Sunday, 9 May 2021 - 2:48pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 09/05/2021 - 2:48pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

Number Nine, Number Nine…

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 24/04/2021 - 9:55pm in

I swore I'd never go back to web development. I can pinpoint the precise moment.

I was fat, prematurely old, bald, grey bearded, and dancing up and down the hall in my underpants with the phone pressed to my ear, explaining to a "mate's rates" client why the impossible things he was asking for were impossible. It was made all the more infuriating by the fact that this client fancied himself a guru, boasted of his mastery of the dark arts of awk, sed, and groff, and insisted that he sought my assistance only because his time was so in demand elsewhere.

So while he was insisting that he didn't understand why I was being so difficult, and that it should be trivial to create a totally secure system that didn't require his users to supply an email address or remember a password, I lost my rag.

I can't even remember how I resolved that situation. I think I might have given him his deposit back. But I did resolve to call it a day, prise my web developers' shingle from the wall, and dither about for a while.

Dithering about was no less lucrative, and much better for my health, but there's no fighting age, and lately my body has started falling to bits, so suddenly minimum wage physical labour seems less viable. I find myself thinking where's the harm in looking at what's been going on since I've been away?

It's true I spent a miserable decade trying to be a tech entrepreneur in a small town where the prospective client base had a serious problem with literacy. Not technical literacy; I mean just reading and writing.

The only people who around here who can spell are the very many extremely busy tattoo artists, and even that proficiency is limited to names like "Sienna" or "Kaiden".

It's all very endearing to declare a devotion to one's offspring so indelibly, but surely there are times — during moments of consensual physical intimacy, for example — where one doesn't want to be taken out of the moment by a list of offspring running across a pair of shoulder blades or down a hairy forearm. Or maybe the thought of one's rampant fecundity contributes to the mood. Eww. Suburbia is sick. I digress.

I did enjoy becoming quite proficient at my trade, despite the lack of good it did me, and also the camaraderie of the Drupal community. Perhaps if I were to broaden my sights beyond Mount-Druitt-by-the-Sea, I might find this a trade I could ply from the comfort of my cat-drawn bath chair well into my dotage.

So I've decided to dip my arthritic old toes back into the water by migrating my old Drupal 7 personal website to Drupal 9. The plan is to migrate rather than upgrade in place. I would be creating a new, functionally equivalent and/or superior, site and copying the content (such as it is) over. Upgrading, at a distance of this many years is out of the question.

Preparing Your Work Surface

I'm going to start with a development site on my local computer and than try to use modern best practice to deploy on my Linode server.

Well, this is embarrassing. Surprisingly, my days as an IT professional comfortably predate the purchase of my now-rusting hulk of a desktop PC. It doesn't even have Apache on it. And all my work documentation, including my LAMP install checklist was on a long-gone Drupal site. I'm a hoarder, and don't often burn my bridges, but when I do I always regret it.

So, I'm going to have to remember/relearn all this:

# apt-get install apache
# apt-get install php
# apt-get install mariadb-server mariadb-client

And I at least get the Debian Apache placeholder page:

Look how lovely and calming it is. It should never change. I think I want it on my grave stone. It says, in essense, "Don't feel sad or anxious. Everything is alright."

Surprisingly, Moore's Law has caught up with Drupal, and so Debian 10's default PHP memory allotment is fine. Nevertheless I know I'm going to have to tweak limits when I get to coping with image files, so to pre-empt the urge to hack php.ini:

# cd /etc/php
# touch local.ini
# ln -s /etc/php/local.ini /etc/php/7.3/apache2/conf.d/10-local.ini

So any custom settings go in /etc/php/local.ini, and when PHP is upgraded, I just have to remember to create another symlink of my custom settings for the new version, rather than be prompted to investigate changes to php.ini on every `apt-get dist-upgrade`. (Who doesn't just cross their fingers and opt to keep the current version whenever that happens?)


I'm a Debian person. I like installing software from Debian via apt. I don't like installing binaries from tarballs, much less compiling from source. Really uncomfortable about the idea of layering another package management system on top of apt.

That said, Composer now does the package management for Drupal modules that was hitherto done by our own command line Swiss Army knife, drush. Why reinvent the wheel when you can hand that job over to something that the wider PHP developer community is already using? I'm okay with that.

Also, why not use Composer to install Drupal itself? Yeah… okay.

Debian 10 ships with Composer v1. When you try to use that to install anything, the package repository fires off a warning message, and because I'm skittish, I comply, and manually install Composer v2 according to instructions. With one wrinkle: anything I install that hasn't come from an apt package repository, I put in /opt and symlink the executable to /usr/bin. That way, I always know that anything I use which came from a from a source not in /etc/apt/sources.list can be found there. I love a bit of en passant documentation.

Drupal 9

As I said, I no longer have my old notes, and the official Drupal documentation (which is a mess; some things never change - at least not for the better) mostly refers to Drupal 8 rather than Drupal 9. This isn't quite the offense it seems to be at first glance, as due to Drupal's new continuous upgrades policy, Drupal 9 is just Drupal 8 minus deprecated code. New features get added incrementally with each minor version release, so there is no vast chasm of incompatibility between Drupal 8 and 9 (or later) as there was between Drupal 7 and 8 (and earlier).

So I decide to sally forth in total ignorance with the intention of remedying deficiencies in system requirements as and when they arise, thus:

$ cd /var/www
$ composer create-project drupal/recommended-project
drupal/core 9.1.7 requires ext-dom * -> it is missing from your system. Install or enable PHP's dom extension.

Okay, so:

# apt-get install php-xml
$ composer create-project drupal/recommended-project
drupal/core 9.1.7 requires ext-gd * -> it is missing from your system. Install or enable PHP's gd extension.

 Right, I'm fed up with this already. I go back to the documentation to find the PHP modules I need for a basic install and:

# apt install php-gd
# apt install php-curl
# apt install php-mbstring


$ composer create-project drupal/recommended-project
Congratulations, you’ve installed the Drupal codebase 
from the drupal/recommended-project template!

And sure enough, there's a whole mess o' Drupal in /var/www now. Awesome. Just need an empty database and some Apache configuration.

PHPMyAdmin didn't make it into Debian 10, for some reason, though it is in testing/unstable.

I can't be doing with composing my own SQL queries. My brain is stubbornly multi-dimensional, and refuses to serialise. I love that SQL exists in ubiquity, and admire people who live and prosper in a world of LEFT INNER JOINs and so on, but it's not for me. Not to worry, Debian Backports to the rescue, so I can now create an empty database without breaking my brain.

I'm almost certain that the documentation on used to have a sample Apache virtual host configuration template, but I'm blowed if I can find it, so I cheat and copy from my current site. What I put in /etc/apache2/sites-available/ looks something like this:

<VirtualHost *:80>
        ServerAdmin me@my.domain
        RewriteEngine on
        RewriteCond  %{HTTP_HOST}  !^          [NC]
        RewriteCond  %{HTTP_HOST}  !^$
        RewriteRule  ^/(.*)$1  [L,R]
        DocumentRoot /var/www/
        <Directory />
                Options FollowSymLinks
                AllowOverride None
        <Directory /var/www/>
                RewriteEngine on
                RewriteBase /
                RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f
                RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-d
                RewriteRule ^(.*)$ index.php?q=$1 [L,QSA]
                Options Indexes FollowSymLinks MultiViews
                AllowOverride All
                Order allow,deny
                allow from all
        ErrorLog /var/log/apache2/error.log
        LogLevel warn
        CustomLog /var/log/apache2/access.log combined
        ServerSignature On

Then it's:

# a2enmod rewrite
# a2ensite
# systemctl restart apache2

And I can finally fire up a web browser and go through the familiar Drupal web install process. I opt for the "minimal" install, which is no exaggeration:

That is well minimal. This is the new "Stark" theme, which does not fail to live up to its name.

Switching to the new "Olivero" theme feels a bit more comfortable:

Still, I can't get around without the trusty old Admin Toolbar module so let's have Composer download that for us:

$ composer require drupal/admin_toolbar
Using version ^3.0 for drupal/admin_toolbar
./composer.json has been updated
Running composer update drupal/admin_toolbar
Loading composer repositories with package information
Updating dependencies
Lock file operations: 1 install, 0 updates, 0 removals
  - Locking drupal/admin_toolbar (3.0.0)
Writing lock file
Installing dependencies from lock file (including require-dev)
Package operations: 1 install, 0 updates, 0 removals
  - Downloading drupal/admin_toolbar (3.0.0)
  - Installing drupal/admin_toolbar (3.0.0): Extracting archive
Package doctrine/reflection is abandoned, you should avoid using it. Use roave/better-reflection instead.
Generating autoload files

Using the web UI, I enable that module and also the Claro administrative theme and holy cow, this is starting to look like Drupal:


While I can now install bits of Drupal with Composer, I'm still missing the ability to actually enable/disable/configure those bits from the command line. For that I need Drush, which sounds like a yeast infection, but I think originally implied "Drupal shell":

$ composer require drush/drush

Drush now lives as a per-site instance under the Drupal root as vendor/bin/drush, which is a pain to type, so there's a wrapper script which will find the the instance appropriate to your current working directory:

# cd /opt
# wget
# chmod 755 drush.phar
# ln -s /opt/drush.phar /usr/bin/drush

So now I can go:

$ drush status
 Drupal version   : 9.1.7                                                
 Site URI         : http://default                                       
 DB driver        : mysql                                                
 DB hostname      : localhost                                            
 DB port          : 3306                                                 
 DB username      : mjdidau                                              
 DB name          : mjdidau                                              
 Database         : Connected                                            
 Drupal bootstrap : Successful                                           
 Default theme    : olivero                                              
 Admin theme      : claro                                                
 PHP binary       : /usr/bin/php7.3                                      
 PHP config       : /etc/php/7.3/cli/php.ini                             
 PHP OS           : Linux                                                
 Drush script     : /opt/drush.phar                                      
 Drush version    : 10.4.3                                               
 Drush temp       : /tmp                                                 
 Drush configs    : /var/www/
 Install profile  : minimal                                              
 Drupal root      : /var/www/                         
 Site path        : sites/default                                        
 Files, Public    : sites/default/files                                  
 Files, Temp      : /tmp

The full list of drush commands used to be had via `drush help`. I always derived some degree of confessional satisfaction from regularly typing `drush help|less`. `drush help` is now reserved for getting help on a particular command; to see all currently-available commands, one must use `drush list`, which when paginated is also quite appropriate.

There are approximately two people on the planet who will be astonished to find from the above that I'm installing a site in sites/default. I was always an advocate for Drupal's multisite capacity; the ability to run multiple websites from a single Drupal install, all sharing the same codebase, core and "contributed" modules and themes. You'd have each site's files, custom modules or themes sitting under sites/

In principle it sounds wonderful. In practice, it never quite worked. Imagine upgrading two sites at once. Then imagine upgrading a dozen sites at once. I never had, for instance, one single Drupal 6 instance. I had a Drupal 6.0 instance and a Drupal 6.1, and a Drupal 6.2, and so on, and I would shift sites one by one up the ladder as necessity dictated.

Ironically, the new Drupal versioning/upgrading regime makes that dream more realistic, but Moore's law has caught up. Server space is so much cheaper than the cost of even my labour that the most trivial website can afford the overhead of all those files it could easily be sharing with others.

That overhead is not trivial. In terms of disk usage, this new, entirely content-free website, currently looks like this:

$ du -chs *
4.0K    composer.json
224K    composer.lock
38M    vendor
128M    web
166M    total

A hundred and sixty-six meg of nothing is pretty extreme. Better start adding some content, I suppose…


Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 13/04/2021 - 8:26pm in

I've occasionally described my experience of life as like seeing everything through the wrong end of a telescope. For some reason, things that ought to have affected me just didn't, and conversely I couldn't see any way of influencing what went on way over there in the little dot of light at the far end of the telescope.

As a child, I quickly discovered that my peers consequently found me offensive and ridiculous. I worked around this by climbing trees and living in a pretty solitary fantasy world.

As an adult, I discovered alcohol and - BOOM! - the telescope collapsed and suddenly other people were right there around me, for the most part perfectly comprehensible, and indeed I became rather fond of some of them.

Sitting in the pub after work, with my ever-present pile of magazines and books, I read about this hot new thing called "High-Fuctioning Autism" (later "Asperger's Syndrome", then demoted to merely a position on the "Autism Spectrum"), and also much about the supposed introvert/extrovert dichotomy.

Whenever I suggested to somebody that I might be a bit introverted or "Asperger's", this suggestion was met with incredulity: "What? You?!"

I'm a better human being when I'm drinking a lot. Not, I must stress, when I'm drunk. Rather when whatever my brain does to keep me distant from everything around me has been disabled by regular doses of alcohol. I understand what people feel. Occasionally I even know what to say to them. I can be relatively sober and be overwhelmed by Platonic love. It's extraordinary and wonderful.

By my mid-twenties I moderated my alcohol intake. It now waxes and wanes, but to be honest, I wish I could do without self-medication altogether. I look in the mirror and see somebody simultaneously much younger and much older than I am. Brings to mind William S. Burroughs' phrase "borrowed flesh". I wish that there was some way that I could be close to people that doesn't involve blasting my brain with a toxic chemical.

I don't have many heroes. At last count it was two, maybe three. (You only acquire heroes when you're young, and some of them quickly lose their lustre.)

One of them just said this:

Ever since my teenage years, I felt as if there were a filmy curtain separating me from other people my age. I understood the words of their conversations, but I could not grasp why they said what they did. Much later I realized that I didn't understand the subtle cues that other people were responding to.

Richard Matthew Stallman changed my life. Previously I understood all paid work as transactional. You do something you find distasteful, but you're compensated for it. The idea of pursuing a trade ethically, with dignity and self-respect, was astonishing.

I can't imagine what it's like to be born looking at life down the wrong end of the telescope, and not to have alcohol to fix it. RMS doesn't drink. I am not ashamed to admit that collapsing the telescope by sheer intellectual effort is beyond me.

That doesn't excuse several instances of inconsiderate behaviour, but I'm standing in a very shaky glass house, so I'm not going to throw any stones. Motes and beams and all that.

Sunday, 11 April 2021 - 11:24am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 11/04/2021 - 11:24am in

Lately, I have been mostly reading:

Why You Should Go to the Mundi Mundi Bash

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 25/03/2021 - 12:10am

I didn't know that there was such a thing as the Mundi Mundi Bash until my friend Ruben alerted me, but if you are in the neighbourhood of Broken Hill, NSW, Australia (which effectively means you are in Broken Hill; there is no neighbourhood), here is why you should (or should not) go to that particular music festival.

Paul Kelly - Before Too Long (Official Video)

When I was in high school, Matt Handley had a three-piece band, but needed a rhythm guitarist for this one song. He gave me a cassette and a handwritten page with chords on it. I didn't pass the audition, as I could be a bit clever with musical instruments, but I didn't really understand how music worked.

I love the video for this, as it's central Sydney as I remember it. Run-down and seedy. No glass-fronted Apple or Nike stores or high-rise apartments. Just office blocks, pubs, and subterranean dive bars where men in beige suits and wide ties would go to forestall the awful moment when they had to take the train home.

Paul Kelly - Dumb Things (Official Video)

By god, that's catchy. Nobody has the right to write a song that catchy.

Paul Kelly - Darling It Hurts

Feck me. There he goes again.

Tim Finn (in Split Enz - My Mistake 1977)

How the feck something so self-consciously arty made it into the Australian top ten, I have no idea. It was colourful, and it wasn't punk. Or was it? Or was it not wasn't it? Wasn't it? Hmm? Oh. My mistake.

Split Enz - I Hope I Never (1980)

This video was routinely used as filler on the ABC when shows ran under time. Not a ringing endorsement, but it means it's in the cultural DNA, and it's too late to get it out now.

Split Enz - Pioneer / Six Months In A Leaky Boat (1982)

On high rotation on my work musak. I don't care. Always makes me happy.

Tim Finn - Fraction Too Much Friction (1983)

It's 80s as all get out, but in a nice way. Love it.

Crowded House - Chocolate Cake

I can't say it enough: New Zealand is Australia's Ireland; it's where all our smart and talented people come from. Tim invited his brother Neil (observing proper NZ pronunciation, that is to say "Tum" and "Nil", respectively) to join Split Enz. When Neil's band Crowded House ran dry of songs for a third album, he returned the favour, and Tim became a temporary Crowdie. I can't help thinking this song is either mostly Tim, or the two of them egging each other on. Very bloody satirical.

Kate Ceberano - Young Boys Are My Weakness 1989

Yup. Well, that was a thing. She's a session muso. Back in the days when I had testosterone, I thought she was pretty talented. Revising that opinion.

Kate Ceberano & Wendy Matthews - You've Always Got The Blues (1988)

In the late 80s, television became about "production values". At the time I was terribly keen about this, but ultimately it led to a transition from good writing and wobbly sets to good sets and wobbly writing. Case in point: the series that spawned this recording is long forgotten.

Daddy Cool - Eagle Rock - Clip (1971)

I think Ross Wilson and his one hit wonder band knocked "My Sweet Lord" off the top of the Australian hit parade in the year I was born. I always wondered whether John Lennon heard the song. I think he would have appreciated the sheer silliness of it.

Mondo Rock - Cool World (1981)

Ross Wilson's less evanescent band demonstrates why the eighties have that reputation.

Mondo Rock - Come Said The Boy (1984)

This makes a bit of sick rise up at the back of my throat. Also, it's a dead-set Aussie classic. Which speaks volumes.

Black Sorrows - Chained to the wheel - Original 1989 video

I love the album. This band would be nothing without Vika and Linda Bull. Everything they touch turns to gold. They are the real thing, not the Kate and Wendy.

Paul Kelly with Vika & Linda Bull - 'What You Want' + 'Thank You' [HD] The Music Show, ABC RN

I have tears streaming down my cheeks.

Sunday, 21 February 2021 - 12:12pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 21/02/2021 - 12:12pm in

This fortnight, I have been mostly reading:

Sunday, 7 February 2021 - 5:05pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 07/02/2021 - 5:05pm in

In the last few months, I have been mostly reading newspaper headlines:

2020 Mixtape: Strings, Lockdown, Strong Women, and Whales

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 02/02/2021 - 10:26pm in

Probably about [squints a bit, rubs chin] four years ago a friend of my [then-]wife invited us to a nineteen-eighties-themed birthday party. For the previous few years I'd been assembling playlists of music videos, mostly from YouTube, to play during the traditionally festive bit at the end of one year and the beginning of the next. Together with getting out the turntable and dusting off the vinyl, jigsaw puzzles, Trivial Pursuit, Uno, and insane amounts of food and booze, a splendid time was generally had, under the circumstances.

So as we were too skint to shell out for an appropriately lavish gift for a round-numbered birthday, my wife suggested I put together an eighties-themed video playlist on a USB drive. It was tremendous fun finding and downloading the videos (for any young people who may be reading, "downloading" is just like streaming, only deleting the data you've just downloaded isn't mandatory). Where previously I'd just played the videos through my RaspberryPi plugged into the telly, this time after downloading with youtube-dl, I edited (most topping and tailing) the clips when necessary in OpenShot, checked the audio in Audacity to see how much it should be amplified to keep each track at more or less the same level (no, I've not found any satisfactory way of automating this), then applying the amplification and transcoding to H264 MPEG with HandBrake, so that you could stick a USB stick into any telly made in the last ten years and it would play.

It was so much fun that I extended my remit beyound the eighties and started doing the same thing every year. I'm less fussy about the format/codec now, as I don't have a telly (these days nobody does; they're just computers you don't really control, with a huge monitor and a very bad UI), so I just leave it in the format/codec I found it wherever possible.

This year — no relatives, not much food, still plenty of booze — I set about doing the same. Having exhausted the obvious back-catalogue stuff it's a smaller show than in the past, and I'm a month behind schedule. It's mostly little novelties that I've stumbled across in the last twelve months, plus nostalgic things that they brought to mind. You can download the whole thing here, for as long as I have the server space, or follow the YouTube links below until the sources are taken down.

Here's the list:

The Pogues: Dirty Old Town (A Snippet Thereof)

Can't start without the Pogues. Found a few old clips while down some rabbit hole or other last year. Would love to know the source of this one, beyond "somebody's VHS collection". Really encapsulates MacGowan's punk attitude to music at a point in the Pogues trajectory where the success they'd had didn't interfere with his preferred lifestyle; no barriers between performer and audience, and a sheepish indifference to his own talent.

The Trashcan Sinatras: Obscurity Knocks

In the late eighties and early nineties, my old school chum Paul used to drive up from his family's semi-rural property to my family's utterly-suburban home once a week. We'd order pizza and consume vast quantities of cola to the point where I swear I could feel the sugar slurry moving through my veins. Until the not-so-wee hours of the morning we'd talk nonsense and watch Rage, where this video was one of several on high rotatation at the time. A gorgeous song and a video that perfectly suits it, but doesn't define it.

Courtney Barnett: Pedestrian at Best

Stumbled across the official video for this single on a forum somewhere and immediately thought "This is great! Simple, relentless, like the Fall!" As it happens, this song is a bit of an outlier, and most of her stuff is more in the standard Oz Alternative vein. Still, I like that as well, so no harm done. This live rendition is a bit nearer Nirvana than the Fall. Which — also — is nice.

I'm fascinated by the way she plays guitar, since the way I play (well, used to play) is to treat the whole enterprise as mainly an aerobic workout, and if all the frantic thrashing about sounds okay, that's a bonus. Seeing her get that big sound out of lightly brushing the strings, and realising "Oh, yeah. Electric amplification…"

The Stranglers - Golden Brown

Some transitions between songs are because one naturally follows from another. Others are because it's a jarringly discordant wake-up. Still others are just your brain telling you "I want to listen to this one next".

This song was on the EMI (Australia) various artists compilation album 1982 with a Bullet, which we had in our house as kids. In the nineties, when I was living in Oscar's Palace, I was messing about on my guitar with chord progressions and suddenly thought "Oh! That sounds like…", and did the same few chords in waltz time. And yes, my entire life is basically nostalgia for times that don't really warrant it.

Putting together the original 80s playlist, I couldn't find a source for the official video, so I used a far less satisfying Top of the Pops mime performance. This will be not the last callback to earlier playlists (which I may also put online if I'm ever less work-shy).

Crowded House - Don't Dream It's Over

Spirit-raising remote lockdown renditions of beloved songs: didn't you love these in 2020?

Maybe not entirely, but still it's Crowded House. Well, it's Neil and Nick. Plus fun fact: the "catch a deluge in a paper cup" line was a conscious nod to Lennon's "Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup" from Across the Universe. Bet you didn't know that. Read it in the early nineties in an interview with Neil in one of those music papers that used to give you black fingertips.

Steve Martin (with The Philadelphia Orchestra): Office Supplies

Spirit-raising remote lockdown renditions of things you've never heard before…

I think The Jerk is one of the greatest films of all time, and I'm delighted by Steve Martin's quite substantive musical career in recent years.

I bought a banjo about twenty years ago, hoping to emulate Jem Finer from the Pogues. Turns out it's a very loud instrument, with no volume control. Not quite as bad as bagpipes or the saxophone, but not recommended for anybody who likes to reach a certain level of proficiency in complete privacy.

Still have it. Barely played. Make an offer.

The Dick Cavett Show: Little Richard On Discovering The Beatles

Good golly, Miss Molly. RIP, the king and queen of rock and roll.

The Beatles (Live At The Festival Hall in Melbourne): Long Tall Sally

Ringo had just recovered from a serious bout of tonsilitis. Thought you might want to know that.

Using FFmpeg, you can fix the aspect ratio without re-encoding and losing quality. Which is nice.

David Byrne (Live on Saturday Night Live): Once in a Lifetime

This has already been yanked from YouTube. It's a performance from the American Utopia stage show which Spike Lee filmed and you can probably get from various informal distribution channels. How on earth taking this off YouTube might be to the benefit of Byrne, the producers of SNL, the stage production, or anybody even remotely associated with all the above, is a mystery to me. Monopolists got to monop, I suppose.

Happy Mondays: Sunshine and Love

The Mondays' last proper album is an unappreciated gem. The conventional wisdom about it is total bollocks.

They didn't bankrupt Factory, Factory bankrupted itself and was waiting, unreasonably, for the Mondays to come to the rescue.

The Mondays were always a producer's band, and after a cracking couple of albums with first John Cale and then Martin Hannett producing, they had their mainstream hit with Paul Oakenfold, which to me landed like a wet sock. It was so of its time that it was dated by the day of its release, and so polished that you can listen to it over and over and not feel a thing.

Yes Please! was a return to form, with Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth (from Talking Heads) putting the welly back into the mix.

Unfortunately the NME and Melody Maker, having decided how music was going to go in the nineties and finding that the Mondays no longer fit, elected to put the boot in. Because obviously Northside was the horse to bet on.

Divinyls: Hey Little Boy

Did Chrissy Amphlett make sexy scary, or make scary sexy? Anyway, an Australian band that broke into the mainstream without losing brains or edge.

My friend Paul and I saw the Divinyls at the State Theatre in Sydney about thirty years ago. Brilliant.

I love the State theatre, but it was the wrong venue for that band. The seats were totally redundant from five minutes in.

R.E.M.: Nightswimming

Fediverse chum @andyc brought this clip to my attention last year. It's a beautiful thing.

This song is occasionally on the musak playlist at work. I don't care. It won't spoil it. I could listen to it every day, and it would never fail to fascinate me.

The Sundays: Here's Where The Story Ends

There are no words.

Modern English: I Melt With You

Another lockdown video which is also a callback to my eighties mixtape. The song hit that sweet spot of one you'd remember but not too familiar, so that you'd get that Proustian remembrance effect.

Also, the original version makes one think "Christ! What a bunch of wankers!" I can't say that the update entirely rids one of that sensation, but as a general rule, getting old is a blessing.

Dicey Reilly: The Dubliners

Now, to be honest, I don't know why I included this. I was probably drunk. It's off the first Dubliners album I ever bought, which was kind of a reunion album (with an accompanying TV special I've still not seen), made in the banner year of 1988.

Siouxsie and The Banshees: Killing Jar, Burn Up

1988 was my last year in school. Beginning with pocket money record purchases, and accelerating when I got my first job the following year I mined that year for everything it had. And what riches it had! The children of punk came of age in that year. The Pogues and Billy Bragg released albums of staggering brilliance and beauty, and the Banshees gave us Peepshow.

I'm a sucker for a cello. Love this video for the eighties music show presenter awkwardness and the VHS artifacts.

Also, as far as I'm concerned, Siouxie still looks and dresses like this. I will not accept any evidence to the contrary.

Electric Light Orchestra: Can't Get It Out Of My Head

Okay. The cello thing can be taken too far.

I was really thrilled when George Harrison had his late eighties renaissance, and the Wilbury thing, with ELO's Jeff Lynne. So as a gormless schoolkid, I started shoplifting ELO records and cassettes (shoplifting pro tip: the cassettes are easier). I tried to like them, but my god, they were awful.

For decades afterward, I tried telling myself that actually, the first — budget-constrained — album was pretty good, what with the overdubbed raw scraping of bows on strings. A few Christmases ago I put that record on the turntable, and no, it's just bloody awful.

So this video is just self-flagellation, and a reminder of what punk fixed, however temporarily. Enjoy.

Madness presents - Two Mad Men and a String Quartet: Night Boat to Cairo

More lockdown. The only song I included in the mix was the first, as it later becomes apparent that Suggs is just phoning it in. Jesus. You had one job to do! Be a nutty boy. That's not an unreasonable request for a sixty year old man, surely? Look at Siouxie: she's still stunning!

The Smiths: Accept Yourself

Oh, Morrissey. Look at yourself. You poisoned it all.

Sleater-Kinney - You're No Rock N Roll Fun

Another one I got from some bonkers forum site. I knew guitarist Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia, one of those Lorne Michaels catchphrase-driven sketch comedy shows that are never quite as funny as you want them to be. I'd heard that she was in some band called Sleater-Kinney, but I never felt sufficiently motivated to investigate.

This song is good, inoffensive guitar pop. What's not to love?

I'm working my way through the back catalogue, The first couple of albums are a bit raw, but the ones after that are in the grey area between offensive and inoffensive, otherwise known as my comfort zone.

Son House: Death Letter Blues

I never heard of Son House, can't remember how I got to this video, by my god this is the real stuff.

Hat Fitz and Itchy: Miss Mabel

Back in about 2002 my wife and I were in Annandale on a very important mission to get a pot of some specific colour of paint, and after securing said item and dinner at McDonalds, we wandered across Parramatta Road to the Empire Hotel for a beer. This was the inner west's premier blues venue, and as we sat down, a young blond-haired, blue-eyed boy started setting up on stage and I, in a terribly racist way, thought "Hello, get ready for some Eric Clapton."

Turned out he was actually quite good, and we stayed to the end of his set. By then we were a bit tipsy, and game for the next act on the bill: Hat Fitz and Itchy.

Good golly, Miss Molly. Never knew that it was possible to make that much sound out of a single guitar. Literally pinned back to the wall by the force of it. Never mind the malevolent glare Fitzy gave the audience as he sent them into paroxysms of pleasure. He was playing the audience as much as playing the guitar.

He announced that he accepted tips in the form of Jameson, and by the time they were done, the front of the stage was covered in little glasses. He's settled down now, and his current musical/life partner told me on a recent visit to Coffs that he doesn't drink at all any more. Which is nice.

I'm a couple of albums behind at the moment, but he's the kind of artist where it doesn't feel right to buy a CD anywhere but out of his suitcase at a live gig.

Neil Finn - Don't Dream It's Over

Yes, I know. All I want from life now is a cure for baldness and a string section that will follow me about on a cart.

Trashcan Sinatras: Best Days on Earth

Not the most prolific band on earth, but thirty years on still the most adept at tugging on heartstrings. I've a personal vignette I can't help but associate with this song, but it's a matter for another occasion.

The Pogues: Greenland Whale Fisheries

Okay, the whole concert video is mesmerising. I just included the whale one because it's such an oddity of a song, and so weird that Shane included it on the Pogues' first album. He has a logic that defies logic.

Shane here is just magic. He's a very capable guitar player, and possibly rivals Lydon as the best punk vocalist. That original simple lineup, the selection of traditional songs, and of course the glorious original compositions are pure genius. He engineered it all, but a few years later it crushed him.

Obscurity is underrated.

That 1 Guy - Whale Race

Not long after we moved to Sawtell, my brother-in-law and his girlfriend came down from Queensland and lived with us for a while before heading off again to Goondiwindi (sounds exotic, but don't go there unless you have a thing for red dirt). They'd seen That 1 Guy in Queensland, and insisted we all had to go see him at the Planto in Coffs.

(There's a doctoral dissertation to be had on the syntactical rules around Australian colloquial abbreviations. The Plantation Hotel is the Planto, while the Toormina Hotel is the Toormi and the Sawtell Hotel is the Sawty. The Park Beach Hotel/Motel is the Hoey Moey. Nobody feels the need to ask why.)

I was so impressed that when I bought a CD from him after the gig I positively gushed. In those days he and the magic pipe mostly stuck to a pithy three minute pop format, and I said he reminded me of the raw, percussive thing that Tom Waits does (I don't think I was any more eloquent than that, sadly). He seemed genuinely flattered and said he knew some people who had worked with Waits, and would really love to do so. I was chuffed to learn a few years ago that he eventually did.

He's become a bit more symphonic in recent years. It should offend my punk sensibilities, but this holds one's attention for nearly ten minutes. Plus it's about whales.

The Undertones, True Confessions

You have to. You just do. Two minutes, in and out. Thrashing guitars, no whales, no violins, just pure mischieveous joy on BBC2.


I'm on Holiday!

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 02/02/2021 - 6:57pm in

Today was a day off from work after five long, tiresome days in a row. Slept in till 10am and skipped breakfast so that I could justify the indulgence of a pizza picnic down at Bogan Bay.

So, on my day off I walked back up to work and bought a five dollar cheese-smothered flatbread and a six dollar bottle of bubbly. I was planning on a five dollar bottle of red, but this is the kind of wild extravagance I'm now allowing myself.

You see, I'm on holiday.

I had an epiphany last week (sitting down; I always sit down when I'm having an epiphany as it's less potentially messy than standing up). I don't need to live in this awful place any more.

I have enough savings to get me back to Sydney. There is nothing I have here that I can't get in Sydney, and plenty there that I can't get here. Yes, the latter includes Covid, but Covid is going to be with us for another couple of years (at least - on and off), and while it's nice to have the luxury of not having to wear a mask, and feeling free to cough without burying your face in your armpit, it's not worth the rest of what living in Reejnal Straya entails.

I don't want any of this. I don't want to trudge to and from my part-time near-minimum wage job over pedestrian-de-optimimised terrain in permanently mouldy safety shoes and mud-spattered trousers. I don't want to deal with squat, stout old men, who wear shorts and thongs all the way through winter as a declaration of cultural identity, and greet me with a toothless grin and "G'day, big fella!" before asking where the eggs are (aisle 11).

I don't want to feel I have to sleep with a kitchen knife by my bed when one of my neighbours who has been simmering for a while seems to be approaching boiling point. I don't want to have police in body armour, bristing with holsters containing implements of varying lethality wandering up and down the landing outside my flat/cell.

I don't even want the things that I could get here if I had a socially-inclusive wage. I'm a Dickensian street urchin pressing my nose against the shop window and being slightly revolted by what's inside.

In the dying days of my marriage, my wife insisted on taking me and our joint credit card out for a weekly "date night", at one or another restaurant in Sawtell. This consisted of her buying the most expensive cocktails on the menu and I gingerly sipping the cheapest beer on the menu, while she gleefully recounted all the personal failings of, and wrongs done to her by, people most of whom I'd never heard of. Then the vodka would kick in, the snarl would settle on her pretty face, and she'd move on to the main menu of my own inadequacies. Not wanting to Make A Scene, I just just sat there and took the abuse and wondered "How is this fun for you?"

On the rare occasions I walk down First Avenue of an evening I can't see how the majority of the conversations in the self-consciously funky cafes and restaurants are any less mean and rancorous. It's some consolation, however, to know how many of the local restauranteurs buy their exotic and expensive delicacies in kilo bags from the frozen department of the local supermarket.

Anyway, that sort of negativity is now a thing of the past. I will be out of here at some point in 2021. I can do it at any time. It would be nice beforehand to get some ducks in a row, peas in a pod, pecks in a bushel, etc., but none of that is strictly necessary.

So that frees me up to look at this place anew, as someone with no skin in the game. I'm just passing through, on a working holiday. Maybe Sawtell will again, as it did in 2004, appear charming.


Things we learn at school

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 27/12/2020 - 2:24pm in

For the last few years I have been working at a local supermarket. Because there are three of them within walking distance, and provided I don't specify which one it is, I believe I can talk about what it's like without violating any confidentiality agreements I may have made during the "yeah, whatever" signing-on-dotted-lines stage of the hiring process.

I was happy enough to do the job for a year or two, but then 2020 happened, so let's make that three or four.

As one of those people who push a trolley round the shop picking online orders, I'm basically paid to get in peoples' way. The maddening thing about it is that when I am in somebody's way, it's they who apologise. Stop saying sorry, people! You haven't done anything wrong!

There's the occasional exception to this rule, memorable for it's rarity. Recently an old fellow grunted "Can you move?", not even prefaced with "excuse me". (Witty response that came to me five minutes too late: "Can I move? You should see me on the dance floor, grandad!")

However by and large, the job is utterly uninteresting, if physically taxing, which comes as a relief to this middle-aged burnout case. If one has to choose, it's far better to punish your body than your psyche.

A while ago my GP asked how work was going, and I replied that over time, the range of things I've been asked to do has expanded. "Oh good," he said, "Intellectual stimulation. You need that."

He's a queer fish, my GP. He makes so much money from treating sneezes and sniffles, and the various diseases of suburban despair, that he's on holiday most of the time for tax reasons, drifting around the world in a little bubble of affluence. I don't think he's quite grasped how much intellectual stimulation is involved in any aspect of running a supermarket — or indeed in most jobs. Which is to say, none whatsoever.

There are points of interest to the experience, mainly derived from observing what various people bring to it. I've seen a lot of people come and go in a few years, which is not unusual down here near minimum wage.

On my trolley is a little computer which, when it's not malfuctioning, leads me about the supermarket by the nose like a pack animal, telling me what to get and where to get it. When you are new to the job, in the process of being broken in, it is emphasised that if you can't find something quickly you should "out of stock it" and move on. Of course the little computer is surveilling you and extracting performance metrics at all times, so speed is of the essence.

Eventually, you realise that the system's little database of stock is chronically incomplete and inaccurate, so you develop workarounds. You also work out that the people who stock the shelves are likewise evaluated by crude metrics, and that it's not in their interest to take care in their work if they will be punished for it, so (for example) a tin of tomatoes is a tin of tomatoes. Whether it's whole, diced, or crushed tomatoes is not a distinction they'll be rewarded for honouring; just get it all on the shelves as quickly as possible.

Once you've amassed a catalogue of all the managerially-imposed perverse incentives relevant to your task, you can start to reverse engineer from these a mental map of the ways that things will inevitably go wrong, and graduate from following a precisely wrong model of how the place works to a fuzzily right model.

The practical upshot of this is that, for example, you don't "out of stock" so often, yet you still get round the shop relatively quickly. Can't find something where your computer says it will be, though there's supposed to be plenty of in stock? Is the amount claimed to be in stock plausible, or likely an artifact of the periodic farcical charade known as "stocktake" (where every item gets counted, but as the item that is supposed to be in that position rather than the item it actually is)? Is it on special this week (in which case it is likely to be on prominent display somewhere else not know to the system, as it's not worth being too fussy about updating the location database week-by-week; that degree of accuracy is not easily measured, and is therefore not incentivised)? Have a look a couple of inches or feet away where there's another product with quite similar packaging. Peer right to the back of the shelf. Insert your arm, James-Herriot-style, up to the shoulder and have a good rummage. When your fingertips make contact with something, grab it, and give it a good yank, bloodying knuckles in the process. Aha! Beep it, bag it, move on…

Now none of that is intrinsically interesting. What is interesting is how long it takes for people to surmount the blind faith in the flawless way that things are supposed to work. Now after a few years, I believe I've identified a statistically significant age-related difference in the attitude that one brings to a new job, which generalises beyond this particular example. It can be summarised like so:

  • Teens/twenties: How does it work?
  • Thirties: How should it work?
  • Forties and older: In what ways is it f**ed up?

You'll be slower and less effective for longer the younger you are, and more likely to be leaned on (which in a deregulated workplace includes being given fewer and fewer hours) till you quit. There are exceptions of course. Personally, I was wandering about in a comically innocent daze until I was in my forties. But in general I've found that the strength of this childlike belief in a world which is pretty well ordered, by grownups who know what they're doing, is proportional to one's degree of, and temporal proximity to, formal education.

So it's not strictly age related. If you're on the sort of career track where you're enjoying "lifelong learning", then clearly reality is not for you. You've taken the blue pill. You're paid to push an arbitrary sort of accountability down the hierarchy by measuring the easily quantifiable, and your only worry is the smaller degree of whimsical discipline imposed from above by those even deeper in cloud cuckoo land.

There's an interesting body of academic work on this, which I'll write about when I get round to reading it. It basically all boils down to Goodhart's Law.

The general cause of the problem is a neoliberal shift from academic education, concerned primarily with how the world actually is, to vocational education which, whether the practitioners know it or not, is about how this or that group of people believe the world should be. In extreme cases, such as mainstream economics, there's no recognition of a possible distinction between the two, since we live in a Panglossian best of all possible worlds, and one can not only derive ought from is, but also go in the other direction. Fault therefore lies not in our systems, but in ourselves. Therefore, it makes sense to measure our virtues using the simple numerical targets of our broken systems: in a word, meritocracy.

My whole working life I've heard conversations among exasperated colleages that run something like "Why do they still not get it? What can we do with them?", often in rooms I've just entered which suddenly fall silent when I'm noticed. To be functional in a fantasy world is to be able to practice the doublethink necessary to insist that the system is fundamentally sound, while intuitively implementing baroque workarounds for the fact that it is fundamentally broken. This phenomenon is fractal, and scales up to the global level, which might give one pause as we "return to normal" in 2021.

I've no conclusion to this…