Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Sun 22nd Jan, 2017

LCA 2017 roundup

I've just come back from LCA at the Wrest Point hotel and fun complex in Hobart, over the 16th to the 20th of January. It was a really great conference and keeps the bar for both social and technical enjoyment at a high level.

I stayed at a nearby AirBNB property so I could have my own kitchenette - I prefer to be able to at least make my own breakfast rather than purchase it - and to give me a little exercise each day walking to and from the conference. Having the conference in the same building as a hotel was a good thing, though, as it both simplified accommodation for many attendees and meant that many other facilities were available. LCA this year provided lunch, which was a great relief as it meant more time to socialise and learn and it also spared the 'nearby' cafes and the hotel's restaurants from a huge overload. The catering worked very well.

From the first keynote right to the last closing ceremony, the standard was very high. I enjoyed all the keynotes - they really challenged us in many different ways. Pia gave us a positive view of the role of free, open source software in making the world a better place. Dan made us think of what happens to projects when they stop, for whatever reason. Nadia made us aware of the social problems facing maintainers of FOSS - a topic close to my heart, as I see the way we use many interdependent pieces of software as in conflict with users' social expectations that we produce some kind of seamless, smooth, cohesive whole for their consumption. And Robert asked us to really question our relationship with our users and to look at the "four freedoms" in terms of how we might help everyone, even people not using FOSS. The four keynotes really linked together well - an amazing piece of good work compared to other years - and I think gave us new drive.

I never had a session where I didn't want to see something - which has not always been true for LCA - and quite often I skipped seeing something I wanted to see in order to see something even more interesting. While the miniconferences sometimes lacked the technical punch or speaker polish, they were still all good and had something interesting to learn. I liked the variety of miniconf topics as well.

Standout presentations for me were:

Last updated: | path: tech | permanent link to this entry

Tue 10th May, 2016

How to get Fedora working on a System 76 Oryx Pro

Problems: a) No sound b) Only onboard screen, does not recognise HDMI or Mini-DP Solutions: 1) Install Korora 2) Make sure you're not using an outdated kernel that doesn't have the snd-hda-intel driver available. 3) dnf install akmod-nvidia xorg-x11-drv-nvidia Extra resources:

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Fri 6th Nov, 2015

Open Source Developers Conference 2015

In the last week of October I attended the Open Source Developer's Conference in lovely Hobart. It was about 90 people this year - for some reason people don't come to it if they have to travel a bit further. It's their loss - this year was excellent.

We started with Dr Maia Sauren's keynote on all the many many ways that government departments and not-for-profit organisations are working to open up our access to transparent democracy. I've never seen a talk given by going through browser tabs before but it was a good indication of just how much work is going on in this field. Then we had Ben Dechrai demonstrating how easy it is to install malware on systems running PHP, Julien Goodwin talking about the mistakes people make when securing data (like thinking NATting is the answer), and Katie McLaughlin with a good round-up of why Javascript is actually a good language (and why the "WAT" talks are amusing but irrelevant to the discussion).

Tuesday afternoon was GIS afternoon. Patrick Sunter gave a really amazing talk about urban planning, demonstrating mapping transit time across a city like Melbourne interactively - drop a pin on the map and in three seconds or so the new isocron map would be generated. This allowed them to model the effects of proposed public transport changes - like a train line along the Eastern Freeway (get this done already!) - very quickly. Then Blair Wyatt demonstrated SubPos, a system of providing location data via WiFi SSID beacons - doesn't work on Apple phones though because Apple are into control. Matthew Cengia gave a comprehensive introduction into OpenStreetMap, then afternoon tea. I skipped the lightning talks since I normally find those a bit scattered - any talk where you spend more time hassling over how much time you have remaining and whether or not your technology is working is a talk wasted in my opinion. I needed a rest, though, since I was struggling with a nose and throat infection.

Then we headed off to dinner at the Apple Shed in the picturesque Huon Valley. Local ciders, local produce, good food, good company, good conversation. All the boxes satisfyingly checked :-). I bought a bottle of the Apple Schnapps to sample later.

Wednesday morning's keynote was by Mark Elwell and showed his experience as an educator looking at Second Life and OpenSim. This was a different take on openness - demonstrating how our desire to create and share is stronger than our greed. The things that SL and OpenSim have done to lock up 'intellectual property' and monetise people's interactions have generally hindered their success, and people still put hundreds or thousands of hours into modelling things just for the satisfaction of seeing it in a virtual world. It was a good reflection on one of the many reasons we create free open source software.

Casey West, Thor's younger brother, gave an excellent review of the 'time estimation' methods we've traditionally used in software engineering - the waterfall model, agile development, and scrum - and why they all usually end up with us lying making up how much time things take. One thing he said which struck home to me was "your company invests in you" - it was the answer to the problem of support (and security) being seen as a cost rather than a benefit. Kathy Reid gave an excellent talk about how to guide your career with some excellent speaking tips thrown in (an acknowledgement of country and assistance for hearing impaired people, amongst others). I skipped Paul Fenwick's CKAN talk as I wanted to prepare my lightning talk for later (hypocritical? Yes, I suppose so :-) ).

In the afternoon Chris Neugebauer gave a good demonstration on why HTTP/2 is going to rock, Scott Bragg talked about one of the more esoteric uses of BitCoin block chains, and Arjen Lentz showed the benefits (and absence of fail) in teaching primary school children to make their own robots (including soldering). Michael Cordover gave a highly anticipated talk on his progress trying to get the Australian Electoral Commission to reveal the source code for its "EasyCount" software that's used (amongst other things) to count Federal Senate elections. It's disappointing that the closed mindset exists so strongly in some areas of government - the reasons and the delays and the obstructions were more than just simple accident.

We then had a set of "Other Skills" lightning talks - people talking about other things they do outside of programming things. Unfortunately I can't remember many of these because I was preparing for mine, which was on constructing my electric motorbike. This was well received - quite a few people came up to me afterward to talk about motorbikes, and the practicalities of building an electric one. It's always satisfying to talk with people that don't need the basics (like "can't you put wind generators on it to generate power as you move?") explained.

The Thursday morning keynote was by Richard Tubb, talking about how we can create opportunities and use the situations we find ourselves in to open up and improve our lives, and showed some of the things achieved in the GovHack Tasmania he ran. Sven Dowideit, the author of Boot2docker, gave a good demonstration of the things you can do with containers - particularly good for build systems as they can be stripped down to avoid unexpected dependencies. Then I gave my talk on my experiences with logs and how we can improve the logs our programs generate; the feedback I got was good, but I'd like to add more examples and an actual library or two to implement the principles I talk about. Then John Dalton gave a talk about how to use ssh's tunnel flags; it was a good overview of how the various options work.

I don't remember what I was doing after lunch but I don't remember the first talk - I think I was resting again. I did see Jacinta Richardson's talk on RPerl, which is basically a library that compiles your Perl code into C++. It's useful for computationally intensive things but the author of RPerl seems to have bizarre notions of how to interact with a community - like refusing to look at Github issues and requesting they be put on his Facebook page instead. We had a couple of 'thunder' talks - the main one I can remember was Morgan's talk on her PhD on Second Life and OpenSim (her mentor was Mark Elwell), which touched on the same points of social and open interaction.

After afternoon tea we had Pia Waugh speaking via Hangout from her home in Canberra - she wasn't able to attend in person because of imminent child process creation (!). She talked about GovHack, leading some of the projects to open up government processes and her work in dealing with the closed mindset of some people in government departments. Pia is always so positive and engaged, and her energy and enthusiasm is a great inspiration to a lot of people who struggle with similar interactions with less-than-cooperative bureaucrats. Sadly though, it was another demonstration of how we really need a high speed broadband network - the video stalled occasionally and Pia's voice was garbled at some times because of bandwidth problems.

We had another set of lightning talks which I stayed around for - and good thing too, because Fraser Tweedale demonstrated an amazing new system called Deo. It's essentially "encryption keys as a network service": a client can store a key in a network server and then request it later automatically. The two situations Fraser demonstrated for this were unlocking your Apache SSL certificate when Apache starts up (using a pass phrase helper) and unlocking LUKS disk encryption automatically when a machine boots (using a helper in LUKS). Since I'd recently had a customer ask for this very thing - machines with encrypted disks for data security outside the corporate network but that boot without user intervention when in the presence of the key server - this was hugely useful. I'm watching the Deo project eagerly, and have changed my attitude to lightning talks. If only more of them could be like this!

As is common with open source events, OSDC 2015 was collecting money for charity - in this case, the Tasmanian Refugee Defence Fund. After Lev Lafayette donated $1000 to the cause, I decided to match it. The few glimpses we get into the abysmal conditions in our costly, closed offshore detention camps are harrowing - yet we don't see (many) people in them saying "you know, take me back to Syria, I'll take my chances there". We're only hurting the poorest of the poor and the most desperate of the desperate, and only because of the xenophobia created by the Coalition and the conservative media. We're damaging people for life, and burdening our own society in coping with the problems we've created. In my opinion we're going to find out in the upcoming decades just how bad that problem really is. Anything we can do to alleviate it now is a good thing.

Overall, OSDC 2015 was a great learning experience. The "hallway track" was just as beneficial as the talks, the food was good, the venue was good, and I was glad I came.

Last updated: | path: tech | permanent link to this entry

Sat 11th Jul, 2015

Labor on refugees

Sorry, technical folk, this is going to be a political blog post.

I recently got an email from my local member, Andrew Leigh, that raised an issue I feel passionately about; here is my response.

On 09/07/15 14:55, Andrew Leigh wrote:[snip]
> ▪ Some people have asked me *why Labor supported the government’s bill to
> continue regional processing*. This is a tough question, on which reasonable
> people can disagree, but the best answer to this is to read Bill Shorten’s
> speech to the House of Representatives
> on the day the legislation was introduced.
Hi Andrew,

I'm sorry, but I cannot agree with the logic Bill Shorten and the Labor party has expressed in that speech.

Firstly, anyone watching the international problems with refugees will realise that Australia's intake is pitiful and stingy compared to some of its key allies and comparable nations and especially when compared to its population size and lifestyle. It is hypocritical to say "we don't want people to risk journeying across the sea from Indonesia, but we're happy for them to remain illegal immigrants there", especially when you look at the life that those people face as refugees there.

As an aside, though, I would say that it is still partly correct - it is more humane for them to remain in Indonesia than to be detained indefinitely in the inhuman, underresourced and tortuous conditions on Manus Island and Nauru. It is shameful to me that the Labor party can ignore this obvious contradiction.

But more importantly, the logic that we're somehow denying "people smugglers a product to sell" by pushing boats back into international waters shows no understanding of people smuggling as a business. Australia is still very much a destination, it's just that people now come with visas on planes and they pay even more for this than they used to. There is still a thriving trade in getting people into Australia, it's just been made more expensive - in the same way that making heroin illegal has not caused it to suddenly vanish from the face of the earth.

All we're doing by punishing people who come by boat to seek refuge in Australia is punishing the very desperate, the worst off, the people who have literally fled with their clothes and nothing else.

Other people with money still arrive, overstay their visas, get jobs as illegal immigrants or on tourism visas. The ABC has exposed some of these ridiculous, unethical companies trading on foreign tourists and grey market labourers. The Labor party, of all parties, should be standing up for these people's rights yet it seems remarkably silent on this issue.

The point that I think Labor needs to learn and the point I ask you to express to your colleagues there is that we don't want Labor to return to its policies in 2010. We thought those were inhuman and unjust then, and we still do now. Invoking them as a justification for supporting the Government now is bad.

Personally, I want Labor to do three things with regard to refugees:

  1. Move back to on-shore detention and processing. The current system is vastly more expensive than it needs to be, and makes it more difficult for UN officials and our own members of parliament and judiciary to be able to examine the conditions of detention. The Coalition keeps telling everyone about how expensive their budget is but seems remarkably silent on why we're paying so much to keep refugees offshore.
  2. Provide better ways of settling refugees, such that one can cut the "people smuggler" middle men out of the deal.

    For example, set up refugee processing in places such as Sri Lanka and Afghanistan where many refugees come from. Set a fixed price per person for transportation and processing in Australia, such that it undercuts the people smugglers - according to figures I read in 2010 this could be $10,000 and still be 50% less than black market figures.

  3. Ensure accountability and transparency of the companies such as Serco that are running these centres. If the government was running them and people were being abused, the government would be held accountable; when private companies do this the government wipes its hands and doesn't do a thing.
And on a more conversational note, I'd be interested in your views on this as an economist. There is obviously an economy of people smuggling - do we understand it? Is there any economic justification for offshore detention? All markets must work with a certain amount of illegal activity - can we work _with_ the black market rather than trying to work against it?

I do appreciate your updates and information and I look forward to more of your podcasts.

All the best,


Last updated: | path: society | permanent link to this entry

Tue 23rd Sep, 2014

That time that I registered an electric vehicle

So, tell us a story, Uncle Paul.

Sure. One time when I was in Rovers, ...

No, tell us the story of how you got your electric motorbike registered!

Oh, okay then.

It was the 20th of February - a Friday. I'd taken the day off to get the bike registered. I'd tried to do this a couple of weeks before then, but I found out that, despite being told a month beforehand that the workload on new registrations was only a couple of days long, when I came to book it I found out that the earliest they could do was the 20th, two weeks away. So the 20th it was.

That morning I had to get the bike inspected by the engineer, get his sign-off, and take it down to the motor registry to get it inspected at 8:30AM. I also had to meet the plumber at our house, which meant I left a bit late, and by the time I was leaving the engineer it was already 8:15AM and I was in traffic. Say what you like about Canberra being a small town, but people like driving in and the traffic was a crawl. I rang the motor registry and begged for them to understand that I'd be there as soon as possible and that I might be a couple of minutes late. I squeaked into the entrance just as they were giving up hope, and they let me in because of the novelty of the bike and because I wasn't wasting their time.

The roadworthy inspection went fairly harmlessly - I didn't have a certificate from a weighbridge saying how heavy it was, but I knew it was only about eight kilos over the original bike's weight, so probably about 240 kilos? "OK, no worries," they said, scribbling that down on the form. The headlights weren't too high, the indicators worked, and there was no problem with my exhaust being too loud.

(Aside: at the inspection station there they have a wall full of pictures of particularly egregious attempts to get dodgy car builds past an inspection. Exhaust stuffed full of easily-removable steel wool? Exhausts with bit burnt patches where they've been oxy'd open and welded shut again? Panels attached with zip ties? Bolts missing? Plastic housings melted over ill-fitted turbos? These people have seen it all. Don't try to fool them.)

Then we came up to the really weird part of my dream. You know, the part where I know how to tap dance, but I can only do it while wearing golf shoes?

Er, sorry. That was something else. Then we came to the weird part of the process.

Modified vehicles have to get a compliance plate, to show that they comply with the National Code of Practice on vehicle conversions. The old process was that the engineer that inspected the vehicle to make sure it complied had blank compliance plates; when you brought the vehicle in and it passed their inspection, they then filled out all the fields on the plate, attached the plate to the vehicle, and then you transported it down to Main Roads. But that was a bit too open to people stealing compliance plates, so now they have a "better" system. What I had to do was:

  1. Get the bike inspected for road worthiness.
  2. They hand me a blank compliance plate.
  3. I then had to take it to the engineer, who told me the fields to fill in.
  4. He then told me to go to a trophy making place, where they have laser etchers that can write compliance plates beautifully.
  5. I arrive there at 11AM. They say it'll be done by about 2PM.
  6. Go and have lunch with friends. Nothing else to do.
  7. Pick etched compliance plate up.
  8. Take compliance plate back to engineer. Because he's busy, borrow a drill and a rivet gun and attach the plate to the bike myself.
  9. Take it back to Main Roads, who check that the plate is attached to the bike correctly and stamp the road worthiness form. Now I can get the bike registered.
Yeah, it's roundabout. Why not keep engrave the plates at Main Roads with the details the Engineer gives to them? But that's the system, so that's what I did.

And so I entered the waiting department. It only probably took about fifteen minutes to come up next in the queue, but it was fifteen minutes I was impatient to see go. We went through the usual hilarious dance with values:

Many months ago I had enquired about custom number plates, and it turns out that motorbikes can indeed have them. Indeed, I could buy "3FAZE" if I wanted. For a mere $2,600 or so. It was very tempting, but when I weighed it up against getting new parts for the bike (which it turned out I would need sooner rather than later, but that's a story for another day) I thought I'd save up for another year.

So I finally picked up my new set of plates, thanked her for her time, and said "Excuse me, but I have to do this:" and then yelled:


Well, maybe I kept my voice down a little. But I had finally done it - after years of work, several problems, one accident, a few design changes, and lots of frustration and gradual improvement, I had an actual, registered electric motorbike I had built nearly all myself.

I still get that feeling now - I'll be riding along and I'll think, "wow, I'm actually being propelled along by a device I built myself. Look at it, all working, holding together, acting just like a real motorbike!" It feels almost like I've got away with something - a neat hack that turns out to work just as well as all those beautifully engineered mega-budget productions. I'm sure a lot of people don't notice it - it does look a bit bulky, but it's similar enough to a regular motorbike that it probably just gets overlooked as another two-wheeled terror on the roads.

Well, I'll just have to enjoy it myself then :-)

Last updated: | path: personal / ebike | permanent link to this entry

Fri 19th Sep, 2014

Learning as we go

Today I broke my record for distance on the electric motorbike: 70km on a charge.

The battery at the end of that was at 121.8V, which is about 3.2V per cell, and the lowest cell was 3.16V. Watching the voltage as I was riding (taking quick glances) showed that even under load it wasn't dipping below 110V, so there's a good chance that most cells were still running just fine. It's possible that there's a cell with lower capacity, but I think as I ride it and the battery gets more chance to level out I'm actually improving its range.

Unfortunately the battery meter on the bike thinks that power is leaking out when it isn't, so that doesn't tell me much. The meter on the BMS read "0%" at 38Km (the last time I read it) and "0%" before I started charging it, so I have no idea whether that's being caused by a low cell or some other random error. Either way, it's still trial and error to see how much distance I can actually get out of the battery.

According to the meter on the wall socket, that was half a kilowatt-hour. According to my calculations, that was about 11 amps at 120 volts over four hours, so about five kilowatt-hours. Either the decimal point is wrong on the meter and it's an order of magnitude too low, I'm reading it wrong, or it's just plain incorrect. Five kilowatt-hours is in the right ball park. At $0.17 per kilowatt-hour I just paid 89 cents to fill up the bike. So it's about 1.2 cents per kilometre, at this rough guess.


The other amusing thing is that I'm having to get used to coming back to the bike to find people peering intently at it. Fluoro-clad workers, motorbike enthusiasts, general passers by - I get all types. There are still lots of people who walk on by, so I don't think I've really changed the planet. But it's still fun to explain it and to see people's different reactions, all without exception positive. That's pretty cool.

Last updated: | path: personal / ebike | permanent link to this entry

Mon 4th Aug, 2014

Stop the unemployed

I think there's quite a simple answer to why the Coalition is putting so much effort into punishing the unemployed: it's exactly the same as their "stop the boats" policy. If they make it so unattractive to actually register as unemployed (in order to get Centrelink benefits) then a lot of people will just not register. They'll look for work, and they'll depend on the charities and on other forms of income (begging, stealing, etc), but they won't show up in the books as unemployed. Instantly, unemployment goes down, the Coalition looks like it's "tough on dole bludgers", and someone else foots the bill.

I've been there. I was unemployed for six months in late 2000. I tried to get benefits, and after spending every day trying to find work so that I could tick off my twenty-five job searches a month I was told that since I had shares I didn't qualify for assistance. In other words, you can't save, you can't have any reserves, you have to be scraping the bottom of the barrel yourself before you get any money from the Government.

So I just didn't bother. I didn't show up to Centrelink again, and they (presumably) removed my name from the list of unemployed. Howard at that time was trumpeting the work he was doing to reduce unemployment and kept pointing to the unemployment figures. No-one looked at the number of jobs at the same time. I think a few people pointed out at the time that the worse of his policies - which match those of the Coalition today - were just designed to punish the unemployed and make them into a cheap work force rather than actually get more jobs.

It's especially poignant since the Coalition also wants to sign into law trade partnerships that send jobs overseas (by making it uneconomical to manufacture things here in Australia), denying climate change and cutting spending on renewable energy (stopping the entire renewable energy sector from investing and thus losing jobs), cutting funding for education and health (as if States are suddenly going to find that money somewhere - more jobs lost), and telling Toyota and Holden that they get nothing to keep people employed here in Australia.

It's been well pointed out that there only about 146,100 jobs for 741,700 unemployed people. But the government's own way of calculating this only thinks a person is unemployed if they actively looked for work in the week of being surveyed - they identify an entire group called "currently inactive (not in the labour force)" and then coyly ignore that group entirely, not even mentioning it on the page.

That group comprises a lot of people, some of who need help. It's the long term unemployed who have given up on the mindless form-filling, tracking and justification required for government payments. It includes mothers who stay at home full time to care for their children (which is a full time job in my opinion). It includes lots of disabled people. It includes people on pensions. And it's that group that seems to be conveniently ignored by the Coalition in their War On Bludgers.

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Wed 9th Jul, 2014

New web server, same old content.

Over the last couple of years I've been implementing bits of my website in Django. Those initially started on my home server, and recently I moved them to a test domain on the new server my web host provided. Then they advised me that their old hardware was failing and they'd really like to move my domain off it onto the old one.

So I took backups, and copied files, and wrote new code, and converted old Django 1.2 code which worked in Django 1.4 up to the new standards of Django 1.6. Much of the site has been 404'ing for the last couple of days as I fix problems here and there. It's still work in progress, especially fixing the issues with URL compatibility - trying to make sure URLs that worked in the old site, in one Perl-based CGI system, work in the new site implemented in Django with a changed database structure.

Still, so far so good. My thanks once again to Daniel and Neill at Ace Hosting for their help and support.

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Fri 11th Apr, 2014

Sitting at the feet of the Miller

Today I woke nearly an hour earlier than I'm used to, and got on a plane at a barely dignified hour, to travel for over three hours to visit a good friend of mine, Peter Miller, in Gosford.

Peter may be known to my readers, so I won't be otiose in describing him as a programmer with great experience who's worked in the Open Source community for decades. For the last couple of years he's been battling Leukaemia, a fight which has taken its toll - not only on him physically and on his work but also on his coding output. It's a telling point for all good coders to consider that he wrote tests on his good days - so that when he was feeling barely up to it but still wanted to do some coding he could write something that could be verified as correct.

I arrived while he was getting a blood transfusion at a local hospital, and we had spent a pleasurable hour talking about good coding practices, why people don't care about how things work any more, how fascinating things that work are (ever seen inside a triple lay-shaft synchronous mesh gearbox?), how to deal with frustration and bad times, how inventions often build on one another and analogies to the open source movement, and many other topics. Once done, we went back to his place where I cooked him some toasted sandwiches and we talked about fiction, the elements of a good mystery, what we do to plan for the future, how to fix the health care system (even though it's nowhere near as broken as, say, the USA), dealing with road accidents and fear, why you can never have too much bacon, what makes a good Linux Conference, and many other things.

Finally, we got around to talking about code. I wanted to ask him about a project I've talked about before - a new library for working with files that allows the application to insert, overwrite, and delete any amount of data anywhere in the file without having to read the entire file into memory, massage it, and write it back out again. Happily for me this turned out to be something that Peter had also given thought to, apropos of talking with Andrew Cowie about text editors (which was one of my many applications for such a system). He'd also independently worked out that such a system would also allow a fairly neat and comprehensive undo and versioning system, which was something I thought would be possible - although we differed on the implementation details, I felt like I was on the right track.

We discussed how such a system would minimise on-disk reads and writes, how it could offer transparent, randomly seekable, per-block compression, how to recover from partial file corruption, and what kind of API it should offer. Then Peter's son arrived and we talked a bit about his recently completed psychology degree, why psychologists are treated the same way that scientists and programmers are at parties (i.e. like a form of social death), and how useful it is to consider human beings as individual when trying to help them. Then it was time for my train back to Sydney and on to Canberra and home.

Computing is famous, or denigrated, as an industry full of introverts, who would rather hack on code than interact with humans. Yet many of us are extroverts who don't really enjoy this mould we are forced into. We want to talk with other people - especially about code! For an extrovert like myself, having a chance to spend time with someone knowledgeable, funny, human, and sympathetic is to see sun again after long days of rain. I'm fired up to continue work on something that I thought was only an idle, personal fantasy unwanted by others.

I can only hope it means as much to Peter as it does to me.

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