Too Busy For Words - The PaulWay Blog

Tue, 11 Feb 2014

The Day We Fight Back?

I've blacked out mabula.net and my partially complete Django replacement for it as part of:

The Day We Fight Back.

It's a token gesture, and I'd prefer something that actually causes a real change in the state of affairs. But hopefully the few people that visit my site will ask why its blacked out, and I'll tell them. Or they'll find out why for themselves. Or they'll know already.

Ultimately, the thing that worries me in all of this is that all the data collection, all the wire tapping and interception, all the bad cryptography and bastardised standards, all the spying and all the secrecy doesn't really improve our actual security. It hasn't found anything that normal detective work and normal policing and existing laws couldn't already deal with. It hasn't prevented any crimes, either against real people or against 'the state' or anything.

The 'baddies' are already adapting their methods and covering their tracks. There are far too many false positives, and much too much confirmation bias, to make the resulting 'intelligence' anything but a joke. The FBI already spends more money on covering up its mistakes - like its total waste of resources watching Brandon Mayfield - than it would if it had just asked him for an interview. Mean time they're missing the Boston Marathon bombers despite lots of evidence pointing to them. Then follows a lot of chest puffing and excuses and "we can't tell you the details, they're classified".

(Meanwhile, we have banks that are laundering money to supply to exactly the same terrorist organisations that get a slap-on-the-wrist fine and no jail time for anyone because they're "too big to fail". So not only did the NSA and all the security TLAs not find a massive source of funding for these organisations - something that's causing far more damage to USAdian society than 'terrorism' - but the entire rest of the government quietly brushed it under the carpet and pretended it didn't happen. Yeah, good one.)

Ultimately, all it's really about is perpetuating the existince of the security complex - mainly in the USA, but everywhere really. Its first imperative is to preserve itself, and it has all the means to do so. It has the secret courts and the secret laws to prevent legal challenge, and the arms and the blackmail material to prevent other attacks. And its paranoid level of secrecy and security makes it automatically treat any rein, any check on it, as a threat to its own existence - because, well, it would be.

So what REALLY scares me is that nothing we do will actually stop them at all. At this stage, it's basically impossible to even rein in the NSA's powers - and that'd be like taking a rabid tiger and smacking it on the nose to tell it to go away. To put in the high-level open oversight that lets the public see whether these agencies are actually doing anything useful with the vast quantities of money they control is a task that's beyond the realistic abilities of any government (to say nothing of the blackmail and subversive influence that any security agency can bring against anyone that wants to downsize them). Tackling the companies who run the prisons and supply the equipment and make a profit from all the unrest - that's just bordering on insane.

We've made the tiger, and we've fed the tiger because it said it would protect us, and we're on its backs because it's better than being in its jaws, and we've fed it more because we're afraid it might eat us, and it's only grown larger and hungrier. To be honest, I think the security complex will kill the world before climate change does.

posted at: 23:41 | path: /society | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 24 Nov 2013

Pity the people on Lord Howe Island

I've just come back from a week holiday on Lord Howe Island. It's a beautiful and fascinating place, with heaps of great snorkelling and diving spots, amazing palm trees (the Kentia Palm being the most well known) and other wildlife, and a wonderfully relaxed attitude to life. But Islanders have a few problems that we rarely hear about.

Pretty much all food is expensive. They're just in the process of setting up their own small abbatoir, which will allow them to serve local meat at Australian food safety standards. Fish is caught locally (outside the protected areas, of course), but is variable - some times they have to serve frozen fish caught days or weeks ago. There are a few people gathering chicken eggs, available at the local co-op store.

Everything else is brought in via ship. It costs about $540 per cubic metre - much, much more if you need it to be refrigerated or frozen in transit. Ice creams typically cost $6 to $8, a half round of White Castello cheese costs $14.60, and we had the smallest roast chicken you'd ever seen for $20. Even self catering is reasonably expensive here. Likewise, all fuel, all cars, pretty much all building materials - all are shipped here from the mainland. Mail day is pretty spectacular.

I don't know what electricity costs on the island but it's main supply is a series of diesel generators. Wind, wave and solar power are being investigated but the impact on the views and possibly wildlife is considered a downside (although I'd argue that they need to think differently; bird deaths due to wind turbines are much lower than you'd think and I for one would love to see a couple of wind turbines on Transit Hill or in some of the valleys, providing good clean energy). All power lines are underground, which I think is great, and street lighting is kept to a minimum (partly to save power, partly to not interfere with the many bird species here). The other complication with renewable energy is that there's simply not enough base load and not enough distribution to mean that the variable power supply can easily be used. Wind is OK when you've got hundreds of turbines spread across a state, but not so good if they're all concentrated in a square kilometre area.

But the real reason you should pity Lord Howe Islanders is their internet connection.

There is no undersea fibre-optic cable running here. One was connected to Norfolk Island, 700km east, but they didn't connect Lord Howe Island (for some unknown reason). So all internet connections are via satellite. One of the two satellite companies servicing the island decided to stop service, and only took some of their existing customers back at higher cost and reduced rate of data. The other is not taking any new customers. The NBN satellites are already oversubscribed - so "satellite internet" for regions may already be bad - which means that Lord Howe Island has no option for new internet connections. There are only a few satellite uplinks to serve the entire population, so link congestion is high.

What does this mean? It means studying, getting email, and even getting basic information takes a lot longer. It's costly and unreliable. You could do great business on LHI - selling Kentia Palm seedlings (which used to be the main business on the island), for instance - except you can't do it using the internet and compete with other sites on the mainland. Keeping in touch with children - most go to boarding school on the mainland - is slow and some things like video calls are impossible. So many things we take for granted on the mainland, things that are possible with 3G connections and "just work" on ADSL, just do not work at all on the island. Bufferbloat is crippling here.

The islanders are already conversing with Malcolm Turnbull about capacity of the NBN satellites and getting better speed. But I can see how easily it's overlooked - the problems experienced by 300 people and their 330 or so guests can look small beside an electorate of 100,000 or so. The pity to me is that the internet is a great opportunity giver. People can run businesses, find help, and get opportunities to better themselves (almost) regardless of where they are. My trip to Lord Howe Island has really shown how much we can take for granted the availability of information that the internet brings.

posted at: 10:47 | path: /society | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 16 Sep 2013

A Glut of Music?

I finally read David Gerard's original article, and I have to say there were some pretty sweeping assertions in there. Mainly that quantity always trumps quality, every time, no exceptions. That, personally, I think is ... a bit overstated. There are plenty of examples of people still liking the old quality stuff over the new quantity stuff - my nieces love my Eighties music just as much as they like the new popular hits. And plenty of people still listen to classical music and are interested in music that is strictly of fixed quantity - Beethoven sonatas, for example.

The other big generalisation is that this works purely on a cost amortisation calculation. I.e. that musicians are trying to cover costs, and therefore the cost of producing physical units and distributing them is the governing factor. Some musicians also look to make a living from their work, and that means setting a time period over which they hope to gain money from selling the product, an amount which they expect to live on, a number of units to sell, and so forth - all of which can vary widely and are complicated to fix. (Aside: this is why established artists push for extension to copyright - because theoretically they're extending the amount of time they gain from selling that product. This is a myth and a fairy story record labels tell them when they want them to support copyright extension.) It used to be that the cost of producing the units and distributing them were the major costs - see Courtney Love's calculation, for example - and therefore the label proposes to take that risk for the band (another fairy story); nowadays the distribution is free, and producing a new unit is cheap (in the case of digital distribution, it's totally free), so the ongoing costs of keeping the musicians alive and producing new music is the major cost for professionally produced music.

But I still think the big points made in the article is true: that the real cost of producing music - even music of reasonable quality - is coming down, that more music than ever is being produced and hence there's much more competition for listener's money, and that "hobby" artists who do it in their spare time and don't expect to make money out of their music (I'm one) drives the cost of actually getting music down too. So for professional musicians, who have sort of expected to make money out of music because their heroes of the previous generations did (due, as David points out, to a quirk in history that made the twentieth century great for this kind of oligopoly), it's a rude awakening to find out that people don't care about your twenty years in the industry or your great study of the art form, they care about listening to a catchy tune that's easy to get.

I also like the point that musicians are also inveterate software copiers. It's one reason I use LMMS and free plugins - because free, quality software does exist. I find it intensely hypocritical that professional musicians can criticise people for copying their music, when they may well have not paid a cent for all the proprietary software they use to produce it.

But to me this is really just about getting in touch with your audience. Companies like Magnatune exist to help quality artists find an audience by putting them in touch with an existing large subscriber base who wants new music. Deathmøle's insane success on Kickstarter shows that someone with an established audience can make it really big without having to sell their soul to big record labels. And Jeph himself is a great example of the way things work in the modern world, since Deathmøle is his side project - his main one is Questionable Content, which he also went into without having existing funding or requiring a big backer to grant him some money and take his rights in exchange. As Tim O'Reilly says, obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy; it doesn't matter if you're signed to the best record label there is, if they haven't actually publicised your work you might as well have not signed up at all. And, fortunately, these days we have this wonderful thing called the internet which allows artists to be directly in touch with their fans rather than having to hope that the record label will do the right thing by you and not, say, ignore you while promoting another band.

I wish David had made his point without the broad generalisations - I think it stands well without them.

posted at: 12:15 | path: /society | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 31 Aug 2013

Workplace Loyalty

OK, this is social commentary rather than technical stuff, so if you're not in the mood you can skip over this.

The ever-thoughtful Charlie Stross has written an article about the problems facing the NSA. There's not going to be just one Edward Snowden or Bradley Manning, there's going to be heaps of them - because the Three Letter Acronym security departments are busy getting rid of all of the permanent employees who felt loyal to them and replacing them with contractors who have no more loyalty to them than the security department's loyalty to the contractor.

Now, I personally believe in being loyal to my employer. I (of course) honour the various clauses in my contract that say they get to own all my work for them, and that I won't sell or leak their secrets, and that I won't work for someone else without telling them. I believe in being loyal to the customers I work for and the people I work with. I believe that I am more valuable to an employer the longer I work there because I know the intricacies of the job better and am better at solving problems by recognising them and their underlying causes. These are things that a new employee will always struggle with.

But I believe that the big problem with employers these days is this pernicious idea that their workforce is interchangeable, not to be trusted, and best used by screwing them for as much work as you can get out of them and then throwing them away. It's an "Atlas Shrugged" mindset that believes that somehow the people at the top are being held back by the people at the bottom, and that therefore workers don't deserve any of the benefits of being at the top. It's also contributed to by the idea that companies poach people - especially "rock star" workers and people high up the ladder; the idea that those people (and their loyalty) can be bought just for their experience and to (somehow) change their environment just by being in it.

The "glory days" of jobs for life that Charlie talks about in his essay are really the times before the MBA school of management came into being; when people managed companies because they'd worked their way to the top. Those people knew the business intimately, they'd sweated over it for decades, they knew the people - and the employees knew them. There was much more of a feeling of trust in those organisations, because it was about personal relationships more than work relationships or "rightsizing" or "mission statements". Walt Disney was famous for remembering every person in the 700-strong Disney workforce. These days, one gets the impression that the management of some companies consider it a burden to even associate with the people more than a step down the org chart.

At the moment all we're really seeing, IMO, is the 'tit for tat' nature of the Prisoners Dilemma being played out in corporate workforces. If you want to find the point at which employers started cheating on their workforces, then you have to keep on going back - past the 1980s anti-union laws and workplace deregulation, past the 1880s and the weavers and miners unions, past the 1780s and the clearances... in fact, just keep going: its feudal lords demanding tithes, and high priests demanding donations, and kings demanding tributes. The Greeks famously invented Democracy, but even then slaves, women, and other "not our sort" people couldn't actually vote. The process of cheating on the people beneath you for your own gain has a long history - far longer, I would argue, than the history of the workers rebelling and demanding their own rights.

So now the workforce is no longer loyal to their employer, and we see the mistrust and second-guessing that usually accompanies standard Prisoners Dilemma situations. I think the two are evenly matched - the employer might seem to hold the power (because they write the contract the employeee must sign without change) but the employees are many, and their methods of working around the employer's restrictions and exploiting the employer's weaknesses are many and subtle. The employee has much more mobility than the employer, and while there are usually non-competition restrictions in the contract the number of times I've heard people subtly, and not so subtly, ignoring these (for example, sales people poaching client lists) makes it difficult for the employer to fight all those battles.

Overall, it's a pity, because I think a situation where employer and employee trust eachother and work together is much better than one where each is subtly trying to screw the other. Once you see it as a contest, though, it's all downhill from there. Many organisations try to rebuild trust, but the "team building exercise" is such a cliche for uncaring management that it's boring to repeat it. If you're trying to rebuild trust, but not fundamentally changing the management style and not addressing the needs and issues of the workers, then it's really just an exercise in paying some management consultant to take your money and laugh at you.

I currently work at a company which does have, at least in our Canberra offices, a lot of respect for its workers. It's easy to imagine being paid well for being a "subject matter expert" rather than having to go into management to keep climbing the pay ladder. We have regular functions every fortnight or so where you can speak to just about anyone - not 'town hall' meetings which in my experience are still basically management telling the workers the way it's going to be. And I think that there are many examples of companies that are doing the right things by their workers and seeing a lot of benefits - it's easy to cynically see what Google get out of paying for their sysadmins to have good internet connections, but the sysadmins get a decent deal out of it too, and the trust and understanding that goes with it is not easily bought.

So I do think there's hope. But I think we have to see a profound shift in the employers and their attitudes to staff before that changes. For a start, weed out the psychopaths and bullies in management before you complain about theft of office supplies. Promote people from within rather than always hiring top management from outside. Stop trying to win my trust with company slogans and mission statements, and start actually listening to me when I tell you about the opportunity that I can see right in front of you. Stop treating companies like feudal families, with their fiefdoms and strict hierarchy, and start treating us all like citizens.

posted at: 22:37 | path: /society | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 12 Aug 2013

Fair use is theft, except when it's me using other people's work

Dear Linda Jaivin,

In your article for the Sydney Morning Herald on the 31st of July 2013, you say fair use is "theft" in all but name.

And on your blog you have mentioned Bruce Sterling's piece "The Ecuadorian Library". In fact, you've quoted directly from it.

So, is that fair use? Or are you going to hand yourself in for copyright theft now?

Now, you theoretically don't make any money from quoting Bruce, so maybe you think that because it's not a commercial use that therefore you're not "stealing". But I don't think you can have it both ways.

If we follow your argument - that any use that has some kind of commercial gain is, in fact, theft - then it simply becomes a question of what "commercial gain" is. And that's where lawyers come in.

Because you've obviously gained from referencing a quotation from Shakespeare in your article title. You're probably gained by mentioning songs or stories in your books - also copyrighted. And where does that end? Should you be paying the people who wrote the thesaurus every time you look up a synonym? Should you be paying the authors whose work you cribbed on the Russo-Japanese war? Should you be paying Bruce Sterling a proportion of your royalties, as he's clearly influenced your thinking?

You're also presenting a slippery slope that cannot help anyone. An academic quotes your book? Clearly they must pay! Someone satirises it? Clearly they must pay! A student quotes from it? Well, clearly they must pay in proportion to how much they quoted - after all, some people might read your book and not use a thing from it, and others quote entire sections! Someone mentions it on a radio show? They should pay for the privilege! Someone sells your book second-hand? Well, obviously you should get a cut too!

You're also a successful author, having published eight books and translated more. So it's kind of convenient for you to say, now, that you should be paid more for all that work. It doesn't help the new author, struggling to make a living and trying to read and learn from everything they can.

And, let's face it, the spectre of some dread international conglomerate ripping off your work and not giving you any money for it is kind of the wrong way around, isn't it? After all, you've basically been published by them - big printing companies who control distribution, decide who is going to be released where and when, and decide the royalties they will offer you and how they'll pay. They don't need to steal other people's work, they've got authors begging to be published sending them manuscripts all the time. Pretending that you're threatened by hungry companies desperate to rip your work off, and ignoring the one that's already only paying you trivial amounts compared to their own salaries and bonuses, is not a very good distraction.

I have nothing against you personally. I only think that your logic in defending a system that offers a pittance to the people who actually write the words we read, and in turn demand that no-one use your work without paying for it, while at the same time using other people's work without paying for it, seems to be mixed up.

Regards,

Paul

posted at: 22:26 | path: /society | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 02 Apr 2013

Dear Mail Online editor,

I followed a link to one of the stories on the Daily Mail Online website, but my attention was arrested by the "FeMail Today" side bar. From the content, one would apparently think that all women are only interested in what famous women are wearing, what babies they have, who they're sleeping with or what they're saying about each other. Male celebrities might be involved but only when they're controversial or when the story is about their wife.

Don't give us that claptrap about "this is what women want". Don't give us some excuse about what sells or what your surveys have said. This is so obviously a sexist, demeaning bunch of claptrap that it's insulting to look at. It's shallow, it's boring, and it's painfully one-sided in its portrayal of women. No women scientists, leaders, or workers; no current politics, economics or public interest; nothing, in short, in common with the other readers of your paper.

Please grow a backbone, get rid of your demeaning sexist view of women, and start writing real content. Your women readers will thank you for it.

This post has also been sent to the Daily Mail Online editor.

Your sincerely,

Paul

posted at: 08:51 | path: /society | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 20 Nov 2012

There's no solution

There's no 'once again' or 'recently' about this; it's not like it's crept up on us. There are the people, like myself and most of the women I know, that keep on asking for women to be treated equally and fairly. There are the other people, poking their heads up from time to time, who seem to come up with all these reasons why the reasons why we should treat people equally and fairly are wrong, or biased, or silly, or being made too much of, or finding problems with some of the reasons, or just endlessly debating why any of this should be talked about at all. The battleground I'm particularly thinking of is within the Free Open Source Software community, but it applies everywhere.

Tom Morris recently observed that it comes down to privilege: the people who don't have to worry about being taken seriously and don't get sexually harrassed at conferences don't know what all the fuss is about. They don't see the lovely invisible glow that surrounds them, coming mainly from their background - they're white males from the middle and upper classes. Tom points out that they - we - like to tell ourselves that really we had it tough, and really we're here because of our hard hacker cred, but actually we only got that because we got the computers, and that's more to do with being white and male and having parents that could afford computers and going to schools that had computers. Let's face it, if your elder brother kicks you off the computer every chance he gets, you're not going to get much of a chance to use one no matter who you are.

I think you can see this, also, in the variants of the Four Yorkshiremen Sketch that one almost inevitably hears when a group of geeks get together. A sample dialogue goes something like:

Etc. etc. etc. The point of this is partly one-upmanship, to try and establish who's worked on the more esoteric platform, but the subtext (like that of the original sketch) is that it was pure skill and hard work that got us to be where we are. Yet look at the situations these people talk about, and all of them indicate access to a computer - that's not something that just happened, those people were lucky to have parents or a school that had the equipment and be granted access to the machine. That, Gentlemen, is privilege.

One thing that I recently learned - in perhaps a bit more blunt way than I really wanted - is that sometimes even when you can see a solution to a problem, it still won't actually get solved. In the FOSS community we have a tendency to try and solve every problem: it's almost inevitable that given a group of hackers and suboptimal situation - trying to work out the cost per person at a restaurant, or waiting a long time for a change of lights at an intersection, or seating people at a theatre - a "friendly" discussion will ensue on how to "solve" this "problem". Any slight problem - from not getting a T-shirt that fits correctly for one's body type to not being able to watch a video when one wants - becomes something that must be solved. And when that solution is not enacted by those in the power to do so, it is seen as some kind of malicious assault on not just oneself but the whole principle of efficiency and reason, Hanlon's Razor not withstanding.

There is one fundamental problem with this view: it is utterly wrong.

It is another day's labour to talk about the problems that this behaviour causes. To relate it to the problems of fairness and equality, it is, I believe, a mistake to see these as problems one can "solve" in the same sense that one solves a problem with software by submitting a bug report, a patch, or working with the maintainers. And I'm not talking about solving social problems with technical solutions (although some have proposed them).

Put simply, the problems we have with a lack of fairness and equality, particularly in gender, are only solved by a long, hard, tedious process of gradually educating people, by trying to right individual wrongs over and over again, of continually trying to make people aware of the problem they are so determined to ignore. There's no magic fix. This, or any other blog post, will not make everything work. No cunning argument or cogent example or impeccable logic will convert everyone. It's a long, boring, degrading process - but the alternative is to see equality and fairness eroded away over time.

And, worse, there are people who will never concede that there is a problem, who are mysoginst bastards, who will always assert that they're being perfectly reasonable even when being completely sexist. There are people who we cannot change, and who expect that we must change. And we have to accept and allow those people to be a part of our community. We can, as Matt Garrett has, choose who we personally want to associate with, but in my view that makes us a little less tolerant and a little more like the people we hate in the process.

So we must continue to support women - to support all the groups that are ill-treated or neglected by the communities in which we play. We must keep on patiently reasoning with people who object to whatever encroaches on their sense of entitlement. We must keep writing the anti-harrassment policies, and keep on enforcing them. We must persevere to make the world a better place.

I'd also add that we need to remember that the opinions that a person may have do not summarise them completely. As Rusty says, just because you're a great coder doesn't mean you're not a crackpot. Likewise, just because someone is a crackpot - or expresses views we disagree with - doesn't mean they don't write good code. (And sometimes someone we agree wholeheartedly with at a deep philosophical level also writes crap code, but that's another story). We don't even necessarily have to agree with all the other people who are similarly disposed to want more equality and fairness. We all play our own parts, in whatever ways we can and for whatever causes we believe in.

These are tough problems, and there aren't easy solutions; but we can't let that lack of easy solutions put us off trying to make it better.

posted at: 22:15 | path: /society | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 17 Sep 2012

Emotional computing

Kate and I were wandering through the Canberra Centre a week or two ago and passed the new Apple Store on its opening day. And OMG the total losing fanboy idiocy of it was stunning. People queueing for their right to go in, people getting high-fives from Apple staff when entering, videoing themselves going in on iPads and whatever. It was such a great quantity of wankery - sad, self-indulgent narcissism - that both of us instinctively reacted to it by not wanting to be anywhere near it. It actually tarnished the whole experience by being so over-the-top.

Now, we know that Apple works very hard to maintain that emotion-steeped, intellect-free connection to their fanboys - even their programming howto videos come across more as marketing hype than real useful information. The amusing thing is that even there, in my opinion, they still outshine Linux zealots for pure fact-free, judgemental thinking. Linux zealots are much worse than Apple fanboys for telling everyone to convert to free open source software whenever someone complains about any other product, though, so that's kind of evened up. To go a step back from the great T-shirt slogan "No I Will Not Fix Your Computer", we need to stop trying to fix everyone else's problems, or assuming that we have to (or even can).

The really funny thing to me, in this competition of eagerness, is how Microsoft has really given up. The "Mac Vs PC" ads did wonders for that emotional image-based buy-in for Apple, but I wasn't really expecting Microsoft to embrace the image too. They have, though - Microsoft seems to be making no effort to be anything but conventional, slightly stuffy, older and prone to clumsiness. Worse, they've inspired the GNOME 3 developers: Microsoft started "reinventing" the Windows interface and throwing in pointless, ugly, hard to use changes to its Office suite about eighteen months before the GNOME developers started telling everyone that making things more difficult was the way of the future, as far as I can see.

Microsoft is also engaging in exactly the same tactics it used twenty years ago that got it in trouble with the US government. It's paying Intel and AMD a lot of money to create "Windows-Only Processors", on the amazingly naive notion that somehow the rest of the world a) can't read machine code, b) can't reverse engineer, and c) gives a toss, given that those processors are slower, more power hungry and less innovative than ARM processors these days. It's been waging this war on other operating systems via UEFI and presumably thinking that at some point the Linux community will just give up, rather than doing what it's done for the last 20 years and work a way around the problem. It keeps utterly failing to get any real traction with its phones and tablets. It's only now started to try and market a costly product that vaguely duplicates what you get for free with Google Docs.

Personally, I think this is due to Bill Gates leaving. I think he knew that Microsoft was heading toward a brick wall and it was just too big, stupid and uncoordinated to think to take its foot off the accelerator pedal. They've bled money in court cases, in DRM systems that no-one's wanted, in aborted projects (e.g. Pink) and just in sheer lack of anything new. Even that famed vendor lock in gradually erodes - look at how abysmally Vista did in the business world, even if you disregard the various organisations and government departments that are going with Linux on the desktop. And without someone with the fame, or even the charisma, of Gates, they're just hand-waving and hoping that someone cares about them.

Ultimately, I believe that free software won't "win" any more than Apple could "win" the phone market. It'll be part of the ecosystem. As more and more people learn of the advantages of using free, open source software, I think it will be more popular - really, it's problem in not reaching a wider audience has been obscurity rather than active oppression. And I think there's still the emotional attachment to free, open source software, but it's the same emotional attachment one has to science - it's cool and majestic but also based on principles we know and can see. The more Apple and Microsoft try to eliminate their competition, the more they lose the respect of their fans.

posted at: 21:21 | path: /society/tech | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 19 Aug 2012

The depressing news about electric cars

One of the members of the Canberra Electric Vehicles group recently asked "...what you think would be incentives that [the government could implement that] would work at increasing the number of electric vehicles on the roads?". The more I think about it, the more I fear the real answer is "nothing".

The absolute last thing they should do[1], in my opinion, is offer any form of rebate or cash back on buying an electric vehicle. We've seen this time and time again: offer a rebate on LPG fitting for cars and, mirabile dictu, suddenly the cost of fitting LPG to cars goes up by almost exactly the same amount. Offer a $4000 bonus for first home owners, and the entire housing market jumps up by $4000 (hurting just about everyone else even worse). In my opinion this is a classic tactic suggested by the industry in question when it wants to make it sound like it's working with the Government to do something to help, but make sure that it gets a lot more money in the process. It's not a bad policy for the Government, since it gets a cut of their business taxes anyway.

The second last thing is to make other 'cash back' or discount gestures to electric car buyers that aren't going to be permanent. The wailing and gnashing of teeth when the Government cut the Solar Panel Rebate was heard throughout the land - it bootstrapped the industry, yes, and that was a good thing, but when the rebate is dropped it then makes the Government look uncaring for the people it was only recently helping. If it's something I pay yearly, like registration, I don't want to find out that it's suddenly gone up because I was one of the first to do something that other people finally joined in on.

It's also trivial in comparison to the cost of the whole vehicle, especially when looked at in total. The Government putting $10,000 into paying all road-worthy electric vehicles' registrations doesn't, one has to admit, have much sound-bite potential. And when the vehicle is $50,000, a saving of $500 is but 1% - you save more than that in choosing to not get the luxury leather seats. And for people like me building a vehicle it's at the wrong end of the process - I've already committed over $12,000 to the bike now, I'm not going to hold off registering it because I can't afford the rego.

What's left? Really, as far as I can see, there are two major remaining options left to get more people to buy electric vehicles. One is to actually mandate their cost, so that they actually are cheaper. The other is to massively subsidise a new electric car industry in Australia to compete with the existing manufacturers - their price can be lower because their costs are subsidised by the Government.

Both of those, as far as I can see, aren't going to happen. The first would have every petrol car company screaming blue murder about price fixing and uncompetitive practices. And the second would ... yeah, have about the same effect. And take much longer. In the plus column, building a new industry producing cars that we know there will be a big demand for in the future is what Tesla did five years ago; with car manufacturing plants closing across the country, getting them going again with electric cars would be a big boost to employment and the manufacturing sector. But not even a Labor government is going to suggest that we do this; it's just too much like British Leyland[2].

Electric vehicles still suffer from an image problem, despite the in-roads that the Tesla Roadster has made. New cars like the Renault Fluence, the Holden Volt and the Holden Commodore conversions are looking more like standard cars, and have standard abilities such as towing a trailer. But these are still relatively expensive; fortunately, there's a way the price can come down. Meanwhile, with the Leaf and the iMiev looking like bubbles of plastic and the Twizy looking like the designer was from a magical land where it never rained and never got below 20°C or above 30°C, we've got a way to go yet before people can accept that electric cars are ordinary, working cars.

At the EV group meeting we had a speaker from Better Place. Unfortunately I missed his main presentation but the question and answer session was fairly lively[3]. One of the things Better Place is putting forward is switching batteries rather than recharging in the car. The Fluence and the Commodore conversion will support this; Better Place is obviously working with other manufacturers to get them to use the technology.

The two big questions with that are: is there going to be competition to Better Place, and is there going to be a standard for removable car batteries. Some kind of competition is good, so that Better Place don't get a monopoly on the technology and then limit access. And that competition needs a set of standards on how batteries are designed, manufactured and instrumented, so that we can rely on being able to plug in a battery and having it work and not lie about its charge state

My question to the Better Place representative, that followed on from those two principles, was: hobbyists want to get in on this technology too. We know it's easier for you to deal with major manufacturers, but if you lock out the very people that have been leading the way, you'll alienate a group of enthusiastic potential customers. This happens all the time, so it's not going to stop us building electric vehicles, but it's disheartening when you can see the prize in front of you but you're barred from taking it.

The strategy that Better Place is taking is that the car is cheap but you pay to change the batteries over. This has the feel of the "razor and blade" problem, but it is a reasonable way to lower the price of the vehicle. But even when we lower the price down to comparable to a current petrol car, EVs are still going to have lower range for the next five or so years while lithium battery technology ramps up. In that time, there's really not much the Government can do to get more people to buy electric vehicles.

Actually, there is one: use them themselves. If the Government were to start converting their fleets to electric, there'd be numerous benefits. The cost per car would come down, as manufacturers could commit to larger production numbers and shipments. More people would find out about electric cars, find that they're pretty decent vehicles, found some of their myths dispelled, and got used to their foibles (e.g. the quiet). The Government can show that it's reducing its carbon footprint and pay less in carbon tax and fuel. And in three to four years' time we'd see a further flow-on effect as the leased fleet got sold into the general used vehicle pool.

Overall, it sounds like a win to me. Let's hope that writing to my local Federal member has some effect.

[1]: of course, there's even worse that they can do. They can do nothing. They can charge more for registering electric vehicles since they don't pay fuel tax. They can offer massive subsidies to the fuel industry to keep it going. I'm positing that the Government actually wants to promote electric vehicles, for example as part of its carbon reduction strategy

[2]: it's a bizarre world when it makes sense for the Government to do something because the commercial operators are too inherently conservative and resistant to change to actually try to keep their industry alive and move with the times.

[3]: as you'd expect from a bunch of people who have been saying "come on, everybody, electric cars are the future, let's move now, let's not get trapped into depending on oil!" for the last twenty years.

posted at: 07:50 | path: /society | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 08 Feb 2012

Making Parking Easy

To: Roam Tollways
To: Wilson Parking
Re: paying for parking.

Dear people,

Many people have those little e-tags in their cars these days. They allow us to drive along tollways without having to stop and throw money into a machine. Another area where people have to stop their cars and throw money into a machine is in parking stations. We also have to grab the card that it spits out, carry it around and remember to pay for it before we leave, and if it doesn't validate or we lose it we have trouble getting out. However, you people have the solution for that.

Instead, we could drive up to the entrance gate of a parking station, the toll sensor would go 'beep', the boom gate would open and we'd drive in. Then, when we wanted to leave, we'd drive up to the exit gate, the toll sensor would go 'beep', the boom gate would open, we'd drive out again and the parking cost would automatically be debited to our account.

This would save us lots of time - time otherwise spent getting a ticket, paying for it, and feeding it into the exit gate. It would save you a lot of cost maintaining and repairing those machines. I'm sure you're already doing data mining on the journeys people take - this gives you a lot more interesting data. And you get a lot more people wanting to use your e-tags - people who like the convenience of being able to drive right into a shopping centre but aren't already toll users.

Go ahead and use this idea, I don't need any credit - just improve the planet.

Have fun,

Paul

posted at: 18:20 | path: /society | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 24 Jan 2012

Private Stupidity

Kate and I heard a talk on the radio the other day in which a German-sounding American professor, or pundit, or something, tried to establish that actually we needed a society where everything is owned. Obviously it's hard for me to know his full thesis, because we started listening in the middle of the talk and switched off in disgust less than a minute later. But of the bit we heard all of it was, basically, complete rubbish.

His idea seemed to be that public property was a real problem - that it made things difficult because then you had to have laws and police and you had people sponging off the public good and abusing public property. Then you had to pay all these taxes to keep everything going and it was all very draining and stopped people just doing whatever they wanted with their stuff. Yes, a nice straw man argument, but then the alternative completely baffled me. According to him, in addition to owning your own property you'd also have to be a kind of shareholder in the road in front of your street, and the footpath, and the fences between your neighbours and yourself.

What baffles me here is that he clearly didn't see this going much further. Presumably he stays in his own street, grows all his own food, has an amazing naturally-occurring spring of fresh water in his back yard, and doesn't use electricity or the internet. Because as soon as you start looking at where all those things come from, you realise that they're all some kind of shared property. Once you drive outside your street, you need to be a shareholder in the company that owns that street, and so forth. I can only assume the pundit doesn't have any friends, because they moment they come and visit him they're going to have to pay a fee to his street-ownership-company to get there and park. He may well never use a public hospital, gone to a public school, gone to a public park, flown in public airspace, used the public radio spectrum, or have to claim unemployment benefits, but only because he's most probably a well-off white male.

I'll hopefully save my readers the tedium of reading through the first course in a standard lecture on Government and Democracy. It's just incredibly irritatingly bizarre to hear someone spout this kind of nonsense which almost naturally disproves itself. He probably even thinks the world will be a better place if they followed his philosophy. I'd like to invite him, publicly, to stop using all our public resources and only use the ones he actually privately owns. Then, when the oxygen starts running out in a couple of hours, he may like to reconsider. Meanwhile, get off my public broadcasting network and pay for your own publicity yourself.

posted at: 13:27 | path: /society | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 29 Aug 2011

The a-logical

On the drive back from CodeCave 2011 many moons ago, Rusty and I (amongst many other things) talked about the problem we see in modern society where some people use logic as a kind of optional extra. When it suits them - usually when attacking other people's ideas - they can use logic like a scalpel: dissecting arguments, finding flaws or exposing the problems in your examples and analogies. Yet when it comes to their own beliefs, logic not only doesn't apply, it isn't even in the same suburb.

You see these people in every role from the people that knock on my door and try to tell me to believe what they believe, through lobbyists and radio "entertainers" who wilfully exclude certain things from their arguments but are only too happy to criticise their opponents, to the run of the mill ordinary people who are outraged that people could be against gambling, drinking to excess, speeding, or whatever it is that they want to do. It's particularly pernicious in people we're dealing with personally, but aggravating when it's someone on the TV or in public life spouting their fallacious arguments and ignoring their own contradictions when we can't say a thing against it.

The fundamental contradiction is that they're ready to prove you wrong but won't accept the same in return. They use every trick in the book to avoid this - wilful misunderstanding of your arguments, using fallacies and specious logic, criticising your method of arguing, constantly turning arguments back on you, sidestepping or mis-answering your questions, and so forth - the catalogue is is too vast even for a Wikipedia page. You can't disprove them with logic. You can't be illogical or they point out the logical fallacies in your argument. You can't declare their beliefs invalid because that's too arbitrary. You can't reason with them, and yet if you don't you're portrayed as being unreasonable. You can't make up things like Pastafarianism without being, in some small part, the kind of thing you hate - and they don't see the relevance of your ridicule or see the parallels anyway.

Rusty and I debated a term for these people. When a person consistently does things that sane people wouldn't do, we call that person's behaviour insane. Yet to use the term "illogical" for who shuns logic consistently is more of a once-off offence descriptive of individual incidents rather than ongoing behaviour, and something that can almost be excused - like not sticking exactly to the speed limit. I thought that "alogical" would be a better coining - a deliberate absence and eschewing of logic. But sometimes these people can sound perfectly reasonable, and use very precise logic in disproving things they don't believe in.

Where is the balance? How do we deal with these people? Because I do believe that they are as much a danger to the social health of a community as office psychopaths are to workplaces. When these people can tell armies to go to war, make multi-billion dollar spending decisions based on pure fictions, and dictate how people are allowed to live and behave, their decisions cannot be based simply on whatever they believe and no argument will be entered into. As a society we need to see that there are rational, reasonable foundations for the principles governing our lives.

At the base of it I don't want to get into an epistemological debate - endlessly answering the questions 'why do you believe that' and 'what basis do you have for that'. Yes, at some point we have to have certain fundamental beliefs that may not be justifiable, or may even have a justification but be completely arbitrary, personal decisons (like my preference for blue over cyan, for example). How do we separate the preference of someone who says "I think someone who kills someone else is wrong and should be punished" from those that say "my magic book says that only men and women can get married" for example?

The only hope I have in this is that rationality and sense is gradually prevailing. We might rail against people who deny that climate change is man-made or who believe that the rapture will take them up to heaven according to the evidence in some pseudo-mathematical formula, but these are already far progressed from the kind of crank beliefs of centuries ago. No-one believes in spontaneous generation - that maggots are literally created from nothing in the presence of rotting meat. The belief that the earth is flat is rare to the point of extinction. Even school dropouts don't believe that the only elements in existence are fire, water, earth and air. These were all serious propositions debated by intelligent, reputable people - today we know them to be bunkum.

Likewise, in everyday life people tend to use rational thinking rather than magical. Everyday people no longer throw spilled salt over their shoulder to ward off the devil. Normal adults do not attribute stomach pains to demonic influences or yellow bile. People no longer use leeches to cure anything that isn't treated with cod-liver oil or tincture of sulphur. People do not say "bless you" when someone sneezes in order to ward off the devil stealing your soul from your nose. People walk under ladders with due care. Most superstitions are amusingly enjoyed rather than carefully observed.

While we obviously still have some distance to go, I think we are seeing reason and sense triumph over bigotry and alogical thought.

posted at: 22:37 | path: /society | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 23 Aug 2011

The Convoy of No Help

How does one tell the difference between a protest to get the government to hear the legitimate claims of the people and a bunch of thugs whose idea of community engagement and debate is to piss everyone off until they get their way?

Yes, that's a snide comment on the "convoy of no confidence" that's decided the best way to keep their generous handouts is to bring the traffic in Canberra to a standstill. But shorn of the inflammatory language it's a legitimate question. These people obviously feel they have a legitimate complaint. They think that the best way they can bring attention to their plight is to cause a big news story.

The problem here is that this is the same logic terrorists use. It's the same logic lobbyists use. It's the same logic the rioters in London used. It's the same logic that Martin Luther King used in the cause of racial equality. It's the same logic GetUp uses all the time in getting signatures on petitions and donations for advertising.

My question is really: is it valid? Is the right way to get your cause heard to shove it in everyone's faces? Does this not merely render us vulnerable to everyone with a loud mouth and a radical cause? How do we protect freedom of speech and the right of the citizens to have representation of their causes without also surrendering it to those louder than us?

Never mind the conflation of "Canberra" with "Government" in every non-Canberran news story I've ever seen - as if it was even possible that the entire 350,000 people living here decided, as one, to knobble the trucking industry. Never mind the howling rhetoric, invoking everything from the Eureka Stockade to the Dockyard Strikes in trying to justify the Convoy's actions. Never mind the hundreds of millions of dollars the trucking industry gets in handouts to keep it profitable, while it screws ever-longer shifts and ever-tighter margins out of its employees.

Sadly, I fear it won't matter how irrelevant, stupid and aggressive these drivers are - all that will be reported by the conservative leaning press in Australia is that there was this big protest about how totally unfair the carbon pricing is to all those poor ickle struggling truck drivers. Every person I've seen commenting on the ABC news stories that is against the convoy can state facts in support of their argument. Every person I've seen commenting in favour of them evokes some brave, Patersonesque "little aussie battler" in a truck struggling against some improbable mad-scientist figure determined to cause their demise. Forget the facts, forget the reasoning, forget the mountains of scientific evidence for a carbon pricing scheme, forget the numbers showing how most industries and most people won't suffer under the carbon pricing scheme, let's imagine we can drag the country back to 1980 when the world hadn't heard of the ozone layer using some sort of magical thinking that ignores evidence. It's pathetic. Millions of people marched to protest against the war in Iraq and the news services passed by. Now a couple of thousand get all the air time they want. Trial by media indeed.

posted at: 11:52 | path: /society | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 23 May 2011

Dear Charles Stross

I agree with your idea of getting people to purchase a book if they want to donate to you, rather than bypassing the publisher. I'd rather buy the electronic copies, though, as I'm travelling and want to carry minimal weight and as I want publishers to get the messages that electronic distribution is going to make them more money than lumps of dead tree. So I thought I'd go online to try and buy some of your books.

Let me say that never have trued words been written than Cory Doctorow's introduction to "Makers":

There's a dangerous group of anti-copyright activists out there who pose a clear and present danger to the future of authors and publishing. They have no respect for property or laws. What's more, they're powerful and organized, and have the ears of lawmakers and the press.

I'm speaking, of course, of the legal departments at ebook publishers.

My first attempt to buy the books got all the way to the actual checkout before the website informed me that their lawyers had decided to conspire against them to prevent me from giving them my money: yes, I was not in some weird non-approved area of the internet. Still prepared to go on, I found an Australian store which would sell me Iron Sunrise and The Atrocity Archive as eBooks. Not my first choice - I had been aiming for Saturn's Children and The Family Trade - but that's OK, I enjoyed Halting State and friends (albeit weird ones that like the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game) had enjoyed the Atrocity Archive. So I bought the books.

Ah, but the wily legal departments were ahead of me again - they had encrypted the books using some Adobe encryption thing that FBReader didn't understand. There is, it would seem, no way to decode these things with out an "approved" player, and Adobe do not support the Samsung Galaxy S yet.

So I did what any sane, computer literate person would do at this point: I found a copy of the books on the internet and downloaded them for free.

This is the fundamental equation that the legal departments have yet to figure out: broken versus working. We're happy to pay, but not for something that doesn't work - and I mean it has to work everywhere. Every-****ing-where. Because if it doesn't, you've just made people go and find it somewhere else that does. It may not even be for free on the internet, it may be from your competitor's site. But your customers will leave you if they can get it working somewhere else. Figuratively, I went to a store, gave them some money, they popped my book in a bag, swapped that bag for a bag exactly the same weight and size filled with confetti, and gave it back to me.

It's not even "expensive and broken" versus "free and working", because we've already established that I wanted to pay for the ebook. I want to support Charlie Stross, and I want to support a bookstore and a publisher that will sell me a book in electronic format. Cory Doctorow covers all the things I want to say about ebook licensing, restrictions, and that kind of stupidity in his introduction, so I won't bore you with them. But I don't want to take Cory's bargain and buy a printed book, making the publisher think that dead tree accretions are more popular than ebooks. I want an ebook that works.

So, given the choice of the unpalatable, the unwanted and not paying the author a cent, I will choose the unpalatable. I will buy what ebooks I can. If they are shackled with digital restrictions, I will find a free version and download it afterward. And I will find them, because they will be there. Hopefully, some day, the publishers will save me the trouble of fixing their mistakes.

posted at: 22:04 | path: /society/tech | permanent link to this entry


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