Personal Reflections

Friday, October 21, 2016

Parramatta and the dynamics of the apartment glut

I was a bit staggered to learn that there are now apparently more cranes servicing high rise apartment construction down the east coast of Australia (528) than in major cities across North America (419). This image is the Meriton Altitude Apartments development in Parramatta now well on the way to completion.

Each day I travel through the heart of Sydney apartment centrals, finishing at Parramatta. According to Greater Sydney Commission chief Lucy Turnbull, Sydney must be "re imagined" as three great cities for its growth to be successful.

The former Sydney lord mayor said the three cities of the future would be the Eastern Harbour City, the Central Parramatta River City, and the Western City in and around the new airport at Badgerys Creek.

I can see the changes in Parramatta. Its quite interesting and in a way exciting to watch the transformation of the city gathering pace. The level of new investment is enormous, billions of dollars. As a consequence, Parramatta has (I think) reached a tipping point. Developments already begun will certainly give the city a metro feel. I am less convinced about the Western City. Actually, I can't see it at this point. Parramatta's growth has been underpinned by the shifting of government jobs. It's a government city. Now that it has achieved something approaching critical mass, other things are following. Indeed, Ms Turnbull has suggested that the NSW parliament could be moved to Parramatta by the middle of the next decade. This was, she suggested, appropriate because the areas' west of Parramatta would increasingly be Sydney’s population, commercial and government centres. “What could be more logical than having our government right in the heart of the city where most of the population is based?” Ms Turnbull reportedly told an audience of the city’s business and political elite.

I shuddered a bit for reasons that you might understand.

At the moment, I can't see this type of dynamic happening in the "Western City". There is no natural focus, although those round Liverpool may challenge me on that, while there is no sign of Government job shifts.

Finishing with two brief points. The first is, and this has been widely reported, is that the level of apartment building in the three largest Eastern capitals has got to the point that a crash is almost inevitable, The second is that we have not looked properly at the dynamics of this in terms of what it means not just for the operation of Australia's largest cities, but for the Australian polity more broadly defined.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Coal Returns - at least for now

Some of the best performing ASE stocks recently in percentage terms have been the penny dreadful small coal plays including Nathan Tinkler's Australian Pacific Coal (AQC). When coal prices crashed, the big miners were prepared to offload coal assets at, in some cases, a dollar a mine if the new owner would take over actual and potential liabilities including remediation costs. The new owners looked to reduce costs and wait for coal prices to recover.

During that period my twitter and Facebook feeds were full of posts especially from New England with the constant theme that coal was dead. As I pointed out at the time, there was always a difference between thermal coal used in power generation and coking coal used in steel production; you just couldn't talk about coal. Now coal prices are up, with rises most heavily concentrated in coking coal, so some of those small coal plays are in the money.

Timing is critical. It does seem likely that thermal coal is in long term decline, but in that process there will be fluctuations around the long term trend that provide investment opportunities and profits.

BHP's  Andrew Mackenzie is cautious about the recovery in the prices for iron ore and coking coal, suggesting that expansion in supply would continue, reducing prices. Meantime, as Greg Jericho noted in this Guardian piece, Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison just got lucky, at least for the short term.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Brandis, Gleeson and the question of independent advice

The current dispute between Australia's top two law officials, Attorney-General George Brandis QC and Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson SC (picture), has many elements of high theater and has attracted widespread media coverage. Examples here, here, here, here. Submissions to the Senate Inquiry plus transcripts of hearings can be found here. It also raises some quite serious public policy issues. 

By way of background, the Australian Attorney-General is the first law officer of the Crown in right of the Commonwealth of Australia, chief law officer of the Commonwealth of Australia and a minister of the Crown. Under the Constitution. Technically, the A-G's are appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister, and serve at the Governor-General's pleasure. In practice, while the Attorney-General is a party politician, with their tenure determined by political factors. 

The Solicitor-General is the Commonwealth's second law officer. ",  The position is an official one. WThe holders of this office are not members of Parliament. The Commonwealth Solicitor-General gives the Government legal advice and appears in court to represent the Commonwealth's interest in important legal proceedings, particularly in the High Court". 

On 4 May 2016 just before Parliament rose, the Attorney-General George Brandis issued a directive that required all those seeking advice from the Solicitor-General to have the Attorney-General's approval. The Solicitor-General objected that he had not been consulted and a political firestorm broke out.

I struggled a little to understand what it was all about. After reading the submissions to the inquiry and the first day's evidence, I realised that there was a lot more to it than failure to consult.

The formal functions of the Solicitor-General are set out below. .The two main clauses are 12(a) and (b).    
Functions of Solicitor-General
The functions of the Solicitor-General are:
(a)  to act as counsel for:
(i)  the Crown in right of the Commonwealth;
  (ii)  the Commonwealth;
  (iii) a person suing or being sued on behalf of the Commonwealth;
(iv)  a Minister;
(v)  an officer of the Commonwealth;
(vi)  a person holding office under an Act or a law of a Territory;
(vii)  a body established by an Act or a law of a Territory; or
(viii)  any other person or body for whom the Attorney-General requests him or her to act;
(b)  to furnish his or her opinion to the Attorney-General on questions of law referred to him or her by the Attorney-General; and
(c)  to carry out such other functions ordinarily performed by counsel as the Attorney-General requests.
The way that Commonwealth agencies should approach the Solicitor-General was set out in a non-legally binding Guidance note from the Attorney-General's Department. This stated (among other things) that the Solicitor-General would advise the Attorney-General  if approached for advice and provide the A-G with a copy of his advice. The Solicitor-General was concerned about the working of this guidance note, work load seems to have been an issue, and sought to have it reviewed.

One option would have been to alter the guidance note to require those wishing to seek the Solicitor-General's opinion to get approval from either the A-G or his Department. Instead, the A-G issued a legally binding directive (regulation) requiring all those listed in 2(a) above to get the A-G's approval before approaching the Solicitor-General. This, Senator Brandis argued, simply gave legal effect to the guidance note.

This was special pleading. The movement from the guidance note to binding regulation had quite profound effects. Prior to the directive, the Solicitor-General had effective discretion to make a judgement  about whether or not to give advice and, if given, whether or not it should be revealed. The effect of the directive meant, for example, that a Governor-General facing a constitutional crisis when the A-G was part of the Government could not seek advice without getting the A-G's approval. It meant that a Prime Minister or minister who might want an independent and confidential view on a matter could not do so without clearance first from the A-G.

As a regulation, the directive had to be tabled in the Senate and could be disallowed. This will happen. It's already dead. That said, the affair is a warning of the need to exercise vigilance where governments are concerned. If the Solicitor-General had simply rolled over, the issues involved would never have been identified and discussed. 

As a final comment, neither Government nor Opposition Senators on the Senate Committee inquiring into the issue covered themselves with glory. Both were totally partisan. I had to read the submissions and do some web research before I could form any understanding of the issues involved. Here the Solicitor-General himself did his cause no favours. By making the question of consultation the central issue, he effectively concealed the substantive issues involved.    


Since I wrote this post, the second day of evidence has become available. In that, I was struck by this description of his role from the Solicitor-General..Further comments follow the quote:
What happens with any Solicitor-General—this is true of the great Sir Maurice Byers, Sir Anthony Mason, David Bennett, Robert Ellicott, Gavan Griffith and Stephen Gageler—is that one is always balancing a fundamental commitment to the rule of law with a desire to assist the executive of the day and, as I said, occasionally the parliament to comply with that rule of law. Sometimes there is a tension between those matters and sometimes they can be readily accommodated. Any Solicitor-General will try and provide that advice balancing both of those matters. A Solicitor-General will not always necessarily get it right, but what a Solicitor-General will do, because it is a full-time commitment to practice as the premier professional lawyer in the nation, is immerse one's time fully in every aspect of what the High Court is saying about matters and what international courts are saying about matters, read academic articles and attempt to provide the best quality advice. There are tensions in that process because the fundamental way government works is usually policy driven. There is nothing wrong with that; politicians and governments are elected to represent the people and to advance good policies for the community, and there is debate over what good policies are.
A central part of what happens within the government lawyer's work—and most of it is done out of the public eye—is to look at a proposed policy and see whether it complies with the Constitution and whether it complies with the statute law. If it does not, can it be modified to be brought within the law? There are times when any government lawyer, but particularly a Solicitor-General, has to give the hard news that it is his or her view that a particular policy if turned into legislation would be struck down by the High Court. One does not do that overzealously. 
If I might, Senator Watt, there is one other aspect that I think is relevant to that question, which is to explain the relationship, in my mind, between the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General when it comes to providing advice. The Solicitor-General is the law officer who spends day in, day out providing written opinions after careful consideration of all the precedents. The Attorney-General does not have the time to devote specifically to that topic because he has a far broader range of responsibilities. However, the Attorney-General is responsible directly to the parliament and the people as a minister of the Crown; the Solicitor-General is not. And this has always been one of the points at the heart of the relationship between Solicitor-General and Attorney-General in Australia. A deliberate decision was made by Billy Hughes in 1916 that we would not follow the British model, where the Solicitor-General sits in parliament. The result of that is that there can be occasions where the SolicitorGeneral's opinion, formed conscientiously and after deep study, is regarded by an Attorney-General, after conscientious and deep study, as incorrect. The manner in which I see our constitutional framework working in that unusual case—and it is very unusual—is that the Attorney-General, applying his or her own conscientious consideration of the problem, would write an opinion which would supersede and countermand the Solicitor-General's opinion. The reason I put it that way is that the Attorney-General's opinion on that topic would then sit within the Commonwealth records; it would sit within my office; it would be available to all officers of the Australian Government Solicitor; and everyone within government would know that was now the legal position being taken by Australia's top law officer, which everyone in government, including me, would follow until the High Court or other binding court said otherwise.
So, while I take up the sentiment of your question that the Solicitor-General has a fundamental role in advising to protect the rule of law, it is very important to recognise that that sits together with and is subject to the role of the Attorney-General ultimately to take responsibility and advise in a different direction if he or she thinks so. And within the database records of the Commonwealth, although they are not generally public unless the Commonwealth waives privilege, some of the finest opinions that have been written have been written by an Attorney-General on his or her own or they have been written, occasionally co-authored, by an Attorney-General and a Solicitor-General, and I commend that practice.
There were some aspects of the evidence presented that I was less sure about, including the need to consult the Solicitor-General. It seemed to me that this might be sensible but was not required. However, you did not half-consult. Would be interested in a lawyer's interpretation of the arguments put forward.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A strange case- the banned export of Herbert Badham's 1944 painting Snack Bar

It seems that I first wrote on the art of Herbert Badham back on 5 March 2008:  Australian History and the art of Herbert Badham. Over eight years' ago! That was a different world.

There was a gap of over five years before I returned to the man as part of A morning at NERAM - Flora, Cobcroft and Badham's Observing the Everyday (26 November 2013). Next day I ran a second post, A note on Herbert Badham, providing more information on Badham since the sources on him were so few. They still are.

On 7 July 2014 I used a Badham painting to illustrate a Monday Forum post, Monday Morning Forum – another open forum. There matters rested. It wasn't that I had lost interest in the man, I still looked out for his paintings in my irregular gallery visits, but there had been nothing new to spark my interest.

Then back in September came news that the export of a Badham painting, a 1944 piece called Snack Bar, had been blocked from export because of its national significance. The new owner appealed, but the appeal was rejected by the appeal tribunal. Now I quote from the newspaper report:.
In its judgement, the tribunal found that the painting showed a critical stage in Australia's history - during wartime and its development as a multicultural nation. 
"The subject matter, which graphically records the interaction of different races, associating in congenial circumstances at a time of great danger for Australia is deeply impressive," it said.. 
I thought that this was plain daft. The painting is quite interesting, but to describe it in those terms strikes me as an a-historical misrepresentation. .


marcellous kindly posted me a link to the appeal decision. I think that it's still daft.Explaining my reasons will have to wait.  .

Postscript 2

In comments, Winton suggested that the Badham painting had no comparison with this one. Perhaps not, but this is arguably Manet's most famous painting, his last major work.

DG suggested "Fine piece of genre art, reminiscent of Norman Rockwell". I hadn't thought of the Rocwell comparison, but could see the point.

marcellous looked at some of the legal issues.
@kvd: I doubt if it is appealable; probably need to show an error of law. Here any "error" is a difference in opinion about the cultural value of the picture and whether it should be allowed to leave our shores. 
"appears" is a kind of tribunial circomlocution for it probably is and nobody disputes it - after all the applicant could always have brought the picture to court if it wanted the tribunal to view the original. So unlikely to be a source of legal error there. 
@2 tanners: issue is not whether present owner will make the painting available, but whether subsequent owners for all time will do so. Legislation is aimed at the long view and in acknowledgement that countries can't do much once an object departs their shores. Once the purchaser paid that much he was always facing a risk because it is the value [for which price is the only real proxy] which indicates the cultural significance.
marecellous went on to clarify value: "I should clarify my comment about the price being a proxy for value: it is a presumptive proxy which enlivens the requirement for a permit".

This, by the way, is a very different Badham

2 tanners responded to marcellous on the appeal point::
I imagine the decision could be appealed on the basis of the fact that the Commission couldn't distinguish between significant and important, or just possibly that the commission dismissed evidence on a painting that it had at no stage seen, preferring evidence from other parties one of whom had initially argued for there to be no ban. 
I doubt that the very last point would hold, But, on the surface, the first might be possible. But then it leaves open another question, why are we "protecting" these things in the first place? .


Sunday, October 09, 2016

Remembering the Bird Lady

It was early morning, light but not yet daylight. I had signed the lease on the new house the day before and wasn't especially happy. In the early morning I left the house where we had been living and walked the few blocks to the new place just to suss out the area. There I met the Bird Lady.

She was standing there, calling. What are you doing, I asked? I am feeding the kookaburras, she said, holding out the meat in her hand. I feed them all, but the kookaburras are my favourite. As I watched, the birds came. I walked on, feeling happier.

Over the next few years, I saw her often in the early morning. We chatted. Never personal stuff, just about the birds.Then, one day, the street filled with police and emergency vehicles. I was in a hurry, so didn't stop Later, I learned that she had been bashed.

A neighbour that I knew gave me a little information about her condition. She never came back, and only today I really learned a little more. They, I'm assuming that it was a they, came at her with some form of knife. Apart from severe head injuries, she was cut in the arm, her thumb was cut off, a finger was almost cut off and then had to be amputated. This put her into long term rehabilitation.

You can understand why she did not want to come to Daceyville. Would you?

We still don't know who hurt her. The kookaburras are gone. Its all very sad.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Mr Trump - you are fired

I made two really bad political calls in the last year.

One was on the result of the Brexit referendum. I knew that it might be close but simply didn't believe that the leave case would get up, although I was reasonably accurate in predicting the geographic distribution of the vote. The second was Donald Trump.

I think that in both cases I allowed my perception of what I thought was sensible (or not) to influence my judgement. In the Brexit case, I thought that it was sensible for Britain to stay in the EU. In the Trump case, I thought that some of his expressed views were so way of the planet that no one would take them seriously.

The responses in Mr Trump's latest storm, the release of a 2005 video containing remarks about women that could only be described as gross, may be another case in point. It is one thing to think that the remarks are gross, a second to conclude that because they are they have done permanent damage to his campaign. There is an element of "should hurt" in this thinking.

I have no idea what the political effect will be. The polls suggest that Mrs Clinton is in front. You would think that this would further damage Mr Trump's campaign, but I just doesn't know.

A bit like Brexit, I haven't really assessed the results of a Trump victory in global terms because it has seemed so unlikely. I guess that we will all know soon enough. In the meantime, and as a previous avid watcher of The Apprentice, .I would like to be able to say following the election, Mr Trump, you are fired!


2 Tanners  included this funny if bad doggerel in comments on the recent presidential debate:

(With apologies to Clarke Van Ness) 

'Twas an evening in October, the debate was less than sober,
Shrewish harping clashed with misplaced manly pride,
They shouted and they muttered and descended to the gutter,
And a pig came up and lay down at their side.
Then they flung mud in the gutter amidst desolation utter,
Till a pundit, passing by, did chance to say:
"You can tell the ones that lose by the company they choose,"
So the pig got up and slowly walked away.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Ten Medieval phrases we use today

I am always interested in the derivation of words and phrases still in current use. A few interesting examples from this story on MEDIEVALISTS.NET 

A phrase I still use, by hook or by crook: 

"Records of this phase date back to the 14th century. One theory for its origin suggests that a medieval law about collecting firewood allowed peasants to take what they could only cut from dead trees by using their reaper’s bill-hooks or a shepherd’s crook."

A second phrase I use, to sink or swim. Now this one I guessed! 

"The phrase refers to the water ordeal, a medieval practice of judging whether a person was innocent or guilty by casting him or her into a lake. The belief was that water would not accept anyone who had rejected the water of baptism, so if the victim sunk they were innocent, but if they floated they were guilty. Chaucer used a similar phrase: “Ye rekke not whether I flete (float) or sink”.

I leave you to look at the rest. I bet you use most of them. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - Christian Porter's overreach?

The announcement on Tuesday 20 September 2016 by Australian Social Services Minister Christian Porter that the Government was adopting the New Zealand investment approach in the social security arena received considerable press coverage. You will find the press release here, the Minister's Press Club speech here, while the Department of Social Services' website provides further information including a link to the PwC baseline report.

In very simple terms, the approach requires you to assemble masses of data. In the Australian case, the Government used PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to mine fifteen years of data. You then use this to estimate future costs of particular programs or types of spend. This generates a baseline report. This might suggest that people in a particular cohort were going to cost so much over a particular time frame. However, if you can spend (invest) now so that those people do not need the later support, you may generate significant future savings. The gain reflects your return on investment. Its the same type of calculation you might do if you were investing in a new machine to lower future production costs.

One of the difficulties with the approach in the social policy area is that calculating returns from particular initiatives is highly problematic. You just don't know what will work because of the number of variables involved. This means that you experiment, trying small things knowing that many will fail in the hope of getting some that do work and can be rolled-out on a larger scale.
In Minister Porter's case, he identified certain key groups from the PwC analysis:
  • 11,000 young carers - it is forecast, on average, they will access income support in 43 years over their future lifetime;
  • 4,370 young parents - it is forecast, on average, they will access income support in 45 years over their future lifetime; and
  • 6,600 young students - it is forecast, on average, they will access income support in 37 years over their future lifetime.
The Government then created a $96 million "Try, Test and Learn Fund" (don't you love the jargon?) to "enable organisations to compete for a chance to try a policy that proposes to create a path out of the welfare system."

I heard the initial interview with Mr Porter just before I left for a training course. I like the investment approach, although I am not blind to its weaknesses. Then I bought The Australian at lunchtime and found the equivalent of a three page spread involving multiple writers and commentators all about Mr Porter and the approach.

It was actually quite funny. The paper wanted to differentiate the approach from that of the Abbott Government, it wanted to put it in a New Zealand context quoting Bill English admiringly, yet it wanted to stick to its traditional lines. For his part, Mr Porter clearly wanted to emphasis the revolution of it all, to place it in a broader policy context, but in so doing used rhetoric that exactly fitted within the ideological frame of the previous Government.

I will call this one now. I think that Mr Porter's approach is likely to fail. I say so for a number of reasons.

The investment approach can be applied in multiple contexts and political frames. It is a tool. In linking it to ideology, in suggesting that it is the start of a revolution, Minister Porter is attempting to use a tool to justify, support, a broader position.

That broader position has been tarnished by the previous over-reach of the Abbott Government. The New Zealand approach of explain, incremental change, test, explain, more change, test, explain etc doesn't work when people don't trust you. Here Mr Porter's position on the New Start Allowance (the Australian equivalent of the dole) is indefensible.

It may be true, as Mr Porter argues, that dole recipients receive (on average) several benefits, but when you total them up, the value of the dole remains penurious. That was accepted several years ago by both business and social welfare groups  It remains true. But the image of a man who receives more in daily travel allowance than anybody on the dole receives in total is not good atmospherics.

Finally, there appears to be a growing disconnect between the data itself and Mr Porter's arguments. The main cost drivers are not those Mr Porter focuses on, but reflect changes (among other things) in the demographic structure of society, including the growing importance of the old age pension.

There are instabilities as well as conflicts in the Australian welfare system. Consider this. The housing that underpins much of our welfare system is based on a single payment, Commonwealth Rent Assistance.  This has been going down in value, but it's still critical.

In Mr Porter's case, rent assistance was one of the benefits that people on Newstart might receive, In the case of the NDIS, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, rent assistance is included in the reasonable rent contribution that people pay. In the community housing sector, rent assistance is absolutely critical to viability because it is included in the rent collected.

So what would happen to all this if the Commonwealth decide to abolish or significantly alter rent assistance?  There is a case to say that they should. Its really not fair that a person on welfare should get rent assistance (it's only paid to people on Commonwealth benefits) while a working person on the same income does not. But the impact would be dramatic.

Writing in The Conversation, Michelle Grattan commented:
But some of the negative reaction this week – for example from young carers and welfare sector representatives – reinforces the point that it’s not easy to prosecute reform. Suspicion about the government’s motives affects the debate, and whenever payments are involved there is resistance to anything that could threaten them.
I think that's a fair summary. The suspicion about government motives is deeply embedded. In retrospect, a key feature of the reaction to the 2014 Australian Government budget is that it was seen as ideological, inequitable, thus creating a climate of distrust, of suspicion. The Government overreached, in so doing damaging the very things it was trying to achieve. I think that Minister Porter has made the same error.


The Australian Productivity Commission has released a preliminary report on Human Services delivery that includes some comments on social housing relevant to the discussion here in comments. You will find the report here.

Postscript 2 5 October

Two further links. First, a swinging attack on the Porter approach in the Canberra Times from Jack Waterford. Secondly, a more balanced if still critical editorial in the Melbourne Age. This quote captures one element of the problem.
Mr Porter presented three goals for a new direction in welfare policy: identify those at high risk of long-term welfare dependency and help them find employment; identify and reduce the risk of welfare reliance crossing generations; ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the welfare system. These priorities seem sound and responsible. However, many commentators have pointed out that there was an elephant in that Press Club room: how does Mr Porter define welfare?
Many would accept those first two goals, although some would ask how you achieve the second without more jobs. Many would accept the third as a principle without accepting that the current system is not sustainable, something that Mr Porter and the Government argue. Many would argue, too, that the first and second hold independent of views on the third. Even a financially sustainable welfare system should seek to achieve the first two. But the question is a real kicker, for how does one define welfare?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Problems in Australian profit patterns

Interesting piece by Peter Durkin in the Australian Financial Review,
Accounting skulduggery hides $26b in losses

The article mixes together a few things, but I was struck by this graph from KPMG showing the profit patterns over the last eight years for Australia's top 50 listed companies. The numbers on the right hand side of the graph relate to revenue, on the left profits.

The graph suggests (I am just working from the visuals) that reported revenues have gone up by around 50 per cent. During that same eight year period, statutory profit before tax (the profit of the business after write-downs and charges) after rising sharply have trended down and are now lower in money terms than eight years' ago. Underlying profits have been trending down, but at a much slower rate and are still higher than they were eight years ago, leading to a growing gap between underlying earnings and statutory earnings.

Some measure of asset write-down is perfectly normal. Businesses make investment decisions. Some go wrong, some go right for a period and then go wrong. The most recent impairments reflect, at least in part, the end of the mining boom and consequent write-downs. However, the growing gap between underlying earnings and statutory earnings is a worry as is the poor performance of statutory earnings.

Both sets of measurement are subject to manipulation. New CEOs, for example, often seem to write of as much as they can in their first year to boost later performance in statutory earnings. Both businesses and investors focus on underlying earnings because they are meant to provide the best measure of the core strength of the business. We have had to make this financial write-off, but the underlying business is doing well. This creates an incentive to manipulate underlying earnings.

Accepting that both measures are subject to a degree of manipulation, the decline in both profitability measures relative to revenue is reasonably striking. Statutory earnings this financial year are likely to pick up because impairments will be less, narrowing the gap between the two measures, but I don't think that that will affect the overall trend unless underlying earnings increase.      

Monday, September 19, 2016

Reflections on Father F

Back on 4 July 2012 I wrote this post, Four Corners, the Armidale Express and Father F,  At the time, my immediate concern was with what I saw as a failure in fairness, a failure to let  justice take its course. Since then, John has been sentenced to 18 years in goal for multiple child sex offences.

I read this latest story in the Sydney Morning Herald with a queasy feeling. An updated story in the same paper made me feel even queasier.

I didn't know John well. I quite liked him, although I always thought that he was very self-absorbed. He also craved (or so it seemed to me) acceptance and status. He promoted and wrote about the good things that the Church had done, about the laity and their stories.  He wanted to be seen in the community as an historical authority.

I said that John seemed self-absorbed. We have all done things in our lives that we know to be wrong. Most of us live with that, recognising and trying to compensate in some way. I cannot get within John's mind, but he seems to have lacked that most basic sense of compassion.

I suppose that there is a dreadful irony in the fact that he so damaged the very institution that he presented and promoted in his historical writing. It's not an irony I take any pleasure in. We all know that human institutions are imperfect. We know that injustices (and evil) occur. Yet when that happens in institutions that occupy a higher place in our society, there is a profound sense of betrayal. When that happens, we are all the poorer for it.        

Friday, September 16, 2016

Reflections on a bus fire and the fragility of modern complex systems

"There's been a fire on a bus." I jumped.

Thursday evening I had got away from work reasonably early with the aim of doing some writing. I had been standing at the bus stop at Central, Sydney's main railway station, for over twenty minutes and had not seen a single 343 bus. It's not unusual to see the buses overcrowded to the point they cannot stop, but not to see one at all is unusual.

Under the newish bus timetable, the 343 begins its journey at Chatswood in Sydney's North Shore. From there it travels down the main drag and across Sydney Harbour Bridge before wending its way through the city to Central. At peak hour, the 343 is always over crowded by Central because it is the main bus for Apartment Central, the Green Square/Victoria Park development. The buses are generally older because the more modern people movers can't get past the narrow streets and round-abouts along the 343 route. Even the 343 buses have to stop sometimes, to move slowly, even to back up, to get past some of the corners.

I turned to the person who had spoken : "What's happened? A bus caught fire on the Bridge", she responded. "The buses aren't running."  I knew at once what was happening, even assumed that it was a 343 that had caught fire. I caught a bus that was running and then tracked back to home. It was well after seven before I got there, twelve hours since leaving for work, over fourteen hours since rising. I cleaned and cooked a meal. After a few glasses of wine while cooking I no longer felt like doing anything, I knew Friday was a heavy day, I had to be up early, so really all I wanted to do was to go to bed.

That started me reflecting. Working in Canberra or then in Armidale, the shorter travel times made so much more time available. Life was more flexible, too. If you had to go back to the office to spend a few hours catching up, you did so. That's not practical if three hours at the office requires 3+ hours travel time. There is also an age factor. To meet demands, the young Jim could simply deduct time from sleep and then catch up. This is not quite as easy for the older Jim. I am trying to squeeze a lot of things into reduced time after travel and I just get tired.

But the thing that really stood out in my mind was the reminder of just how fragile and interdependent life had become. We have become system dependent. That bus fire disrupted the lives of more than a million commuters. It was a major event. The just in time world we live in means that our lives are dependent on complex systems to allow us to function. Because those systems are generally efficient and make it easy for us to do things we use them heavily, letting alternatives atrophy and finally die. The problem is that if one thing goes wrong anywhere in one of the complex interacting systems, the costs can vary from annoying to catastrophic.

I don't have an answer, but I think that we need to pause a little and think.

During the week, I was working on a funding proposal. As systems become more centralised and internet dependent, an increasing number of people no longer have real access. It may be that they are functionally illiterate. It maybe that they are not computer literate. It maybe that they do not have on-line access either because they do not have a computer or access to a computer or access to the necessary bandwidth.

It's not just a question of basic access, but also navigating the way through the increasing volume of evidential material now demanded for so many things. I am reasonably bright, I am certainly computer literate, but I struggle sometimes. Often, there is no one to help. The call centre has become a source of frustrated modern jokes.

The question I was addressing in the funding proposal was how to help.a particular group cope in this world. As I worked my way through the issues, I was conscious of a sense of frustration. You can't say to government or indeed to firms, mate, you have got it wrong, you have to change. More precisely, you can say it, but it will get you nowhere. So you have to work out what might help, recognising that it is at best a band-aid, unlikely to be sustainable in the longer term because, in the end, it depends on funding from government or donors. The gains that come from our new systems are measurable, can be internalised, while the costs are often not.

At a purely personal level, I reminded myself last night of the need to make myself less system dependent no matter how convenient the system maybe. The rub is that this takes focus and time, both things difficult in an increasingly time poor world.

Consider the question of cash. Like many, I now carry very little in my wallet. It's just so easy to wave and go. Now they are talking about abolishing physical cash entirely, making us all dependent on electronic money.

A week back, I went into a store. I wanted to buy something quickly, but their EFTPOS was down. I haven't tracked our many many major electronic outages there have been in the payments system over the last six months, certainly more than a half a dozen. A few years ago, the cable to a Victorian country town was cut and could not be repaired quickly. The whole town and surrounding countryside ground to a halt because nobody could buy petrol or food, farm supplies or building materials.

There are major pluses in carrying cash. You can buy things when the system is down. Big brother cannot track your purchases via data mining. It's easier to control your spend. And yet, the cashless equivalent is so seductive and convenient, at least until something goes wrong. It takes an additional effort to drop out.  

So perhaps my first step is to go back to cash, at least in part. It won't make the 343 come more quickly or be less crowded. It won't stop problems from a bus fire. But it will make me a little less dependent on complex systems that can and will go wrong.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Monday Forum - watch out for the crocks

The Australian salt water crocodile is the subject of many stories and indeed it's a fearsome beast. Now here are a few warnings about these animals from the Outback Australia Travel Guide.
  • First of all: always, always observe crocodile warning signs!
  • Don't assume it's safe to swim if there is no sign! Crocodiles attack out of deep, still or muddy waters, where they can't be seen. Always stay well away from those.
  • Small creeks, waterfalls, rock pools etc. are usually fine, but if you're not sure stay out of the water. Ask first! Either the locals or the next tourist information centre.
  • Stay away from the water's edge. No matter if you are camping, fishing or taking an evening stroll: stay away from the water's edge.
  • Never stand on logs or similar overhanging the water. Australian saltwater crocodiles can jump to attack! Also, never turn your back, always face the water.
  • Don't return to exactly the same place at the water every day, or on a regular basis. Or one day a croc will be waiting there for you...
  • Fishermen, don't clean fish near the water, or discard fish scraps in the water. Be careful when launching boats. Avoid going in the water if at all possible. Don't dangle your arms or legs over the side of the boat.
  • Don't feed Australian crocodiles. Also, don't harass or provoke them, don't interfere with them. Even the small ones, leave them alone!
  • Don't leave food scraps at your camp site.
  • If you see a crocodile sliding mark (a crocodile sliding into the water from a river bank will leave a characteristic mark), stay well clear of that area.
  • Avoid places where native animals or cattle drink. That's exactly where a lazy crocodile would be waiting for an opportunity to attack. (Saltwater crocodiles are very conservative with their energy, and therefore opportunists when it comes to hunting. They stalk their prey, hide under water and wait. A crocodile you can see is less dangerous than one you can't see...)
  • Australian crocodiles are most aggressive during the breeding season, September to May. The warmer weather also makes the cold-blooded animals even faster...
  • Naturally, be particularly careful at night time...
Now the challenge for this Monday Forum is to take these particular rules and apply them in any direction you like.