshaws. My grandparents came from the working class world of Wigan and knew poverty and insecurity at first hand. They wanted and achieved education and secure jobs for their children.

They were quite focused on this. When Dad wanted to be a journalist, they pushed him into teaching because it offered job security. When Uncle Horace wanted to resign from teaching to accept a position as a WEA (Workers' Educational Association) tutor, they opposed it on job security grounds. Dad complied, something that he always regretted a little. Horace was more determined, laying the basis for what would become a stellar academic career.

This family background including my father's experiences during the depression laid the basis for my father's reaction to my suggestion. How could I give up a secure, well paid senior job job with a pension for what was, to his mind, an ephemeral dream?

In the end, I returned to Canberra. However, my desire to be a writer was now well developed. I started keeping a writer's diary, jotting down ideas. Then came an opportunity.

I applied for the position of Master of Wright College at the University of New England. At interview, I made it clear that  my acceptance of the position was conditional upon my freedom to write and comment in public fora. I was offered the position. I then declined it.

There were many reasons for this. I had broken up with my then Armidale girlfriend, one reason I had wanted to return to the city.  My Canberra work had become exciting and interesting. But most of all, I actually lacked the courage to take the plunge.

I cannot regret the decision, for I would not have my girls now if I had taken the position. However, I do regret the cowardice. This was actually a decision made on negative, not positive grounds. In any event, my desire to write was once again submerged by the turmoil of work and daily life. I was also writing all the time as part of my job, often under very tight pressures. I simply didn't have the energy to do more.

In the next post in this series I will look at the re-emergence of the writing bug.  

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings - stats, the ALP Conference, European gloom

This morning's muse starts with last months stats. The graph shows visits (yellow) plus page views (yellow plus red) to this blog over the last twelve months. Stats Nov 11 2

Looking at the detail inside the statistics, both last and this month have been marked by visits from some strange sources. I won't give examples because the sites in question are quite suspect.

This means, I think, that the apparent increase in blog traffic is either not real or at least distorted.

Here in Australia, the Australian Labor Party has been holding its triennial National Conference. This sets the Party's National Platform

The significance of the National Platform lies not so much in it's influence on what the Labor Party actually does, but on what the Party doesn't do. If something is proscribed in the Platform, then a Labor Government will struggle to do that thing.

An example is sales of uranium to India, something that the Government wishes to do. The Platform needs to be amended to allow that to happen. This seems likely.

This year gay marriage has been the main headline event. Examples of reporting here and here. This one is interesting because it crosses factional divides within the Party. It seems likely that support for gay marriage will be included in the Platform, but that MPs will be allowed a conscience vote on the issue in Parliament.

Past conferences provided good theatre. Today, the conferences are essentially micro-managed with agreements reached before matters reach the floor. They tend to be duller as a consequence.

  I listened to the PM's opening remarks to the conference. She is a bright woman. I wonder why she feels obliged to speak in sometimes clumsy and extremely repetitive one line slogans. Among other things, it opens her up to a degree of ridicule.

I have been watching events in Europe with a degree of bemusement. I haven't attempted to do a detailed analysis because I just don't understand the issues well enough. Perhaps more precisely, I don't understand the politics well enough.

I think it reasonably clear now that the best option would have been to allow Greece to go into a structured default. This could have been managed without affecting the Euro. However, that is now history.

When I look at the position now, I keep coming back to very basic principles:

  1. Policies that can work for one country in isolation such as budget cuts and economic restructuring do not work especially well if too many countries do it at the same time.
  2. Credit creation is in reverse. If you look at the old analysis of money, the banking system lends a dollar that is then re-deposited and can be relent. Credit is created, the money supply expands, bank profits go up. Conversely, if a dollar is withdrawn, then loans are reduced by a multiple of that dollar, the money supply contracts, bank profits go down.
  3. To my mind, Europe is in that position now. There is actually plenty of basic liquidity splashing around, but it has no where to go. Banks are caught in a squeeze with now suspect assets, declining business, suspect profitability. Problems are further complicated by fund flows between countries, from a Spain or a Greece to safer havens, creating very specific liquidity pressures.
  4. A lot of the discussion has focused on de-leveraging, and that's important. But in downturn, fixed costs become important. A cost that was once acceptable suddenly becomes a huge burden, leading to knock-on effects.

The policy positions adopted to give the backs continuing access to cash may be necessary just to keep things going, but they do nothing to address the underlying forces.

Where am I going in all this? I'm not quite sure.

Despite all talk to the contrary, I very much doubt that the Euro will collapse. Too much is at stake. I also do not expect catastrophic bank failure. Again, too much is at stake. I do expect Europe as a whole to experience a rather nasty recession. I also feel that all this will leave both the EU and national governments weakened, delaying recovery. 

And Australia? That's a story for another post.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Australian High Court forces wife to give evidence against husband

One of the long-standing legal principles has been that a wife or husband cannot (at least as I understood it) be compelled to give evidence against the other. The Australian High Court appears to have overturned this understanding, at least so far as Australia is concerned. Decision here.

On the surface, this is quite a significant decision. Hopefully one of my legal blogging colleagues (Legal Eagle?) will elucidate all this.


Legal Eagle has now discusses this case in Spousal right to silence abolished in Australia'

Can you help Grog's Gamut list Australian political blogs?

Over on Grog's Gamut, Greg Jericho is trying to prepare a full list of Australian political blogs and has called for help in the project. The initial list - Australian Political Blog Roll – a Call for Help - contains quite a large number, many of which I had not heard of.

I encourage those who are interested to have a browse and leave the names of any missing ones in a comment.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

On gifts, credit ratings and ground water

One of the difficulties I face in writing is just keeping in touch across the span of topics I cover. This includes my own past writing. To a degree, I write as the mood takes me, writing to extend my knowledge, hopefully to inform and interest at least some readers.

In a way, I see my blogs as journals of record: record in the sense of recording my own shifting views and confusions; record in the sense of a resource that will show shifts over time in the things that I write about; record in that I am trying to document things that I think I think are important. In all this, the personal confusions are sometimes the most important.

Kate Bolick on the decline of marriage - and men in part reflected my own confusions over the changing kaleidoscope of human relations, something that I struggle with in an ever-changing world. The post has been one of the highest scoring of my last one hundred posts measured by visitor views, so I hope that people got some value from their visits.

This morning I had to go I had to go early to let plasterers into my sister-in-law's flat. It was cold, and as I waited in the street outside I began jotting notes on a new post on gifts and gift giving. Shivering in the early morning, I recorded my confusions over the changing role of gifts.

I was brought up to think of gifts as something that reflected my value and understanding of the other person. I might get it wrong, but it was something from me to them. Conversely, when I received a gift it was not only the value to me, but a sign from the giver how much she or he valued me.

Today, we seem to live in a world where gifts (and especially Christmas gifts) must accurately reflect the recipient's needs. To that end, you ask before giving. I really struggle with this, but that's a story for another post.

Ratings agencies & market instability recorded my concerns with the way that ratings agencies had become institutionalised into the system to the detriment of us all. Here I referred critically to the Australian obsession with ratings. I thought that this had become a modern example of beggar my neighbour.

In a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald (Confident move puts Australia in front), political editor Peter Hartcher wrote:

The Gillard government has two dangers to confront but had to choose to give priority to one. It could protect growth, or it could protect confidence.

Yesterday Australia chose. The government decided the priority was to protect confidence. By deciding to keep its promise to deliver a budget surplus next year, the government obliged itself to cut some spending.

I thought that this was a very useful piece because it presented the Australian Government's choices in a new way. I think that Mr Hartcher is right, and it is an important point. In a world of  economic troubles, and perhaps for the first time in Australian history, Australia is presenting itself as different. I am not sure that we can make this stick, but I thought that it was an interesting insight.

An Australian Senate report has suggested that a moratorium be placed on most of the biggest new coal seam gas drilling plans in eastern Australia, and regulations governing pollution and land access significantly tightened.

My last posts on this issue were Carbon tax, the Sydney/Gunnedah/Bowen Basin & coal seam gas and then Slippers, feather dusters & the mining tax.

Looking back over my posts, I spotted the importance of the environmental wars including coal seam gas long before all this became a national issue, long before the main stream media. I was able to do so because this is an important New England issue. I had hoped to write a full follow up piece, but this is another case where time beat me.

I wrote the Sydney/Gunnedah/Bowen Basin post in part because it was clear that most reporters did not understand the underlying geology. Reading and listening to the commentary now, it is clear that those writing have limited understanding of the significance of Liverpool Plains (Namoi Valley) groundwater. I suspect that they would be hard placed to actually identify the location on a map!

I will try to come back to all this in some purely factual posts.


On 1 December, the four big Australian banks were hit with a credit downgrade by S&P as part of a global re-weighting. The Australian Financial Review story  by Jonathan Shapiro and George Liondis said in part:

Though a single-notch downgrade was expected, there were some initial concerns among the banks that the ratings agency might take a harsher view on Australia’s banks and cut the major banks’ ratings two notches to A+. A double-notch downgrade might have resulted in “forced selling” among funds that had limits placed on how many A- rated bonds they could hold. But November’s final release of S&P’s new criteria took a more favourable view of Australia’s banking system, with only Canada and Switzerland getting a higher Bank Industry Country Risk Assessment score.

This comment illustrates my point about the institutionalisation of credit ratings.