Friday, November 23, 2012

NBN Co’s alleged lack of telecomms on the board

Malcolm Turnbull’s latest talking point is, to quote his Tweet, that: “there is a woeful lack of telecom expertise on the NBN Co”. Ahhh, you may think, at last, a nut with meat in it, the Achilles’ heel of the government’s oversight of the project, the weak link. And so on.

So what does the NBN Co board look like? I looked here  to check off relevant experience. Everybody on the board spans multiple industries, so this is a very inadequate summary. In essence I have picked out the “most relevant” experience for each board member.

Board Members – eight
Finance / law / corporate – three
Civil engineering infrastructure / management – three
Telecommunications – two

Well, telecommunications isn’t exactly absent, is it? Mike Quigley’s been there all his life, and Siobhan McKenna was in telecommunications advisory at McKinsey, which must count for something.

It’s hardly surprising that the finance-law-corporate experience (people like Malcolm, if you will) dominates: it probably does in most companies. Considering the considerable dollars NBN Co has to handle, that’s sensible.

And the other three board members? They’ve spent time around civil engineering and infrastructure, one way or another.

That’s very sensible.

The NBN is primarily a civil engineering project. It’s about pits and pipes, ducts and digging, lugging and logistics. The cables are comparatively trivial: they’re just what gets installed into those pits and pipes. The cables themselves are worth much less than the cost of the civil works. Even the equipment attaching to the ends of those cables is far less, in terms of the overall cost of the NBN, than the price of the civil works.

It won’t always be that way, of course: today, NBN Co is a construction company; at some point in the future, network operations will dominate. None of the board members are appointed forever, though: there’s time enough to cycle one kind of expertise out of the NBN Co board, and cycle in another kind.

But for now, this large and very expensive construction project is headed by a board which mostly comes from the worlds of “big business” and “big civil”.

Sounds about right to me.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The glory of children: Go and wash the dishes, jerks!

I was going to try and talk about a corporate scammer of very good name that plays the Internet invoice scam.

WTF. If idiots actually believe they’ve signed on with a high-profile accommodation booking site, I can’t help them.

Instead, I’ll talk about the strange intersect between shit activities and family life.

I once gave up on a discussion about the washing up, when someone told me they regarded it as slavery – as something his children would never have to suffer. QED the dishwashing machine.

I own a dishwasher now, my fifth. Only one has ever been any damn good at the job – an ancient Vulcan that had to be ditched when spare parts became unavailable. Apart from that, each one has been, from the cheap to the “it costs HOW much?” have disappointed.

When our sons were young – younger than ten – Ms T and I stopped trying to find a dishwasher that pleased us, that didn’t demand a half-hour of pre-rinse and frequent “be nice to an appliance” routines, and reverted to hand-washing. There remains an unused machine of decent brand, taking up space because we can’t figure out how to remodel the kitchen.

Then she fell ill.

Sometime in the last two years, between me trying to earn an income between a chair in the corner of a hospital room, a home office that’s usually on the dining table, and wielding a mop-and-bucket in a Blue Mountains eco-tourism resort – and Ms T splitting her time between hospital, the kitchen because she loves to put meals on our table, the best chair in front of the TV when there’s cricket, and so on – where was I?

Oh yeah.

The boys took over the washing up.

I was at the Royal Prince Alfred, anytime I wasn’t fixing breakfast, preparing dinner (under Ms T’s instructions), working in the seat in the corner, or picking them up from schools.

Evenings, my two sons had to themselves, and they – not I – decided to assume the burden of washing up for themselves.

And that’s the way they kept it.

It’s a matter of pride for them: Ms T cooks meals (which when life is good I will set against any meal); I earn money; they help us keep things going.

And they’re proud of it. If we remind them that something wasn’t cleaned properly, it’s personal.

There are other things they do, without hope or expectation or reward, beyond their devotion to their mother.

And before anybody decides to create some kind of “ideal” out of them: I can assure you that in a great many situations, they would rate as “pain in the arse of the whole world”. They need a cattle-prod to actually undertake school or university work. They don’t understand the difference between “conversational emphasis” and “too fucking loud”. They spend too much time on games, much as I once spent too much time trying to perfect my skills as a drummer in the late 1970s.

And they are gifts, wonders, treasures that would blush if the ever notice how highly I regard them. If they don’t see this, they won’t blush. If they do? Fine by me. They deserve my admiration, and they have it.

Now, you loudmouth, game-obsessed, unscholarly lazy jerks: go and wash the dishes! :-)

We consider you two boys the unvarnished gold of our lives. You can live the shit-life of chemotherapy without cringing, will volunteer for things worse than mere dish-washing without flinching, will live the life of chronic illness without it even denting your savoir-faire. You are stronger than I could have been.

Please, in the outside world, can I account this as success as a father? Can Ms T and I believe we were good parents?


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Generic drugs: good for the PBS

Since someone on Twitter has no idea about “chemo day”, and sees fit to tell me I don’t know, let me tell you what it’s like.

Today, Ms T didn’t get her usual chair in “siberia” – that part of the chemo suite reserved for people both on cytotoxins and with superbug-risk. Someone else was there first, so she had the chair next door.

He was an old gentleman who’d arrived, been given morphine, been sent off to get an MRI before his chemo (this sounds bad to me), returned, and waited. Then, before his chemo, he was visited by another doctor, given a butterfly for morphia, recommended for admission and assigned a bed, and sent off again for another MRI because they “wanted more information”. This sounds really bad to me.

On the other side was a teenager who nearly broke my heart: the beautiful-but-hairless that mostly I’d only seen in fundraiser ads (and in our adventures at RPA, we’ve met many cancered-and/or-transplant teenagers).

And there were the carers. On one side, a sixtyish woman fussing over her husband; on the other, a fortyish woman fussing over her daughter. In the middle, us: me arriving late, because I’d had other things to do today, Ms T waiting after some hours because the chemo suite is busy.

We were, remember, in a corner: sibera. The rest of the suite has maybe thirty chairs.

We got through with the small pleasantries that make tolerable being around so much grief. Everybody here is dying, and the carers are all cheerful. “Oh, I can’t stand to see the needle going in.” “I fainted once, so I must be worse than you.” From the teenager’s seat: “Pussies! I have to get the needle IN me, and my bags are bigger than yours!” (She was right. She had a line-up that looked like three liters).

Every single drug these three were receiving was an unbranded generic. There were two cyclophosphamide patients, one on something I didn’t recognise but didn’t come with a “big name” above the chemical name.

We all smiled and chatted. All of us thanked the nurses, whose job I wouldn’t take at two hundred thousand a year, who were invariably happy and gentle and solicitous. We chatted en-passant, wheeled our respective patients’ assemblies towards the toilets as required, tried not to invade each others’ privacy (funny thing: cram people in desperate circumstances into a tight space, and we’re all sensitive to each others’ privacy), and tried to smile.

In another corner of the world, the government has decided not to pay full-price for one cancer drug that’s now available as a generic. In essence the policy is this: “since the drug is available for $X, we will pay $X. If big pharma wants to supply at that price, fine. If not, we will buy it as a generic and pay $X.”

Whaddaya know? Within nanoseconds, the entire Big Pharma machine is in swing.

I know how the machine works. I once worked for the publisher of Australian Doctor, and not only did I get a close-up day-to-day of the machine, I had an internal training session on its practises.

The “desperate patient” is the poster-child of any pharmaceutical campaign, whether it’s for Viagra, the creation of a brand-new (medicable) psych complaint, or “protect this cancer treatment”.

The last one is the best. Who’s going to argue with a cancer patient’s needs?

Me. Someone inside the system. Someone who’s seen it at work. Someone who knows how it works, both as a journalist and carer.

The entire pharmaceutical campaign over the funding of one – just one – drug is based on a simple premise: most people don’t know.

The big thing they don’t know is this: most of the drugs you get in a hospital are generic. From the paracetamol up. Want an anti-emetic? It’ll be generic. Need morphia? Ditto. Artificial morphioid? Yep, generic. Cancer drug?

That’s the sensitive issue, but: most of the drugs used to fight cancers are out of patent, dispensed as generics. Not one person receiving those drugs wants them. They just need them – and don’t care about the brand name.

Some of those drugs are used for other things, like locking down the immune system. Cyclophosphamide, my wife’s drug of choice, came out of the 1950s: anyone arguing that the government must fund its branded versions, Cytoxan, Endoxan, Neosar, etcetera, merely to demonstrate its “commitment” to the health system?


When the premium for the brand could be spent somewhere else?


Should “paracetamol 500 mg” be replaced with a branded product at six times the price, in hospitals, merely as an icon of our “commitment to excellence” or some such shit?


Should the pharmacist insist that Ms T be dispensed with “Immuran” instead of Azathioprine, just so the government can pay more on the PBS to get the brand instead of the chemical compound?


There is no good argument for demanding that the government pay a brand-premium, when “brand” exists only as an emotional consumer artefact to get people to pay premiums that they don’t have to pay.

The idea that “extra spending” should happen as a symbol of “commitment” is childish and simplistic.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Open government spatial data: do it but don’t do it badly

I’m in favour of open government spatial data, I really am, but for the love of all things holy, why is it done so badly?

I don’t mean “badly” as in “you just have to know X and it will be fine”. I mean “badly” as in “Australia’s governments are embracing open data with unusable agglomerations that look like they were Web sites designed in 1993”.

The idea, it seems, is to start by creating portals that provide single-point-of-access to data that used to be held in different agencies – or still are held in those agencies. So what do you end up with? Generally, an unnavigable shambles that takes ages to navigate, and when you get somewhere, it was barely worth it.

Let’s get specific for a moment. Here’s one of the ACT Government’s datasets:

This is “Geographic data for the ACT, including ACT Legislative Assembly electorate boundaries, and boundaries for the Territory, districts and suburbs. There is also data for water feaures and Gazetted Feature Names.”

Well, as you can see, the display is less-than-useful. Too much of the screen real estate is devoted to everything but the map. And what does this page actually do? It takes a few already-available data sets, serves them out of (I think) an Arcgis server, and overlays it on a Google Map.

All of this is pretty, but to someone who does GIS, it’s useless. I’d still have to download the shapes to do anything with them. Now, take a look at the bit I circled in the screen-shot.

To add a dataset layer, you need to know the dataset name – which means you need to be already familiar with the metadata. If you wanted – who knows why – to add bus-stops to this not-useful display, you need to know exactly what the bus-stop dataset is called.

Once you zoom in, the profound uselessness of the display becomes apparent:


Yes, the download becomes convenient. And thankfully, it’s at least organised well: the individual layers aren’t blended into one set of vectors, as I’ve known some of the idiots of online mapping to do.

And there’s this, from the bus-stop data table:

OK, it’s a simple parse error in the data import – but since it hasn’t been noticed, and recurs in other data sets, it suggests two things: (1) nobody ran a simple database query to see if their data import worked right, and (2) there aren’t that many users.

It’s not just the ACT, and it’s probably unfair of me to single the ACT out, but I’m not going to unpick the whole country. The ACT is at worst typical and better than some. Queensland has some dataset directory entries which, after you’ve clicked through a few navigation screens, turn out to be empty.

The thing is this: if you’re not going to make a very good directory, then merely doing an Open Government something because it’s the flavour of the month is a waste of money.

If I want electoral boundaries, Google will find them for me; ditto whatever street-level data exists. Topographic data in Australia is easy to find, thanks to Geosciences Australia, as is a lot of other spatial data.

And there’s the challenge, really: governments publishing the data sets aren’t spending their money wisely if their spiffy portals deliver results slower than Google searches. And map tools that do nothing but offer a passive display of one layer over another layer over another layer – are doing nothing but delivering up license fees to vendors.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Stop obsessing about Stratfor

Y’know what?

I don’t care whether someone had a meeting with Stratfor.

Let’s see. Stratfor’s own internal security was lame. Which suggests that, along with people like a CIA boss or Sony, Stratfor’s security was a pile of steaming dung. No surprises there: the number of “savvy” people with a slippery grasp of computer security seems astonishingly high.

But here’s the other thing: Stratfor’s intelligence was lame. It was second-rate stuff, cribbings from the local media with the kind of commentary that you get when most of the grunt-work comes from that optimistic slave-labour that Americans excuse under the word “intern”.

In another era, the work that Stratfor did would have been carried out by junior embassy staff as their first-year familiarisation: crib the local newspapers for relevant stories, write summaries, get them approved, and send them back home under the boss’s signature.

It's Reader's Digest stuff, literally: a news digest of local stories of interest to the diplomats.

Apart from a gossamer overlay of “analysis” from Stratfor, that’s what the outfit provided, because budget-counting idiots cut back on staff and outsourced the job at a higher price.

So if I get the stunning revelation that the current foreign minister met with Stratfor, I don’t think “international conspiracy”. I think “why is Bob Carr wasting his time with a bunch of losers who would provide more value behind the checkout counter at McDonalds?”

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The difference between community and business

Let me introduce you to a migrant, who I suppose is dead now, or if not dead, is extremely old. Julius Kulhan, butcher.

When my wife and I knew him as our butcher, he would not reveal to us exactly where he came from: it was somewhere in the Balkans, and when I asked, he responded sadly, “My country is no longer my country, so it has no name.”

He’d been a butcher a long time, when we met him. In our late twenties, he already looked like God’s older brother: small, thin, wrinkled, white-haired, and with the hands of a pre-OHS butcher (the left hand was in a permanent claw from injuries).

He’d left his home either during or directly after World War Two, and after some wandering – which included on-board butcher for Cunard, something I suppose you didn’t get to do if you were hopeless – he and his wife, Maria, settled in Australia.

And his shop, when we lived nearby, was at an insignificant corner in St Peters. It wasn’t even close to the bits of St Peters that today’s hipsters like – it was near where St Peters becomes Sydenham, and has since been turned into something horrible and modernist. So it goes.

In the early nineties, Ms T and I were seriously short of money. Our affordable mortgage had passed eighteen percent, and buying food was so troublesome that while having some friends around for dinner, we padded the salad with dandelion (which, I have to say, worked so well we will still do so from time to time!).

And Ms T was pregnant with our first.

Julius was a very cheap butcher: his life was constrained not by money, but by other circumstances (the health of his family). He didn’t get out much – for example, to check other butchers’ prices. His prices were based on "what I spend, plus enough for myself" - and he'd long since paid his mortgage, and lived above the shop.

Some of his specialties were first-rate: I was in the shop one Saturday morning to witness him rebuffing a Major Chain Buyer on the subject of bacon: “But if I sell all my bacon to you, what happens to my customers? No.” I will attest that his bacon was excellent: he had an arrangement with a Marrickville smallgoods producer which let him smoke things to his own specifications in their chimney.

Before I ramble too far, two points: one about community, the other about choosing a butcher.

About community: he was a true believer. He loved the country he found himself in – there was a little Australian flag in the shop – and the community he found himself in, even though much of the St Peters of his lifetime could fairly be describes as a slum.

We found out about his love of community when Ms T was pregnant and we were broke. He discovered that she had a passion for lamb’s fry (which is, when cooked with skill, something close to heaven). So once each month during her first pregnancy, he would save a lamb’s liver for her, price thirty cents. “She needs it for the baby”, Maria would explain. Others in the community who were regular customers also got treats: I once saw a desperate mother leaving the shop with a stock of lamb shanks that today would fetch on the plus side of twenty dollars. “No, no, two dollars, when you can.”

And I know that he wasn’t poor, if only because of the queues that would form when his regulars knew he always prepared something special: there was a calendar for the various smallgoods and sausages he hand-made, and at some times of the year, a little street-corner butcher in a slum would have Rolls-Royces parked outside.

And that brings me to the other point of this post: sausage.

Chains and supermarkets haven’t destroyed the family butcher in this country, thank heavens. But people without experience beyond ColesWorths don’t know how to tell a good butcher from a mug. 

Sausage is our family benchmark.

If the butcher cares – really cares – about sausage, then you can safely bet the butcher cares about everything.

We’ve had sausage that tasted like heaven, but in the cooking, stunk like cat piss. The butcher had a good recipe, but didn’t bother soaking the offal before dropping it in the sausage bucket.

Whereas someone who is the real thing wants everything about his sausage to be loved: the tying is perfect, there are no disappointments (or cat-piss stench) in the cooking, and the eating is right.

If you find a butcher whose sausage is good, the rest of his work will also be good.

Oh, and a local businessperson who loves his community? A pearl beyond price. Nobody resents someone who does well, if that person loves the customer as much as the customer loves the business. That is something that big business can never steal from the small, for all the worship bestowed on “customer relationship management.”