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Thursday, 4 July 2013 - 6:21pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 04/07/2013 - 6:21pm

What? The NBN has only one button, albeit a jolly big red one? Do we all get a go on it?

"Local households are signing up at world leading rates"? No wonder it's falling behind schedule; the NBN was only supposed to cover Australia. When did we start extending it to the rest of the world? That's the worst case of scope creep I've ever seen in an IT project.

Still, I can feel my game changing already, as the economic benefits flow almost as inevitably as the high definition hardcore pornography. Although I do hear a lot of people around Coffs Harbour are demanding their money back. Apparently their fax machines are no faster at all.

A Modest Macroeconomic Proposal

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 17/06/2013 - 8:57pm

No country likes to have a trade deficit. In fact every country would like to have a trade surplus. The problem is you can't have even one country in surplus without one or more other countries being in deficit to the value of that surplus. The answer?

Colonise Mars!

Every country on Earth could sell stuff to Mars, and provided we don't make the mistake of buying anything off the Martians in return, every country on Earth could be running a trade surplus. Obviously it can't be trade in tangible items because of the prohibitive shipping cost, so it would be mostly copyright and patent licences, permission to show various registered trademarks in motion pictures, et cetera.

Now one presumptive flaw in this plan presents itself: If the Martians aren't selling anything, how can they afford to buy anything? Answer: We lend them the money! So now every country on Earth is also in monetary surplus!

Don't we then have to get that money back eventually? Good question. You would think so, wouldn't you? Unfortunately those unproductive, profligate Martians (I blame the climate; it makes one sluggish) have blundered into a credit crisis. What fools we were to have ever trusted them with our money! Clearly they have been frittering it away on wasteful social programs, public holidays, excessively long toilet breaks, and so on, while every nation on Earth has been making the tough choices that sound economics demands.

The only solution to this is to impose conditions on the Martians that will make it possible for them, in time, to repay the debt: slash social spending, smaller workforces, longer hours, timed locks on lavatory doors… These are the sorts of measures necessary to restore confidence in the Martian economy, and convince investors on Earth to lend them more money, so we can keep this racket going.

Hold on, I hear you cry, won't this impose terrible suffering on blameless human beings, for no reason other than the perpetuation of a wholly misguided and irrational accounting fraud?

Obviously under the conditions of this plan we can't send any actual human beings to Mars. The Martians would only exist on paper. What kind of sadist do you take me for?

Tuesday, 11 June 2013 - 11:33am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 11/06/2013 - 11:33am

I'm getting drawn into arguments on Hugh Saddleton's blog. This way madness lies:

“Is it that the NBN should be cancelled [...]?”

Too late for that. Most likely we will have to complement it with municipal mesh WiFi to make up for it’s deliberate deficiencies. I’m sure Paul can help there.

“[...] how could we run our own email servers, web servers etc, and who’s going to pay for it?”

We’d run our own servers the same way we run our own cars. Don’t know about you, but I know how to fill up the petrol tank, the tires, and the thing that squirts water on the windscreen, and that’s the extent of my automotive expertise. As computer systems and network services become more integrated with our daily lives, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have as many system administrators, programmers, etc. in Coffs Harbour as we have auto mechanics. How much better for the local economy to meet those needs here, instead of sending money out of the LGA, and usually out of the country?

For under $100, and rapidly falling, you can get little (around 10cm x 10cm) computers that plug into your wall socket, and consume negligible amounts of power. They do ethernet, WiFi, etc, and have specs comparable to mid-range commercial hosting plans for web, email, etc. services. So that’s a one-off $100 for hardware resources instead of hundreds of dollars per year at a commercial hosting service in the US (generally much more in Australia), and all the software required is available free (as in freedom, and as in cost).

“Will we need fibre broadband to do this?”

As I said, routing all traffic through a small number of Points Of Interconnect is a significant inefficiency, but the big problem is that even the NBN plans from ISPs are still throttling upstream traffic (data from you to the outside world) to a fraction of the speed of downstream traffic (data from Facebook, YouTube, et. al. to you). This seems harmless if you assume that our place on the Internet is that of passive consumers of services delivered by a handful of multinational corporations. It also allows ISPs to do market segmentation; delivering “enterprise” upstream speeds at a ridiculous premium over their real value.

You may be able to get away with running a web and email server for a small business on one of the pricier plans for plebs, but voice or video are out of the question. You can readily understand why Telstra and Optus would not want us running our own phone services. Also, since email and web hosting (not to mention landline and mobile phone services) are often part of telco-ISP “bundles” (or “horizontal integration” as a regulator might put it), you can also see why they wouldn’t want those services becoming cottage industries or DIY.

“Matthew, as you are someone who hosts websites”

Actually, I don’t. My hosting provider is in the US, where bandwidth is cheap and plentiful. Which is my point. It’s ludicrous and totally unnecessary for organisations in Coffs Harbour to communicate with their clients (mostly in Coffs Harbour) via a server farm on the other side of the world.

“[...] and makes his living from the internet”

I have never made anything anybody could reasonably call “a living” from the Internet. I live in Coffs Harbour, where work isn’t valued unless it’s done in a flouro vest and safety shoes.

“When the internet goes down, as it does from time to time, who would I call?”

With a redundant packet-switching network (as the Internet, but not the NBN, is designed to be), there is no single point of failure to go down. Say there’s only one cable between Sawtell and Coffs and someone slices through it with a backhoe. The network can see that that link is down and route traffic through Kempsey, Armidale, Glen Innes, Grafton, and thence Coffs until the shorter route is repaired. Unless the cable that’s cut, or the router that’s blown, is the one between you and the kerb, there’s always another route; unlike the NBN, where there’s effectively one line between you and the nearest junction box, one line between that and the next junction box upstream, and so on to the Point Of Interconnect to the real Internet.

My NBN Rant: Short Version

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 08/06/2013 - 2:34pm

(You don't want to hear the long version.)

On practically every issue that matter, there is no "other side" in mainstream politics. The NBN has been designed by economists for the benefit of Telcos, with the objective of preserving the current broken status quo of Internet connectivity. The debate over "fibre to the home" conceals the fact that neither party has any intention of delivering "Internet to the home".

Communication between two people in Coffs Harbour will still be routed via Sydney and/or Brisbane, because that's where the Telcos' tollgates (Points Of Interconnect, in the NBN jargon) are situated. If we had street-level routing, as we would if the NBN adopted the obvious solution of providing a packet-switching Internet Protocol network, where would the Telcos put their tollgates? For that matter what useful purpose would the Telcos serve? Wouldn't they be redundant if the network in my street was the same as the network anywhere else in the world and there was no "out there" out there to pay a premium for access to? How much waste could we get rid of if we could run our own email servers, web servers, Voice over IP, social networking, etc. from the computers sitting on our desks?

The NBN is not designed to extend the Internet to where we live and work, it is designed to allow (the eventually privatised) NBN Co to sell the Telcos access to us. (As a side-benefit, it provides a one-stop-shop for censorship and spying as well.)

Neither party disagrees with this objective; they have a minor tactical disagreement on the means of reaching it.

Friday, 24 May 2013 - 9:53am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 24/05/2013 - 9:53am

How would Richard Branson solve your problem? With a publicity stunt. How would IBM solve it? By telling you nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. How would Bill Gates? By conceding that yes, somebody else's software is superior now, but the next version of Microsoft's is going to be even better, so buy Microsoft now to avoid looking foolish later. Disney? By taking an idea from folk culture and trademarking the life out of it.

It's no accident that the marketing industry has plenty of gurus; carpentry or plumbing not so many. Anybody who happily accepts the mantle of guru is almost certainly a fraud.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013 - 9:55pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 22/05/2013 - 9:55pm

Nobody has a genuinely "spare" room. How many people do you know who have a totally empty room, or maybe a bare room with one or two pieces of furniture covered with sheets?

Many people have a room that they call the "spare room", because it's not the kitchen, lounge room, dining room, etc., or it has a bed in it but not one that someone sleeps in most nights. Perhaps it's just a storage room, or a room the cats really like so you leave them to it, or it's where you have your model railway but you still call it the "spare room" because who's ever heard of someone having a "train room", or a "cat room", or a "Marvel Comics room" adjacent to your "DC Comics room".

We have a region of what is technically the same room as our kitchen which an estate agent would call a dining area. Because everything that slithers out from between an estate agent's lips is a lie, the dining area is too small to accommodate even a modest dining table, unless you dispense with half of the chairs. So my dear lady wife and I do so, and use the space for card games and jigsaw puzzles and perverse sexual practices (only two out of three of these things are true, sadly - I used to like the occasional game of cards) on a dining table pushed up against the wall. We never dine there, it is not a room, but it is still "the dining room".

Who are we to label rooms? I say we should just let the rooms be. Maybe number them if we must. Or give them proper names: "I have to go to Simon; can you wait in Meredith for me in case the potatoes boil over?"

Friday, 17 May 2013 - 11:11pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 17/05/2013 - 11:11pm

Our microwave has just broken, and I'm totally lost.

I remember when microwave ovens were the exciting new thing that every household needed because of the inexorable oncoming revolution of microwave cookery. And every household bought a microwave and tried to cook with it, and found that it produced stuff that was hot and soggy, but not really cooked.

But then we found out that microwaves were really good at defrosting and reheating things. Not, I hasten to add, using the in-built defrost or reheat functions of the device. These invariably left you with partially-frozen, partially scalded food, or a frightful explosion that required a time-consuming mop-up operation. Instead we have all developed our own microwave "hacks", finely tuned to the particular device and the food we put in them.

What I find interesting is that everybody bought a microwave because it promised the ability to cook a leg of lamb in the time it takes to iron your bell-bottomed trousers, and that when you arrived at your cocaine-fuelled swingers' party to pop the lid of your tupperware container, revealing your enormous tasty joint, you'd be the belle of the ball.

But if you were to try to sell the things honestly, saying that they don't do any of the things you already do particularly well, but they do some other things sort of okay if you are really prepared to put some time and effort into it...

Anyway, mine's broken, and I'm totally lost. There's probably a metaphor for technology in general to be found here, but I don't care; I have a lot of cold food to deal with.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013 - 10:58am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 23/04/2013 - 10:58am

There's nothing quite as prestigious as receiving an award from a publication you advertise in. I'll never forget winning the Trading Post's Garage Sale of the Week. You can't buy recognition like that. Oh hang on; yes you can.

Monday, 22 April 2013 - 6:37pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 22/04/2013 - 6:37pm

Oh, FFS! You're paginating an 800-word 15 year old humour column? You do realise we've all installed adblocking extensions on our browsers, so increasing the number of "hits", "pageviews" or "impressions" is pointless? Why not just outright lie to your advertisers instead? It amounts to the same thing in practice, and irritates your readers less.

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.