The oil slick that imagines itself the sea

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 21/04/2013 - 2:13pm

Last night I was at a party held by a couple of friends who I've known a long time, but not very well, in their grand, well-appointed house on a gated waterside estate. There were a few people there I knew slightly, more people that I knew not at all, and still more that were the pre-school children of the above, stumbling about, hitting their heads on things, and screaming at random intervals (the children, I mean).

In these situations, most conversations start with the question "What do you do?", and this was the first social situation I'd been in where I was able to answer "I'm involved in this fantastic IT industry grants program called Newstart Allowance." Ha ha. With increasing alarm I found nobody laughing at this line, not because it wasn't particularly funny (which, to be fair, was the case), but for these three reasons:

  • They thought I meant the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme.
  • They didn't know that "Newstart Allowance" was the official bureaucratic term for the dole.
  • They had no reason to know better because neither they nor anybody they knew had ever been on the dole. Newstart Allowance just wasn't a part of their world.

The second question strangers ask each other in these situations is "Where are you from?" Indeed they are often given to marvel at how absolutely nobody in Coffs Harbour seems to come from Coffs Harbour. One fellow I spoke to last night did so, and I am guilty of likewise wondering at this apparent phenomenon during my first few years in Coffs.

If you visit the decidedly downmarket Toormina Hotel, as I did earlier that day until the muzak drove me out (Oh, Meatloaf! You took the words right out of my mouth. It must have been while your music was making me vomit.), you will however find the majority of the patrons and staff are Coffs born and bred. You will also find that they know all too well what Newstart Allowance is, and what it's like to work low-paid, tenuous, often cash-in-hand jobs. They also know what it's like to live in a situation where the instruments of the state can be capriciously used against them; where AVOs and DoCS (now rather unbelievably known as FaHCSIA, which unless I'm mistaken would make the staff FaHSCIsts) can be wielded as weapons in acrimonious relationship breakups because magistrates and bureaucrats see them as second-class citizens.

Through the Boambee East Community Centre's excellent Life Skills for Blokes course, and volunteering at the Mens' Resource Centre in Coffs, I've heard awful stories by heartbroken people in situations such as losing access to their children, and unable to even speak to them on the phone for fear of ending up in jail. These are for the most part (though I admit not universally) thoughtful, intelligent, thoroughly decent people.

In contrast, if you attend any one of Coffs' multitude of business networking functions, you will struggle to find anybody who isn't a mindless, heartless, unscrupulous scam artist. These are the complete dullards who consider their fatuous enterprises to be the primary source of the region's wealth (such as it is) and bleat with panic and terror at the thought of losing any of their privileges, which are funded mainly from the pockets of that socially and economically disadvantaged majority of the local population who are completely invisible to them. They are the "key stakeholders" who craft the public policy upon which, once settled, they graciously permit us "public consultation". 

These people are a thin, rich film riding on top of the rest of society; the oil slick that imagines itself the sea.

At the Toormina hotel you can see the prematurely old and zombified shuffle, shake, and shudder their way to the nearest ashtray to clumsily stub out their cigarette butts. While watching one such fellow, I was reminded of something which I discovered while filling in Centrelink forms; something that a decade at the computer keyboard had hidden. On the average Coffs Harbour income, a moderate amount of beer at the pub is a rare luxury, but an excessive amount of wine-like product from a cardboard box is quite affordable. Consequently my nervous system is so shot that I find I can barely hold a pen, much less write with it. I've joined the rest of the trembling zombies created by the celebrated Coffs Harbour lifestyle.

At least I know that my Coffs zombie-hood is largely a product of this environment. The majority of my fellow zombies in this sprawling, key-stakeholder-designed, civic-infrastructure-free expanse of what Phillip Adams calls "brick veneerial disease" have never known anything else, and can only wonder why they feel so lonely, isolated, angry, and in such relentless psychological pain.

I am angry, and I don't quite know what to do about it. At least I know which side I'm on. I think maybe we should do something about that oil slick.

Friday, 19 April 2013 - 2:37pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 19/04/2013 - 2:37pm

The week in review, from the pages of the Coffs Coast Irritant:

Champagne corks could be heard popping in the McMansion of Ken and Barbie Hines, as they celebrated the news that housing in Coffs had become even more expensive. Watch out Port Macquarie, we're about to snatch the coveted title of Australia's least affordable town from you!

Climate change just keeps on showering us with goodies; first cane toads, now year-round mosquito-borne disease. If I had any money, I'd be betting it on crocodiles in Boambee Creek by 2020. Also, there's an animal called a mangrove jack. I thought it was just an ironically ocker name for a café.

On Sawtell beach, two people got caught in a rip and dragged out to sea. Three people swam out to save them, got caught in the rip and dragged out to sea. Had paramedics not intervened, half the population of Sawtell would be on the way to Lord Howe Island now. We're a brave little village, but not very bright.

A massive funeral stopped traffic along Hogbin Drive as a thousand friends and relatives spoke movingly of a shy, bookish introvert, not keen on sport, with an endearingly reserved but polite manner. You're not buying it are you? Okay, he was really a "normal" knockabout larrikin who tragically took one knock too many on the football field.

A heartless bastard might argue that Coffs has so many obnoxiously charismatic meatheads that one less is no great loss, but one must remember that the sustainability of any population of footballers is very fragile. Like pandas, they mate very infrequently, and are very particular about doing so only under the right conditions. Unless at least twelve of their closest friends are in the motel room, with a carton of warm lager, footballers have absolutely no interest in sex.

The Greens are running a campaign of hope in the Federal seat of Cowper. It's a good thing hope springs eternal; they will be needing an awful lot of it. I also hear Faith can move mountains. She's a big girl.

You would have thought that Southern Cross University would have been exempt from university funding cuts, on the grounds that it's a vocational training college, not a university. Apparently the government has been misled by the name. They're not the first, I suppose.

As anybody who knows me will testify, I've had just about enough of the negative Nellies who are constantly running down our beautiful region. Why all this talk of "notorious" accident blackspots? Why not "famous" accident blackspots, or even "scenic" accident blackspots? Accentuate the positive, people!

Sunday, 14 April 2013 - 5:13pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 14/04/2013 - 5:13pm

I don't believe one can say that Richard Dawkins "has made a career out of academic rigour". While I'm in no position to comment on his academic work, his brand of popular science is as infuriatingly simplistic and irrational as his brand of atheism (and the two are arguably not unconnected). The backlash against "New Atheism" is a welcome one. Any damage done to atheism was done by Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens, and Harris, not by their critics.

Saturday, 13 April 2013 - 4:06pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 13/04/2013 - 4:06pm

We've had very good intell about the quality of the officers in the Coffs-Clarence Local Area Command over the last year. They do such incredible work that they must be on steroids or something. Whoever wins officer of the year, they're all entitled to keep their heads up.

Saturday, 6 April 2013 - 7:29pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 06/04/2013 - 7:29pm

"Here on the Coffs Coast we are lucky to have friendly streets and a thriving community"? I never cease to be amazed at the powers of self-delusion of estate agents.

Have you never been for a walk through Toormina or the Coffs CBD after dark? Have you not noticed that we have a third-world economy based on tourism, palliative care, and urban sprawl (plus a bit of cottage-industry methamphethamine production)? Or that any young person who plans to do more with their lives than make coffee, pour beer, take bets, sourly announce "Lunch is finished. We can do ya coffee and cake", build crappy pre-fab brick-veneer shacks two to a flood-prone quarter acre on concrete slabs ringed by Colorbond, or change the nappies of the demented, should get the hell out and never look back?

Yes, we have some lovely beaches - which "key stakeholders" are plotting to comprehensively defoliate in order to improve their ocean views (and property values - good news for estate agents). And yes... no, hang on, that's it; I'm out of good things to say about the Coffs Coast.

We could brighten our community by fixing these problems, not pretending they don't exist.

Rowche Rumble

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 06/04/2013 - 2:40pm

I'm not a fan of Valium; it works as advertised, but a single pill leaves me terribly drowsy for a day or more afterwards, and being paralysed by lethargy is not a great practical improvement over being paralysed by anxiety. I much prefer alcohol, as it has a quicker onset and shorter half-life, and the side effects are arguably no worse.

Nevertheless, in the last stressful week or two I found the usual pounding heart and churning stomach turning into a churning heart and pounding stomach, and concluded I'd administered as much alcohol as was wise (or even tolerably rash), so in desperation I turned to prescribed medication. I had maybe three pills over the course of a week, managed to reduce my alcohol dosage considerably without becoming a gibbering wreck, and surprisingly managed to keep my eyes open without too much difficulty (or coffee).

Then yesterday it hit me. I got up around 9am, fed the cats and myself, then went back to bed until lunchtime. Tried to go for a walk just as a classic Sawtell sudden deluge hit, vowed to press on regardless, but conceded defeat as the streets and my shoes filled with water. Back to bed until teatime, had Oliver Stone entertainingly tell me things I already knew, then - amazingly - a solid night's sleep that didn't end until lunchtime today. I am still almost too exhausted to move, but for the good of my health, I am going to force myself to get to the Sawtell Hotel in time for happy hour. Better the devil you know.

The Determinism of the Gaps

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 31/03/2013 - 11:17am in

I'm surprised to find that it appears nobody's coined the phrase "the determinism of the gaps". So henceforth it's mine.

Just as the "God of the gaps" argument ("If [scientifically unexplained phenomena x] isn't the work of God, what else could it be?") is justly dismissed as an irrational argument from faith, so the scientistic claim that some imminent theory of everything will show that any observed phenomena is the result of the playing out of purely deterministic processes just because "What else is could it be?" should be dismissed for the same reason.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013 - 10:08pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 27/03/2013 - 10:08pm

First saw Hat Fitz and Itchy at the Empire Hotel in Annandale over ten years ago. Saw him with Cara in Woolgoolga a couple of years ago (marred by the requirement that they not start until the final whistle of the incredibly important soccer game in play on Fox Sports). Do not, do not, do not miss the chance to see them.

Every year there's an increasingly ridiculous flock of rancid old turkeys at the Bluesfest. Fitz is the real thing. If you have the money, please go to Byron and see Fitz and Cara. Also go and hurl abuse at the pathetic old hacks who make up most of the rest of the bill.

Bitcoin as Reserve Currency for a Local Currency?

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 24/03/2013 - 12:23pm in

I can't pretend to know a lot about avoiding the pitfalls of local currency systems, but I do know that two of the hurdles that you have to overcome are the questions:

  • What happens when I'm the only person in the system with a useful skill, and everybody else is making scented candles, and I find myself with as many scented candles as I can ever imagine requiring, and my account enormously and uselessly in credit?
  • What happens when the whole system collapses while I'm in credit; do I just lose the value of all that work?

It occured to me that adopting Bitcoin as a reserve currency in such a system might be useful in dealing with at least these two disincenctives to participation, and I was surprised to find very little discussion about it (in fact, I expected that as with most of my other brilliant ideas I would find people who had been already doing it for years, and I was the last person on Earth to know about it). There are some interesting comments in this thread, and a proposal to "fork" Bitcoin-like currencies for local use, which I think is technical overkill but interesting. Here are my initial thoughts:

Anything that makes it harder for the regulatory bodies that have screwed up your local economy in the first place to say "Your local currency is really just an IOU for the national currency so all you people now either owe us tax, or have lost your social security benefits" is a good thing.

Bitcoin would be a good medium for trades between local currency systems, in the same way US dollars are used for global commodities like oil. Note to self: think of an example with less of a bad vibe.

You will need strong capital controls; you're defeating the purpose having a local currency if it's freely exchangable for a global currency. So people should be able to cash out to Bitcoin if the system closes, or they move to another geographical area, or they can cash out a certain percentage of their balance once they've exceeded a threshold, but not willy-nilly. Sure you might then get black market exchanges, but I think you are much more likely to find they will trade in the national currency than Bitcoin, so I don't think controlled exchangability to Bitcoin changes this at all, and since some local currencies have avoided instant failure, I have to assume that under at least some conditions this is a managable problem.

You have to set inflation (and lending, if your system has lending) rates appropriately. A little bit of inflation is a disincentive to hoarding, thereby keeping the local economy moving. And since the value of Bitcoin is increasing relative to any major currency you care to name (and is likely to continue to do so for the forseeable future), you can decrease the value of your currency over time relative to the "real" value of the goods and services you purchase, and also relative to your reserve currency, and still give your participants a high degree of confidence that they're not trading away their efforts for a worthless asset. Worst case scenario is they've earned a bit of "interest" when they cash out, in the form of the difference between the decrease in value of the local currency versus the increase in value of Bitcoin. You can't count on the Bitcoin bubble inflating forever, but the evidence is that Bitcoin isn't going to burst altogether - smarter people than me are calling it "the local currency of the Internet" - so use this Bitcoin deflationary period while you can, I say.

A possible objection to the above interventionist monetary policy is that, depending on who you talk to, either fixed exhange rates (1:1 to Bitcoin, say) or an unregulated currency market will deliver better outcomes than rational planning, because Very Serious People say so. In response, I present the real world. Take a look at it for a while. Provided your system is transparent and democratic, I don't see a better solution than thinking very hard about hard problems. Certainly not faith in gold, dollars, Euros or "free" markets.

In the case of a crisis, the system is going to have to be able to both forgive debtors and pay off creditors. I suppose that means holding at least some Bitcoin reserves. Trouble is, that's an upfront cost for something that you're going to need less and less over time as your local currency becomes more robust. Do new participants "pay" for their initial local currency credit in Bitcoin (a disincentive to participation)? Do established local currency systems either lend their otherwise redundant Bitcoin reserves or go guarantor in order to bootstrap new systems elsewhere? If so, what's in it for them? Do they get to dictate policy to failing systems, like an alternative economy Angela Merkel? Tricky one, that.

Friday, 22 March 2013 - 6:43pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 22/03/2013 - 6:43pm

To satisfy the curiosity of Mrs Rhoades, I believe that at 2am, or any other time, "farewelling a firie's firm friend" takes no more than 10 minutes plus EFTPOS transaction time at 19 Orlando Street. If afterwards you find your political flame burning, a course of antibiotics will soon put that right.