Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Australian services in the Asian century

Yesterday's post, Abu Dhabi, Australia and the Asian century, wasn't especially profound, although I hope that you enjoyed the photos! One point that I was trying to make is that there is life outside Asia, a second that we cannot automatically assume that somehow the rise of Asia guarantees anything. We live in a new world, and there are no guarantees. As it happened, I choose Qantas as an example. Today, Virgin announced that it had effectively taken over Tiger Australia and wanted to buy Skywest! And so the world goes back to the past duopoly under the influence of the present.

In this next brief post I want to look at some of the arguments about services, but just because I can I am going to include some more Abu Dhabi shots. This next photo is down town Abu Dhabi. The city's population is perhaps 600,000, yet there is probably more construction going on than in down town Sydney. I am just trying to give a sense of perspective!

The holy grail of services is seen as part of Australia's future, and yet I struggle to see that in the way so often presented. The services sector is remarkably complex, making analysis difficult. But I will try to present my cautions as best I can.

The central problem with services is that they are labour dependent. Some services are capital intensive, cloud services are an example, but labour and labour costs are generally still important.

Traditionally, services have been regarded as non-traded because they had to be delivered in close proximity to the customer. Even in the traditional model, there were trade exposed sectors. In some cases such as engineering services, professionals might travel to reach customers. In others such as tourism or more recently education services, customers might travel to the service.

In the trade exposed sectors, key variables affecting trade included the presence of non-tariff barriers such as restrictions on professional practice; travel and on-ground support costs; and relative skill levels and concentrations in particular areas. Thus Australia has done quite well in areas such as engineering or agricultural services where barriers to entry in other markets were lower, while Australian professionals had particular professional skills.    

In the 1980s, the growing importance and falling cost of communications and computing technology introduced the concept of footloose industries. These were newly trade exposed services whose location could switch because they could be delivered from elsewhere.  Now, subject to skills, labour costs became dominant. The switch of call centres, IT support or certain legal services to India are examples of the response. Initially, this switching process was quite slow, but then accelerated as a consequence of continued changes in technology, the development of infrastructure elsewhere and the spread of education. 

Australia is a high cost country and will remain so. One result has been growing job losses as particular activities move off-shore. This will continue. We have also seen growing price based competition in some of our traditional service areas because of the huge expansion in the supply of skilled professionals in places such as China. Again, this will continue.   

Two things seem to stand out from this analysis. The first is that our imports of traded services will continue to rise, while our exports will come under pressure. Add a further factor, that our young professional base is increasingly mobile and increasingly Asian focused. The young business oriented professionals from Asian backgrounds, and this has been an increasing proportion of the graduate cohort, may call Australia home, but its not necessarily a place to work. 

My feeling is that in all the discussion, the question that hasn't been properly posed nor addressed, is just what service activities Australia might actually make a quid from? What are their particular attributes?

This is where I have my problem. I simply don't know. Just as Qantas has found, our location at the end of Asia remains a problem. Just improving productivity is not enough.    

Note to readers:

This post is part of an irregular series that began with Economic threads & the need for a new view. I am listing all the posts there.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Abu Dhabi, Australia and the Asian century

Alan Joyce and Qantas eat your heart out! This is the new mosque in Abu Dhabi. Construction began in 1996, with completion in 2007. It's a striking building that I have enjoyed vicariously via trip photos. Further comments follow the photo.

Abu Dhabi is home to Etihad Airline. Eldest has just flown on Etihad, staying in Abu Dhabi. Just 120k down the road is Dubai, home to Emirates Airline. We flew Emirates and stayed in Dubai on our Greece trip. Two carriers, two international airports, yet closer together than Sydney and Newcastle!

Australia's carriers have been affected. Etihad is linked to Virgin, while Qantas has bet on Emirates. The competition isn't friendly. "Qantas un-Australian, says Etihad boss James Hogan" read one July headline. Qantas has effectively closed its Singapore hub, refocusing on Dubai. The Kangaroo route is gone; Qantas struggles to relocate.

But how did two adjacent Middle East centres with a total population less than Sydney come to dominate air travel so quickly? Why is Australia with its 23 million people actually struggling to retain a viable locally based international air service?

The answer partly lies in money, the capacity to spend big dollars. The answer partly lies in the willingness to back winners. But more, the answer lies in location, location, location. At a time of Australia in the Asian Century, it's helpful to remember that Australia still sits on the periphery, the periphery of Asia, the periphery of a world of which Asia is still only a part.

From Abu Dhabi or Dubai, the planes travel on to Europe, but they also travel to Africa. And Africa is a rising continent in its own right. By contrast, we have New Zealand and the Pacific Islands! I think that it's helpful to remember that in all the hype.

Just to finish with another shot of Abu Dhabi from eldest's trip. This is sand dune 4wd. Once you get the people, then you have to entertain them.

Note to readers:

This post is part of an irregular series that began with Economic threads & the need for a new view. I am listing all the posts there.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Three fundamental challenges to Australia in the Asian century

I haven't had a chance to properly absorb the Australian Government's white paper on Australia in the Asian Century. For those interested, you will find the PM's announcement here, the full paper here.

I must say my first reaction to the reporting was negative because of the target focus. I am not opposed to targets as such, but have been complaining for a while about the way in which narrowly defined targets in areas such as education distort. I am also concerned at the apparent focus on what Australia can gain in economic terms. There is limited focus on the contribution this country might make to Asia. However, these reactions may be unfair. 

Based on what I have read to this point, there are three fundamental challenges to be overcome if the white paper's aspirations are to be realised.

The first one is simply bringing the Australian people along for the ride. Australia has been experiencing dramatic change. The need for further dramatic change is implicit in the paper. There is already considerable change weariness. How will further change be managed?

The second challenge lies in the effective integration of Government policies to be at least consistent with the paper's aspirations. There has been a considerable gap between policies and indeed rhetoric intended for domestic consumption and effective Asian engagement. You only have to look at the ways that the Government mishandled policy towards international students or live cattle exports to Indonesia to see what I mean.

The third fundamental challenge is simply to bridge the gap between what has actually been happening and the paper's aspirations. The decline in Asian languages is an obvious example, one that I have explored in earlier posts.

Take services as a second example. If you go back to the rhetoric of the 1980s, service exports were seen as a holy grail that would somehow act as a new driver for Australian growth. Outside now threatened education services, it hasn't  happened. Indeed, to a degree the opposite has happened and will continue to happen as technology facilitates outsourcing from Australia.

In responding, the paper apparently focuses largely on productivity improvement. I'm not sure that's sufficient to bridge the gap. Consider legal services. The top end of the Australian sector has been restructuring and internationalising on the back of the minerals' boom. Yet it's not clear to me just what long term economic gains will come to Australia from this process. To be very specific, just what legal services will actually be carried out in Australia in this new world? I would have thought that there is a pretty fair chance that Australia will end up just a branch office in legal terms.

The paper may have answers to these various challenges that are not clear from the reporting. I will read the detail with interest.     

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sunday Essay - Australia's economic luck

This Sunday Essay begins with skepticlawyer's On simplifying without simplification. This is an example of a brief written for a Scottish client on the causes and consequences of the global financial crisis. I found it interesting in a professional sense because of its topic and also because a fair bit of my work over the years has involved the preparation of just this type of briefing. As you would expect from SL, it's clearly written.

The brief includes this rather striking graph showing Australia's astonishingly good relative performance over the period. SL comments:

That said, Australian banks remained fairly conservative in their lending practices in the lead-up to the financial crisis, a practice allied with higher interest rates set by the Reserve Bank of Australia. This had the extraordinary consequence that Australia did not experience the GFC.

It is correct, I think, to say that the Australian financial system was arguably more conservative and indeed better regulated. It is also correct that the higher interest rates gave the Reserve Bank more room to move. It is not correct to say that Australia did not experience the GFC, nor is it correct that more conservative lending policies plus higher interest rates were the reason why Australia came through the GFC so well in relative terms. I say this not to carp at SL's analysis, but because of the tendency in analysis to attach too much weight to financial and regulatory issues in explaining Australia's better performance. These were necessary but not sufficient conditions.

Two important things happened in the year leading up to the GFC. First, Australia's balance of trade improved quite remarkably. Secondly, and somewhat perversely given the first, the value of the Australian dollar declined. In combination, the two provided something of a natural buffer to the GFC. They were a key part of the reason why I took a contrary position at the time on the likely implications for Australia of the GFC.

When the GFC hit, it affected Australia in two main ways.

Australian banks dependent on international markets for wholesale funds experienced just the same type of borrowing difficulties as banks elsewhere. This did flow on to lending. Australian borrowers faced credit constraints similar to those experienced elsewhere, if on a somewhat smaller scale. The psychological impacts were just as important.

I was in China in September 2008 when the GFC hit its most critical phase. From my hotel room in Shanghai I watched the crisis unfold.

Returning to Australia, I was quite astonished at the pessimism I found. The gloom was affecting everything. It really was.

One can argue about the scale and composition of the Australian Government response to the crisis. Was it too much? Was money wasted?

Regardless of these issues, the key point is that the quick response at multiple levels from bank guarantees to cash splashes directly targeted both the pervasive gloom and key economic variables. I remain of the view that these responses were a major achievement for the then Rudd Government and the institutions of Government including Treasury.

The capacity of the Government and the Reserve Bank to respond were greatly aided by the country's fiscal position. With no net Commonwealth Government debt and a good budget position, both the Government and the Reserve Bank had considerable freedom to move. There is a lot of debate in Australia at the present time centred on the failure of Governments, past and present, to take proper advantage of the benefits offered by the minerals' boom.

I agree, but in relative terms, we have done pretty well. We were able to stimulate the economy at a level comparable to countries elsewhere, but actually come out better off in relative terms in things such as budget deficit and Government debt than most countries. This brings in the last variable, China.

China kept growing during the crisis. Whereas much of the rest of the developed world struggled to stabilise, Australia experienced a minerals boom based on Chinese demand. You don't have to be very good to do well when things break your way!

Australia truly has been a lucky country. This brings me to my last point.

I don't think that Australia actually offers much in the way of lessons about how to handle things such as the GFC. There were things we did right, but we were also just lucky. If the value of our currency had not declined at just the right time, if China had stalled instead of growing, things would have been very different. In a perfect economic storm, we had perfect economic luck, allowing competent but not perfect economic management to play its part.

Now we appear to have overtaken Spain to become the twelfth largest  economy in the world. Who would have believed it?  Just remember, it's not us who did it.    



Saturday, October 27, 2012

Saturday morning musings - return from Parkes

Flying back from Parkes yesterday afternoon, on the Regional Express (Rex) Saab 340, I finally relaxed. It had been a tense meeting. Not tense for those attending, just teFile:REX VH-ZRE Saab 340B (Plus) at Wagga Wagga Airport.jpgnse for me because, as program manager, it was very important to me that it be a success. Later, when it's all over, I will write something about my current project. I hope, I expect, to have something really positive to say. But not now.

After the meeting, the team gathered in the Royal Hotel for a drink. The names of Australia's pubs reflect different stages in Australia's history; the Royal, the Station, the Railway, the Commercial, all now frozen in history's aspic.

I like my work colleagues. Despite the growing difficulties, they care. That, too, is something that I should write about when this contract is over. It's part of the reason why I remain positive despite what I see as growing systemic problems, those who apply universals to current issues. We yarned about new approaches to  project management and to community engagement. It was a very specific conversation; what worked and what didn't.

I loved the conversation, but was restless.  It was my job to get people onto the plane. Chatting to the barman, I worked out time to airport, then rang the Parkes' taxi service to arrange pick-up from the pub. Now I could relax a little, I only had to get the cats - you try herding cats - outside the front door at the right time.

The Saab 340 has leather seats. Finally, on the plane and sunk into those seats, I could really relax. I started reading. But that story comes tomorrow!       

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The view from Mount Chambers

It is a while since I have run one of Gordon Smith's photos. This photo of the view from Mount Chambers in South Australia is a very Australian scene. This is rugged, in some ways desolate country. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Is modern technology destroying interaction and empathy?

I have mused before on this blog about the impact on new technology on human behaviour.

One example was the way in which it affected the behaviour of my own family. TV was one thing, but then add wife and eldest daughter looking at TV and playing with their laptops, while youngest was playing with the computer in her bedroom. When dinner was ready, wife and eldest would pause to watch TV while eating dinner. Youngest would simply grab food and return to her computer.

I am a naturally gregarious person who likes conversation, so I actually found this quite isolating, especially during those periods when I was working from home. Starved of conversation during the day, wanting to talk, I had no-one to talk too. It was much easier to go to the office area and work on my own computer where at least I had some interaction!

At the office, you see something of the same pattern with email traffic. People’s routines are dictated by a combination of their electronic diaries with email traffic. Instead of popping to a nearby desk to say something, you send an email. With modern workflows, you workflow a document to someone for action, send an email to confirm, and then wait.

On Sydney buses and especially trains, a remarkable number of passengers sit there with ear phones on listening or watching their hand held device or talking or SMSing on their mobile.. No one looks at anyone else. Obviously there are exceptions, a group of chatting school friends is an example, but the base pattern described is pretty accurate. Now there is evidence that all this is affecting the way we think and interact, our basic personalities, our very sense of our own self.

Most of the reports I have seen of the work of Susan Greenfield and Bruce Perry and others on this topic appear to be behind pay walls. This is one example that is not. Much of the reporting is also influenced by the very particular slant of the outlet and the purpose of writing. But if we cut through all that, we find certain features.

First, survey results of teachers suggest that children’s attention spans have become shorter as they opt for screen based activities over conventional reading. This would fit with my observations of work environment.

Much more time has to be spent on packaging material, less time is available for developing and testing the real content to be packaged. Don’t get me wrong here. I have always used diagrams. I did so in my final school exams, I do so today. A simple diagram or flow chart can make it easier for people to understand, while forcing simplification of the author’s thinking. It’s the balance I am concerned with.

Secondly, studies of US university students have found that the level of empathy, the understanding of others measured by conventional tests, among US college graduates has declined by 40 per cent over the last twenty or thirty years, with much of the decline concentrated in the period after 2000.

It’s not possible to make a judgement without reading the original research material, but again this fits with my own observations. Empathy is built through interaction with others and especially those who are in some way different from you. If everybody you mix with is broadly the same, how can you learn to interpret and respond to difference?

To a degree at least, the social structures that used to bring people together in face to face situations have declined. The on-line interactions do not substitute, for we have all seen how they tend to group people based on commonalities. Of course this was true of other interactive mechanisms. It’s a scale question.

From this point, the reporting seems to largely focus on implications, building pyramids of conclusions. I will leave that part of the discussion aside.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What is the real political relevance of Ms Gillard's attack on Tony Abbott?

Normally the material in this post would be a postscript on other posts, but this time I am doing it as a separate post because it better presents a thread. It's not a profound post, just a record.

My 1 October post Will PM Gillard win the next election? And possibly why concluded: I must say that I'm really tempted to call the next federal election for the ALP. That's really chancing my arm! Yet the probabilities look far better than I had expected. My focus here was mainly on economics. I did not refer to my earlier discussion on  the difficulties the PM faced in finding that quiet place in the midst of turmoil on which to stand. I should have.

Then the Slipper matter broke. Here in Abbott, Gillard - time to stop! I expressed my dislike of developments:

Mr Abbott's call back in 2010 for a kinder, gentler polity - a call that Ms Gillard appeared to endorse - now comes to back to haunt both of them. Get real, chaps. A lot of us are just tuning you out. If, as apparently appears to be the case, you want to hate each other, please do it in private.

It was pretty clear at the time that my views about the nature of the attack by the PM on Mr Abbott were not shared by a fairly substantial minority, including my youngest daughter.  On 13 October in Saturday morning musings - gender & the possible rise of Mr Turnbull?,  I said in part:

To my mind, the most important immediate political issue is whether Ms Gillard has been able to wound Mr Abbott to the point of political gangrene. We have seen this before. Political machines are pretty ruthless. Depending on the way all this plays out, there is a fair chance that Mr Abbott will be amputated before the next election, replaced by Mr Turnbull. That would change the dynamics at once, effectively taking the gender issue out of the equation.

I followed this post with Words - gay, misogyny, with just a dash of heterosexism looking at other issues in the debate. Since then, the most recent polls released show a shift to the ALP.

Now when I'm trying to write as an analyst, I have to put my own views about right and wrong, good taste or bad taste, whatever, aside and try to write objectively.  Now here there are a couple of things that I think that we can say.

The first point is that the polls have been showing an improving trend to the Gillard Government for some months. In other words, there is a pattern. Further, leaving aside the atmospherics around the Slipper issue and the PM's associated speech, the Government is getting enough wins to seem credible in office. In a way, that's all it has to do to restore its position for it undermines Mr Abbott's core charge of Government incompetence.

Where does the PM's speech fit into all this?

I don't think that it does. Yes, the detail of the most recent polls suggest that it' has had some impact at the margin in terms of voter perception, but it actually doesn't affect what is happening in the real world. Yes, it has damaged Mr Abbott, perhaps terminally, and that may have outcomes that none can foresee. But it doesn't affect the basic thrust of policy or events on which people finally base their voting decisions. It doesn't even contribute to the basic question of equality of opportunity independent of gender. Does anybody really believe that beyond an impact on politically acceptable language it will result in one real policy change?

I have phrased this as an assertion to make challenge easier. I still think that the Gillard Government has a chance of winning the next election, but I don't think that Ms Gillard's speech is relevant to that outcome. There are just too many variables, too many permutations and combinations, involved.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Australia's MYEFO aka mini-budget

Today the Australian Government released the MYEFO, the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. You will find a summary here, the original source documents here. It's really a mini-budget.

I haven't had time to go through it in detail. However, three very brief comments:

  1. It illustrates the continuing difficulty of making reasonable budget projections in the face of so many uncertainties.
  2. It is contractionary, likely to reduce GDP growth by between 0.5 and 1%, thus adding to the contractionary effects of State cuts. One commentator described all this as one foot on the break (fiscal policy), one toe on the accelerator (monetary policy).
  3. The assumptions are interesting.  One is a slight increase in the participation rate. That seems unlikely.

I am glad that I don't have to make economic forecasts on my blogs. It's much easier to focus on longer term trends!


A further sample of reporting on the MYEFO:

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Indian Mutiny 2 - the Mughals

Continuing the story I began in Indian Mutiny 1 - trouble at Meerut, to understand both the causes of the mutiny that began on that stinking hot Sunday in 1857 and the events that followed, a bit of history helps. This post looks at the Mughals, also know as the Moguls in traditional English spelling.

Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur was born on 14 February 1483, the eldest son of Omar Sheykh Mirzā who ruled the Fergana Valley in Central Asia.

The geopolitics of the time are complicated, especially for an Australian who does not properly understand the geography of Central Asia. Suffice to say that, in family terms, Barbur was well connected to the power structures of the time. His father was, if I have the family structures right, the great great grandson of the legendary conqueror Tamerlane (Timur) who ruled a large Empire from Samarkand. His mother was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan.   

As an aside, and its probably worth a post at some point, I don't think that current Australians (or the English for that matter) have any recollection of the fascination that Central Asia exercised on the European imagination. I am just old enough to have caught the tail end; not directly, but through the novels and travel books still to be found on school and family shelves.  Samarkand, Bukhara, the Great Silk Road, the mystic religions, all played themselves out in writing and conversation. 

Barbur himself was a highly educated man, a rare ruler who wrote his own autobiography, giving us a picture of his world as perceived by him.

On the death of his father, Barbur inherited rule. However, this was challenged by his uncles leading to a series of fights. In the complicated events that followed, Barbur himself became a conqueror. An innovator in technology terms, he introduced fire arms to his forces, giving him a military edge.

In 1526, Barbur took control of Delhi and Agra, establishing the base for what would become the Mughal Empire in India. Initially, that base was tenuous. Barbur died in December 1530. His son Humayun succeeded him, but lost much of the territory Barbur had won in part because of conflict with his brothers and especially half brother Kamran Mirza who had his own territorial ambitions. It was not until 1555 that Humayun, with Persian support, regained control over all of Barbur's territory.

As a second aside, while I am giving links to the Wikipedia entries, they are dreadfully messy, sometimes inconsistent and need a good edit. Just writing this short piece required hours tracking backwards and forwards trying to establish basic facts and patterns. I think that's a real pity, for the geopolitics are quite fascinating.        

In January 1556, Himayun tripped and fell down a flight of stone stairs while carrying an arm load of books. He died three days later from head injuries and was succeeded by his thirteen year old son, Akbar. Akbar, sometimes known as Akbar the Great, ruled from 1556 to 1605. During this period he consolidated and then extended the Empire. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Empire controlled much of modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and was arguably the wealthiest empire in the thFile:Taj Mahal 2012.jpgen world.  

I am not sure how many Australians today would actually know what the Mogal or Mughal Empire was, but there would be few in this or other countries who have not heard of the Taj Mahal.

Built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal is one of the most iconic buildings in the world. While visible to all, this is only the most public sign of the Empire's enormous cultural influence.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century the Empire fell almost as fast as it had risen. The reasons for that decline appear much disputed. Part of the reason lay in the rise of the Hindu Maratha Empire who fought a long running war against the Mughals. On paper, the Mughal Empire should have been triumphant because of its resources, and yet it failed time and time again to defeat the attacks. Part of the reason also lay in dynastic disputes and in progressive administrative failures within the Mughal Empire.  

Whatever the reasons, by 1857 the last of the Mughals (Bahadur Shah II) had been largely reduced to the position of pensioner of the British East India Company. Yet he retained considerable prestige with both the Hindu and Muslim communities.

All large empires face common problems in managing ethnic, cultural and religious diversity within their territories. All large empires depend for their survival on a mix of power and propitiation. The empire cannot be sustained in the long term without at least a measure of acquiescence, of acceptance, by the populations and power structures within the empire.

Generally, the Mughal emperors followed a policy of what today we would call inclusion. They reached out to various groups in the population and especially the Hindus. This is actually a modern story, for the approaches that they followed, their successes and failures, are directly relevant too today.

Leaving that aside, the symbolic position occupied by Bahadur Shah II was important. The mutineers at Meerut, Hindu and Muslim alike, saw him as important and marched on Delhi, the ceremonial Mughal capitol. They wanted support from Bahadur Shah II. 

Bahadur Shah II was then over eighty. A noted Urdu poet, a kind man, an intellectual like so many of his processors, he lacked the political skills to manage events. Further, he had court of officials and pensioners that had been living in a strange world of ceremony and ceremonial importance totally isolated from the practical aspects of governance. The symbols remained, but without substance. This meant that there was no one really able to guide him.

The final result would be the end of the last vestiges of Mughal Empire. Bahadur Shah II himself would die in 1862 in exile in Rangoon. The successor empire created by the mutiny, Queen Victoria's Indian Empire, would briefly occupy a greater territory than the Mughals. Its failure to effectively manage diversity and change in the turmoil associated with global wars and political change would see the political break-up of the Indian subcontinent and beyond. The mutiny destroyed old India, laying the base for a new if somewhat diminished India. But that part of the story has still to come,       

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Words - gay, misogyny, with just a dash of heterosexism

Oh dear, just when you think it's safe to come out of the water.

Once there was a word called gay. It meant happy, merry, but carried with it an expressive feel . Hence gaiety. Then it was taken over, the meaning changed to mean homosexual, especially male homosexual. The old meaning started to drop away. A male who said that I feel gay tonight could well be misinterpreted or, perhaps, not. It depended.

Then there was the word misogynist meaning women hater or, at least, someone who disliked women. It was quite a useful word, appearing in popular fiction including children's fiction with phrases like "so and so was a crusty old misogynist." The Australian Macquarie dictionary  has now announced that it is including a second string to the definition:   an entrenched prejudice against women

Some of the Australian media has interpreted this as an act of political correctness by the dictionary in response to the PM's speech. If that were the case, I would be very upset. But the meaning of the word has changed. We actually saw this in the responses to the PM's speech. But I checked around, simply asking younger ones for the meaning of misogynist. They came up with the new Macquarie definition. So the definition does reflect changing use of the language. Just the Macquarie timing, intentional or not, is unfortunate.

In the meantime, we have lost another word, for entrenched prejudice against women however defined certainly need not mean hatred of women. When I expressed sadness at the loss, I was asked what word I would use to describe the new definition of misogyny. I simply said sexist.

If all this wasn't enough, I happened to read this story in Sydney's Daily Telegraph: Being straight no longer normal, students taught. I am not normally a Telegraph reader, but the paper was there while I was waiting. This introduced me to a whole new term that I had yet to hear, heterosexism.

The story was about a pilot program in NSW schools. This appeared to define heterosexism, and I quote from the story,    

....the practice of "positioning heterosexuality as the norm for human relationship," according to the Proud Schools Consultation Report.

"It involves ignoring, making invisible or discriminating against non-heterosexual people, their relationships and their interests. Heterosexism feeds homophobia."

The program should "focus on the dominance of heterosexism rather than on homophobia," according to the minutes from the Proud Schools steering committee on March 22, 2011.

Now given the Telegraph's usual market positioning, I would be far from certain about the accuracy of the reporting. Even so, heterosexism? It's really all becoming far too confusing!

While chatting, I did a little testing in terms of some of the views I expressed in Abbott, Gillard - time to stop!. Not a scientific sample, I accept, but there was great dislike for the personal venom on each side.

Yours from a confused Jim who feels obliged to report but really, really, doesn't like all this.


For other takes on all this, New England free lance radio reporter Kate Doak has yet another take on aspects of the Abbott/Gillard affair - The Tale of Two Tonys and a Julia...... It was Kate who released the tape of a young Tony Abbott talking on student radio at UNE during a visit.

Then in Misoneism?, Neil Whitfield took another direction, in so doing confirming that the Macquarie dictionary decision to redefine had been misogynist in the dictionary had been influenced by the PM's speech. I quote:

Sue Butler, Editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, regarded as the definitive authority on Australian meanings of words, said on Wednesday the political furore revealed to her fellow Editors that their dictionary’s definition was decades out of date.

The dictionary would broaden its definition from a hatred of women to include entrenched prejudice against women, she said.

“Since the 1980s, ‘misogyny’ has come to be used as a synonym for sexism, a synonym with bite, but nevertheless with the meaning of ‘entrenched prejudice against women’ rather than ‘pathological hatred’”, she said.

I think that's unfortunate. It also appears that the changing meaning of the word has been influenced  by very specific feminist debate.

In a comment on the NSW position, Winton Bates wrote: Jim, it seems to me that people who argue that hetrosexuality is not the norm for human relationships are possibly guilty of misogyny and misandry, as well as misinformation.

Misandry, the hatred of men and boys, is the dictionary opposite to misogyny. If we are going to redefine misogyny, it would seem perfectly appropriate to redefine misandry in the same way as entrenched prejudice against men. Defined in this way it certainly exists. Indeed, I have given examples on this blog. What's more, I'm not sure that it's getting better, although some have argued that things have changed. Whatever the case, we have a fruitful new ground for verbal conflict.

In his comment, Winton also shared my reservations about the content of the report, something that Neil picked up when he quoted the original objectives of the NSW pilot. The problem here is that objectives and the way those objectives are implemented are two very different things. We just don't know, for example, whether the claim about heterosexism is correct. It may be. We have seen some funny things in NSW before.

In any event, words will be words whatever I or anyone else feels. Further, life is too short to attempt to follow up the detail of every claim and counter claim.

I am quite comfortable with the position I articulated some time ago, that I support equality of opportunity independent of gender or sexual orientation. This includes attacking the barriers that reduce men's choices.

I am not posting today. Please treat this update as my post. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Demographic threads & the need for a new view, plus a taste of geology

Congratulations to Northern Rivers Geology on turning one. How to emigrate from the Northern Rivers provides an explanation for the strange coastal rivers patterns in Northern NSW. They used to flow west. It also suggests a geological way of achieving self government for New England!

Neil Whitfield has been revisiting some past stories. Past and future–Surry Hills to The Gong made me feel a tad ancient, at least in blogging terms, for it includes a story from October 2006 where our two blogs in combination put old friends back together. Oh dear, six years!

I love it when people find the time to do some research.

Greg Jericho's Australia’s Unemployment Rate Increases to 5.4% looks in detail at some of the recent and not so recent Australian employment statistics. In a piece the day before on the ABC's The Drum he looked at the changing role of women in the workplace. Then in another piece, again on the same site, Michael Janda wondered Has Australia already passed its labour force peak? In the meantime on a different track, a global report finds Australian women to be the most economically empowered in the world. Then on what must seem a completely random segue, Armidale Hospital has been left with just one general physician after three resigned in one month, affecting medical training. Meantime, in the Australian Parliament, Government and opposition combined to pass legislation moving those receiving parenting payments onto the lower newstart (unemployment) benefit once dependent children reached a certain age.

All these stories are interconnected because they are all linked to fundamental demographic change measured not just by age cohorts or by gender balance, but also by changes in education and skill mixes distributed between genders and age cohorts and over geographic space. They are also linked to and interconnected with economic change that in its turn is linked to demographic change.

In discussion, me included, we tend to look at at the immediate present. However, things like demographic change are long term and indeed often inexorable.

As it happens, at just the time that Neil and I were uniting old friends, I was musing over some of these issues. At the end of October 2006, I wrote: 

Over the last decade the Australian economy has grown rapidly by world standards. We have accommodated this growth largely through improved productivity aided by skilled migration. Part of the productivity growth has been real (working better), but another part has simply come from working harder as measured by increased working hours.

After a decade of fast growth, skilled labour shortages have emerged across the Australian economy from skilled trades through para professionals and professionals. In some cases, engineering and dentistry are examples, these have reached crisis point requiring urgent corrective action.

There is a further factor. Skilled people are increasingly mobile in a world marked by global skills shortages and increasing competition for particular skills. Something over 800,000 Australians now live abroad. In the words of a Senate Committee (here) that examined the expatriate issue, "Australian expatriates increasingly tend to be young, highly skilled and highly educated", that is just the group the professions need.

Australia clearly has a problem. If we now track forward, you have to ask how we are going to sustain growth in the face of stagnant student numbers combined with growing global competition for good people. Worse, over the next decade an increasing number of baby boomers will retire, so we have to find replacement people as well as people required to carry out new activities.

I have painted a fairly stark macro picture. If my analysis is in any way correct, then individual firms are going to be struggling to get and hold the people they need. They will also be facing another challenge as well in that attitudes within the professional work force towards work have changed, a process that continues.

I know a fair number of Australian senior professionals. I find it disturbing that so many of them are to greater or lesser extent unhappy with their professional life. They are, quite simply, tired of the constant pressure. In the words of one person I know well, "It's just not fun any more."

When you look at younger age groups, you find an increasing proportion that are no longer prepared to pay the price associated with traditional career success. They, and especially the women, want a different life style.

I am writing from an Australian perspective. However, I do not think that this is a uniquely Australian problem. The demographic patterns that I have talked about are wide spread, while my monitoring of global discussions suggests that the attitudinal issues I am talking about are also wide spread.

This brings me to something that puzzles me. If my analysis is correct, the people challenge is going to be the single most important strategic issue all firms will need to address over the next decade. Why, then, is there so little apparent interest in it? The discussion is there, you only have to look at David Maister or Bruce MacEwen to name just two to see it, but it does not seem to be getting the traction it deserves.

Is it because individual firms think that they can deal with it themselves? Are people just too busy to focus? Have I simply missed the discussion?

I don't know, and I find it very frustrating. There are so many things that firms could and in my mind should be doing now to set themselves up to manage the issue, things that would improve performance anyway. How do we get the story across?

I was writing in a particular context and at a particular time, but it introduces one of the elements at the back of my mind when I wrote Economic threads & the need for a new view. And what, if anything, does this have to do in another theme, Indian Mutiny 1 - trouble at Meerut?  Nothing really. The Mutiny is a distraction. Mind you, I am struck by the fact that it marked the end of an old India and the creation of a new. Perhaps there is a link after all.


In a comment, kvd said:

Jim (re changes in demography) it would be interesting to see the change in mix over the years between 'native born' Aussies and immigrants? It just seems to me that our immigrants are almost pre-qualified to do better in our rapidly changing job market than 'the locals'. Just a thought.

Actually, that's an interesting one, for the mix of native and overseas born has varied greatly across Australia's history. Further, so has the composition of the migrant mix, as has the economic and social environment that the migrants entered into. There have also been significant shifts in patterns down the first few generations after migration. The current mix is not the same as twenty years ago. That affects Australia's future. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Indian Mutiny 1 - trouble at Meerut

Sunday 10 May 1857 was a stinking hot day, so hot that the 18:30 evening church parade had been postponed for half an hour.

The day before, 85 men from the 3rd Light Cavalry, a native regiment, had been marched onto the European infantry parade ground in the presence of all the troops based at Meerut, a significant military base 73k north east of Delhi. Many of the 85 had long services records. Following the reading of the sentences, they were stripped of their uniforms, their boots removed and shackles attached to their legs. They were then marched to the new goal to begin their sentences. Both the native troops and people living in the town surrounding the Indian lines were angry. Now this anger would break out in violence.

That Saturday evening, a number of European officers were warned by loyal staff that rebellion might break out. The warnings were passed onto senior officers who refused to believe them. Our men would not do that. This will pass. This view was not shared by those warned. Many did not regard the treatment afforded the men as just, a view shared by far more senior officials in the East India Company up to the Governor-General himself. 

That Sunday afternoon Hugh Gough, a young lieutenant in the 3rd Light Cavalry, was Orderly Officer of the Day. Gough, one of those who did not believe in the fairness of the punishment and who had visited his men in gaol the day before after their imprisonment, was also one of those warned. After church, he had spent the morning playing with his pet bear and leopard. Now dressing for duty, he was told that the Indian lines were on fire. Galloping down, he came under fire from the sepoys (native troops) and barely made his escape. By morning, some fifty European men, women and children were dead, most cut to pieces.

The Indian Mutiny had begun.

Note to readers:

This is part of my train reading series, in this case based on Christopher Hibbert's The Great Mutiny: India 1857 ( Pelican). Over the next week or so, I plan to meander around those tumultuous events in the midst of other writing. Just for something a little bit different, just because I am on an India kick.   

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Economic threads & the need for a new view

Tonight's brief post draws together a few recent economic threads. After having just watched Looper, I'm not sure  that I'm up to any more! It was far more violent than I expected, but it was Bruce Wills after all, and I'm still not convinced by the end.

To my mind, there are two distinct features of the end of the current mining boom that are different from previous booms. One is a softer landing because this boom did not ignite economic activity and speculation elsewhere in quite the same way as in the past. The second is the continuing strength of the Australian dollar linked to its new reserve currency status.

Normally, the first would be counted as a plus because there are fewer resulting excesses and imbalances. Other parts of the economy have more scope to expand to pick up the slack. However, the strength of the dollar impedes that process.

Over the last few weeks there has been a steady stream of reports dealing with what we might call the hollowing of the Australian economy. These are long term trends, including the progressive loss of service sector jobs that, in total, dwarf the loss of manufacturing jobs. The jobs that are going are especially mid ranking jobs in pay terms, solidly respectable middle class positions, although higher flying sectors such as finance have also been affected. One would expect the second, but the first is an issue.

I have been writing about some of these trends for a long time. The thing I don't know and that is currently exercising my mind is just what it all means. It would be easy to be negative, to conclude that Australia will go the way of Tasmania or New England. In the case of New England, the much vaunted benefits of economic restructuring may have occurred, but they didn't occur in New England. There there was largely just pain and economic decline.

A rather long time ago now I argued that Australia could not assume that economic reform would, of itself, benefit Australia. There was a real risk that the country would become an increasingly peripheral branch office player. The country has done rather better than I forecast at the time. but the trends that I forecast have occurred.

The world is different now. I am wondering what those differences mean to my own arguments. My feeling is that I need to reshape my position, that it's time for a fresh look.

Later this year, the Government will release its white paper on Australia in the Asian century. That will provide an opportunity for a more detailed review of the issues that I am talking about. 


Follow up posts relevant to this topic:

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saturday morning musings - gender & the possible rise of Mr Turnbull?

The new information emerging on the Slipper matter is tending to support the position I adopted in Abbott, Gillard - time to stop!. Peter Hartcher's Amid the fury, a quiet execution is an example. I couldn't help being struck by the irony that it appears that it was Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop's anger over the sexist nature of Mr Slipper's remarks that set in train the chain of events that led to the PM's attack on Mr Abbott.

I don't especially want to revisit the detail of who said what and why. Rather, I want to use the last paragraph of my previous post as an entry point to this post. There I said:

The comments on the Holmes piece are interesting because they show the way that discussion around this matter is affected by starting points. I am not saying anything profound here. At one level, my comment is obviously self-evident. However, the longer term effect depends on the way that those very different interpretations and weightings work their way through within an Australian domestic political and social frame. I actually have no idea just what the outcome will be.

I still have no real idea, but in this post I want to look at some of the dynamics involved. I am not talking about rights or wrongs, good or bad, simply seeking to understand with sufficient clarity that others can, if they wish, critique my views.

Public opinion about both Opposition Leader Abbott and PM Gillard is deeply polarised and has been for a long time. We see this in the polls, but it also comes through in commentary, in the flow of comments on social media and in private conversations. I haven't seen anything quite like it before, for the reactions are deeply personal. The nearest equivalent from my direct experience is the Whitlam period, but the divisive reactions then were rather more political than personal. As PM, Mr Keating attracted a visceral reaction as well, so did Mr Howard, but the present position is still unusual. It may be that all this is part of what I think of as the personalisation of Australian politics, but for the moment we can just take it as a given.

One side effect of the deep polarisation is that it makes sensible conversation very difficult. You try saying something nice about either leader to those in the opposite camp and you will see the effects of detestation at once. A second side effect is that to those with strong views, each development is interpreted within and used to support a mental frame based on dislike. This, the argument goes, is further evidence of (insert perception). One practical effect is that the views of perhaps two thirds of the Australian population can be largely ignored when it comes to considering the immediate political fall-out from recent events. However, those views cannot be ignored when it comes to consider the heat created within political discourse.

The evidence suggests, too, that opinion towards both leaders is polarised along gender lines and has been for some time in a way that we haven't seen before. Now that we have added misogyny wars to the list of cultural and social conflicts, this divide will be strengthened, but only at the margin. People are not one dimensional. We all have worries and concerns that extend beyond gender issues. It is actually hard to see Julia Gillard increasing her female vote, Tony Abbott increasing his male vote. The whole affair may increase the intensity of feeling among those who already have certain views, but won't have much impact on the placement of the dividing line between views.

It will affect the language of political discourse. No politician in his right mind interested in main stream votes would want to experience the vitriol and inevitable tarnish associated with the misogynist brush. The impact at the margin is less clear cut. This will also play out among fringe groups on the left and right who, seeing an opportunity to attract support, will add the matter to their political repertoire. On the fringe, it doesn't matter if you alienate the 95% if you can attract the 5%.

To my mind, the most important immediate political issue is whether Ms Gillard has been able to wound Mr Abbott to the point of political gangrene. We have seen this before. Political machines are pretty ruthless. Depending on the way all this plays out, there is a fair chance that Mr Abbott will be amputated before the next election, replaced by Mr Turnbull. That would change the dynamics at once, effectively taking the gender issue out of the equation.

On 1 October in Will PM Gillard win the next election? And possibly why I thought that events were swinging Ms Gillard's way. As they say, a week is a long time in politics. Now that both Mr Abbott and and Ms Gillard have effectively run onto each other's swords, who can say what will happen?


The ripples from this affair continue. Here in NSW Cathy Stoner, the wife of NSW National Party Leader and Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner, received an abrupt lesson in the dangers of expressing personal views via Twitter (Politician's wife retweeted anti-Muslim tirades).

Cathy Stoner's views are not a-typical. I have a fairly diverse group of Facebook friends spanning left to right, along with multiple party persuasions. I generally avoid political comments on Facebook partly for that reason, more because I use Facebook in a purely personal way.  Others are more forthcoming, implicitly assuming that their Facebook friends actually share their views. As a consequence, I see similar views expressed quite often, as well as those diametrically opposed.

Meantime, Treasurer Wayne Swan also received a salutary lesson in the new political dynamics (Wayne Swan says he should have condemned joke) when he failed to leave a Union function after an off-colour joke about the relations between Mr Abbott and his chief of staff. Now this is actually a case of political correctness gone mad. The organisers weren't responsible for the joke - that was apparently done by the hired comedy team as a last moment insertion. What Mr Swan should have done is simply distance himself at the time from the joke, then proceed with the speech. But it's easy to be wise after the event.

Meantime, Lenore Taylor felt obliged to come to the defence of the press gallery in PM's speech did stir hearts, but remember the context. That's fine. She expressed somewhat similar views to me, then right at the end she felt obliged to add: And it could also be that one reason the feeling, the silent cheer, the thank-god-someone is-saying-it response was almost entirely missing on the day after the Prime Minister's speech was not because the writers lived in Canberra, but because on that particular day a lot of the most prominent commentary was written by men.

Mmm. Maybe I'm wrong, but we seem to be at the stage now where gender issues can only be discussed or responded too by women, and god help any man who comments and especially a man who defends a male position. I have got into trouble a couple of times here myself in exploring the social and personal implications of changing gender roles.

I am supporter of equality of opportunity and choice regardless of gender. That includes exploring the conflicts and choices that arise, as well as the implications of changing demography and the way that discrimination is sometimes exercised against men.

And as a final note before I put this one aside, Annabel Crabb's Grubby, grotty, silly and sexist, but misogyny is a sledge too far provides yet another take. Incidentally, interesting that Julie Bishop feels obliged to defend Tony Abbott against the possibility of a Malcolm Turnbull leadership change. 

Postscript two

Oh dear, I know that I am out of touch when I see this piece described on twitter, and I quote, as "the week in sexism & politics - this column by @bairdjulia is the best op-ed on the topic." Really?!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Blue Mountains Snow

It's been a cold day here in Australia's eastern states. My work friend JRB (I'm JDB) sent me this photo of his backyard. He lives in the Blue Mountains just to the west of Sydney. Quite Scandinavian, I told him!   20121012_110850

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Abbott, Gillard - time to stop!

Here in Australia, the news has been dominated by Alan Jones and then the Slipper affair, including PM Gillard's remarkable attack on Tony Abbott. Legal Eagle's Alan Jones, feminism and Australian politics provides a lucid explanation of some of the issues raised by these events.

Rereading a post of mine from a bit over a months ago, Let's assert basic manners in Australian politics, I must say my heart sank. The sms messages between Mr Slipper and Mr Ashby are unsavoury. Messrs Windsor and Oakeshott appear to have behaved well in first voting against Mr Slipper's dismissal to prevent a forced dismissal and then in encouraging him to resign. Whether or not one agrees with their approach in a general sense, they have proved remarkably consistent in their approach over time. There is a certain irony in comments about the instability of minority government, given the general consistency among the independents even when they disagree. Beyond that, things are a mess.

Putting things as bluntly as I can, on all the evidence I have seen Mr Abbott is not anti-women, nor is Ms Gilllard  a totally devout exponent of women's rights. Both hold a mixture of views, both try to play to chords as they see them in their support base, both are determined to win. Neither will win this argument, both have lost, just as Messrs Slipper and Ashby have lost. In the desire to wound, to justify positions, in possibly righteous anger or the need for self-defence, they have all entered worlds dictated by dynamics that have little to do with objective reality but have their own special features that dictate events.

My personality means that I greatly dislike personalisation and directed hurt in whatever context. I find it hard to deal with. That may affect my judgement, but I know that am not alone. A large number of people feel as I do. I cannot say that Ms Gillard has inflicted terminal damage on herself, many Australians just like a good fighter, but this fight really does not help her in the longer term.

Mr Abbott's call back in 2010 for a kinder, gentler polity - a call that Ms Gillard appeared to endorse - now comes to back to haunt both of them. Get real, chaps. A lot of us are just tuning you out. If, as apparently appears to be the case, you want to hate each other, please do it in private.


It's been interesting looking at the responses to this whole affair. My daughter, for example, does not share her father's view:   

Agrippina ‏@ClareAgrippina: @JimBelshaw Can't say I agree dad, I really think it was long overdue for someone to call Abbott out on his hypocrisy when it comes to women.

Aren't we a modern family, tweeting to each orher?!

Deborah Snow's Misogyny: it's still all Greek to male chauvinists presents one picture, Clementine Ford's  Playing the sexism card:a guide for politicians* another, Michelle Gratton's Misogyny war has no winner a third. Then Jonathon Holmes takes another line in Who has the ear of the 'ordinary people'?

The comments on the Holmes piece are interesting because they show the way that discussion around this matter is affected by starting points. I am not saying anything profound here. At one level, my comment is obviously self-evident. However, the longer term effect depends on the way that those very different interpretations and weightings work their way through within an Australian domestic political and social frame. I actually have no idea just what the outcome will be.   

Postscript two

I used the last paragraph above as an entry point for a post analysing some of the possible political impacts of the whole imbroglio -  Saturday morning musings - gender & the possible rise of Mr Turnbull?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sleeper posts - memories of Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Stadium

All regular bloggers who have been around for a while have sleeper posts, posts that continue to attract interest and sometimes comments long after publication. Memories of Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Stadium is one such post. Posted on 19 July 2009, it has so far attracted 1080 visits.

That's quite a lot, but here it's not the numbers that count, but the continuing comments. Have a look at them. My feeling is that I should turn the comments and some other comments on related posts into a full new post to see if I can attract some answers. It's building into quite a nice human interest story.   

Monday, October 08, 2012

Franks, Firinghi & Farangs

Yesterday, torn between two choices, I finally grabbed Christopher Hibbert's The Great Mutiny: India 1857 (Penguin 1980) for my latest train reading. I had been torn between Turkey (I promised a Parramatta Turkish restaurant family that I would begin a Turkish series) and India.

I had been half planning to go to Turkey next year if I could find some way of at least funding my trip through writing. This time two years ago I was in Athens. Since then with the exception of a weekend in New Zealand to watch Australia get thrashed by Ireland (Ireland celebrates in the Rugby, Random musings on family & New Zealand), I haven't been out of the country. Since then, various members of my family must have visited a dozen countries. Now eldest is going to North Africa later in the month. I feel kind of left out!

Turkey was and still is on my list for it would enable me to extend my knowledge of past and present to the east. However, finally my history interests took me still further east, to India. I actually know a fair bit about Indian history, but I now want to extend my knowledge working especially west. The blurb finally decide me. suggesting that it was all, really, a ripping yarn. And, indeed it is. However, what caught my eye and triggered this post was the the word Firinghi or, alternatively, Feringhee for European. Surely, I thought, that's a variation on the word Franks, and indeed it is. According to it is a "name used in India for "European," 1634, from Pers. Farangi, from Arabic Faranji (10c.), from O.Fr. Franc "Frank" + Arabic ethnicsuffix -i. The fr- sound is not possible in Arabic." 

Now why on earth would that interest me? Well, we forget how ideas and concepts travel. In the days of the Byzantine Empire, the term Franks was used to describe the Roman Catholic people and principalities coming from the eastern part of the European peninsular. From there, the term went into Arabic and well beyond. The Thai word Farang for European comes from the same source, with equivalent terms in Kymer and Malay.

It's a good example of the way that ideas flow, and that's one of the things that I am interested in.  Little did Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530), the founder of the Mughal Empire, know that those incoming Franks or Firinghi who arrived during his reign posed such a threat. How could he? They were a hell of a long way away, living on the outer periphery of the world he knew as educated man. In that sense, they didn't count in the geopolitics of the time.    

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Sunday Essay - an experiment with sardines

It appears that daylight saving has begun in NSW. The change had escaped me. I noticed it only because the time on my mobile and computer suddenly varied from the that on the microwave! However, that's not I want to write about today.

I am not a big fish person. Growing up away from the sea, we rarely ate fish except for some dreadful smoked variety that I absolutely detested. I didn't learn to like fish until Aunt Kay cooked some fresh rainbow trout that Uncle Ron caught on a fishing trip. New England has some good trout streams. Then I realised that fish could be okay. Since then, I have slowly added a variety of sea food to my diet. Oysters, prawns, mud crab, lobster and certain fish types.  

I say certain fish types. More accurately, I should say fish cooked in a certain way. More specifically, fish cooked in Asian style; crisp skinned and flavoured. I still don't have much time for conventionally Australian cooked fish - fillets with lemon and butter cooked in aluminium foil. To my mind, it tastes a bit like cardboard. And as for salmon steaks, that's just very expensive cardboard! It seems remarkably difficult to cook salmon properly.

I have always quite liked sardines. Initially, it was the tinned variety. They came in flat tins with curl back tops, lathered in oil. Later, I found fresh sardines in restaurants. Since then, I have eaten them quite often, although its a bit of a lucky dip; like salmon steaks, sardines seem to be quite hard to cook well.

I had noticed that my local Eastlakes fish shop often had fresh sardines and that they seemed to be quite cheap. As part of my current food campaign of something old and something new, I wandered into the shop the other day just to educate myself on fish varieties. "Can I help you?",  the Chinese woman in charge asked. "Just browsing", I said. "I want to learn what fish is around." She sniffed and walked away.

Yesterday I went back because I saw that they had sardines. I selected a few, although I felt a bit embarrassed a buying so little - they cost me $2.60! My Chinese lady just looked at me as I searched for change. But hey, I'm cooking just for me and on an experimental basis.

Clutching my little packet  I came home and went to Wikipedia to see how to cook my little haul. I almost gave up on the spot! It appears that sardines are rich in Omega 3, whatever that may be. It also appears that they deteriorate quickly and must be cooked absolutely fresh. Hastily, I checked my small victims; all displayed signs of early aging. Further, none of the recipes that I saw really explained how to get that crisp skinned texture that I wanted. Worse, the preparation instructions were daunting.

I had to take a fish knife to my poor remains and somehow fillet them. But I have never eaten filleted sardines in my life, nor have the bones been a problem. I hate fish bones. They were always part of the problem on those rare occasions when I ate fresh fish as a kid. But sardines did not seem to suffer from quite the same issue. What to do?

I sat there for a while and then went out to the garden. Under constant inspection by kvd and LE's chairs, the plants have raced away. I don't yet have a full range of veg, but lettuce is now always available. Grabbing a lettuce and a lemon, I came back in. Clearing the bench, I put the grill on high. Then, I took the sardines and rubbed them under running water, put them on a plate, added lemon juice and salt and pepper. Later, I threw on a generous dollop of olive oil.

While the grill was heating, I hastily tore the lettuce up, chopped french onion, tomatoes and cucumber and put the salad in a little bowl. With the grill now hot, I placed the sardines on it, turning them after a few minutes. Adding olive oil plus balsamic vinegar to the salad, I took the sardines off the grill and put them on the plate adding the salad. Then I went and watched Dr Who while I ate.

The verdict? Not too bad. But I need to get the grill right, for I didn't get that really crisp result that I wanted.          

Saturday, October 06, 2012

A truly romantic proposal

I will let this post from another blog stand on it's own - October 1st: First day in New York - without comment beyond congratulations.

Saturday Morning Musings - Filipino libel laws, new technology in teaching & the dreaming

This morning's post here is just a round-up of things that have been drawn to my attention or that I have noticed in passing. Nothing profound, just a ramble across some of my interests.

Youngest drew my attention to this one because she thought that I and some of my friends would be interested. Thanks, Clare!

In Sister Machine Gun of Contemplative Meditation, a blog that I hadn't see before, By the Time You Read this, I will Be a Criminal. attacks the late inclusion of an on-line criminal libel provision in the Philippines new Cybercrime Prevention Act. If I interpret the piece correctly, the law in not just a Filipino problem. Any Australian blogger or twitterer who writes on Filipino matters may be guilty of a criminal offence under the Act.

Surely not, I thought. But yes. The law has created controversy in the Philippines. This piece in the Philippine Star (P-Noy stands by libel provision in cyber law) will give you a feel. I was struck by the words of President Aquino in defending the provisions: "Aquino said he was open to lowering the penalties for online libel but that the measure must be enforced soon, as authorities must have the legal means to prosecute people for Internet-related crimes." You have been warned!

Moving in a completely different direction, Neil drew my attention to this piece by Maximos62: A few thoughts on teaching about indigenous Australia. Maximos62 is always thoughtful. I found it an interesting piece because it crosses several of my interests.

The first area is the use of computing and communications technology in teaching, training and facilitation. This is a screen shot of the material that maximos62 developed. Pretty impressive, isn't it?  Further comments follow the shot.

    From time to time, I have been quite critical of the current obsession with computer based and especially on-line learning.  Here in Australia recently. some commenters (I didn't keep the link) have been arguing that Governments should stop funding University campuses since they were no longer necessary in an online world.

I thought that this was an especially silly comment since it failed to recognise that different delivery modes and indeed mixed modes had different strengths and weaknesses. The mode or modes should be selected for fitness of purpose. It's interesting in the private sector that big companies such as GE are retaining both physical facilities and face-to-face because it gives better commercial pay backs in training terms. They use online, but only in its place.

Maximos62 's course is, to my mind, an example of the proper use of technology. As Neil noted in a comment on one of our discussions. courseware like this can dramatically shorten learning times. More time is then available for things like discussion, thus creating a higher value course.

There is another problem, however. More and more time for teachers, trainers and staff in general has to be spent in learning the changing technology, in creating content, leaving less time for other things. Let me illustrate with a simple personal example.

One result of my return as a columnist to the Armidale Express (Belshaw's World - sharing a love of history was the first of the new series) was an immediate invitation to speak to a meeting of the Armidale North Rotary Club. I accepted, of course. In my promotion of the things that I am interested in I use every channel I can.

I then faced a quandary. Armidale North meets at a local club. Armidale being Armidale, that club has digital projectors etc, so I can use modern technology. Assuming, mind you, that it works. That can't always be taken for granted. There is nothing so devastating as arriving at a venue and finding the technology doesn't work!

Traditionally in speaking, I use the combination of words, voice and body language to try to entertain and get my message across. Should I now package for the newish technology?

It's actually not an easy question. That Armidale speech is going to cost me well over $1,000 in income foregone plus travel and accommodation costs, so I want to get value for money. To do this, I decided that I would package a presentation that could be re-used. But do I focus on traditional delivery or use technology? If I follow the second path, it's going to take me three times as long in content creation and in learning new approaches.

I might follow up on this one later, because it interests me. For the moment, I want to go to another element of Maximos62's post.

There can be no doubt that the work of Bill Gammage is having a rolling impact. maximos62 published his post on 2 October, A few days earlier, I posted  Train Reading - environment, mental maps & Bill Gammage.  Yesterday, I was talking to a senior NSW Aboriginal official about Bill Gammage. He had not read the book, so I am going to buy him a copy as a present. Thus the Gammage impact rolls on. Oh I so wish that my writing had the same impact!

In my discussion of Bill's work, I referred to my original honours thesis. There I complained about the obsession of some of the anthropologists I was using with kinship structures. Now I feel that the dreaming falls in the same class and for the same reasons. I suspect that I am entering into sensitive territory here, so I will leave that aside for I am out of time this morning.   

Friday, October 05, 2012

Roast leg of lamb Swedish style

In a comment on In search of Bombay Duck, JCW wrote:

And I still do coffee lamb as a special treat! It's a great favourite with my lot, but I'm naughty now and use cream rather than Carnation. Mind you, the redcurrant jelly can sometimes be hard to find. I also have an ancient Robert Carrier recipe (also called Swedish Lamb) which has the lamb in chunks, and involves carrots, so more a casserole, but nowhere near as nice as 'ours'. Gosh that brings back memories!
Lammstek – Swedish Roast Leg of Lamb. Photo by Peter J
I promptly asked to be reminded of the recipe! However, it got me thinking.
I had vaguely thought that roast leg of lamb Swedish style was one my idiosyncrasies. I knew that I had got it from a recipe book, but that was about it. I hadn't heard of it since I stopped cooking it. So now I went searching. Here are some recipes for the dish:
I am still looking forward to JCW's recipe. None of those I have read quite match my memory.

Carole  asked me to put up a link to her post - Food on Friday: Lamb.

Postscript two

JCW kindly supplied the following recipe for Roast Leg of Lamb Swedish Style.

Lamb: leg (whole or butterflied.Rub lamb with salt and mustard (yep, good old fashioned mustard powder), cut slits in flesh and insert slivers of garlic. Brown all over in heavy based pan, then transfer to rack in baking dish; cok until desired doneness in moderate oven or BBQ, but you must have a pan to catch the juices. Baste frequently with a strong coffee and sherry mixture (instant c and sherry de cuisine are fine; proportions about 1: 4coffee:sherry; you should need at least 1 cup ). Rest your lamb when done. Mix 1-2 tablespoons redcurrant jelly with enough cornflour to thicken sauce, then add cream, sour cream, or evaporated milk (abt 1/2 cup). Serve with your favourite veg - roast potatoes are a must, and wash down with an aged Hunter shiraz - bliss! This is very rich, so follow with some summer berries sprinkles with a little eg moscato (and drink the rest) or a fizzy sorbet soda; take a tall glass, add a small scoop of berry sorbet, and top up with a carefully poured nice domestic fizz. Toast old times and old loves!EnjoyJCW

Doesn't it sound luscious?! And, JCW, I will definitely toast old times and old loves! 

In a comment here, JCW added this correction: 
ooops, that's 4:1 coffee to sherry; sorry! Why is there never a good proofreader around when you need one? yes, and you cook it, not cok it, and there are probably some more idiocies, but I'm sure intelligent perusers can still make it out!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

In search of Bombay Duck

Yesterday as part of my search for things both ancient (ancient in coming from my past life) and new, I went in search of Bombay Duck. I had already stocked up on the sweet chilli sauce. My Asian supermarket owner looked at me blankly. Bombay Duck? He asked his wife. I've heard of it, she said, but I don't know what it is. It's fish, I said, salted fish. It smells.

Sadly, I came home carrying my sweet chilli sauce, my sambal  (very hard to get a reasonable variety of sambal in Australia now), my bamboo skewers, my Tom Yum paste, my Malaysian sate sauce, my Vietnamese vermicelli and my mild curry paste. I fear that I can no longer cope with the very hot. It's actually getting harder to get proper curry paste in the normal supermarkets - its all sort of a mock version. I used to make my own. but that was some time ago. I also wanted, blush, keens hot mustard powder. Do they still make it?

That eclectic mix is a sad sign of a mental retreat to a now distant past, a desire to cook again some of the things that I used too. Roast leg of lamb Swedish style? I actually have no idea whether or not it was Swedish at all, but in crude terms it's lamb cooked in coffee. I liked it because it was a little different.

While Bombay Duck is now apparently banned in the EU, sort of an Indian version of the British sausage for those who know their Yes Minister, I believe that we can still get it in Australia. So I live in hope. 

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

People, groups & that pervading sense of pessimism

One of the interesting side issues this time of the decision by Australia's Reserve Bank to cut the official cash rate was the variation between the market and economists. The markets appeared to forecast a cut, while the majority of economists did not. The RBA's assessment of the economic outlook is much along the lines that I have been arguing for a little while, so I won't comment on that beyond noting that it is time that I really had a look at the stats in detail again.

The latest Ipsos Mackay Report on Australian sentiment suggests that the underlying somewhat grim mood in Australia continues. People recognise that the pessimistic way they feel is not necessarily born out by the present reality, but they still feel it. I have tried to explore some of the reasons for this in various posts in part to understand and test my own reactions.

In an apparent segue, Ross Gittin's thought piece How intuitive morality has challenged the rationalists explores some of his reactions on reading The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, by Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia. The book suggests that decades of research by political scientists have concluded that self-interest is a weak predictor of voters' policy preferences. In Ross's words:

Why? Because people care about the groups they belong to - whether they be racial, regional, religious or political. They seem to be asking themselves not ''what's in it for me?'' but ''what's in it for my group?''. Political opinions function as ''badges of social membership''.

The fact that people care about others in a variety of ways and at varying levels of intensity should come as no surprise and also helps explain part of the reasons for the prevailing feeling of apparently irrational gloom. Each person belongs to a multiplicity of groups depending upon their particular circumstances. They respond not just to things that directly affect them, but also to things that affect the groups they belong too. Our political, business and organisational leaders with their constant desire to "improve" sometimes forget this.

Starting with a general comment, another piece today (Catherine Armitage and Rachel Browne's Toxic teacher' warning as debate rages on lifting uni entry marks) begins: "THE nation's elite universities warn that Australia is at risk of training a generation of ''toxic teachers'' who will pass their own deficiencies at school on to their students."

I will come back to this piece later, for the broader arguments involved add to my own feeling of disquiet. For the moment, I just want to quote one statistic from the piece. As a consequence of the casualisation of the workforce, there are now 30,000 casual teachers in NSW. A casual teacher is no longer one who fills gaps, who chooses to work as a spare. but a core element of the workforce.

If you at some of the things that I have tried to explore in my writing, you can actually see the whole process working at a purely personal level.

I write about the decline of Northern NSW, of the broader New England, and try to suggest how that might be turned around. I worry about the future of the University of New England in the face of policy instability, of competition and of the blind adoption of corporatist models. It's not just an issue of standards, but of a direct threat to the legacy that my family has helped build and that I have tried to maintain. In that sense, it's deeply personal.

As someone whose recent contract work, the work that supports my writing, has been in the public sector, I worry about the impact of restructuring not just on me, but on the people I work with. A Facebook friend and a former staff member of mine in another life gets laid off in Queensland because she is a casual. That's personal. I would like to help, but I can't beyond offering sympathy. Other work friends working in jobs on a placement basis are suddenly insecure and may be forced back into old nominal positions far below their current levels or in places they don't want to work. Yesterday, a notice came round advising of redundancy arrangements.

All this is personal. I worry for myself, realise that I have to change approaches, but I also worry for all the people I know.

My present contract work is in the social services area. Every change to benefit arrangements causes flow on effects. People know that nobody can live on unemployment benefits, we call it "Newstart" in this country in one of those euphemisms so beloved by modern Government, yet we make benefit changes that force  thousands of disability pensioners onto the lower benefit. The change may be good in principle, but its hardly good when you know that you are forcing more people into greater poverty.

I am a gregarious person. At the weekend I went across the road to introduce myself to some neighbours who live in the social housing estate across the road. They are often in the front yard. I didn't talk about some of the work I had done in recent years. Just to complicated. I didn't want to get into a discussion about policy.

I worry about the complexities and instabilities in personal relationships. I worry about my daughters. They are both strong women, well educated, competent. Yet I have seen modern processes work with or against them in ways I don't like. Frankly, modern recruitment processes are absurd, while the competition created for long term (previously permanent, but what is permanent today?) positions is now so intense, chaotic and lengthy that success is a almost a matter of chance.

I note that my daughters don't seem to worry themselves, but their father does. I also note that the idea of generation wars, of campaigns against actual or perceived intergenerational inequity, has suddenly become popular. I am not sure when I first wrote about the implications of an ageing population on economic and social structures, but it was some years ago. Now the issues are becoming important, popular, but are also phrased in terms of a zero sum game, of winners and losers. I think that's wrong.  

I am in danger of drifting from my main point and am also well out of time this morning. Let me finish by restating a few key points. Economic man is not a creature guided solely by his or her immediate self interest. Economic man is a social animal who belongs to, identifies with and is affected by a complex mosaic of social groups. People need a degree of stability. In a world of constant basic change that threatens more than it improves, that is hard to achieve. Is it any wonder people become4 depressed?  

Part of my argument on this blog has been that change has become has become institutionalised. We as individuals cannot affect that. We can only control  our responses.

In my new ways of working series I tried to address one aspect of that, My last post in that series, If you want loyalty, hire a dog, attracted a very personal comment that led me to stop for the short term. It came from someone who obviously knew me well, who knew my personal circumstances, it was hurtful, although the person who made the comment was obviously talking to me direct. Interestingly, that post has attracted huge traffic. It is not yet on my top posts of all time, but is starting to get quite close! Given the comment that I felt obliged to leave there under my comment rules, it's a bit embarrassing, actually.    

I will return to the series, for part of the message I wanted to get across lies in out ability to actually manage our responses. Here my own imperfections and failures are actually part of the positive message. We can do more than we believe. With that, I must finish. But I hope that I have illustrated why so many Australians are pessimistic but also confused.  


This post is still bugging me.  So just to summarise elements in an argument that evolved while I was writing:

  1. People (and organisations) need a degree of stability if they are to plan. We don't have that at present.
  2. I accept that change is inevitable. As a change agent, I have made a fair bit of money out of preaching the need for change in particular contexts. Yet if everybody constantly wants to change, if the changes have a short term focus in particular, a negative feedback loop is set up that actually impedes effective change. It also leads to great negativity.  
  3. As individuals, we can seek to improve the operations of the systems in which we are involved. That's good. But as individuals, we have to deal with the world as it is, not that we might like.
  4. Loyalty cannot be demanded, but has to be earned. If we cannot trust our institutions to look after us, if we become just statistics in a system, then we have to protect ourselves.
  5. As ethical people, and most of us are, we have to try to find ways of coping that will not damage others. We can't just withdraw into a world where we look after family first, the groups that we are involved in second, and devil take the rest. We have to find a better way.

In my own writing, I have tried to focus on both systemic improvement and the nature of personal responses that are ethical yet protect us and the things and people that we love. In a very real way, I have been preaching revolution, for the arguments that I have been trying to articulate involved a fundamental reshaping of approaches and institutions.