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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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."

Thursday, 20 September 2012 - 9:09pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 20/09/2012 - 9:09pm

I've learned that I should be pleased that I'm not a Rhodes scholar, but I also have to take issue with this claim by Pilger:

Liberal hysteria that the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is more extreme than Obama is no more than a familiar promotion of "lesser evilism" and changes nothing.  Ironically, the election of Romney to the White House is likely to reawaken mass dissent in the US, whose demise is Obama's singular achievement.

I'm of an age where pretty much everything seems to have occurred relatively recently (9/11, the fall of the Berlin wall, George Formby, the French revolution, etc.), but I'm reasonably confident that a little stir called Occupy happened during Obama's presidency, and was a generally splendid affair whose ripples are - as ripples are wont to do - spreading outwards at this very moment.

Despite the fact that I think calling Obama a spineless weasel is an unforgivable calumny upon weasel invertebrates of every stripe, the suggestion that "worse evilism" would awaken the masses to finally recognise the brilliance of our natural vanguard intellectual leaders is utterly monstrous. To support my position, I'll go for a trite cite: the extraordinary social/political progress in the second half of the 20th century which took place in the affluent post-war west, where a generation looked at their inheritance of shallow materialism courtesy of institutionalised injustice and said, to quote Abbie Hoffman, "Yuck!" Compare this to the results of the mass dissent in Russia and Germany in the first half of the 20th century awakened by the dubious blessings of the Tsar and the Treaty of Versailles.

Lest you think I am being flippant, I am second to nobody in awareness of the terrible harm that prog rock (arguably a consequense of the counter-culture) has done to our civilisation, but I prefer it to the KGB or the SS. It's much easier to do good if you're contending with a lesser evil.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 12/09/2012 - 12:59pm in

My ethnically windmillphilic friend Paul van Campenhout didn't ask me what I thought of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, but I told him all the same. Here's what I said:

Ruben said he loved it, but he admits it may be because he was watching it vicariously through his ten year old who was bouncing around on the sofa with delight the whole way through.

Without the same advantage I was mostly disappointed at the waste of a couple of good actors in Rupert what-his-name and that bloke what used to be in Red Dwarf and the Fast Show ("This week I 'ave been mostly eatin'..." "You ain't seen me, roight?") oh and some films about a teenage wizard or something.

Also the "Neffi" thing struck me as a bit Bill and Ted, especially after re-reading the novelisation of the Crusaders over the christmas hols (the local book liquidators had the new 2011 BBC Books editions of Target novelisations for $5 each!). If in 1964 you can manage, with wobbly sets, to depict well-known historical figures as fully-rounded human beings - with the Arabs no more or less barbaric than their English invaders, mind you (again: 1964!) - Nefertiti as a sexy ass-kicker with attitude is pretty poor.

And of course if you know your large plodding herbivores, based on Douglas Adams' marvelous description of what it's like to be a rhinoceros in Last Chance to See, you can't buy the idea of a triceratops even noticing - much less being excited by - a bouncing golf ball. Herbivores don't need to chase things; plants don't move that much, at least not on Earth. Except for the occasional Krynoid.

Writer Chris Chibnall (Hungry Earth, and previously nominally head writer for Torchwood, at least while RTD was still working on Who) appears to be for Steven Moffat what Helen Raynor (Daleks in Manhattan, Sontaran Strategem) was for RTD. Give him a list of characters and set pieces, and he'll turn out a workmanlike but forgettable script.

But what do I know? I'm a grumpy old man, not a ten year old boy bouncing around on the sofa waving his sonic screwdriver. This episode was for the ten year olds, and that's fine.