The Time Has Come (the Walrus said) Archives

Manufacturing in Australia

Over the last decade, I’ve worked in an industry that designed and actually made things – real products picked up and held by people, which can make their lives more comfortable.

And during the same time, much of the manufacture of those products, like so much else in this country, was shifted offshore.

The hard brutal truth in the move offshore was that by the time shipping costs and various taxes are taken into account, the offshoring of manufacture pretty much broke even. There is an exception: very high volume products which are highly labour intensive to manufacture will actually bring a one-time cost reduction when made in a country with lower labour costs.

But small to medium volume products don’t really give an actual improvement. Small to Medium means, in this context, volumes up to about 50,000 pieces / year. Below about 5000 pieces / year offshore makers generally won’t even be interested, and even at that low quantity the manufacture is usually done as a favour, as part of a deal where something in much more significant quantity is being made.

Although the offshore labour can be significant cheaper than making in Australia, the labour component of many modern electronic products is around 10% of the total cost of product manufacture. Result: if factory labour costs 1/2 as much in a foreign country, the resulting reduction in cost is about 5%.

In spite of membership of the World Trade Organisation, and the various mealy-mouthed platitudes uttered by pointy-headed economists, many of the foreign countries where products are now manufactured impose various charges – especially on foreign companies. Paying a bonus of 1 months pay is pretty normal. As is paying a county tax, a goods movement tax, a workers health care levy, the list goes on and on. These don’t figure in the headline labour rates (why ruin a good story?), and each is usually quite small – perhaps only 1% or so. But they add up and quickly reduce the benefit of the lower labour rate.

This all begs the question: How come stuff make in China / Vietnam / Malaysia / Cambodia / Thailand is so much cheaper?

The answer, as is often the case, is more complex than just “cheap labour” or the photos you occasionally see of Chinese factory sweat-shops.

In fact, modern foreign factories are frequently modern, with vast amounts of money and new technology thrown at them. Modern process flow-lines require a certain amount of investment – in planning, process worker training, infrastructure. None of this comes cheap.

Modern toolmaking in foreign countries uses the latest equipment for sintering, model-making, spark erosion, and so on. Again, none of this comes cheap.

Modern manufacturing relies on volumes, where economies of scale mean that profit margins can be cut and profit relies on high turnover. Economies of scale in turn mean that suppliers can be pressured to reduce prices or cut margins – again relying on high turnover.

The net effect of all these factors together means that offshore manufacture comes with a number of advantages:

- A lower labour rate reduces cost a little (and this is offset by taxes, charges, etc) making in many cases the labour component cost-neutral;

- Better productivity per worker can be achieved by eliminating batch-process style manufacture, and reducing work-in-progress (and thus having less capital tied up in partly made goods);

- But elimination of batch-process style manufacture requires significant investment in production facilities, equipment, training;

- Higher production rates achieve better pricing from suppliers;

- Investment in tools and technology allows faster production of tooling, at a lower cost (and where using the technology over and over means the investment can be paid off).

When many older Australian factories, set up through the 1950’s to 1980’s, are compared to a modern foreign factory, the difference is stark. The foreign factories are better designed, better lit, better planned, better resourced, and have more capital investment.

Where this really points is to a failure of Australian management, and Australian unions. Collectively they have signed the death-warrant for Australian manufacture. Their culpability comes down to simple factors:

- Excessive focus on short-term profits ($ today, ripped out, can’t be re-invested)

- Inability or unwillingness to try and get better prices from suppliers (Australia in global supply chains is seen as a bit of a back water, is frequently poorly serviced, and nobody wants to move on price);

- An unwillingness to spend on rejigging factories to use newer equipment (management don’t want to think or work hard, or try and justify a few million dollars of new investment);

- Unions who want to dig their heels in about work practices (seems they’d rather have their members out of a job than changing how they work);

- A frequent focus by management on “the bottom line” – that is, on costs. A better focus on the top line (sales, and growing them) is more work, but makes better profits that can be relied upon over longer periods.

THIS is why manufacture is going offshore: Mostly, its a failure of management.

Pommie Place Names

Got a pack of Jelly Beans for Christmas.

The manufacturer is is Snugborough Rd, Dublin.

How about some other names:

Chipping Sodbury
Creech St Michael
East Grinstead
Bishops Stortford
Stanstead Mountfitchet
Slubberdike Wood
Draycott in the Moors

We just don’t get names like this in Australia.

I kinda like these English place names. They clearly convey charm, quirkiness, history, and character.

Perhaps the one that is really amusing in a “what exactly do they mean” kind of way is Kingsbog, in Ireland. Exactly what kind of bog????

Defend or flee

While hunting around to find something software and geeky-related, I accidentally came across Sam Harris. And more particularly, an article about self-defence, violence, nicking orf. (Long read but worth it.)

The Chaps have been going to Kung Fu classes for years; there is a strong emphasis on self defence, but the instructor has one overriding piece of advice: all this stuff is very nice, but if you are in a sticky situation the best thing you can do is run like hell. Only if that won’t work do you try and use anything you are taught.

Martial Arts is more about self-discipline than actually to be used in anger, unless of course you are fortunate enough to star in the next Jackie Chan movie.


As I look around amongst the neighbours, and as I hear from colleagues and friends about their eating habits, I wonder more and more what has happened to the world of old.

That’s right, that’s the world where people and families sat at an actual TABLE and ate together.

This strange old habit seems to be dying out: sporting committments, people come and go at all hours, and crap on the TV to watch; all these conspire against the shared table. Last I knew, something like 80% of all households eat dinner in silence whilst watching the goggle box, be that at a dinner table, or mooching around in a lounge room with a big TV going and eating off their lap. [OK I made that number up, but I *did* read something along these lines somewhere, sometime, and the number was large and staggering.]

And we wonder why there are more dysfunctional families?

Even if you gobble and run, eating together at a shared table is a mark of civilisation and respect for one another. For busy people, it can also be one of the few times that a whole family come together and actually have a bit of a chat. Gosh fancy that – 15 minutes in a day to actually be together and talk. Maybe 30 minutes on a good day. Is that too much to ask?

I know firsthand how difficult this can be. Teenagers who are out and about, going to sporting and martial arts classes with early start times (6:30 pm) means that busy parents who might not get home until 6 or 6:30 certainly don’t have time for a civilised sit-down feed beforehand. That means dinner might be on the shared table at 8:00 pm, or later. This is what’s known as a pain in the neck, but the alternatives of eat-on-the-run and never see your family is worse.

Am I the odd one out in feeling the importance of the shared table and the family meal? It’s certainly hard work but I’m sure it is beneficial.

House or Home?

What is a house?

And what is a home?

To my way of thinking, a house is just a building. A structure, made of stuff, for people to live in. Any people, generic, plastic, cardboard cutout people who we don’t know and can’t relate to.

My home, though, is where I live. It’s mine, it’s personal and most of us have an attachment – be that through the vast amounts of money we had to spend or some emotional connection to the things we’ve done there.

Perhaps have make too fine a point on the distinction, but because I do, it rankles when I see real estate agents signs for “Home Sale”. No… its a HOUSE for sale. You BUY a house. You make that into a HOME. You can’t just buy one.

Nothing is permanent

Unions, government ministers, employees – all bemoan the ever falling number of “permanent, full time” positions in the economy. For over 30 years the notion of the traditional 9-5 full-time, permanent (and often male) employee has been slowing going the way of the dinosaur. Somehow, this trend is supposed to lead to the downfall of civilisation, increase school truancy rates, a worse sex life and dental cavities. OK I exaggerate about the cavities but you get the idea – less “permanent” employment is supposed to be B.A.D.

Don’t misunderstand – permanent employment (as opposed to being on some form of limited time or limited scope contract) has a whole stack of benefits. These include employment law favouring the employer for ownership of intellectual property (effectively, crudely, the employee is owned). Likewise for the employee a stack of things become no-worry issues: you get paid, your tax was taken out, your compulsory super contributions were made.

But come the first economic downturn, “permanent employment” is an oxymoron. Redundancy or other means are used to get rid of staff all the time. “Permanent” is not very permanent.

I grappled with this idea for years – the idea was to have a safe job which would pay the wages and allow safety, comfort and security. Eventually, the realisation dawned that this is all a fallacy. After over 20 years in a number of different companies where redundancy rounds were used every time the bottom line looked a little sick, the penny finally dropped: If you are not wanted, you will be gone. Permanent employment be damned. As far as I can tell, the only remaining real benefit of “permanent” employment is that it helps convince a banker to give you a housing loan, and the tax is pretty much automatic. Apart from that, its all an illusion pumped up by vested interest groups.

Safety and comfort come from your wits or intelligence. Security… pretty much likewise. As far as employment goes, there isn’t any.

Since leaving “permanent” employment, I have found a few things – kind of obvious really – that for many would be a put-off: doing invoices is a pain (and it’s done in your own time, no payment for that!). Likewise, doing GST and BAS returns is a pain. And chasing up unpaid invoices is an even bigger pain. It’s all possible, none is very difficult, it just consumes valuable time. Being employed makes all this go away. But being employed is not “permanent”.

Revived! Back from the dead!

Well… Hi…

After a 2 year holiday, Wally The Walrus has decided to make the occasional come-back appearance.

Because it is nearly 2 years since the last post, and that one was on a hot January day, I had originally thought write about the weather. After all, that’s the topic of conversation when most people meet. And here is little Adelaide we are now into day 3 of the heat-wave, with tomorrow forecast for 35 degrees C – so that will make it 4 in a row of 35 or over. New Years Day at 41 was not a lot of fun.

The trouble with yabbering on about the weather is that it’s a topic which is both boring, and predictable in its permanence: Too cold, too hot, too wet, too dry, or too windy. Throw in the odd “ooh isn’t it a nice day” and you have pretty much exhausted the subject matter.

Strangely though, this brought me to the subject of permanence. More particularly, for employment.

More soon.

Water, water everywhere

I’ve written before about water, consumption, waste, and foolishness. Time to spin the dice and drag out a random rant about water.

The Dump Household received the water bill recently. Our average daily water consumption during 2009, so far, has been the lowest in the last 4 years. My previous estimates of our consumption have been a little on the high side.

Our water bills now come with a nice graph showing consumption over previous years, average daily consumption over the last year, and a nice table showing typical customers. I homed in on the consumption for a house of 4 people, and am rather surprised to find:

For a house with 4 Occupants (daily consumption)

No garden: 355 to 440 litres
Small garden: 440 to 545 litres
Medium garden: 490 to 600 litres
Large garden: 595 to 740 litres

Living as we do in the driest state of the driest continent on Earth – as we were continually told when I was at school – water storage, and water use is a big deal. And water use on our gardens is a significant part of consumption so that we can have a nice environment to live in during the warmer months.

So, in the context of the above typical figures it came as a huge surprise to find our water consumption is a mere 365 litres per day. That’s for nearly everything – washing clothes, showers, toilets, and watering the garden. The exception is drinking water  - which comes from our own rainwater tank, in which a massive 200 litres can be stored and which does us all summer long.

That 365 litres includes two indulgences which I won’t back down on:

- I refuse to have a 4 minute shower. I have only 2 vices in this world – long showers and red wine, and I’m not going to give either of them up, thanks.

- We have an evil water wasting top-loader washing machine. Every front loader I’ve come across has a fatal design flaw: it’s a front loader. There is a huge pivot bearing at the back of the drum and they wear out due to the large forces involved. And they are without fail so damn slow that I fear reaching old age before they complete their idiotic cycles of backwardses and forwardses. So the top loader is not negotiable either.

However, the washing machine water does go on the lawn during the summer months, as does what we can collect using a bucket in the shower.

So our water consumption is 365 litres per day, which is in the range for 4 people in a house with either NO GARDEN, or a SMALL GARDEN. But we have neither. We live on an acre of land (about 0.4 hectares for those who speak the newfangled strange metric measure) – with fruit trees, lawns, gardens, roses. Keeping that alive with restrictions is very difficult. Keeping it alive and finding our consumption is about 1/2 what should be expected seems like a damn miracle.

I’m left wondering then, where on earth do people use water, if the normal consumption is around double what we use?

Which in turn brings me to three new points: Economics and the mentality of the masses, The failure of government policy, and Desalination. These I’ll cover in the next exciting instalment or two.

Writing, FakeBook, Twitter and Crap

In correspondence with another Blogger – who has stopped – I got to thinking about writing.

Once upon a time there were essays – thoughful pieces of a thousand words or three, written carefully, taking time. There were newspaper columns – a shorter version of the essay. Then weblogs aka blogs, anything between an unstructured rant, a dump, and a one-liner. Then MySpazz, FakeBook and Twitter came along.

The trend in all this is length. The amount written drops successively, with perhaps the exception of MySpazz, where you don’t write anything at all apart from comments in somebody’s comments about How Coolz iz u dude?

Fakebook encourages a publication of “friendship” – whatever that may be. And commentary on what one is doing RIGHT NOW, thus leading to a glimpse into the lives of those our paths have crossed. FakeBook includes various applications – you can link in published blogs, play games, and so on. Food for a trivial mind.

Twitter goes a step further – the commentary of fakebook is about where it ends. The utterances are called “tweets” – perhaps because of a desire to mimic the Dawn Chorus of birdlife but also to avoid the obvious other name for an outpouring of trivia. Sorry folks, but Twitter is for Twits.

Little messages (“I’m in Paris eating a baguette”) are mindless, thoughtless trivia which is good for a prurient audience but does not contribute to humanity. It’s not thoughtful or thought-provoking. It just encourages more mindless muck for the peasants. No wonder Media-Mike likes it.

In a world of trivial crap, we need a resurgence of the essay. Unlike a Kevin Rudd essay – 6000 words of unintelligible intellectualising is going too far -  we need a bit more writing that is clear, structured and thoughtful, or at least amusing. Less of the quantity, more of the quality.

What you going to cut?

The great Global Warming Talk-Fest of Copenhagen is coming up soon.

One of the common demands being made is for a cut of Carbon Dioxide emissions by 80% (by 2040 or something like that).

So, in purely practical terms, how can one cut emissions that much? Bear in mind that ranting about governments doing so is silly. Only PEOPLE can, by their actions, cut emissions. Everything else is fudging.

Cutting emissions by 80%, of neccessity means that emissions would be about 20% of what they are today. Allowing for renewables, perhaps more efficient transport and so on might deliver on some of this. But in the end people will have to change their ways.

What are you prepared to give up? Because change of lifestyle will be mandatory. The following are ALL essential to meet the target, so you can’t pick and choose. You need to do them all:

- Driving to work – only permitted one day a week. If cars get REALLY energy efficient, then 2 days per week might be possible. This assumes cars are twice as efficient as today. Electric cars don’t count, they only shift the emission somewhere else – to the big evil coal buring power station.

- Air travel – only one (return) overseas plane flight per lifetime. Choose wisely now! Jet engines might get more efficient, but doubling the km per litre of fuel? Maybe…. In which case, two overseas holidays per lifetime. And forget nipping over to Melbourne or Sydney to see friends on a cheap flight – that’ll be a complete no-no.

- Plasma TV – but you can only watch one night a week. If you have an LCD TV, you can watch 2 nights a week. Which won’t matter, because to use less power, radio TV stations will only be permitted to broadcast for 1.5 days per week. Perhaps this is no great loss.

- Backyard swimming pools – totally forbidden. Pools need to run the filter and pump typically a few hours each day in order to remain hygienic. If the pump can only be run for 20% of the time, the pool won’t be fit to use, so drain and fill it. This has the added benefit in a dry country plagued by drought of reducing domestic / city water consumption.

- Ditto spa’s of all kinds – heating the water means that these won’t be worth having.

- Assuming LED lighting is a success (it will be), the efficiency of lamps will be about 3 to 4 x incandescent. That means you can run your house lights for about 4, or maybe 5 nights a week. If you use only half of them, you can have light every night.

- Refrigerators larger than a bar fridge will have to become illegal. Beer fridges will be totally forbidden. Even these smaller fridges will be a stretch.

- All amplified music and rock concerts will have to set the volume no higher than 2 out of 10. Limiters will be imposed by law on all new audio equipment to enforce this.

- Cooked meals will be permitted for only 1 in 5 meals. Typically this means that a cooked dinner will be allowed roughly once every second evening.

- A hot shower will be permitted once every 5 days. The remaining time the water must not be heated to avoid burning anything. This does not present much of a problem on a 45 degree Adelaide summer day, but it will be something of a challenge for Melbournites during their winter.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Reducing emissions means using less. By us all. Does the above sound extreme? That’s what is being expected of us.


When I left University, 20-mumble or so years ago, I signed up at no cost to join the Alumni Association. For all that time, I’ve been receiving the occasional publication setting out what’s going on, new research, blah blah blah.

Some of this is good, some is bad. I’ve vaguely kept in touch with the University where I spent 5 years, and that gave me 2 degrees. Some of the administration and Vice-Chancellors who run the show day to day, have been good, some terrible. Some interesting, and some excruciatingly boring.

And along the way, I’ve been an occasional donor to the various appeals – money for library collections, but more particularly, funds for student scholarships.

I donate for a few very good and simple reasons:

- I was the beneficiary of Gough Whitlam’s free tertiary education; modern students (thanks I might add to a later Labor Government) are not so fortunate. My parents – who no doubt on reading this may disagree – were not hugely well off, and paying fees would have been either a huge stretch or meant I would not have gone at all;

- My wife is likewise the beneficiary of the free tertiary education – in her case, the parents were even less well off  - but ended up with three University educated daughters – courtesy of Gough or the once-generous government scholarship system;

- And finally – I only just managed to scrape into what I wanted to study. I crept over the cutoff score by 3 points in the equivalent back in those days of the TER. I think I was the lowest scored entrant that year – but entry scores don’t prove everything because I still managed 2 degrees (1 with honours and an invitation to two extra honours years in two other disciplines as well), and left with a bag full of distinctions.

Supporting students who are not so well off is something I care about. It helped me along the way, so the idea of giving something back for future generations matters – especially in the land of HECS, and fees, and parsimonious governments who make it much harder for students to study.

So it pains me when I receive the annual published list of donors – never showing dollar amounts – just donors of anything. And on that list I see the old lecturers, tutors, professors and staff. And bugger all of the students I spent 5 years of my life with.

I wonder what they think of the education and opportunities they received, and whether they are grateful for it? If they are – I’d hope now is time to show it. Most of my cohort should be middle aged and debt free – finding $20 to $100 a year to chuck in a scholarship find should be immaterial. And the help is immeasurable. Time to give a little back.

Great Googling Gaggles of Bookses

There has been a great furore a-brewin over the dreaded Google getting out there and scanning books to add to the stuff they index, so us plebs can search it.

In general there seems little dispute about the desirability of scanning, indexing, and presenting whole books that are out of copyright. In other words, written over about 100 to 150 years ago. Pretty much everyone can get the reasoning – literature and knowledge that it inaccessible or out of print is suddenly accessible again: I don’t have to travel to some dusty library in Alexandria in order to ferret out an exotic tome on the legal principles underpinning grain transport in ancient Babylon.

Where everybody (especially publishers) is getting in a lather is about books that are still in copyright – in other words, younger than 50 years after the death of the author. That’s pretty much the vast majority of books in the world.

The concerns here seem to be twofold – how the deals are done with the copyright owners, and the general principle of digitising an in-copyright book in the first place.

The big trouble with all the excitement is the publishing industry need to understand their role. The publishing house has always been the middle-man between author and market – weeding out the rubbish, editing, arranging printing and distribution, collecting the money, paying the authors yada yada yada.

The publishing houses control the supply. So when you want to buy a book, and can’t because it’s out of print – that’s the publishing house saying “you want to give me money but I don’t want to take it. And if you are naughty and get that book and stick it on the photocopier then it’s illegal and I’ll get very grumpy with you.” Heads they win, tails you lose. In this case, so does the author.

Allowing books to be on-line, searchable, browseable, puts the power back in the hands of the readers. We don’t have to suffer the tyranny of distance (to the dusty library). Even better – by searching the content of a book we can find things we didn’t know we didn’t know. (A touch Rumsfeldian… think about it). Suddenly, knowledge and literature is available.

For books in copyright but out of print – nobody is going to lose money if the book is suddenly on-line. It wasn’t available, remember?

For books in copyright and in print, the approach used is to allow only a portion of the book to be viewed (but still a full content search). So I can see the few pages of interest when I want to know about Crypographic Ciphers, or All Animals Being Equal But Some More Equal Than Others*, or Accounting Standards, or Pipe bend radii in 1/8 inch mild steel pipes. And if I find that the book is useful, and available I can go buy it. Before search, I didn’t even know it was there so that I could buy it. Or I could only search a bookstore by title. Slow, dull, and requires great leaps of faith.

Book search and browse makes the world a better place – it puts more knowledge where it is most useful, at low cost. And those who want to buy now know what to buy. Copyright owners should see more sales, not less.

What’s the big deal? Get on with it.


* I”m pretty sure that the estate of George Orwell are being a bit difficult about his books going on line. Time to get over it, methinks.

Useless, completely useless

While the family were telling bad jokes over the dinner table, my mind was wandering. And it landed on VCRs. As you do.

I think we bought our first VCR about 14 years ago. So about 1995, maybe ‘94. Whatever. Far from being top of the range, it was roughly middling, and set us back about $500. I well remember that amount, because it was about a weeks wages (after tax). Maybe a touch less. It seemed like a heck of a lot of money back then. The model with G-code was about $100 more.

That machine lasted for around 7 or 8 years. At one stage it broke, and we had it apart on the lounge room coffee table, in pieces for weeks finding the bit in the mechanical gubbins that had broken. It was some big toothed wheel thing with cam follower slots in, or something equally peculiar and mechanical. We could even, in those days, buy a NEW PART, rather than a whole assembly. The repair cost $3 because that’s what the big toothed wheel thing with cam follower slots in cost. Our labour to re-assemble it was free.

Likewise, it would stop playing after a while, because the heads needed cleaning. It had a special mechanical automatic-head-cleaner-ator, but this wore out after a few years. Head cleaning tapes didn’t work so I used to pull it apart and clean it with special head cleaning alcohol, in place of the automatic-head-cleaner-ator.

One day it died so badly that it was beyond repair. So we bought the replacement we still have. This must have been about 2003, or thereabouts. The new one came with G-code (wow!! a cool feature!). And it cost about $250. More stuff for less $$.

About a year ago we bought a hard disk recorder. $500 obtained digital TV, about 9000 hours of recording time, random searching, playback while recording. Blah blah blah. And electronic program guide. Even more stuff… more $, but allowing for inflation – far cheaper than that original VCR.

Which remininscences brings me to the point of this ramble. G-code. Anybody remember that?

A magic number placed in the printed TV program guides published in the newspaper. Enter the G-code and the machine would automagically select the right channel, start time, and stop time.

Two fatal flaws were glossed over in the rush to have the must-have feature:

- Firstly, G-code just coded the channel and times. There was no synchronisation with the transmitted signal. If the station started early, or ran late, tough. You missed recording bits of the program you wanted. And worse, in some places (like where I live) the G-codes would always enter Eastern Standard Time. Fine if you live in that time zone. Useless elsewhere.

- Secondly, for a program that repeated at the same time each week, G-Code could not code the repeat. So even if you entered the G-Code, you had to edit the programming of the machine anyhow.

And, if you had the printed guide (with the G-code numbers in) it was just as easy to enter the start and stop times with a 5 minute allowance either side. You got better results and missed less of your program.

And did anybody even pay attention to the copyright notice? It used to appear under the program guide and say something illuminating like “G-Code numbers are copyright by blah blah corporation and may not be used or reproduced without permission blah blah blah.”


G-code was therefore, in my experience, completely useless. But it sold premium VCRs and must have made a packet in licence fees for Mr G, the inventor. Thank heavens junk like this is obsoleted by digital TV.


I just finished reading a novel by PD James.

More fool me I suppose. I just don’t like the rather prissy way she writes, I’d figured this out years ago. But I got bored and picked one up a week or two ago.

PD James is now in her 70’s, or thereabouts, and it shows. The style of writing is from a bygone age, when words were crafted for how they sounded, as much if not more than what they meant.

Here is an example, which I found particularly irritating:

An arrow in white wood with the words ‘Perigold Pottery’ painted in black was fixed to a post stuck into the grass of the verge.

This sentance, at first glance, seems just fine. Once you start to analyse the grammar, it’s actually very difficult to understand. There are 7 subjects (things being referenced) here: the arrow, the wood, the words, the paint, the post, the grass, and the verge. In a single sentence!

This could be be re-written: “A post stuck in the grass of the verge had an arrow, showing the words ‘Perigold Pottery’”. Or it could be trimmed even more, and just say there was sign. Why all the excessive detail? It was of no relevance whatsoever to the story.

There are more examples than I care to go and find, that above is only notable because my irritation level had risen to the point where I wanted to grab a red pen and start marking up changes to the text.

Modern writing tends to be tighter, more terse, and requires far less hard intellectual work to read. Desirable, when we read for pleasure or to escape the hard intellectual work of the daily grind. Don’t give me more of what I’m trying to escape from!


Friday Photo (on a Sunday)

Todays Friday Photo comes from Lucerne (Luzern), Switzerland.

We spent a day in Lucerne about 20 years ago, and liked it so much that we had to go back. That, and it was an easy jumping-off place to head up Mount Titlis.

Switzerland is expensive.  Food is expensive.  Hotels are expensive.  And the old town part of Lucerne is simply stunning.  Each Saturday, two markets appear – a food market on one side of the river, and the bric-a-brac (aka junk) market on the other.

We were staying right on the waterfront – alongside the river, so the food market appeared overnight, right outside our window.  Everything appears very quietly – it wasn’t until the Saturday morning that I opened up the window and found bustling market outside!

It was fascinating walking along the side of the river,  looking at what is on sale, and looking at the people.

So today’s Friday Photo is the horse dog at the riverside cafe. Flick back and forward through some of the other photos so see more of Lucerne.  I’m still adding these, one per day, so all of Lucerne will be there in about another week.


Click to embiggerate.

Recession, what recession?

Twice in the last seven days, we’ve visited the electrical goods store of a certain monster-national-housewares-retail-chain, let’s call it Hardly Normal.

The fandangled new “Gepps Cross Homemaker Centre” (and for you out-o-towners, it’s pronounced “Jeps” – as in Jets and replace the t with a p). Anyhoooooooo… This place opened with some fanfare a couple of weeks ago.  Fun it aint. The car parks are a maze, and you get the twin excitments of playing “dodge” as well as “spot the brain cell” when making your way from the car to any of the buildings. This, because the car park design is such that pedestrians were never considered – to get where you need to go you either walk on the roadways or leap over the newly planted garden beds.  And its a concrete jungle.  Certainly on the outside, it’s big, bold, and boring.

The Hardly’s store in this place is just a relocation of the store that was a little down the road. It’s not new in the area.

Our first visit to the Gepps Cross Hardly’s was earlier in the week, when I had a day off from work.  The place was packed, on a Tuesday at 11am. Tuesday was the start. The lead-in.  The teaser.  The visit to look at LCD TV’s,  figure out how big they are,  and how much they cost.

So after looking and doing a bit of research during the rest of the week,  today we made the journey back from Outer Bogansville to Gepps Cross Boringsville.

Now knock me down with a feather.  I thought we were supposed to be in recession.  Somebody forget to tell Mr Hardly.  The place was as packed as an Ikea store on a long weekend, but thankfully without the evil floorplan.  We had to stand around for 20 minutes just to catch a salesman,  so we could spend 4 minutes haggling the price down.

During the entire hour and half we were there,  the queue for the cahiers never shrunk below 100 metres long,  and at times ran the full depth of the store.  Having struck our deal,  we spent 45 minutes in the cashier queue waiting to pay our money.

Who says the economy is crook?  Clearly, it’s doing very nicely here in the The Deep North.

There needs to be a new measure of economic health:  Monitor the heart rate of a Hardly Normal cashier on a Saturday afternoon.  If heart rate approaches medical norms,  then the economy is sick.  Based on today’s carefully collected evidence, we’re a long,  long way from that case.

Green what?

Here’s a curious thing. There is some new charity house being erected in Blackwood (SA). It supposedly has an 8 green star rating.

All well and good, but 2 of those stars come from the use of special green star concrete.

“Green Star Concrete have supplied a number of housing projects through out Adelaide, using specialized concrete mixes containing over 55% recycled aggregates … The Green Star Building Council recognises the use of recycled aggregates in the production of concrete – plus the use of fly ash – to obtain a 2-Star Green Star rating.”

Now the use of recycled materials in the manufacture of cement, the use of fly ash (otherwise a waste product) – these are all good and noble things.

But doesn’t it seem a little odd that I can buy an existing house on a block of land, bulldoze the perfectly good but “old fashioned” house and build a “modern” house, where 55% of the concrete for the new house is recycled from the old house.

The only way to get recycled (using energy) materials is to destroy (using energy) something that already exists (has embodied energy) so we can build something new (using energy).

How is this so-called progress worthy of a star rating?

Does anybody else see a tiny contradiction in values here?

(with thanks to DB for pointing this out)

Pig of a thing

Does anybody else think that this Swine Flu thing is getting a little out of hand?

My sister in Germany reports that it rates not a barest mention in Berlin.

Friends wtih relatives in Denmark report that it has no visibility in their news.

Those who have been found the have “Swine Flu” are back at school/work within a week. You can be off for that long with a heavy cold. REAL FLU knows you over, shakes, fever, aches. REAL FLU is so bad you can’t get out of bed for 2 or 3 days, and will be sick for about a fortnight.

This all seems like a huge beat-up. Who benefits from this bullshit?

Share options and start-ups

Todays Financial Review carries an article whining about the new tax rules on shares options.

A quick summary: The government have changed the tax rules so that shares granted are taxed on receipt, instead of when the shares are eventually sold.

Example (taken directly from the newspaper in another article): Suppose company X has little money and does not want to pay big salaries. So it gives it’s employees share options in the company. The option entitles the person to receive shares at a fixed price at some later date – usually provided certain performance targets are met. The assumption is that the shares will be worth more than is paid for them, and when sold the government gets its slice via capital gains tax and the employee cleans up. This compensates for a lousy salary.

[Just to muddy the waters, examples are being thrown around citing cases where employees receive shares, rather than options, to prove that there will in the long term be less tax paid. Gah. Keep the story consistent, please.]

The particular whinge is for start-ups who want to issue options rather than shares, and do this instead of salary – or in leiu of a larger salary.

The reason the government have changed the rules is simple – it’s a loophole. If an employee is paid in cash, then income tax is paid. If an empl0yee is paid in kind (school fees, house mortgage, etc) then Fringe Benefits tax is paid. So why should the issue of shares or options be any different?

Next… bear with me… Options.

The trouble with options is folk (and especially company directors) think they are somehow magical: they cost the company nothing but give great value to the employee. The ultimate Magic Pudding. The trouble with options is they are a RIGHT to do something at a later time. There is no obligation to exercise the right. (Suppose the share price tanks and is below the price at which the options can be used to buy shares… you’d hardly exercise the options if you could buy cheaper on the open market.) So placing a value on the options is difficult. If the market value rises, the options are worth something. If the market value falls, the options are just a bunch of junk.

So the effect of the changes to the tax law is to make it difficult or expensive to issue options, and doubly so because tax has to be paid up front for something of unknown future value.

Perhaps it’s a good time to get rid of the unscrupulous and immoral practice of issuing options!

If start-up companies REALLY want to give their employees some stake in the company with a future benefit through share sales, they can just fall back on the good old fashioned way. SELL THE EMPLOYEES THE SHARES! This is done all the time. It’s called a Capital Raising.

Furthermore, in a private company, or an unlisted public company – there is no open market, so the share price is whatever the parties agree it should be. There is plenty of scope for selling employees shares at an (agreed) low price. No options. No grant of free shares. No problem. Stop bloody whining.

National Broadband = national censorship

So our Federal Government decided that they will build a new National Broadband Network covering most of the country. When it was election policy it was to cost of about $13 billion.

Now its even bigger, better, and shinier than before – with a price tag of about $43 billion.

In a country of about 20 million people, that means the cost to the taxpayers for this new broadband system will be about $2000 per person, whether used or not. And all for something about 4 or 5 times faster than we can get right now using ADSL2.

Stop and think for a moment. All that money to deliver something that, in large measure, we already have. Sure the current technology is a bit iffy here and there and the coverage is not universal. Sure, it can be ramped up a bit more.

But stop and think a bit more. Why would a government want to duplicate what is already being run by Telstra, Optus, AAPT, and the myriad operators of other telecommunication infrastructure? Sure, Telstra is the elephant in the room – but the other operators are not exactly asleep. when Telstra gouges the prices, others move in to build something with which to compete. That’s the market at work.

Sure, Telstra could be regulated harder. Or have its infrastructure nationalised. Oops – can’t do that. It used to be nationalised before!

Is there some other agenda, perhaps?

This all coming from the same government that wants to censor the internet in Australia, and which has a vast amount of push-back from the ISPs.

Could the government perhaps want to build and control the infrastructure in order to bring the recalcitrant ISP’s into line?

After all – if you control the tubes, you control what goes in and what goes out.

Are they really that desperate to control the message they they would spend this much money on doing so?


Just imagine…

So Sol and the three amigos are gone from Telstra, and now the chairman of the board as well.

Donald McGauchie was formerly with the National Farmers Federation, and had a lot to do with it’s conspiracy, along with Peter Reith and Chris Corrigan, to overthrow the waterfront unions. The TV series “Bastard Boys” showed all the emoting in glorious detail – though McGauchie’s part was pretty small in that series and Corrigan took a battering.

Interestingly, it turns out he was also a director of James Hardie Industries, back in 2004, about the time they were trying to squirm out of Asbestos liabilities. Strange how the other directors have been tarnished, and McGauchie hasn’t.

After being so cosy with government during the waterfront dispute, he moved on and became chairman of Telstra. He played a major part in getting Trujillo appointed, and had a big part in the strategy of taking on his former mates in the Federal Government.

After 5 years of fighting,  McGauchie has finally got his comeuppance. He’s been pushed off the Telstra board, having made things there go from bad to worse.

Just imagine where Telstra might be with less energy spent fighting.

Imagine a Telstra that:

- Had staff who know what they are doing and want to serve customers

- Had a wholesale division that worked with competitors, instead of against them, to make a bigger pie for all

- Had better and more competitive pricing, encouraging higher take-up and innovation comparable to European telcos

- Worked with the government to deliver better, faster broadband instead of causing a government to spend a stupid amount of money duplicating what Telstra already have

Much, if not all, of this mess can be laid at the feet of McGauchie and Trujillo. Both now gone, with a huge mess left behind. In the case of McGauchie, much like the mess he’s left behind elsewhere.

Good riddance.

Understanding – again

Following the previous post about understanding – a few more comments are worth passing, about people, things, and practices that get my goat.

Open Plan

Lets start with the evils of open plan offices. If ever there was something designed by a lunatic from a fun-factory, it would have to be open-plan.

Small groups, working together in the same space can work fairly well. But putting 20, 40, or 200 people in one big zoo and expecting it to work well is fantasy. All the excuses given about creating team spirit, opening the lines of communication, and so on are bullshit. Some people believe all this stuff, especially architects (another profession, who, with economists, we need less of).

Mainly, managements like open plan because its cheap. Few will actually admit that. What it does, more than anything else, is make a constant undercurrent of noise which is distracting at best, and destructive of thought at worst.

It’s common in open plan offices for some staff to wear headphones or ear-muffs. The high-tech savvy people get noise-cancelling headphones.

It’s likewise common for people to try and work from home to avoid the distractions, or to go find a quiet meeting room somewhere.

And the real dills are the people who use speakerphone in an open plan office. Take the silly mongrels out and shoot them.

How are all these things indicative of a good, productive work place? They aren’t. Indicative of control freak management, cost cutting, and woolly-headed thinking, more like.

Where open plan CAN work, is for groups who need to come up with creative ideas – advertising agencies spring to mind. Chuck a few ideas around, start to finish on a job might be 2 weeks. Here, free flowing discussion is a good thing.

For the professions who need thinking time, and where complex problems need to be solved over a period of a month, a year, or two, its all a disaster. How many university professors work in an open plan office with their PhD students? I’ll tell you: NONE. And for good reason.

Laptops, Lifelines, and Lifestyle

All those people with laptops who pull them out on plains, trains, and during a drive somewhere. Or who think they can do some work in the lounge with the kids running around (”oh, golly, with this I can change the way I live and spend more time with the kids.”).

Yeah right. What utter tosh. If you are some big nob who reads the work of others – maybe. If you have the attention span of a small dead ferret – maybe.

If you have to prepare a presentation, analyse financial accounts, write software, prepare a legal judgement… you won’t be doing it in the lounge with the kids running around. You won’t be doing it on a plane, or in a train. You won’t be doing it using the Blackberry or the 3G-HSPDA-WCDMA-3GSM-blah-blah iPhoneDangled thingy. Because none of those things, toys, or situations let you THINK.


With all the toys, and all the bullshit work environments, all the emphasis on noise and action, it’s a wonder anything gets achieved at all in some workplaces. A triumph of image over substance.

Activity without thinking leads to the death of enterprises. So why are so many trying to do just that?


In a brilliant post, here, Raymond Chen makes a nice point about UNDERSTANDING.

By crikey, I can identify with that. (Work colleagues who might read this – I’m generally not referring to you!).

I used to work years ago with guys writing software, who never really knew what they were doing. Their attitude, and they would say it aloud was “Hmm, that didn’t work. I’ll just TRY THIS.” And then furiously bash away at the keyboard some more. It took enormous will power to stop from bashing their fingers off the keyboard and yelling “stop, think!”. Instead I had to patiently sit with these guys and walk them through a process of stopping, thinking, evaluating, considering, looking at their coding – and only then, changing something in a slow an considered way.

I wanted an old fashioned school teachers yard-stick (metre long ruler, these days), to WHACK THE HANDS of those who rush in where anybody should fear to tread.

Programmers who furiously rush in to change things without thinking give the illusion of being terribly active and busy. Busy without thought does not produce results. Thought, then busy, works better.

The rush to action was, I think, motivated by laziness. However, to think first, and then act is even lazier. Another reason I prefer it.

The national broadband plan…

… has been changed again.

It seems all the tenders were sufficiently non-compliant that the government has decided to do it themselves.

Oh. Dear.

The government once had a company to do all this, with the technical know-how. Howard flogged it off. It’s called Telstra – aka still the Elephant In The Room.

Mixing technology and politicians is like mixing oil and water… they dont go, all you get is a rainbow sheen of reflected bullshit.

Where has all the productivity growth gone?

Over on the Value Investing blog, James Carlisle asks “Where has all the productivity growth gone?”

Over the last 20 years or more we’ve been told that employee productivity – that is, us workers, has grown by something like 3% or more a year. Part of this has been due to productivity aids like automation, IT systems, removal of beaurocracy, less layers of management, and so on and on.

The commonly accepted wisdom is that IT systems (the PC on every desk, fuelled up with software from Mr Gates and others) have driven most of the gains.

I posted a long comment, which I reproduce below in slightly edited form, in which I argue that most of the gains are either illusory, delusional, or one-off in nature.


I expect a great deal of the claimed productivity growth to be illusory – the product of the fevered imagings of managers, economists, and the salesmen for IT companies.

We can split an analysis into 3 main activities in the broader economy:
- Administration, support and services
- Design and development
- Manufacturing

Administration, support & services

In general, jobs like waiting tables, doing tax, purchasing paper clips for the office and so on have not changed a great deal. A waiter can only walk so fast, doing tax gets more complex not less (though spreadsheets help to even the score a bit here), and purchasing is still purchasing.

The methods of doing these things might have changed a little: waiters have point of sale computer systems – but these primarily remove error, they don’t get orders in a kitchen faster, they don’t get meals cooked faster. A purchase order is still a purchase order. The typing pools for those disappeared in the 1980s, so IT systems have done the work for over 20 years. Some suppliers now allow on-line orders – but hasn’t this just replaced the phone call?

So in all these parts of the economy, which I collectively lump together as “services”, productivity gains have been pretty small. There may have been some one-off gains back in the 1980’s, but since then there is not really a lot more left to wring out.

Product Design and development

Once upon a time, before the days of the PC on every desk – in other words prior to about 1990 for you young ‘uns, things got done. Smart folk designed washing machines and bits of electronics, and bridges and buildings. Sure it was all done on drawing boards with ink, and the clever guys stood around a blackboard arguing the merits of their ideas. Paper based design documents were slow and painful to produce, and kept to the bare essentials.

Now we have computer systems that make it easier and faster to write software, design electronics, and design bridges, buildings, widgets and what-not. We have CAD packages and software source management systems, electronic circuits can be designed using software that’s free on a $1000 PC instead of needing a mainframe in a room full of white coated keepers.

At the same time, though, the complexity has increased (compare a car or washing machine of today and 20 years ago). In addition, the ligitious nature of our society means that more needs to be taken into account, more documentation produced and archived in case of legal action.

So there have been huge productivity gains in all the product design activities, across all the disciplines, but these are again mainly one-off in nature and are counterbalanced by demands for the thingies being designed to do more.

Then there are the costs – you need systems and processes in place to backup the data, run the IT systems, archive documents, repair breakdowns, install data lines, service the UPS, and so on. There are now a whole range of essential service provision jobs that did not even exist 20 years ago, and they need to be paid for from something.

Let’s also mention email – something that didn’t exist years ago. Sure, it replaced the inter-office memo. But you generally only ever made a couple of copies, you didn’t send then to 10 or 20 people including the big boss fellas just to make the recipient look bad. Modern managers can receive 20 to 200 emails a day, and it’s very easy to spend 2, 3 or 4 hours every single day just reading and responding to email. The modern miracle of email with instant delivery has been one of the biggest productivity-destroyers in the history of the universe!

And with the PC and internet on every desk, now it’s very easy for people spend their day at work playing solitaire and reading the news sites. I personally don’t think design and development productivity has increased, overall, AT ALL in the last 20 years. The combination of easy goofing off, tools to remove drudgery, greater support costs, and greater demands all balance out.

Finally, and fundamentally, you can’t make people think or innovate faster in spite of books by Bill Gates. Ideas come about at the rate and times that ideas come about.


There have been numerous gains over the years, with automation robots, and moving it all to low labour-cost countries. Sometimes the gains there are illusory too: for example, transport can eat up all the gains you made from a lower labour cost. And if that doesn’t stiff you, exchange rates can bite you instead.

But especially in manufacturing, any savings due to productivity drive competition. Competition allows one maker to offer a lower price and increase market share – and all manufacturers are forced to play a game descending the ever-decreasing spiral of  lower prices.

Here’s an example. I bought a dishwasher 20 years ago, and it cost me $1000 on discount. It died 2 years ago so I bought a replacement, which cost me $600 on discount. They both do exactly the same job, they are both base models without frills. In real terms the price paid for that dishwasher has more than halved in a period of about 15 to 17 years.

So any productivity gains in manufacture didn’t end up with the manufacturer, or their shareholders. Those gains materialised as lower prices and consumers took the benefit.


There have been big productivity gains in manufacture that go to consumers, small if any gains in design and development, and little or no real gains anywhere else.

I’m also deeply suspicious of those who claim general long term productivity gains, especially over the last 20 years. I get that Mandy Rice-Davies feeling: “well, he would say that, wouldn’t he”.

A bushfire prediction

As the dust settles on the Victorian bushfires – for now – I offer this prediction.

This is based on long observation, old memories of the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires in South Australia, the later bushfires that began in the Adelaide Hills Stirling dump, and some of the newspaper reports now coming out.

Specifically, three reports:

- One from an expert on fires and fuel loads, who says that what happened is inevitable because of a refusal by both authorisities (local councils / shires) and people to do controlled fuel-reduction burns

- One about some people who were FINED for clearing scrub from around their house. Who then spent $100K on legal fees to eventually win against their council (who had fined them). Their house survived.

- And one about councils / shires in bushfire prone areas who encourage home owners to plant natives close to their houses.

So here are the predictions:

The Royal Commission will run for about 2 years, and hear much emotional and anguished evidence from many people.

Many experts and tree huggers will pontificate.

Greenies will claim that fuel reduction burning is bad / destroys habitat / hurts animals / damages trees / smells bad / is too difficult.

All of the old, old, well established and practical research and advice about fuel reduction (cool burning) will be dragged out AGAIN.

Many arsonists will be blamed for many of the ills.

The Royal Commission will eventually find that the land management practices of the shires involved were negligent, because of insufficient fuel reduction, poor building standards, poor enforcement of building standards, and in some cases just downrigh stupid practices.

Following this, the legal action will begin. This will run for another 2 to 3 years.

This will take the form of a class action lawsuit brought against the shire in question, which will be bankrupted in order to pay the damages awarded.

The shire / council will collapse and be forced to merge with another adjacent shire/council.

The people on the shire/council which caused the damage, due to their silly, ignorant or uninformed views, will escape with damaged repuations but no personal liability or damages award against them (such being the nature of corporate vs personal responsibility.


Sound far fetched?

This is the way it’s played out in South Australia several times. Short memories abound.

Wots in a name, then

Fellow blogger, Redcap, has categorised some of the modern wierdo spellings of children’s names as “SBG” names.

SBG means Shallow Bush Grave – the idea being that people with names like “Penzy Mae”, or “Shaniquwaah” seem to end up in the news, after being found buried in a Shallow Bush Grave.

Go over HERE and read all about it.

Well… somebody took exception, emailed her, and she’s had a suitable reply.

Strange though this might seem, I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book: “Freakonomics”, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The sub-title, appropriately enough is “A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything”.

The book covers a few topics, including school teachers who cheat in standardised tests (and how they were caught using statistical analysis), and “why is it that if drug dealers make so much money, so many live at home with their parents?”.

But the topic that really caught my attention was a rather long chapter on children’s names and their long term prospects and educational outcomes.

The study group is large, and comparisons are made in the changes over time to conventional, as well as unconventional, names.

The important conclusions from this are:

- children with strange names – be that odd spellings (JassMyn for Jasmin), or just unconventional (DeShawn) tend to be indicators for parents with low levels of education.

- children with strange names tend to have poorer outcomes.

- you can’t determine causality:

In some cases, the name IS USED to judge a person when applying for jobs and so on. If you can’t in the high door because of a strange name, you only get the low-door opportunities.

But in some cases, the poor outcomes for children are simply reflecting the poor outcomes their parents had, which is correlated with the level of the parents education.

(Which came first? Strange name caused a setback? Or a poor choice of parents caused a setback AND a strange name?)

So Redcap might not like the strange names. And some parents will get terribly defensive about their choice of strange names. In spite of the difficulties of causality, if a parent wants their children to do well in life there are some things that can help:

- don’t give a strange name with weird pronunciation or spelling. It just makes the kid have a life of unneeded torment.

- encourage as much education as possible.

- and if you are well educated as well, even better.

Rick Wagoner

Has nobody else noticed the irony?

The CEO of General Motors (now advancing with begging bowl outstretched to the US government) is Rick Wagoner.


This morning I’ve been to the last of the Saturday morning school cricket matches for this year.

Today’s match was at a school which shall remain nameless, in the very-deep northern suburbs.

Looking around, I noticed that the school swimming pool, so carefully fenced to a height of 2 metres, has been filled in. The changing rooms sit there, abandoned, with pigeons cooing from the rafters. The school is a strange mix of transportable wooden buildings from about 1950, and a few more modern brick buildings – from the 1960’s. That’s modern. There are windows that have been broken and boarded up, grass grows through cracks in the paving.

The one thing, the only thing, going for this school is the oval. Which is not an oval, because its a long rectangle. But it’s green, and they have a group of parents and kids out who are having a crack at playing cricket.

This school, and this neighbourhood, is a shithole. Lowest of the low working class, permanently poor. At least a few of them are getting out and trying.

And while sitting there and watching, I’m reading the paper. With an article in it about how parents are suffering because private school fees have gone up so much more than inflation.

This comes after a week where the Federal government have had a big fuss about accountability of private schools who receive over $20 BILLION of federal taxpayers money.

And contrast this with a few months ago when, done southish with friends, we went for a walk to a nearby school to kick a ball around. This was a private school, but we used the grounds anyhow (stuff em, my bloody taxes are paying for some of it). I felt literally sick – the amount of new building work being done (a new computer complex AND gymnasium) is obscene.

Those who want private schools to be unaccountable for their funding sources, and those who defend the right of private schools to get government money, should take a look. Take a good look, at the private schools with the endless building and improvement programs. Include in those the “independent” schools – usually religious, who have likewise grown like mad in the last decade. And take a look in the working class areas at the public schools. Walk around through the grounds of both. Do it on the same day.

We have, through deliberate government action, created a two-tier education system. It was done in the name of equity. That equity has failed miserably.

Something’s wrong, folks. And nobody is brave enought to fix it. All they want to do is whine about how hard it is to pay the private fees. Boo f$#@ing hoo.

Oh dear, oh dear

I really, seriously hope that John McCain (aka Robot Man) does not win the US Presidential Election.

The though of him dropping dead in office and leaving Sarah Palin as the rootin’, tootin, gun-shootin, Moose huntin’ pres of the USA is just too terrible to contemplate.

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