Saturday, 3 November 2012 - 4:48pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 03/11/2012 - 4:48pm in

It was early 1992, and the most important issue in the world was the recent sacking of charismatic London Irish punk icon Shane MacGowan by his band, the Pogues. Actually, in the grand scheme of things, this was probably one of the more insignificant events, but it was what Tim Curlis chose to obsess about in order to keep other, less comfortable thoughts at bay. On his northbound country train he pored through the NME, enthusiastically imbibing the celebration of the limitless artistic potential of raggle-taggle and Madchester, and cursing pale, lanky, earnest wall-of-distortion shoe-gazers and Fucking Nick Kent, with a savage determination to ignore the real personal significance of this day.

As the view from his window changed from the sandstone and eucalyptus of the Sydney basin to the hills of the Hunter Valley - as rolling and green as hills come - he distracted himself further with a sausage roll from the dining car and some Interesting Facts from the New Scientist magazine purchased at Central station that morning. Apparently dogs may avoid lung cancer from passive smoking due to the remarkably effective air filtration bestowed by their long snouts. Seems only fair. Hard luck for the Pekingese, though.

The train swung from side to side in long, lazy arcs around the aforementioned hills until at last it appeared to tire of such exuberant frivolity, and settled down to the serious business of plowing straight through the swamps and occasional granite cutting that signalled it's entry to the north coast of New South Wales. By this time Tim had consumed a curried egg sandwich, a packet of chips and another sausage roll. He'd read a handful of pages of each of three books and a couple of magazines. He'd mused about the possible evolutionary advantages of asexual reproduction. He'd noticed that all the trees in the fields looked as though they'd been uniformly trimmed from underneath by some very sophisticated machinery to exactly the maximum height attainable by the mouths of the animals grazing there. He'd raised and lowered his footrest countless times and ultimately judged it to be of dubious utility. He'd rummaged through the dozen or so audio cassettes in his satchel, selected one, used a biro to wind the spools tight so as not to have the machine mangle the tape and, thus prepared, he fed it to his walkman, which consumed it with a satisfying snap.

Billy Connolly once ventured that to the Queen, the world must smell like fresh paint. To Tim Curlis, the world sounded like tape hiss. He'd not set foot outdoors without a personal stereo since 1983. It was perhaps the most valuable tool in his kit of techniques for avoiding thinking unwelcome thoughts. On this occasion however, it backfired. A particularly malicious inner demon reminded him that the LP dubbed onto this casette was currently sitting in a cardboard box in the garage of Serious Girlfriend Number Two.

It must have been that same demon who then made him realise that, at the age of 25, with an extensive record collection, he had never personally owned a record player. His parents owned a record player; they were also currently in possession of the majority of his record collection, as well as a sizeable number of books, periodicals, and VHS tapes, all stored in cardboard boxes in the family's former outside lavatory/laundry (turned into a storage shed when the sewer was connected and indoor plumbing became de rigeur for the 1970s householder).

Serious Girlfriend Number One and Serious Girlfriend Number Two also owned record players, and both had likewise been enlisted as part-archivists of the Curlis Collection as a de-facto condition of release from Serious Girlfriend status.

And this morning Tim left a note on the kitchen bench of Serious Girlfriend Number Three, another fine, upstanding, record-player-owning citizen, asking if it would be alright if he came back at some indeterminate point in the future to pick up a few things he'd left in the spare room; in cardboard boxes. There was of course no way for her to answer in the negative. What mattered to him at the time was that he was taking a calculated risk over the survival of priceless cultural assets accumulated during the course of Serious Relationship Three. She could throw them out in a fit of pique, though it was more likely she wouldn't.

What mattered to him now, however briefly, was that all the evidence pointed towards his being a serial parasite, leaving behind cardboard boxes as a mosquito leaves behind red welts after moving onto the next host. This most unwelcome of unwelcome thoughts assaulted his sense of himself as the quintessential rational human. He does not behave unjustly; only in error. He is not moved, nor does he move others, by emotion. To fracture this bedrock is to allow that, perhaps, he was just a thoughtless, selfish little shit.

"Tailors Creek, next stop."

Hallelujah! Thoughts must now be directed to getting self, satchel, big bag of clothes, other big bag of clothes, off the train, then onto the bus to Port Dalston and into new digs before nightfall.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012 - 4:41pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 30/10/2012 - 4:41pm

Mine's the one on the right. Don't fancy yours much.

Sunday, 21 October 2012 - 10:42am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 21/10/2012 - 10:42am

A friend asked what I thought of the Council's initiative to look into the possibility of outsourcing services, particularly IT services, from outside the Coffs Local Government Area. Here's my typically long-winded response:

There are a couple of big issues here. On the more general one - of council cost-cutting via outsourcing to businesses based outside the Coffs LGA, I can't imagine how this would be anything but a very bad idea.

The justification for such policies is often by inappropriate and misleading analogy to business or (worse) household management. Of course government isn't a business. A business is run for the benefit of it's owners on a "one dollar (or share), one vote" basis. Family households are run, if memory serves, as a "Because I said so, that's why!" dictatorship. A government has obligations to all of it's citizens (or residents) equally, as well as to other levels of government, and external interests via inter-governmental agreements. Try running a business like that, and you'll get the sack.

People who make these analogies are arguing that just as business or household debt or deficits are to be avoided, so governments should never accumulate debt or run deficits. This idea has an immediate appeal, which evaporates after a moment's consideration. Anybody arguing that businesses or households should never go into debt, or at any time spend more than they earn would immediately be dismissed as a crackpot. Indeed more celebrated and conservative thinkers than yours truly have called the failure of governments to deficit spend during times of economic crisis like our present one "economic suicide" and "just insane".

There is I think a significant parallel between the failure of governments elsewhere in the world to apply the lessons of the 1930s depression to our current one, and the Coffs council, after losing money in financial speculation with Lehman Brothers no less, considering likewise "punishing the victims" by exporting jobs from a region which even in good times has traditionally suffered one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. That a tinpot influence peddler like Keith should thereby seek to retain, and even enlarge, his discretion to dispense largesse from the community's coffers to favoured mates, while the community's "most valuable asset, its human capital, is being wasted and even destroyed" is nothing short of scandalous.

In the specific case of software services which, as you correctly observe, appear to constitute the bulk of Civica's products, the case for outsourcing is perhaps weaker than in any other domain. Here we have an industry where the only barrier to entry is possession of a computer, an Internet connection, and a bit of expertise; and the product is something pretty much everybody uses (whether they know it or not); and there is no chance we'll be using any less of it any time soon. If a council is looking to support local industry, the fruit doesn't hang any lower than this.

When shopping for software systems (the issues in the case of hardware are broadly similar but a bit more complex), governments (or indeed any organisation or individual) should ask the following two questions:

(In the case of Civica, cursory investigation turns up no evidence that the answer for both these questions is anything other than "no" for all their products. In fact their website contains no technical information about any of their products, beyond the promise that their National Sales Team can provide more information, which should ring alarm bells.)

If the software that council uses is free software, support for the software, including bugfixes, improvements, and customisation can in principle be provided in-house, or from any software developer willing to take on the job. Even if the initial provision of the software is contracted out to a non-local business, this does not preclude the future in-house or other local provision of services related to the software. In the case of non-free (or "proprietary") software, the only party entitled to offer these services (or at most to extend this entitlement to approved business partners) is the copyright holder of the software. This leads to - at best - monopoly pricing, or - at worst - users stuck with software that can't be fixed, improved, or customised to suit their needs if it is not in the business interests of the copyright holder to offer such services.

The only way to remedy this state of affairs is to switch to another software package. Hopefully by then you will have learnt your lesson and be switching to free software, but either way the process will likely be expensive. It will be worse still if the data can't be extracted from the old system in some readily decodable open standard format. In this case you've not only got the sunk cost of the now useless software you originally acquired, but all the time and money you've spent entering data into that software has also gone down the drain. It's a rare proprietary software vendor who doesn't hold their users hostage like this.

A large and increasing number of governments around the world have been adopting free software systems for many years now, and a review of these projects would in my opinion be more productive than Keith's junket. This document is a good place to start, although it's rather dated and a good many high-profile government free software migrations have kicked off since, most recently a plan by the French government.

There are also many people in Australia much more qualified than I to speak to on this topic, top of the list would be Pia Waugh, who's been working in this area for years.

Friday, 19 October 2012 - 2:40pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 19/10/2012 - 2:40pm

Now I know why you never see any non-anglo faces featured in Coffs Coast marketing material. It's concern for the safety of the racially-disadvantaged! Of course we'd love them to come here, but we're morally obliged to send a subtle message suggesting it's better if they don't. Here I was thinking it was unconscious racism; I feel so stupid! Mind you, there's no indigenous Australian faces either for some reason...

Setting options in a Views display.

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 04/10/2012 - 11:40am in
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$view = views_get_view('viewname');
$view->set_display('displayname');
$view->display_handler->set_option('title', 'My New Title');
$view->save();

Awesome.

Sunday, 30 September 2012 - 7:47pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 30/09/2012 - 7:47pm

I find myself at a very unsettling stage of life. Hair is growing in peculiar places, like my earlobes. And I am feeling strange, powerful urges, like the one to say deliberately provocative things to and/or about pompous idiots who can probably do me considerable harm.

Sunday, 30 September 2012 - 5:22pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 30/09/2012 - 5:22pm

Researchers have discovered a 34-year-old man in the Republic of Estonia who doesn't look like a total dweeb when wearing a track suit, leading to hopes that sequencing the genome of this individual could lead to a cure that would revive the fortunes of the global garment industry.

Sunday, 30 September 2012 - 12:14pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 30/09/2012 - 12:14pm in

Another neat summing up from a Boinger:

"[...] this episodic bubbling (and so soon after the first .com bubble, no less), leads one either to the depressing conclusion that 'the market' is a damn moron, or that it consists largely of cynics who are in on the joke, and morons who provide a food supply for the cynics. Neither option seems terribly healthy."

Friday, 28 September 2012 - 5:49pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 28/09/2012 - 5:49pm in

Couldn't have put it better myself:

"For advertising to be effective, information has to be expensive to produce and expensive to distribute. Under such conditions, a brilliant product can indefinitely languish in obscurity despite its brilliance, simply because there is no way of getting word out about it. On the other hand, when it becomes trivial for pretty much anyone to produce and broadcast any sort of information, the notoriety of a product becomes much more a function of the brilliance of the product and much less a function of the size of the centralised marketing push."

Sunday, 23 September 2012 - 8:51pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 23/09/2012 - 8:51pm

I have in front of me an egg carton that bears the inscription "For great recipe ideas, visit our website."

At whom is this suggestion aimed? Are people wandering into the supermarket and thinking "Oh look, eggs! I like the ovoid shape; that suits my modern lifestyle. But what do I do with them once I get them home? Oh, thank heavens - they have a website."

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