Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

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,


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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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Tue 11th Feb, 2014

The Day We Fight Back?

I've blacked out 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.

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Sun 24th 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.

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Mon 16th 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.

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Mon 19th 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.

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Mon 12th 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.



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Tue 2nd Apr, 2013

Dear <a href="">Mail Online</a> editor,<P>

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,


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Tue 20th 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.

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Mon 17th 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.

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Sun 12th 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.

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Sun 5th 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,


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Tue 24th 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.

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Mon 29th 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.

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Sun 21st 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.

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Mon 23rd 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.

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Sat 21st May, 2011

Shopping for Fail

I read an article recently about the increased competition regular shops - in particular Myers, David Jones, Harvey Norman, etc - are facing from internet retailers. Having recently bought a Kogan TV as a toe-in-the-water test of buying stuff I'd normally buy by walking up, trying the actual models out in store and then picking one, I was interested. In the article, some high-paid consultant gave the eager retailers lessons on what they should be doing to move into the digital age. Was this going to be the next wave of retailing?

Reading it, however, I felt no real surprise and only a sense of sadness. The idea is that for retail stores to push "the experience" rather than just the price. People would go to Myers to meet and hang around with the purchasing elite; you might sip champagne and hear string quartets play while discussing fashion and homewares with the staff and like-minded shoppers. The article listed this consultant as having helped Microsoft, Borders and other large corporations come into the internet era.

Really? Even Apple fanatics don't go to Mac shops to hang out with people who also purchase Apple equipment. As far as I can see, people going shopping would rather not meet any other shoppers in their perambulations through the store - they'd rather have staff who pop up when requested, disappear when ignored, and know enough to answer questions correctly. Shopping as a social experience is done with friends, not complete strangers; even for exclusive fashion stores the idea is to be seen and to enjoy the exclusiveness, not to sit around and chat with random people. The whole idea is absurd.

Now, admittedly, my experience with exclusive fashion stores is pretty much nil, and my method of shopping for most of these items is antithetical to any idea of socialising: I work out what I want, I go in, I look at all the available options, I choose what I want (if anything), I pay and I get out. I don't mind being at least polite in a store - if someone's obviously curious about an item that I have some experience with I'll happily answer their questions or even offering a bit of advice if someone has a question that I can help with. Even at computer fairs, where I have been known to wander around checking random prices without any intent to buy those things even in the near future, I don't tend to socialise. But I still think most people would agree that they don't want to have social interactions in a store that are irrelevant to what they're looking for.

And the thing that really gives this away as a stupid con is that it's really actually almost what the stores do already. Marketing for those stores has always emphasised the look, the fashion, the style - carrying the bag of a designer clothes store through the mall has always been a statement about your fashion sense and purchasing power as much as it has been to own the thing in the bag. This "new strategy" doesn't change their mode of business, it just puts a new marketing pitch on it.

So it's really doomed to fail also, because it fails to acknowledge why people are shopping online: for the price. They know what they want and now they want to find somewhere that can give them one as cheap as is reasonable. We haven't suddenly turned into a society of asocial bastard shoppers; we're actually sick and tired of greeters, salespeople that are in your face when you want to browse and never there when you have a question, demonstration devices that don't work or don't allow you to test the device fully, and the whole ghastly traffic / parking ticket / crush of people / bland muzak / endless tramping experience. I'd rather spend that two hours shopping online, in my own home, in my comfortable clothes, sitting down, listening to my own music. Experience? No amount of champagne, exclusive brands, new seasons catalogues and perfectly groomed, charming salespeople can outweigh all the awfulness of going shopping in a modern mall.

My advice, for free (because it's the internet), to those stores is simple.

Sell the things that people want to buy from a real store. Then make the experience of buying in a store as easy and practical - I won't say enjoyable - for your customers as possible.

Seriously, most of it flows naturally from there. Don't bother with selling DVDs at Myers when they're already cheaper at JB Hifi and cheaper still online. The entire mall, from the entrances and parking spots to the locations of the toilets and price of the coffe, is part of the experience - don't decorate up to your front door and leave the rest as a hollow, concrete wasteland. Emphasise how safe it is to shop in a store, how the customers details and credit card information is secure. For the things that you do specialise in, make sure your range is good. For some things you can probably allow people a cheaper price if they don't buy one in the store but have your mail-order section post it to them (after all, that one hasn't been sitting in your valuable shop space). Make it easy for people to buy stuff from you online, too - use the technology where it works rather than avoiding it.

And make sure your staff enjoy their work. Putting pressure on them to sell a certain amount every $time_period makes them desperate, and customers can spot this three quarters of a league off in heavy fog. Avoid the cliched, inappropriate Americocentric selling techniques and manner of the eighties and nineties. You should see your staff as people to get involved in the whole process, rather than cloned droids with no personality.

I don't want retailers to die off. I think having a physical shop front to go and try things at is a useful thing: there are plenty of things that I want to try out or try on, or have a knowledgeable person on hand to ask questions about. And for things like warranty claims, purchasing compatible accessories, and finding out new brands or types, a shop front is much more convenient than an internet retailer. But I've bought things through the internet - I would have never thought I would have bought online: TVs, perfumes, fruit and veg (can't find a link, because it was long ago in Brisbane), even peppermints, as well as all the things we now buy and take for granted will be available on the internet - computer parts, books, CDs, and all sorts of neat gadgets. I've bought these things at shop fronts, too, so it doesn't have to be the death-knell of the retail industry.

And what's the next thing? What happens after the internet makes getting almost anything you want available easily from almost anywhere? I see a long process of things gradually getting easier to find, marketplaces consolidating, and drop-shipping mega-sites becoming more comprehensive, but that just increases the existing players. Where we pay money for formatted, compiled data - books, videos, music, etc. - it'll be distributed directly to you via the internet; these things will get more available and cheaper as competition and opening up of markets gradually overcome the idiocy of digital restrictions and market segmentation.

And the end, really, is the post-scarcity society: where you can have anything made available for you at close to zero cost, and the work you do participating in the society is valued enough to pay for that cost. Which is really the digital economy applied to physical things, because practically speaking we already have a system to distribute copies of data throughout the world at near enough to zero cost. Post-scarcity will happen - in some things it can be said to already be here - it's just a question of when.

To reuse Linus's quote: we don't aim to be the death of retail stores. That will be a totally unintended side-effect.

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Fri 16th Jul, 2010

The monkey on ones back

I've just been listening to stories from a friend of mine about his new place of work. Simple things like getting support have to go through other departments and are quietly filed and ignored. New software is anathema. Fixing problems is impossible, because it would admit that the problem existed. People are regularly bullied into doing things that are way outside their job descriptions. No-one knows the passwords to any machines and point the finger at other people in an endless circle. Managers actively suppress any dissent.

But the worse is yet to come. This place uses billions of tax-payers money and its budget continues to expand. Even revealing the name of this organisation or any substantiated claims can be considered treason and is a criminal offence. The money gets used on projects that regularly get cancelled, delayed and changed and often end up costing orders of magnitude more than originally budgeted. Any questioning of the spending is considered unpatriotic. Powerful people with distinguished careers have stood up to this organisation only to find themselves cut off and facing the sharp end of the law.

How does society get rid of this cancer? The theoretical function of this organisation and its actual activities are so different as to almost be antithetical. Yet it seems impossible to actually change it, fix it or remove the harmful elements from it. Surely the only thing to do is to scrap the entire thing and start afresh. Yet that too would be considered heretical or traitorous by some. What can we do?

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Wed 12th May, 2010

New-age terrorists develop homeopathic bomb

New-age terrorists develop homeopathic bomb

Imagine the terror that the world could be brought to with this new technique. All it would take would be a couple of drops of sugar solution or vitamins into the town's water supply, and tapping the reservoir in a specific way, to cause mass outbreaks of disease and poisoning (for if the toxin creates the antitoxin, something beneficial must create something harmful). A couple of taps by a nefarious homeopathic passer-by on your glass of water and whatever good elements that were in it could be instantly transformed into a deadly drink. And it would be completely indistinguishable from ordinary harmless water.

If, of course, homeopathy was actually true.

The question I want to put to a homeopathist is: how do you remove the memory of all the other stuff from the water? Surely just as you're tapping the water to activate the memory of the antitoxin of arsenic or hemlock or whatever, you're also activating the memory of the antitoxin of the urine and whatever else has been put in that water over time, diluted over centuries and millennia of use. I mean, there are lots of other questions to ask - how do you know you've processed the water enough? How does the toxin create the antitoxin? How does the memory stay in the water? Why do you continually refuse to go with any kind of scientific, double-blind trial of your medicine? and so forth. But I'd like to know why it is that they can be so sure that this phial of water is just carrying the one specific treatment and is now not just a broad-spectrum cureall for every disease and illness that have ever been in the water at all?

It's all garbage. The sooner these deluded people are taken out of the system and prevented from administering placebos to people that need real medication, the better.

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Sat 27th Mar, 2010

Political dogma

I, like pretty much everyone now, am opposed to the Australian Federal Labor Party's 'Clean Feed' mandatory internet filtering proposal. It won't stop paedophiles getting access to child pornography, it won't protect children from abuse, it won't stop people getting access to illegal content or content on the Refused Classification list, and it will almost certainly generate a huge number of false positives, blocking much legal content. It will slow internet access down, it has enormous potential to be abused for political or commercial gain, the list of refused classification sites has no judicial or public oversight, and Senator Conroy has avoided any actual definition of what goes on the blocked list. It's stupid, it's bound to fail, and no-one wants it.

So why, why, are Senator Conroy and Prime Minister Rudd continuing to not only support it but insist that it be put in place?

Every time this issue comes up, at work or with friends, that is the question on everyone's lips. Why does the minister continue to insist that it must be put in place? Why are they ignoring the overwhelming technical flaws in its implementation? Why do they even think that it will do what they say it will, when everyone else has positive proof that it won't? Why are they defying the wishes of the actual citizens who voted them in, 90% of whom don't want any internet filtering? Why?

I think we can conclusively say, from the evidence of Stephen Conroy's and Kevin Rudd's words, that this has gone beyond a debatable issue. They continually label everyone else's views as extremist and denigrate opposition as supporting the things they claim the filter is against. They continually ignore all the evidence that says that the filter will not work and insist that it will. This is no longer reasonable - this is dogma. They have an absolute and unwavering faith that the filter will work - that it must work - and nothing is going to change that view at all.

No protest will work. No petitions will sway them. No carefully crafted arguments will change their mind. Stupid attempts to DDOS Government websites will only make them more committed to ignoring all nay-sayers. Don't bother to blow up a bus or threaten to start shooting parliamentarians, it won't change their minds. In my opinion they will be ignoring their friends, their fellow Senators and Ministers, and they will be talking to all of them trying to convince them of the truth of their dogma, so while we should all write to our representatives in the houses of parliament - local, state and federal - little will be done by this; we will get form letters but the volume of complaints will make some small difference.

So what do we do now? How do you win an argument with a person who denies everything you say is true and calls you a supporter of the bad guys? How do we, the people of Australia, conduct a Representative Democracy when our elected Senators and leaders refuse to listen to us?

What do we do?

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Thu 18th Mar, 2010

Lost Opportunities 001

Attention anyone looking for a business proposition - set up an electric vehicles parts supplier business on the eastern coast of Australia.

There is a small but thriving market here for batteries, motors, controllers, and most importantly the peripherals that bind them all together. The problem for most hobbyists - and that which puts them off committing more money sooner - is that each one of these parts has to be individually sourced, often from the USA or China. Few people like paying thousands of dollars, including lots of shipping fees and import duties, and waiting weeks or months in order to find out whether the part they've ordered works with their planned setup or not. Having a local supplier would mean a lot more purchases.

Sure, there's EVWorks over in Perth. Dennis has been relatively helpful to my enquiries and stocks a good range of batteries and other things. I'll probably buy most of my stuff from him. But he's very busy, not only with running the store but with his own instals, and I still begrudge having to freight a hundred odd kilos of batteries across from Perth to Canberra. Having a supplier in Sydney or even Melbourne would cut down on that considerably.

If I was able to, I'd do it; but overcommitment and inexperience prevent me from pursuing it. So I'll have to hope that someone else takes up the baton.

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Mon 1st Feb, 2010

WOMBATs in the health care system

A couple of weeks ago I had an appointment with a specialist (the details of which are otiose to this blog post). I turned up on time at the surgery, and the receptionist asked for my referral form. Stupidly, I had forgotten it. This turned out to completely prevent me from seeing the specialist at all, as the doctor's surgery didn't have the referral on file and thus couldn't fax it through, and I wouldn't be able to make the round trip back home to pick the form up before my booking time had expired. So I had to schedule this work for another day, which is tomorrow, and I'm already nervously thinking through the list of every concievable piece of paperwork and ephemera that they could want in order to make sure I have it with me tomorrow.

So let's think this through. What actual purpose does this form serve? It's not needed to book the appointment - they did that over the phone and didn't require any form of identification or authentication information then. It's not needed to validate me as the person who made the booking - I have plenty of other valid forms of identification on me. It's not needed to validate me as the person requiring the treatment - the doctor's surgery could easily do that, and in many ways that would be more secure than me doing it via the form. I can't use this form to access any other specialist for this particular problem because it specifically names the agency that's going to provide the service, so giving me the form doesn't serve as a general letter of introduction to any specialist I want. About the only reason to give me the form is so that I can read what's written on it, but that's hardly useful as its written in medical jargon that I can only decode by being already familiar with the problem.

So as far as I can see there is no actual purpose served by giving a patient their referral form and requiring it to be given to the surgery before treatment can proceed. When this doesn't happen, and I'll bet dollars to cents that it happens a lot, it's lost time for the patient, lost time for the surgery, and a lot of hassle all round. That hurts people and it hurts the economy. All because, as far as I can see, the doctor's surgery doesn't send the form directly to the specialist.

I'll ask the doctor and the specialist when I see them in time, but in the mean time I'd love to hear from anyone who can give me some good reasons why things are done this way.

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Sun 10th Jan, 2010

Capitalising on success

I watched "RiP: A Remix Manifesto" the other day on SBS - good on them for showing it on mainstream TV. I fear it won't really have reached many more than people like myself, who already know the problems and want to get to the solution, but on the other hand any activism is good in this issue, because there are a bunch of memes we're fighting against here that need taking down good and proper.

The main one that struck me now is that the underlying theme is hypocrisy. The copyright industry is hypocritical in so many ways that it just permeates the whole process. Take, as an example, Walt Disney animating the old fairy tales - Snow White, Pinnochio, Cinderella, and so on; these were stories that had no copyright attached, and then Walt Disney (by redoing them) attached a copyright to them and prevented anyone from using them. That's perhaps a broad statement, but just imagine reprinting the story of Snow White and illustrating it without being a target for lawsuits from Disney Corporation - it's basically unthinkable. That's how much Disney has appropriated an out of copyright story and put their own copyright on it. The film documents countless other examples of artists using a riff or melody from someone else who's no longer around (or large enough, or is still naive enough to think that it's OK), and then suing any further artists who try to do the same thing with the melody they've just appropriated.

Strangely, I see this hypocrisy as actually now forming the basis of the whole "intellectual property" castle in the sky. Ask yourself why we have the laws of copyright, patents and intellectual property. Well, you tell yourself, imagine I'm some inventor with a brand new gadget, or a musician with a new song, or a film-maker with a new movie. If I don't "protect" that new thing, someone's going to come along and rip it off, and all my hard work will have been wasted because the cost of duplicating my work is much less for them than for me. That's why we have "All Rights Reserved" on CDs - because the idea that someone could take your hot drum lick and make the next Amen Break out of it and become instantly famous without paying you a cent and leaving your less popular work mouldering in the dust is a harsh thought to bear.

But let's think about this for a moment. Who is actually likely to carry out this threat here? Well, it might be someone you know or someone you show your thing to, but even in the days of ubiquitous internet distribution that's still a tiny tiny fraction of the actual people around. (Remember, we're ordinary people, we're not already famous - so we're unlikely to have people targeting us specifically.) For the most part the people that actually appropriate our work are going to be people just like us - artists, inventors, photographers, sculptors, and so on - and we all know what goes around comes around, and sooner or later if I copy my next door neighbour's work she's going to find out. Likewise, they probably don't have a huge internet following or lots of money to print CDs or pictures, so their ability to actually capitalise on taking our idea is limited. So it's not likely that we are the people who will take our fellow person's intellectual property and rip it off.

The people we have to most watch out for have three basic properties. One is lots of money - it means that any costs of duplicating our ideas isn't going to be an immediate barrier. Two is lots of distribution - not just big servers or copying machines but the ability to take that idea and distribute it to lots of people to generate some sales. Three is legal untouchability - not that they might be right in taking our thing (we've already established that we're using patents or copyright or whatever to prevent that) but the ability to entangle us in legal battles far beyond our resources to fight - or even the ability to take that new spatula idea and sell two million of them in China where you never go and have no knowledge. Who has all these three properties in one?

Well, it's obviously a what: the big corporations. That's right, the same big corporations who have been telling us that copyright and patents and intellectual property is for our own good; that it protects the artists who are just like us, that it stops people doing things we don't want with our ideas, and (in the case of patents) it helps puts ideas in the public domain for everyone to use. And we know that at the same time they're telling us its for our own good they're forcing us to pay for everything and fighting against every possible fair use of their products. It's hypocrisy on such an awesome scale that it's hard to take it all in.

I mean, we know that companies like Microsoft regularly rip off everyone else's intellectual property (e.g. the i4i lawsuit) at the same time as their vigorously defending their own intellectual property (e.g. the Tomtom lawsuit). We know in the software industry that its an unwritten rule not to look at anything that even hints of anyone else's intellectual property lest you be found to be deliberately infringing (rather than just 'accidentally' coming up with the same idea). We know that our ideas down here at the bottom of the heap don't matter one whit and its only the big end of town that gets a patent on every little idea they have and enforces it. We know that that "intellectual property" is being so vigorously enforced that DVDs force you to watch their ads and CDs install root kits to prevent you copying them and other forms of massive collateral damage in the neverending hopeless quest to prevent ideas doing what they do naturally, which is spread.

And yet to sell us on the idea that it's for our own good that we submit to this kind of intellectual thuggery takes guts. Guts, I'd argue, and a complete and childlike faith that the system is right.

Because we know that "intellectual property" is really a dead end. It's a noose that the corporations have made for us, but it tightens not around our necks but theirs, slowly choking them of talent and ideas and good will until they thrash around gasping desperately for the people that will not buy their goods and will not sell their ideas to them and will not buy into the marketing. We've known this since before John Lennon wrote "Imagine", but a more forceful statement of the truth is hard to find.

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one; I hope some day you will join us and the earth will live as one.

Postscript: I'm surprised that it's not made more of in the film, but the absolute key statement of the pro-copyright position is in the section where a spokesman from the RIAA talks to a bunch of schoolchildren about illegal copying. One kid asks him why they charge so much for copying each song (with the tacit comparison to the little you can pay for the same song if you'd bought it on a CD), and he goes briefly into a spiel about copyright. He posits writing a song about love, and as an aside says "Of course, I can't copyright the idea of love, boy, I'd love it if I could do that..." (emphasis, of course, mine). If they could get away with it, they would copyright the idea of love, and charge everyone who feels it in whatever form at whatever time howsoever derived. The fact that he even thinks it not only contemplatable but desirable that one person could own the idea of love and prevent others from thinking about it or feeling it shows how truly beyond rationality the intellectual property corporations are.

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Fri 9th Jan, 2009

Rocket fuel to the fire

I am finally moved to ponder on the Israeli invasion into Gaza. Of course, I would like to see an end to the conflict and I think Israel's attack is fairly high-handed. But it seems to me to be an act of sheer lunacy for Hamas militants to fire more rockets into Israel. What's their logic? Do they think that Israel will suddenly be cowed by this display of defiance? That if they try to even up the 10:1 ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths in the conflict that Israel will get cold feet? That Israel will be pressured into withdrawing and then Hamas can try to get some kind of pathetic revenge? That there's far too many virgins in heaven and every Hamas militant should get their fair share? That while everyone is watching Israel a few rockets and civilian deaths will go un-noticed?

Really, it's not only stupid but actually harmful behaviour. It's the kind of moronic eye-for-an-eye retaliation that gives the lie to any claims to be the victim in the conflict. If I were in Israel's position, with a bunch of barely-controlled militant lunatics with delusions of importance and a determination to wipe my nation off the face of the earth whatever the cost, I wouldn't exactly be tippy-toeing and being polite to them in every circumstance either. The sad thing is that Palestine has brought this on itself - Hamas recieves considerable (questionable) funding, it got elected on the basis of spreading this money about, and then Palestinian civilians are getting caught in the cross-fire between their own lunatic fringe government and the hornets nest they decided to stir.

It's the same sad process of politics, really - you vote John Howard in because he said he wasn't going to put in a GST, and then he turns around and says it wasn't a core promise; you vote Hamas in because they said they were going to pay for hospitals and schools and instead they smuggle rockets and arms in and take pot-shots at Israeli civilians. And the world gets stuck with the fall-out.

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Tue 9th Sep, 2008

Words For The Next Decade

I had a realisation last night that there's a new word that I suspect will be entering the news lexicon soon. That word is

An enviropath is a person or company who has a warped or distorted view of how to treat the environment, most commonly seeing it simply as something to exploit without consequence. Just as a sociopath cares little about their effect on society, and a psychopath cares little for their effect on people's psychologies, an enviropath cares little about their effect on the environment in the course of doing what they want.

The Urban Dictionary, which I won't link to here, has an alternate definition which basically is a derogatory term for someone too obsessed with the environment. I don't think this is using the -pathy suffix - meaning 'suffering or disease' - correctly; but then I'm sure the Urban Dictionary doesn't really care.

What it comes down to, for me, is that I believe that there are people and companies whose view point on the Earth and the natural world is that it is simply there for exploitation. They seem to believe that we can not just keep on doing what we've been doing, but actually find new ways to exploit the world, and the consequences simply don't apply to them. In this, my basic stance is completely the opposite - I believe it's time to do everything we possibly can to save the planet we live in. I also side with my dad's line of reasoning on this, in that I can afford to be wrong, but they can't.

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Tue 26th Aug, 2008

Go to the Courts

There is a state in playing Go where one recognises that a move might seem to give one a small gain in pieces now but gives more power to ones opponent in the long run. While I still struggle with this, and the larger question of 'what should I play so that I do gain advantage over my opponent in the long run' is one I still find exceptionally difficult to grasp, I have at least started to recognise that getting a single eye now may actually give my opponent a double eye later.

It occurs to me, albeit as a layman with little knowledge of the real processes of law in and out of the courts, that there is a common pattern to high-profile law cases. If the objective is for A to win over B, then it is:

  1. A sues B and wins
  2. B appeals against the judgement, brings in new arguments and wins.
  3. A appeals against that decision in the high court, brings in the full arsenal, and wins.
B has lost because they have no higher court to appeal to. B has also lost because it has let itself be put in this position.

So what's odd in the whole Nine versus IceTV is that Nine has done this:

  1. Nine sues IceTV and loses
  2. Nine appeals against the judgement, brings in new arguments and wins.
  3. IceTV appeals against that decision in the high court...
Substituting Nine for B and IceTV for A in the pattern, therefore, means that it has allowed itself to be snookered by IceTV. Not only that, but the appeal decision, in my (again completely layman) view, were rather skewed: calling Nine's last minute channel changes 'creative input' is a rather large stretch, whereas calling them 'bungles' is probably nearer the mark. Then arguing that those changes then become not mere facts (that can be copied) but are promoted to copyrightable material is to call anything that a human being has any input into a creative process. It's easy to come up with counter-examples - copying numbers from a book, or assembling cars - but what may be more important is that this works in IceTV's favour, in that by the same rule IceTV are then putting creative input into the schedule and are therefore also making a creative work which is distinct from Nine's schedule by that very fact.

I'm sure the legal minefield starts well back at the start of that previous paragraph, and so I defer to Kim Weatherall and other experts, but when courts start handing down legal judgements that imply that almost any information is copywritable by someone makes the whole existence of facts in the public domain highly tenuous. Can someone copyright my name? My address? Do I somehow own a copyright to my particular choice of phone number and address that means that Telstra owes me money every time they print a phone book? (Note here that when it came to moving house most recently, I was given the choice of a couple of numbers by Telstra and I chose the one I liked - therefore, it wasn't Telstra's creative input that determined my phone number, it was mine.) If someone uses the word "PaulWay" in a way that I don't like, and I've been using it since 1992 and therefore have 15 years of established usage to back it up (again, having chosen that name creatively), can I sue them for copyright infringement without ever having to register it as a trademark? And if it's a copyright infringement, do I get those penalties that the APRA and ACA and so forth have fought for - penalties that are much worse than if it was just a defamation or trademark infringement case? Can you go to prison for creating a post-it note that copies your bus timetable or a person's phone number?

Yes, I know, it's all wild speculation. But this whole judgement feels completely at odds with how people really think about facts and raw information. While I respect the old style of directory compilation, to me it still doesn't equate to a monopoly on the information so collected. The whole "sweat of the brow" protection - that the labour itself makes it enough to be protected - doesn't wash with me, especially in a world where facts, information, opinions and news wash over us almost continually.

Anyway, back to my point. I think that Nine has, in their attempt to get their way in the short term, actually meant that IceTV will triumph in the end. By presenting a case based on such a skewed interpretation of the Australian copyright laws as they apply to facts and information, they've opened it up to the High Court leaning in the opposite direction and blowing Nine out of the water (and, I'd say, causing a considerable re-evaluation of the Desktop Systems vs Telstra case).

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Fri 22nd Aug, 2008

Tougher recycling

At the moment, recycling is by and large a voluntary affair. We private citizens mostly have recycling bins, and a reasonable proportion of the populace put the correct stuff in them. Companies and Government too are catching on, with recycling bins appearing in tea rooms and beside desks and photocopiers. I've even been bringing my own compost bin into work, and that's been getting a reasonable quantity of scraps in it.

However, it seems to me that there are two barriers to this being a much more wide-spread and profitable industry. The first is that in many places it's difficult to know exactly what can be recycled. In many instances, things which can be recycled aren't marked with the appropriate symbols, or the bins which take the recycling aren't marked to say what exactly they can take. As another example, if you move house in Melbourne (for example) what you can actually put in your recycling bin, as well as its size, can vary dramatically. In my view, people will tend to be conservative and not put things in the recycling bin which could be recycled in case they can't, instead of the more optimistic opposite approach.

But it seems to me that this is a minor concern compared with the fundamental problem, which is illustrated in my first sentence. The fact that it's completely voluntary, combined with the complete absence of any feedback regarding whether you're doing the right thing or not, means that the wasters out there have absolutely no incentive to change. They can keep on throwing their cans, cardboard, plastic boxes and bottles and paper into the garbage and it will keep on being merrily taken away and put into landfill, and they never have to lift a finger to change.

As a case in point, I noticed on the way into my work that there is a large skip outside the deliveries entrance. It's being used because there are building renovations going on and the scrap material is going into the bin. It was quite easy for me to see that there were may cardboard boxes and metal wall divisions, all of which could be easily recycled. While I know that a couple of the waste skip hire companies in Canberra do actually send all their rubbish through the recycling centre here, I'll bet three to one that the majority of skip hire companies in most other capital cities in Australia don't do this. Canberra has an aggressive No Waste by 2010 policy, but how the ACT Government intends to get that last 10% fixed in the sixteen months remaining is beyond me.

Imagine, for a moment, random house bin inspections. A note in your letterbox gives you a score of how good you are at recycling, and what things you may have missed. Houses with good scores might receive a discount on their rates, and houses at the bottom end might recieve fines (to compensate). A follow-up with the worst offenders in a week or two might find other ways that the household could reduce their waste, energy use and costs. A similar scheme for companies would be easy to implement, and for businesses that have a lot of variety in their waste types - restaurants and builders, for example - might be linked up with other programmes (such as worm farms for spoilt food waste or recycled building supplies resellers) to help them reduce their waste output or get it going to the best use available.

The one great flaw in this plan, however, is that Governments have tried to avoid any confrontation with the public - any situation where they have to tell people to change their ways for the good of society. There are obvious exceptions, but the key difference I see between this kind of recycling enforcement and a programme to get dangerous cars off the road or to curb violent behaviour is that the latter things break laws and are 'provably' dangerous to other people. On soft issues like good parenting, good recycling or good social responsibility, the Government has heard the NIMBY and Nanny State lobbyists and realised that it's much easier to get people to do something if opposition can be branded as somehow bad. It's much easier to get people to give up their civil liberties and freedoms if you can say that anyone who wants to walk around taking pictures of arbitrary places (for example) must be a terrorist.

Ahem. Got carried away there.

Anyway, the other side to this is for state, territory and federal Governments to make sure that they aren't providing unnecessary subsidies to industries that are deliberately wasting resources. If these companies can't see the writing on the wall when it comes to climate change, then should we really be propping them up? Lobbyists from the coal power industry love to say how other methods of power generation aren't profitable, while conveniently overlooking the hundreds of millions of dollars in funding that they get from the Government to shore up their own 'we-can't-do-any-better' behaviour.

Capitalism gone right, on the other hand, looks like ACT Skip Bins. Other companies might whinge and moan that they can't possibly recycle everything as it costs too much. Then ACT Skip Bins not only goes and does it, but then makes money from the recycled materials as well.

But despite this, I still end up thinking that there are a lot of people and companies who not only just don't care but don't have to. And until they get hit in the hip pocket, they won't care either.

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Sun 1st Jun, 2008

Faith in Atheism

I was in the office of a church hall on Friday, picking up the keys for the hall for our Canberra Irish Set Dance Weekend, and while waiting for the people to work out the bill a leaflet for an upcoming talk at the church caught my eye. The topic of the talk was:

Why I Don't Have The Faith To Be An Atheist.

Now, I will freely admit that that's a catchy title, because it certainly caught my eye. And while I endeavour to understand other people's points of view I am often blinded by my own ideas of what is sensible and reasonable. But I cannot fathom how that that topic can be debated seriously in the affirmative.

On the one hand, to me it requires much more faith to believe in an arbitrary, contradictory, and often non-sensical set of teachings that fly in the face of the evidence around us than to not have to believe any of that. My Australian Concise Oxford gives its first definition of "faith" as: Reliance or trust in; belief founded on authority - the other definitions are the type of religion one believes in and a promise or intent (as in in good faith). In that context I would say that all religions have some authority, be it a book or a person, that is the foundation of their belief, whereas Atheism makes no such demand. Atheism has no book which is quoted chapter and verse, no authority figure that tells people to not trust science and believe what they teach in contradiction to the evidence.

On the other hand, if this is some kind of sophistry - some kind of cunning argument or uncommon definition of "faith" or "atheism", then I think one is entitled to ask if the speaker is going to be serious at all. If it's a straw man argument, then really what's the point of it? I can respect people who stick by what they believe even as they acknowledge the flaws in their own arguments - I can't respect someone who tricks their audience with a conveniently quelled paper tiger.

I was half tempted by Kate's sensible suggestion to actually go and see this just to actually solve this logical problem before it threatened to burst my brain. But as I have this sneaking suspicion that the whole thing will be preaching, appositely, to the choir.

I must now hide myself from the metaphor police.

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Wed 2nd Apr, 2008

Kangaroos saved, who cares about anything else?

Once again the kangaroo cull at the old Belconnen naval signalling base has stalled again, with the animal liberation protesters calling it a victory. The pity is that these people are really protesting about the wrong thing.

On the one hand, they're protesting about the culling of 400 kangaroos. I wonder if they have realised that ACT Forestry has a license to cull 4,000 kangaroos - ten times that number - per year in the national parks. If I remember rightly, ACT Parks also has a license to cull 3,000 on other public land. So killing 400 as a once-off cull is hardly the great tragedy that it's being painted as.

On the other hand, there are animals and plants on that land that are highly endangered and under threat from the kangaroos. There's not only the Perunga Grasshopper and the Mouthless Moth in that area, but a rare species of grasslands flower that is being eaten by the kangaroos. While I'm a bit disappointed that the Liberals have chosen to make this one of those "if we were governing this wouldn't happen" issues, they're totally right - everyone's getting all upset because cute furry animals are going to die. And it looks like the Liberals are only making a fuss because Defence is flip-flopping, not because anything else might face extinction as a result of overgrazing by the kangaroos.

I got this information from a friend who wrote the policy on land care and kangaroo culling in the ACT. So I can't quote chapter and verse, because the conversation was informal and I didn't take notes. But I do think that the "animal liberationists" are way out of line. Don't get me wrong - generally I would like to avoid the kangaroos being killed at all. But to blow this out of proportion shows exactly the kind of loony-fringe unreasoning stupidity that these groups accuse their enemies of and that does their own credibility the most damage. And if you've got any species that is overrunning its ability to survive on the land, it's going to die off some way or other. Killing them quickly is far more humane than letting them starve, whether on a block in the ACT or elsewhere in NSW.

If only the human race would learn this and seriously consider population control of itself.

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Sun 23rd Mar, 2008

Solar Power For Free

I have an idea which I think would revolutionise the power industry. Of course, it requires a lot of venture capital to set up, something which I am unable to provide nor have the knowledge to find. I offer this up on my blog in the hopes that someone might read it, form a business out of it, and change the world. If I get mentioned or gain something from it, then that'd be nice, but making solar power easy for everyone to get involved in is enough reward for me.

Let's call the company Solar Sails. They offer to install a set of solar panels and the necessary equipment to feed power back into the grid for free. When you sign up with them, you pay only for the difference between the power that you use and the power your solar cells generate. If that balance is zero or negative in the billing period - say a month - then you pay nothing for your power. That's the deal for the consumer. Solar Sails itself makes its money by selling the extra power you produce (over what you consume) back to the grid.

From what I recall, the pay-off time for solar panels - the time taken for your lower power bills to recoup the cost of installing the panels - is about ten to fifteen years, and that figure is probably going to get shorter as the technology ramps up. (As Dr. Karl pointed out in a recent lecture, the power pay-off time - the time taken for the solar panels to generate more power than they took in their production - is only about two years or less). There are plenty of businesses who look at investing money in processes with longer pay-off times. Admittedly, Solar Sails is only going to get a fraction of the money those solar panels earn (since the meat of it is going into paying for your power), but on the other hand they can negotiate better deals with the grid supply companies and with the solar cell and technology providers than we as individual consumers can.

And the important thing, I feel, to get solar panel technology widely adopted is to lower that 'hump' of initial outlay. The most sensible point for that is at zero, so it costs you nothing to join the scheme. Even the most power-wasteful person has no reason not to join the scheme if it'll start saving them money without any outlay at all. Once they realise that they can save themselves more money by turning off lights and being less wasteful, you've changed their bad behaviour. And even if they don't actually change their wasteful ways, the fact that their purchase will have contributed to helping lower the price for other people (through volume purchasing by Solar Sails). So it's a pretty good proposition not just for getting more power generated by solar power and making it easier for people to adopt but also to change people's habits and reduce power consumption overall.

As usual, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this idea.

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Fri 15th Feb, 2008

We're all sorry

Kate and I went to (New) Parliament House on Thursday to witness the government saying sorry to the Stolen Generation. Actually, we went to the front lawn between Old and New Parliament Houses, because there was no room in the Grand Hall. We watched on big screens as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said sorry - personally, and as a member of parliament and as the leader of Australia. That got a big cheer from the audience; his speech was very well received and, in my perhaps biased opinion, was very well written.

Brendan Nelson started well but quickly lost his way. His job was never going to be easy, having been under the thumb of a man who ruled his party with an iron fist and refused absolutely to apologise. His basic error was to try and excuse his party's previous views, which required him to justify them; no-one had come to hear this. There was much jeering, clapping to drown him out (useless when you're several hundred metres away watching a broadcast, but impossible to deny the urge) and people turned their backs on him. I eventually felt that I too could not support him by appearing to be interested and turned my back, as futile as it was. He did, rescue himself in some minor degree by finishing by saying sorry.

I also found it amusing that that rabies-infested pit-bull of the Liberal Party, Tony Abbott, found that the only way to criticise the Rudd government was to say that they weren't going far enough in saying sorry and should be giving away money. So now he's not only completely contradicting his own party's previous policies, but doing it in a way which makes him personally look small. Great work, Tony. Keep it up.

The article on living in homeless shelters for five days that Mikal Still referred to makes a reasonable case for giving money as well as other, more policy and planning focussed ways of bring equality to the Aboriginal community. The point made is that money might not solve all the problems, and it might slip into the wrong hands, but it solves a whole lot more problems than the individual hand-outs and concessions can. But Kevin Rudd made the excellent point that giving money to individuals in this situation is going to make far less difference to the Aboriginal society as a whole than to put that same amount of money into health care, jobs, education and training. In my opinion, we also need a whole lot of work done on the media to reverse the 'Aboriginal Cringe' that we have in Australia. Once an Aboriginal, or any person who doesn't look like they grew up in Europe, can walk into any company and not be seen as an outsider, then we really will have progressed.

Saying Sorry is important, but it's still a step on a long road.

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Tue 29th Jan, 2008

Subverting keysigning - whoop de doo

We have Andrew Chalmers offering tequila for signing his unverified key. We have Martin Krafft offering fake ID for signing his unverified key. They talk about how clever they are and how they're making valid points in subverting the web of trust process. They justify it by talking about trusting 'reputation' over trusting an anonymous but identifiable person, or being an "experiment". And my considered response is "whoop-de-doo". It's the web-of-trust equivalent of claiming that sexist jokes are 'free speech', defending violent anarchy as 'subverting the police state', or claiming that stomping on someone else's project is an 'experiment' in destruction. It's still peurile.

The ultimate proof of this is to extrapolate what would happen if everyone did this: the web of trust would die. Is this what these people really want? If you don't want that, then don't do it. If you do want that, then please don't pretend that you're only doing it to make some highfalutin intellectual point. Shut up and try to behave. It's not a web-of-friends, it's a web-of-trust-of-identity. I may not be a friend of Arjen Lentz, but I'll sign his key to say that he's proved to me that his key identifies him. And, frankly, Chalmers and Krafft make me want to ignore them rather than befriend them.

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Tue 27th Nov, 2007

Hate is a fallacy

Having read Murray Cumming's slating of Jeff Waugh and Jeff's reply, I feel little actual attachment to the debate over the GNOME elections, whatever they are. And Jeff and I have had several, well, fights over various issues, mainly on IRC. So I can't say that I'm Jeff's best buddy or that I owe him anything.

But to me this is a classic example of Poisoning the well. Ordinarily I would say "oh well, keep on going", as everyone will have to anyway. But Murray's invective has gone way beyond mere reporting of facts and has headed straight into the mire of overblown, hyperbolic personal opinion. He doesn't give any actual examples of the behaviour he deplores, he grossly mischaracterises any disorders Jeff may suffer from, and his attack has all the hallmarks of something designed not to inform but to slander. Jeff says that Murray is entitled to his opinions, and even invokes Voltaire to say that they can be aired publically. But, to my mind, Murray is only entitled to state fact, something that, while hinted at, seems to be somewhat absent from his diatribe. I'd take that one step further and say that even the facts should be presented in an orderly way in a proper forum - posting up email conversations or IRC logs is not only airing one's dirty laundry in public but a misuse of what might have been private correspondence.

As John Howard found out in this recent election, with the Liberal party's many attempts at mud-slinging, such as criticising Kevin Rudd's wife Therese Rein's business dealings and the botched attempt to link the Labor party with radical Islamists and the Bali bombings, sometimes mud splatters back. Jeff's no saint, and I think he acknowledges that. But Murray's attempt at painting him as Bill Gates incarnate now seems more fanatic and irrational than Jeff might have ever been. Interestingly, Murray is not running for a post in this year's elections, but that to me doesn't clear him of much.

If this were in a newspaper Jeff could easily sue for libel. In the blogosphere, with the parties being in different countries and with an object that is both intangible and unpaid, we just have to settle it the old-fashioned way - by everyone just moving on. Murray's comments will stand in the record and he, as well as Jeff, will be judged by them.

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Sat 24th Nov, 2007

Im in ur tallyroom, chekin ur votez!

A friend of mine, visiting from Melbourne, and I decided to go to the Tally Room that the Australian Electoral Commission runs at the Budawang pavilion in the Exhibition Park centre in Canberra. Part of the motivation was the talk that they may be closing down the tally room in future; it is a big process to do all the security, the displays are small, manual and hard to read, and all the TV stations now have all the live links and stuff sorted out. The other part was wanting to watch the result, knowing that it might have been a ghastly loss but still too interesting to miss. So we went.

Overall it was really interesting for several highly significant reasons:

It was a great night, but made in part because of such a historic turn of the tide. I cannot help but feel smug that not only has John Howard caused the worst swing against Liberal in many decades, but that he has lost his own seat. To use your own words, John: the people of Australia want change.

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Tue 31st Jul, 2007

Helmets indeed!

After my post yesterday, I received an email from Leon Brooks. Since he could be called a poster child for wearing helmets - given that wearing a helmet on the day he was attacked saved his life - I feel sorry for having not thought of him in the first place. Helmet proof indeed![1].

[1] - I tried to find the etymology of "bullet proof", which I was told came from late fifteenth century armoury when muskets were in use. Armourers had to step up from shiny, fluted armour (designed to present diagonal surfaces to arrows and deflect them) to thicker, heavier armour capable of stopping a small lead shot fired at high velocity. The armourer would fire a ball at a corner of the armour, and the dent made was proof that a bullet would not penetrate; hence 'bullet proof'. But I can't find an authorative reference - my Google-fu is not strong today. And since I've now gone past the limit of sanity for footnote length, I should quit now.

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Mon 30th Jul, 2007

No brain damage here

As I rode to work today, I had to slow down to go around a police car that been backed to almost block the cycle track at one point. The policeman behind it had just been chatting with a previous cyclist and only looked up as I arrived. Putting a couple of facts together quickly, I admit to getting a certain amount of pleasure at the fact that the cyclist ahead of me had just been pulled up and issued with a ticket for riding without a helmet. Since I subscribe to the point of view that wearing a helmet improves your chances of surviving a head injury while cycling, I'm all in favour of this law. To me, a cyclist without a helmet is carrying an invisible sign saying "sooner or later, I'm going to take your taxes and health insurance payments and spend them on my personal medical cover for an injury which I could have avoided."

What amuses and depresses me is that, in trying to find the actual legislation on the Mandatory Helmet Laws for Bicyclists, I found a number of what I would classify as 'liberalist rants' on the issue. The basic gist of these is "there's no proof that helmets reduce injuries, and we'd rather give up riding than wear a helmet so there nyah nyah nyah". It's the same kind of rant that characterises seatbelt laws in the USA - the kind of blinkered 'you can't take our rights away from us' attitude that treats getting injured or killed as a right on a par with free speech. Even I, with an almost non-existent knowledge of the studies they quote, can see the flaws in their reasoning; for instance, one page says cyclist numbers declined after the legislation and concludes that the latter caused the former, a classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. There's also plenty of straw man arguments thrown in - for instance, that a study showed that soft-shell helmets grab the ground and thus cause more twisting injuries, ignoring the fact that almost all of the helmets sold these days are light-weight hard-shell helmets.

Like the debate over global warming, it's sad to see people deluding themselves and sadder to see them trying to convince others of their own delusions.

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Mon 23rd Jul, 2007

Free as in choice

A little while ago I had an energetic debate on IRC with a couple of people about the nature of choice in relation to F/LOSS. It stemmed from my rather scathing comments on the colour of the Software Freedom Day 2007 T-shirt, and in particular my questioning how the choice of colour was made - which seems to be have by committee fiat without any actual community input or choice at all.

I should just clarify at this juncture that by 'community input or choice', above, I do not mean 'everyone specifies their own particular shade, and somehow we will source T-shirts of that precise colour'. Nor do I mean 'everyone specifies their own particular shade, we then offer the entire gamut up for people to vote on in a two-stage election process that is democratically fair and representative across the entire world.' If Pia had given us a choice of four colours and anyone who wanted could vote on them, then that would be just dandy. It is the complete absence of any community involvement that I am annoyed at (besides, of course, the colour). I certainly never heard of any attempt to involve the community in this, though I wait in hope. But this is somewhat beside the point of this post.

On IRC, one of the well-known people on the #linux-aus channel on FreeNode, presumably thinking e was defending this unilateral decision on T-shirt colour, made the statement, "Open Source is not about choice". And, technically, this is true: nowhere in the Open Source Initiative definition, the Free Software Foundation's definition of Free Software, or the Wikipedia entry on F/LOSS does it actually use the word "choice" in the definition. Likewise, the key theme of the debate on IRC was that "too much choice is bad" - that making a new user pick between the hundreds of Linux distributions will lead to choice 'paralysis' and therefore the user would instead stay with their old, comfortable, familiar, expensive, proprietary, locked-in solution rather than have to make a pick based on a dozen factors including the exact license used, what window managers were offered and the software packaging method used by default.

All of which I totally agree on.

But this to me is misrepresenting the issue. To me, the fact that choice does not appear in the definitions is akin to the fact that a chemical definition of air would not need to include the statement "essential to human life". Air is not defined solely by its breathability by humans, and FLOSS is not defined as being solely an alternative to proprietary, for-money software. Likewise, air is not defined in terms of people choosing which air to breathe, and FLOSS is not defined in terms of people choosing amongst the variety of FLOSS offerings. But to say, therefore, that FLOSS is not about choice is akin, to me, therefore as being like saying "air is not about breathability". While pedantically true, it completely misses the point of what FLOSS offers the community.

And, ultimately, we look at the industry itself and see the real truth of this statement. With GNU/Linux, you have the ability to choose every level and every component of your operating system, from the kernel up; distros exist to provide pre-packaged 'known good' sets of software, but at every level these choices can be overridden by the user. The whole philosophy of user choice permeates the entire process of open source software creation and use, and the whole community supports your ability to choose what you run and how you run it. The efforts open source developers go to to provide users with a open, no-cost alternative to a proprietary product, or support for hardware on open, no-cost platforms, is legendary. While I'm walking close to that dangerous ground of quoting The Castle and saying "It's just the vibe of the thing", I believe that choice is an essential, integral and desirable part of F/LOSS development and use - that it is basically a emergent property of the definitions. And people are obviously choosing F/LOSS software and operating systems, despite any theoretical danger that they might be put off by the notion of choice.

Contrast this to the typical offerings of the proprietary software world. With Microsoft or Apple, the culture of not giving the user a choice goes beyond their simple offerings, in themselves designed to offer the user one window manager, one file system, one desktop, one browser, one suite of applications. They also lock the user into paying for their operating system in the future, lock the user into buying their own products rather than competing ones, and lock other companies out of competing with the software they offer through a variety of means fair and foul. Microsoft is legendary for ignoring or perverting standards simply to lock users into using Microsoft products, for hiding abilities in their operating system to make competitors products inferior to their own, and for abusing their own power in the desktop market to increase their server marketshare. And for a developer, the whole proprietary software industry is about secrecy - learning from each-others code is a matter of patents, licensing deals, lawsuits, agressive headhunting and infringements. Forget about trying to learn how to do something well based on someone else's code, or even trying to implement something that you've seen someone else do.

Look at the Four Freedoms, or the Open Source Definition. What's the point of all that freedom if you don't have choice? How do you run a program if the choice is denied you? What if the company dictated the purpose of you using it rather than you choosing your purpose for using the software? How do you study the source code if that choice is denied you? How do you redistribute copies, or improve the program, if you can't choose to? The very questions are absurd. You can basically replace 'freedom' with 'choice' throughout the definition and it makes perfect sense.

Anticipating the debating hand-wave from the "open source is not about choice" people, I would simply say that while it is trivial to create situations where one might choose to break the Open Source Definition, or the Principles of Free Software - for example, proposing that I can choose to write software that discriminates against a group of people and release it under an open source license - this is in fact a red herring. It's akin to proposing that, because people break the speed limit, that speed limits can't be used to increase road safety. Choosing to break the license doesn't imply that the license is wrong.

We should still want the freedom and right to to choose, even though we can make bad choices or can get presented with too many choices at times.

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Tue 17th Jul, 2007

The Denialist's Deck of Cards

Starting with the two of clubs ('no problem', which I would call 'what problem') and working up to 'it's bad for business', you can now look at the complete, ordered list of the rhetorical arguments denialists use to squash debate on issues which affect their business. It also includes handy references to actual cases where industry lobby groups have used that particular tactic, just in case you thought no-one would ever be stupid enough, for instance, to try and assert that it was impossibly restrictive to require banks to actually keep their customers' details private.

As tempting as it is to make up some kind of card game using these cards, I feel too heated up about this kind of rhetoric-over-reason approach to dealing with problems to be able to actually use them. I can play a evil mastermind, but not a corporate psychopath.

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Wed 28th Mar, 2007

Misleading Names

There are 'students' wandering around the campus surreptitiously distributing copies of a broadsheet printed by the Citizens Electoral Council denying the existence of global warming and claiming - wait for it - it's a hoax perpetrated by people who want to commit genocide on our world's six billion population. They've also been seen eyeing off bikes and are suspected of stealing some things from other buildings.

It seems to me that this election campaign is getting really ugly. We've had the mud-slinging from the Prime Minister that succeeded only in damaging the reputation of his own party members. Now he's trumpeting the "the unions will win" line. In this age of Dog Whistle Politics, I get extremely suspicious when I see some new phrase come out of John Howard's mouth, as I suspect it's the sort of thing that is designed to leave most of us saying "how would that be possible then?" but send shivers running down the spines of a specific demographic.

Now, out of the blue, we have this little gem from a 'party' who can't work out if they're left or right. They want to repeal all the anti-union legislation that's been passed by the Federal government, but they turn around and claim that global warming is a hoax? Whose side are they on? They're associated with the LaRouche Movement and the Australian League Of Rights, all names which are impossible to judge alignment from. Rights - we should all be in favour of them, right? And a league for people who want them? Makes perfect sense. But instead you'd be rubbing shoulders with Holocaust deniers and Zionist conspiracy theorists, and Lyndon LaRouche himself has been locked up for fraud and tax violations. Sounds like just the organisation to join!

The thing that gets me the most is that the whole chain of wrongness implied in their actions. To get this ludicrous doggerel onto the kitchen table at work here, someone's had to write it up, someone's had to print it, someone's had to get these copies to the people who are wandering around campus now distributing it. All of these people have either been hoodwinked into believing it, or are deliberately conspiring to hoodwink others. And the truth of global warming is once again called into question, and once again scientists everywhere have to fight to make people believe the facts because there's this nonsense out there polluting people's minds. It's worse than a slander campaign.

It's times like this that I really want to emigrate off the planet and into a Star Trek drama. I'll even be a redshirt. There'll still be shadowy organisations trying to control the universe, but at least I'll be flying in a star ship.

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Sat 17th Mar, 2007

Now you can both hate me instead

It's been interesting watching Erik and Simon debate over Fred Nile's racism. Yes, Erik, it is racism in this era of dog whistle politics. Ask anyone on the street what they expect a muslim to look like - go on, I'll wait - and they'll probably say Middle Eastern or Indonesian. That's why it's racist - not because Islam is a race, but because Fred Nile's supporters and the Christian Right like to portray them that way.

Now, as an Atheist, I agree with points of both their arguments. Islam has, on average, had as bloodthirsty a history as Christianity. Remember the crusades? The Inquisition? The forced separation of children from parents by Christians and Muslims thinking they're "doing good"? Islam, to me, just happens to be the most backward at the moment: their treatment of women is worse than the average Southern Baptist. But, to me, that's like saying soot is better than mud because it's less sticky. And it hasn't stopped the Christian Right wanting to put things the way they used to be. You know, stonings and all that.

One thing that I do think needs saying these days was highlighted by an interview with several moderate Islam clerics I heard on the radio. Put simply, the media love focussing on the Islamic radicals and downplaying the Christian radicals. We hear so much about that Sydney sheik whats-his-name simply because it's exactly what the newspapers and TV shows want us to hear - er, I mean, what they think we're interested in. No-one's going around talking about the fact that over 50% of the population of the USA believes that the Bible is literally true. Yeah, Erik, put that in your pipe and smoke it, Papal decrees or no. That's over 100 million people in the most heavily armed superpower on earth. Yeah, that's got to look good. Likewise, according to this interview there are plenty of Muslims who are not radicals, who believe the Koran needs to be interpreted, who believe that we need to get along with the people we live with and the laws of our country. Funny how you don't hear much about them, eh?

There's plenty of moderate Muslim clerics urging peace and good will. There's plenty of radical Christians going out attacking everyone and everything that doesn't agree with them. Why aren't they in the papers? When you answer that most of the rest of the pieces fall into place.

Erik also constructs an elaborate straw man called the Zebuts, and then fails to see the parallels between his argument and the democracy we have today. We've got a Prime Minister who's lied so many times it's boring to repeat it - Tampa? GST? - simply in order to retain power, and who continues to throw our environmental and political future into the fire to keep the populace warm. Which is why they vote for him. Which is why he keeps getting elected. If we called anyone who opposed these happy, warm, 'safe' voters "Zebuts", they'd still fit Erik's model pretty well. In Democracies, they're called "the minority". Sometimes, as happened in Queensland in the 1970s where I grew up, that's a 67% 'minority'. But, sooner or later, Joh was voted out; Howard will be voted out too. Even if I had a favourite Prime Minister, sooner or later they'd be voted out too. That doesn't mean it's wrong. That's just Democracy at work. I'm sure the Dutch are just as capable of being manipulated by Christian fundamentalists as anyone else.

Right or Wrong and Majority or Minority are disconnected - there's no relation between the two.

Of course we have to fight against what we see as bad, to protest against things we don't agree with. Part of that for me is standing up and saying "No, I don't believe in any God. And no writings of some so-called prophet or disciple should be any more valuable to me than a ten-year-old's poem for peace and harmony." Part of that for me is standing up and saying "What about the future of our children. What are we giving to them?" (Of course, since Kate and I have decided to not have children, that'd be 'nieces' in that slot.) We have to do what we think is right. But please, for the sake of your parents and your children and for your friends and family, don't let that be solely guided by the half-baked ravings of someone from a completely different time that have to be 'interpreted' in order to make any sense in today's world.

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Wed 21st Feb, 2007

Ironic Culture 'Jamming'

Thanks to Kim Weatherall's pointer, I read Ian McDonald's paper on Creative Commons licensing in Australia. My overall impression is that he still doesn't get the principles behind Creative Commons, and as such really acts only as a piece of promotional material for Copyright Australia and its agencies. It comes across as a frightener piece intended to make anyone creating new things run away from the Creative Commons license and pay APRA, the Copyright Council and the various other interested bodies lots of money to 'protect' copyright.

The key disconnect is embodied in the sentence "Creators who apply CC licences to their material are likely to rob themselves of potential income in pursuit of what could be nebulous returns." (on what appears to be page 225 of the document. This is presented as some kind of hidden flaw in the CC licenses, something that they didn't tell you about. "Ooooh, those naughty people with their fiendish CC licenses, they were nearly about to rob me of my potential income!".

One the one hand, this is actually topsy-turvy. The 'potential income' is what is nebulous: there is no guarantee that any creator is going to get paid for their creation. Amusingly, McDonald quotes figures at the end of the document to show how much all those benevolent copyright organisations are paying out: $70 million in the case of the Australian Performing Rights Agency, who handles music and live performance. This is disingenuous: they don't say what proportion of that made its way to the artists (i.e. bugger all), how much they got paid originally, what their take was, and how it was judged. The reality is that most artists don't get diddly squat, even if they are a fee-paying member of APRA - most of the money goes to Michael Jackson, the Beatles, and the other big copyright holders. The ordinary performer gets nothing from APRA.

And, as we've seen in many cases on TV and in newspapers, the big media companies feel quite free to rip off legitimately copyrighted photos and videos without getting permission from the copyright owners. And even if you do strike it lucky and get someone writing a cheque for your nature photographs, soundscapes or mixed media collages, this is hardly likely to be anywhere near supporting you. It's increasingly hard for professional photographers (to pick an example) to earn an income, partly because there's now a glut of professional photographers and their products on the market and partly because it's increasingly easy to find work that's free or cheap and use that instead of paying the Steve Parrish wannabes of the world. Creative Commons licenses won't stop, or exacerbate, this situation.

On the other hand, the whole point of Creative Commons licenses is to create a new forum for sharing licensed media, in the same way that we share common land such as parks and out-of-copyright works such as Shakespeare's plays. Creative Commons licenses provide the necessary tools to people who are happy to give their work away so long as it isn't exploited (and sometimes even if it is). The one fundamental constant in the Creative Commons licenses is attribution; the one right they all withhold is the right for someone else to claim your work as their own. This is fundamental to copyright, of course. But it's also a tool for getting your name out there. In the past, bands waited for talent scouts and Triple J Unearthed competitions for their chance at the big time - now they do it by putting tracks on their websites and giving CDs away to friends. The Creative Commons licenses ensure that people can do that and not have Britney Spears singing their song in six months as if it were her own property (or, at least, the legal right to take her to court if she does so).

McDonald does have one point to make: that Creative Commons is for creators, not users. In other words, the only person that can put a work under a Creative Commons license is the creator of that work; no amount of will or energy can take a copyrighted work and make it available under the Creative Commons. McDonald sees this as a critical flaw in people's expectations of Creative Commons - that the things that 'culture jammers' like billboard defacers and the people who want to mash-up Mickey Mouse (obviously numbering in the myriads according to McDonald) want to see in the public domain are the least likely to ever be. This is a straw man: it lumps all the mash-up creators into the 'culture jammer' bag, calls them copyright vandals, and throws them out with the trash.

This is where I find McDonald's choice of title amusing. "Just Say CC's" was a trademarked phrase advertising CC's, a brand of corn chips in Australia. Now, according to this page, at least, a trademark gives you the exclusive right to use that phrase - according to the law, no-one else can use it. Now I'm not sure how far that extends, so I'd appreciate hearing from a lawyer or someone that can impersonate one on whether this theoretically prohibits use of the trademarked phrase or anything calculatedly similar to it in ordinary conversation, or as a title of an article. But my point here is that it came perfectly naturally to McDonald to choose an amusing, slightly 'hip' title by playing off a cultural reference known to most Australians as his article's title. The fact that this was a trademarked phrase was irrelevant to him. In his own article criticising the sharing of copyrighted works as creative, cultural common material, he uses someone else's trademarked words to promote his own article.

OK, this is not shock and horror and satellites raining on our heads. But it seems to me to be a bit unconsciously hypocritical. And it gets right to the heart of the reason Creative Commons exists. Theoretically, Snack Foods Australia has to sue anyone using its trademarked phrases in public to defend its trademark; otherwise it's diluted and unenforceable. Creative Commons was invented so that if you see the CC logo, you have a fairly good idea that you can use it (for certain uses) and you won't be automatically liable for impending lawsuits. The whole point of marketing is to get these trademarked, copyrighted, proprietary, all rights reserved phrases out into everyone's minds and on everyone's lips; just as 'xerox', 'hoover' and 'google' have gone from trademarked title to common term. Using 'Just Say CC' is a reflection on the fact that trademarks and copyrights become public domain through natural usage: the laws regulating this process are merely a formalisation of what we instinctively, intrinsically believe should occur.

Creative people are rebelling against a world where you have to ask permission for using things that we see every day. A world where you can face criminal charges for singing Happy Birthday in a restaurant or take a photo of a Starbucks cafe is a world gone mad with control. Creative Commons is a process of giving, not a process of taking; it is for this reason that people like McDonald and the Copyright Council of Australia still fundamentally fail to understand it. The people who use and want to use Creative Commons license extend far beyond the scapegoat 'culture jammers' that McDonald mentions; they are legitimate artists of all types. And the uses they want to put this new licensed media to are far beyond what the Copyright Council understands. Until it can come to terms with sharing, it will be forever stuck in the past.

This post is licensed under the CC-BY-NC license. Of course. And I've now updated my blog to list this on the bottom of the page.

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Mon 5th Feb, 2007

Read It And Weep

While idly waiting for Kate on the weekend, I found myself in an ABC shop browsing through the books. A few caught my eye, but none quite so much as the book entitled "As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela" by Mark Thomas, a British comedian. There's nothing quite like a fresh-faced man holding a large semiautomatic assault rifle to capture one's eyes. The subtitle, "Underground adventures in the arms and torture trade", made me read a bit, and then buy it.

My quick overall precis of it (so far) is that the arms industry is powerful, dirty, and doesn't care who it sells to. It can force unfavourable MPs to change their ways, has enough legal loopholes to get around any minor annoyances, and has plenty of middle-men to do the more pedestrian stuff such as changing labels on freight consignments. For the billions of dollars it earns, it causes many hundreds of times that amount in damage to people and property, and gets generous tax concessions and considerations for doing so. And nothing, it would seem, can stand in its way.

Mark writes with amusing aplomb, telling in dry, unadorned detail of Indonesian generals casually admitting to torture and slaughter while pulling off humorous stunts such as getting former confession on video under the guise of a PR agency 'training' the generals to respond well to criticism. He throws in enough spice and amusing anecdotes ("... Third world liberation movements love a good suit." "Pity that's a crap one, then.") to keep the tone light and readable while still providing enough detail to chill the blood.

Another book to make me want to fly into an insane rage... *sigh*. Why do I do this to myself?

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Fri 17th Nov, 2006

Broadband costs too much? Why would that be?

To Senator Helen Coonan, Minister for Communications,

Dear Senator, I was disappointed to read your comments on Mr Murdoch's statement that the price of broadband in Australia is a disgrace. You said in your interview with the ABC that people may not wish to pay the high price for broadband in Australia. This, I feel, rather puts the cart before the horse: you are not addressing the key issue, the fact that Australia's broadband is far more expensive than equivalent offerings in other countries. Even in the cities, where the arguments of distance and scarcity of people do not apply, people in the UK get two megabit per second for prices less than we get one quarter of that speed. The reason for this is quite simple: Telstra are artificially limiting the speeds of connections and are artificially inflating the cost. Graphs such as the one at clearly show that the actual speeds provided by Telstra are far inferior than that available to both their own equipment and to customer equipment (the light blue ADSL area).

I should point out that the other major method of internet connectivity - dial-up modems - not only costs the user more than the standard cheapest broadband offerings, but also deprives the person of a phone line while they are on the internet, thus severing links to the outside world. Thus any claim that people have a 'choice' not to pay for broadband but still receive internet access is a Hobson's choice - no choice at all. And while many people that don't have access to the internet at home do have it at work, often the use of internet at home is for activities which are not appropriate at work - looking for jobs or partners, for example. So for many of these people who cannot afford the high prices of broadband, there is no access to the internet at all.

The key point that Mr Murdoch is making, and one you are ignoring, is that the artificially high prices of internet access is disadvantaging all Australians. The range of opportunities for self-improvement and community involvement offered by the internet are both well-documented and considerable. An emergent example would be the number of training and self-education videos on everything from exercises with babies to Go playing offered on sites such as YouTube and Google Video. This is currently being denied to some people because of Telstra's artificially high pricing; many more people are on download-limited connections unsuitable to using much of this new content because they cannot afford larger, less restricted services. It is not a question of people 'wanting' these services, as you propose - it is a question of people being denied services that Telstra is charging too much for.

Telstra has been offered several chances to 'get on the band-wagon' and improve its services. It has refused these - the most prominent example being its recent backing out of a deal to provide ADSL2 services because it would 'hurt shareholder value'. Instead, it has embarked on the ludicrous 'Next-G' service, which not only proposes to spend more to provide less bandwidth to fewer people for more money than equivalent wired services, but also ignores the obvious evidence that 3rd Generation mobile phones are not only already available in Australia but fully subscribed - the estimates from Paul Butte(a highly-respected telecommunications industry analyst) put the number of people who need Next-G's services at 200,000 people, but the total base of customers already on 3G services through Hutchison, Optus, Vodafone and 3 already exceeds 500,000 people. It certainly makes a mockery of your statement that people may not want to pay for high-speed services, when Telstra's attempt at a "great leap forward" is to charge more for less.

I look forward to hearing from you when you've decided to get to the twenty-first century, where broadband isn't an expensive luxury but a benefit avaiable everyone.


Paul Wayper

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Thu 28th Sep, 2006

How to succeed without really trying

After the CLUG meeting tonight, as I walked with Blaz trying (and failing) to catch up with someone who doesn't want to be mentioned on this blog, I had a realisation. Microsoft, in 31 years of its existance, has got to earning over 44 Billion US dollars a year by lying, cheating, and a huge swathe of unsavoury, antisocial and illegal business practices. In under a third of that time, Google has come to earning 6 Billion a year, while "doing no evil" and providing a service that just did exactly what people wanted.

Who says the good can't get ahead?

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Fri 1st Sep, 2006

Insert witty rejoinder here

Michael Ellerman[1] has noticed that I let a bit of hyperbole creep into my piece about the reliability of Pebble Bed Modular Reactors. OK, so they're not completely fault-tolerant: they won't withstand this decade's popular Grand Failure Mode (i.e. hit it with a plane) or an earthquake - at least not without a big containment facility. Which most designs include as a matter of course. The point I was trying to make in saying 'completely fault tolerant' was that disasters like Three Mile Island, Sellafield, and Chernobyl were caused by human error and designs which relied on some level of mechanised control to stop a full scale criticality incident. The Pebble Bed design means that the fuel spheres heat up as they expand, thus forcing them apart and reducing the amount of nuclear heating. The system is thus self-limiting - you can't get a criticality because the fuel particles never gets close enough.

And I think you need a bit of checking on your opinions about the shutdown of the German AVR plant. The operators accidentally damaged a defective fuel sphere in removing it from the reactor, and, yes, the actual fuel pellet (which is about as big as a grain of wheat) was released. And, yes, this incident led to the plant being shut down. So, yes, an accident occurred - just like the many thousands of accidents that occur in coal-fired power stations every year without the press getting agitated. But the design is not inherently unsafe. And when you're dealing with a new technology, there's always going to be some teething troubles. This shouldn't discount further improvements to the technology, any more than the cotton mill fires in the early Industrial Era caused us to not use cotton as a clothing fibre.

I'll go further in the Full Disclosure quest: the major problem with the design of the Pebble Bed Reactor is that the pebbles must be kept away from oxygen. The reactor's typical all-control-removed idling temperature is around 1500 degrees, and the spheres are made from a compound including activate carbon, which will burn quite well at this temperature if it ever got near oxygen. All the reactor designs use either Helium or Nitrogen, or possibly carbon dioxide (although I would consider this a bad design idea), as a coolant medium. The entire reactor 'core' and its heat exchanger area is filled with this inert gas, so no contact with air or anything that can produce oxygen can happen. So, if you really did spear through it with an ultraviolet laser[2] and let some air in, it would probably be about as bad as Chernobyl.

Don't do that, then.

Ultimately, this leads to my overall point, which I'd hoped I'd made in my previous post but I fear I may have to reiterate. I'd love to see the entire world powered by solar power in some form or another (by 'solar power' here I mean all energy derived, directly or indirectly, from the sunlight falling on our planet now). But looking at the inertia of the fossil fuel industry and the governments that are implicitly supporting it with tariffs and tax breaks, I don't see this happening in my lifetime. But the current projections have oil and coal running out (as in 'almost completely stopping') in about thirty to forty years anyway, and we have an exponentially increasing requirement for electricity and fuel, particularly from places like China and India. As I see it this means two options:

  1. Entire areas of the globe run out of power as the fuel fails.
  2. We use nuclear power until solar power can meet our entire energy needs.

We can't just continue to turn on more computers, more homes, more cars and more offices, with our power supply coming from a dwindling supply of fossil fuels. I don't have the time nor energy (hah) to research how much money it would take to convert the entirety of the Australian power generation - 1485 Terawatt-hours (a third of which is lost in the process of sending the power to where it's used, by the way) - to solar power. But I bet it would be measured in GDP-years - spending the entire GDP of Australia for years and years just to get to the point where we're generating enough power to run Australia today.

It's just not going to happen yet.

I should also address the many cries of "solar power is too expensive" - things like solar panels using more energy to build than they produce, or wind farms costing more money to build than conventional power generation, or even that wind-power doesn't completely eliminate the need for existing power generation and therefore it's useless. Again, these arguments miss the point - they justify the existing technology as if its fuel was unlimited, where it clearly is not. Sure, it costs a lot to build, and maintain, a wind farm, or a solar furnace generator, or a solar panel farm the size of the Great Victoria Desert. But they will be producing energy and emitting minimal harmful wastes long after the coal power stations have shut down and the oil and gas burning power stations are silent. And we will come up with new, better technologies - even power from space - as we improve these new technologies, which won't happen if we pull our heads into our shells and pretend that coal is infinite.

And I'd just like to say, to all those people who don't want a wind farm in their neighbourhood or don't want a solar farm cluttering up the beautiful rolling countryside of Mildura: "Fine then. Also do us the favour of switching off your power and your car. Because we can't afford to keep on supplying electricity to you if you don't want to help in its creation. And, while you're about it, tell your "Not In My Back Yard" complaints to the people who live near all the coal-fired power stations, oil refineries, service stations, trucking companies, and, in fact, every other industry that supplies you with your goods and services and power, because it was their back yard too and you don't mind them sacrificing a bit."

*pant pant pant* Insane ... rage... subsiding...

So to me the only alternative to global industrial collapse as the power gets shut off and things cease to move is to use nuclear power, and try like hell to make it safe, and try like hell to move to having power that's generated from the sunlight falling on our planet now rather than on radioactive decay or the frozen sunlight in oil and coal. I wish it were otherwise.

BTW, I believe that we may discover how to correctly harness the 'ladder-down' process that Wil McCarthy talks about in his book "Bloom" - which could be used to transmute the radioactive elements in reactors into harmless, non-reactive elements. ("Bloom" talks about the streets being paved with gold, because it's so easy (in the novel) to transmute heavier elements into gold that it's become a waste material.) This might mean that current nuclear reactors can eventually be made totally safe, even if the technology doesn't exist now. (Hey, people are already having their heads or bodies cryogenically frozen in order to get to a medical science that can cure their diseases.) But I'm not betting on that to justify nuclear power.

And, also incidentally, I heard from a friend of a talk that refuted a lot of the myths surrounding wind power. One idea that they talked about was to have entire hedgerows of wind generators no larger than an average tree. So they don't create the same eyesores as a gigantic hundred-metre tower, they produce hundreds of megawatts, and they even believe that this contributes to slowing down the winds that cause soil erosion and other environmental problems. So there are benefits to 'green' power that go outside just the production of electricity without the consumption of non-renewable fuels.

[1] - if I'd known it was going to be that easy to instantly achieve lasting fame and congratulation for a myriad kernel developers, I would have started sooner :-) But I fear it may take a bit more than just a patch; it also requires that developers change some of their coding standards to not use constructs that will break on maintenance, and then come up with crufty hacks to get around these problems. And it seems to me that this is not only going to be sooooo much harder, but is going to lead to infamy and ridicule rather than fame and fortune. :-) Seriously, though, it's not a bad idea - I'll think about coding it up and submitting the patch and I'll let you know how I get on.

[2] - because you presumably have put the reactor in a building that will withstand earthquakes, planes being dropped on it, and other fairly well imaginable disaster scenarios.

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Thu 31st Aug, 2006

Voting - it's not just for christmas

I seem to be getting excellent at getting into arguments about fundamental issues where I take a different tangent to everyone else.

The other day I was talking to a guy at the Woodcraft Guild and the subject of compulsory voting came up. He took what I see as the "ignorance is bliss" argument: that people should be allowed to not vote if they are genuinely not interested in it. (This may be putting his case badly, but I'm sure many people reading this out there - possibly as many as four - will know the argument). It echoes the sentiments of an American and a Russian that I talked to at LCA 2005, where both of them were genuinely puzzled that Australia could actually want to force people to vote. The American said that people who didn't know the issues shouldn't have to vote, and the Russian said that the Russian Government had been forcing people to do lots of things, and they'd finally had enough of it.

To me this is just plain screwy. We live in a representative democracy: we elect representatives to work in the government on our behalf, but fundamentally it is still a government by the people. To opt out is not just saying, "I do not want to have responsibility of voting", it is to say, "I do not want to be represented." To me, not voting implies complete acceptance of whatever the rest of the populace decice is good for you. A person who does not vote has lost the right to say, "But, hey, I didn't want that policy or this law." Because you did not exercise your democratic right to say this at the only time that you really actually get a chance to.

I mentioned this fleeting dialogue to Kate that evening and the conversation went something like this:

Me: "Someone was saying they shouldn't have to vote if they didn't want to."
Kate: "That was a white male speaking, wasn't it."
Me: "Indeed."
Kate: "If he was a black man, or a woman, he would have fought for that right."

Indeed. Women have spent hundreds of years fighting for the right to vote, and for the right to be treated equally, all across the globe. In many countries, Guatemala being a prime example, women are still allowed by law to be maltreated. Aboriginal people only got included in the electoral rolls, and thus had a say in how the country they lived in ran itself and organised its laws pertaining to them in 1962 - err, 1949 - over 150 years after Federation and just under two hundred years after Australia became a British colony and all its inhabitants (nominally) subject to British rule (which included voting, for instance).

How some will throw away the things other people have fought most dearly for.

The other reasoning I found myself thinking of was that our entire legal system is based on the fundamental premise that lack of knowledge of the law is no defence against breaking it. Whether it's trespass, or copyright, or the intricacies of how to fill in your tax return if you're a self-funded film director, you're expected to know the law. For some activities, mostly to do with dangerous activities like driving, you have to pass tests to prove this. For others, like drinking and voting, we restrict people for eighteen years before they get to do this in the hope that they've picked up enough information about the world to know what the problems and dangers are. We don't go out and memorise books of law, but that's because we already have plenty of examples of how to do the right thing and why not to do the wrong thing as we're growing up, and usually 'right thing' and 'wrong thing' correspond (mostly) to the law.

In this light, to say "I don't want to have to learn what the politicians mean" (i.e. and therefore not be required to vote on the grounds of ignorance) is no defence at all. If you don't understand the issues, be prepared to be swayed by whatever stupid rhetoric, lies and so forth the parties are prepared to throw at you. If you don't like this, learn what the issues mean. You have to vote anyway, so make your vote count.

It seems to me also absurd that people in the Linux community should maintain the "I don't want to have to vote" opinion. We are currently fighting a war with the well-financed, honey-tongued and extremely well organised lobby groups from big business, who are more than happy to stomp all over consumer rights in order to protect their interests. This affects Linux directly: any time you play a DVD, or watch a movie encoded with Windows Media, or communicate with a Windows server with Samba, you're using technologies that these big companies are aiming to put a stop to. Many of us don't have the time to write long, well-informed and passionate letters to our members of parliament, who are the only people who can actually change the progress of these bills. But the one thing we all get to do is vote. It's one of the few times where we all get to have a say.

Don't throw this away.

And, if you do, don't ever let the words "I wish the government would..." pass your lips. Likewise, don't say, "Why do they let companies..." or "It should be legal to..." or "My school shouldn't close down" or "They shouldn't be allowed to..." Because you have forfeited your right to any complaint if you did not vote, in my opinion. You display the greatest of all hypocrisies.

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Wed 30th Aug, 2006

Peak Caps?

No doubt everyone now has heard of the "Peak Oil" phenomenon. I found myself thinking this morning, "What about Peak Coal? Or Peak Iron Ore? Or Peak Wheat[1]?" Because every resource on the planet is finite - bar throwing a small amount of lighter gases into space through atmospheric leakage and a few satellites through even more improbable means, everything that we mine or use stays here.

This is good, in a way: it means that as long as we have energy pouring onto the planet from the sun and we develop sufficiently advanced technology to convert one thing to another, we need never run out of resources. They may be a little spread out and some things are scarcer than others, but pretty much all of the elements that were here a million years ago are still here.

Aside: I'm discounting someone finding that they need half a tonne of Eka-lead for some reason, and I don't think we're going to get to transmutation any time soon.

But the problem is that we keep tying things up in hard-to-undo packages. I was looking at my three-inch stack of CD coasters yesterday and wondered if there was any way to recycle them. Yes, there is, but you need to be in Sydney for it - no-one in Canberra takes CDs and recycles them. Business opportunity right there, I thought. But the polycarbonate is bloody tough stuff - the only way CDs are recycled is to melt them down into even harder plastics. You can't 'unbind' the oil used to produce those CDs - yet; someone's made a device for turning car tyres back into oil, so plastics can't be too far away. But people still throw out heaps of CDs, so we need to get to recycling them first.

My prediction: in less than twenty years we'll see mining devices specifically designed to chomp through landfills and pick up as much of the recyclable waste in there as possible.

A few facts:

This is why I maintain my stance that we need to move toward nuclear power. Not because it's as safe as coal, hydro or solar, but because fossil fuels are running out, and the last two just can't supply our requirement for energy at anything like the amount we use. We've come a long way since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl: Designs like the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor and others are completely fault-tolerant - if you switch all the pumps off and pull out all the control rods, the reactor sits there doing nothing more dangerous than producing heat. They've tested this, and it works. No radiation leaks, no steam explosions, and when the fuel is expended it's already in a safe container for either storage or processing.

I'd love the whole planet to be running on solar and maybe hydro power. But I don't think that'll happen in my lifetime. Until then we need nuclear power to stop the incredible drain on our fossil fuels. In addition, you can run countries on solar power but, until ships are fitted with sails again (something I know has been talked about but I can't find a reference to), you can't run a ship on solar power[2]. A ship uses around 3.5 tonnes of fuel oil per hour[3], so running it on nuclear power is going to save a lot of oil. A pity that most of the trials of nuclear-powered cargo vessels were set up to fail.

And that wraps up another long-winded, vaguely researched opinion piece by your conservation commentator.

[1]: Peak wheat, I hear you cry? Well, aren't the minerals and elements and nutrients that make wheat grow exhaustible? Farmers pour lots of nutrients on the soil and have fallow fields in order to get these ingredients back into the soil. We only have a limited amount of wheat-producing area on the planet, and that's being used up as salinity, aridity and population take over formerly viable crop areas. I don't have figures to back this speculation up, but I think we have to look at the production of all resources, natural or man-made, on the planet as, at the very least, having a fixed upper bound. Try telling this to the stock market, however, where any company that doesn't grow faster than it has before has investors selling off its stock.

[2]: An average container ship has a deck area of around 281 * 32 metres = 8992 square metres. The total solar energy falling on the earth's surface is 1367 watts per metre in all bands, so a ship is exposed to 12,292,064 Watts of energy; but even with 100% efficient solar panels this is not enough to power a ship that has 20,000,000 watt engines. And that's a small engine - the Shanghai Express has 68,640 kilowatt engines, but its deck area only receives 18,809 kilowatts of solar radiation.

[3]: An average cargo ship uses 3.5 tonnes of fuel oil per hour, which at a density of near water is around 924,602 gallons or 22,014 barrels per hour. At a price of around $3 per gallon, that's $2.77 million US dollars per hour. Yet according to the Shanghai Express page that's less than 1% of the cost of the goods. So my maths is probably wrong somewhere.

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Tue 15th Aug, 2006

Science in the land of the stupid

I watched two episodes of "The Elegant Universe", an explanation of String Theory based on the book of the same name. Now, I have the book. It does a good job of combining the history and the mathematical aspects of the theory, as well as giving you some ways of visualising what these 9-dimensional waves of vibrating energy are. Granted, it doesn't go any further than a few simple equations and diagrams and lots of simple analogies. But it talks about branes, tearing operations, Calabi-Yau Spaces and eigenstates. It isn't a textbook but it isn't a picture book.

The TV program, on the other hand, seems to be trying to substitute nifty graphics repeated over and over and bloody over again for actual scientific explanation. The first half of the second program was essentially rehashing the territory explored by the first - that a theory that unifies the gravitation of the General Relativity Theory and the Electromagnetic, Nuclear Strong and Nuclear Weak forces is difficult. Various scientists are green-screened onto postmodernist interiors and overlayed with the flashes of light and ripple effects we've come to associate with modern movie CGI that's trying to look High Tech. Gone are any attempts to explain, for example, what Maxwell's equations mean - despite the fact that they're apparently "amazingly simple". A few tiny little hints, like the analogy of a dimension that we can't see being like a wire turning from one dimensional (according to a distant observer) to two-dimensional (according to an ant on the wire), are quickly glossed over without spending any time labouring the point. They even had a great example of quantum superposition but completely failed to explain what the hell it was. The whole episode left me profoundly dissatisfied.

I realised what was going on when watching a past episode of Mythbusters. Suddenly there was this big sign on the screen that said (I kid you not) "WARNING: SCIENCE CONTENT". Apparently, 'science' is a hazardous material like saturated fats or mild cartoon violence - we need warnings on programs that might contain this 'science' thing in case our kids watch it and grow up warped and twisted. The science they were explaining wasn't particularly exciting either - from memory it was something about the way they've tested lots of people and found that random oscillation at about 0.2 Hz is the best for making people seasick. It wasn't "Remember that due to General Relativity the bullet was slightly heavier while it was moving, but the extra mass is negligible," or "You can see from this Feynman Diagram that the bullet actually appears over here, beside this potted plant, rather than in the gelatin bust of Grant Imahara". So why the big warning?

The answer, to me, is quite simple. American TV has hit the lowest point it can get in catering to stupid people, and is starting to dig for further subterranean audiences. This applies to cartoons, for instance: The Simpsons used to be infuriating for its praise of the stupid (Homer) and the malcontent (Bart) over the peacemaker (Marge) and the intelligent (Lisa). Now it's a positive star compared to the crassness of Family Guy. The first "Tripping The Rift", while Not Exactly Safe For Work, was amusing - the latest series is gratuitous tits and a cast like Big Brother: chosen not to work with eachother. (Incidentally, it is cogent to note here that, once again, we have the formula of the boorish, stupid male characters completely overshadowing their intelligent, sensible female counterparts. The women usually end up having to rescue the guys after the latter's hairbrained and pig-headed schemes inevitably cock up. When the guys succeed, it's usually because of random chance rather than actual design, and they then verbally dominate the women because of this apparent triumph. I can't even begin to imagine the harm being done to people - not just kids - seeing these role models.) And these are the "new thing", the "hit shows" that are only going to make way for something even more gross and crass next season.

US shows - even documentaries, it would seem - have thrown away any attempt to educate their audiences and have gone for flashy graphics and faux learnedness. I can't even begin to imagine the kind of confusion that comes out of people watching these programs without knowing the underlying science first. "So what was that "Elegant Universe" program about, Bob?" "Well, Jim, it seemed to be a bunch of guys all drinking from the same glass." "Sounds gay, Bob." "Well, they did say it was an alternate universe - maybe it was a gay one." "And that's it? Gay universes?" "Seems to me that way, Jim. Other than that I didn't understand a gosh-durned thing."

Some people might say at this juncture, "Well, you can't expect ordinary people to understand the intricacies of dimension folding and world sheets if these mathematicians and physicists can't even prove that String Theory is correct." Yes, perfectly correct. So why make the programme in the first place? Either you set out to educate people, or you don't. I'm not saying they'll get a Doctorate at the end of the episode, but you can at least try to teach them something about the actual subject matter! "The Elegant Universe" is educational if you like protracted, collaged and minimalist explanations of Albert Einstein's life, for instance. But as an explanation of String Theory it's about as useful as stopping a bullet with a finger in the barrel.

I'd say my criticism of American TV is not alone, though, if Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary's previous storyline about Reality TV shows tearing up the moral fabric of society is anything to go by.

P.S. I've made a minor edit to the bracketed diatribe on the standard modern comedy formula these days. Apparently, my re-read at 1AM today didn't correctly elucidate the slight nuances of meaning that were in my brain but weren't there in the text.

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Mon 14th Aug, 2006

Being an Australian Overseas

My interest was piqued when I saw the news on the ABC website about a Melbourne man being murdered in Jamaica. Mainly because I've visited Jamaica and I wondered what had happened. The article's a bit sparse on that actual detail of course - much more interesting to talk about what kind of a fun-loving, innocent-abroad guy he was. While I would have liked to know what had happened, I'm glad that at least the ABC hasn't been reduced to making stuff up, baiting the audience with pure conjecture.

But what I really took offence to was the step-mother's comments to trust no-one overseas. "You can't be an Aussie overseas," she says, and "they have a different value on life." Yes, folks, life is cheap in Jamaica and us cool, forgiving Aussies don't stand a chance against those naughty darkies. They have 'different' values, 'different' obviously implying 'inferior' here. Just stay home, be Australian in Australia, and thank your lucky stars that you were born in the Greatest Country On Earth and not some shithole like Jamaica.

It's jingoistic guff like this that makes me ashamed to be Australian.

I've been to Jamaica. The best time was watching big sweaty guys roast Jamaica Blue Mountains in a halved 44-gallon drum over an open fire, stirring with machetes and having a smoke. This stuff sells for $9 per cup in Japan. I laugh to think what the Japanese would make of their quality standards. I gladly paid the equivalent of about $30 per kilo for the coffee, knowing that 90% of this was going directly to the owners of the very farm I stood on. That was a great time.

The worst time was walking home one evening, by myself, from the local equivalent of KFC - serving the island's specialty, Jerk Chicken. ('Jerk' is a blend of spices including Jamaican Pepper (Allspice or Pimento) and as hot a ground chilli as you can get. Mmmmmmmmm!) About five metres from the door, a guy shook my hand and started walking with me the entire 200 metres (or, more accurately, 45 kilometres) back to the hotel gate. He was begging for money the entire time. As politely as I could, given that I was in a country where my very skin labelled me a foreigner, I declined. To know that generations of tourists have rooted the place over until the known best way of getting a quick buck is to beg it off tourists is a terrible thing that sits like a acid snowball in your gut. Once you read the Lonely Planet guide and realise there were months of anti-American and anti-Tourist rioting in the 1970s, you don't treat the place as just another bright, green countryside.

But, to put that in perspective, the entire time we were there that was the worst I ever suffered. Kate got one or two more suggestive comments until she learnt to wait for the bus inside the hotel's gated compound. No holdups, no drive-by shootings; and we walked from our hotel through Kingston about 1.5 kilometres to go to Devon House. The thing that impressed us was the total friendliness of the people there. We had one car stop and wait for us to cross the street that he was just about to turn down. Tooting the horn there means anything from "I've seen you, you can go in front of me" to "Just letting everyone know that I'm overtaking uphill on a blind corner so just slow down a bit." It all works perfectly, and our driver on our final tour to the coffee plantations was as nice a guy as ever I've met.

Yes, it's different there. They're still struggling to be a country without also being America's social dumping ground. There are places in Kingston that I would never enter without a local escort. Maybe Bryan Johnstone went to one of those places. There are people I'd never invite up to my hotel room. Maybe Bryan Johnstone got friendly with a local guy who he thought was just his bestest pal and had to show his collection of carved coconut shells. I don't know. It's entirely possible he just had a heart attack and died. We don't need some arrogant jingoistic woman telling everyone that the world is a naughty, naughty place and to only go places that you don't need a passport to enter.

So, yes, travel to Jamaica. Don't go there assuming that the streets are as safe as your own suburb, or that you can make jokes with the locals. Yes, tread carefully, and realise that there are still plenty of people who see travellers as a walking money dispenser, but don't let that stop you going and seeing and doing all those cool things you want to. And don't spread the fear.

(This also reminds me of that article in the YHA newsletter that basically said that if you're over 30, then you can forget about travelling altogether. All the cool people inhabit all the places that you want to go and they don't want you there. Besides, your slack elderly body can't cope with all the skiing, waveboarding and other hijinks that only the young can apparently do without embarrassment. To add insult to injury, there's the photographs of the author beside it, this young 20-something girl who's been all over the world and whose only concept of getting old seems to consist of medicines, complete incapacity, and senility at 35. Way to go, YHA, way to market yourselves.)

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Where are you when we need you, Richard Feynman?

Working at the ANU has its perks. You get a pipe to the internet so big that you can download an ISO image of a Linux distribution faster than you can burn it to a CD. You get to work in a place where the gardens are large and well cared for, and often you have a great view over them as you work. Especially in the research labs, you get great flexibility with when you work during the day. And (for me) it's close enough to ride to, so I can get a little more exercise.

There's a downside, though - you work in an academic environment. Now, scientists hold themselves up as a model of rationality and reasonability. It's all about peer review, open publication, and building on the work on others. No-one's idea has any more weight than anyone else's unless it can be proven. Scientists say they abhor professions like marketing, where the only important things is spin and image and branding. Scientists are always happy to be proved wrong, often by newcomers to the field, because if the new theory holds up then the great cause of Science is advanced.

This, I'm here to tell you, is absolute crap. Scientists are the cliqueiest[1] people in the campus, and they've built a heirarchy of students, lecturers, professors, deans and chancellors to prove it. The indoctrination starts early, with undergrads being given the cold shoulder by many senior academics who only want to work with more prestigious PhD students. You don't write a paper if your professor doesn't already think it's a good idea. Who gets to sit on what boards, and what weight there opinions are given, is a closely guarded privelege - most of these are invitation only. No-one asks too many questions when the Dean of Science, who gets to approve research grants to do with bioinformatics, sits on the board of a Biotech company. It's "perks for the heads" all the way.

If you need any further proof, ask yourself why some journals are given more credence than others. Yes, they have higher standards of publication, but those are only applied to newcomers - reviewers know better than to question too closely the work of the established names in the field. In order to publish, you have to sign an agreement that you're not getting anyone else to publish the work as well - so if you get rejected and decide later to get your paper published in a 'lesser' journal, you've just wasted six months of review process from the first journal. This makes no sense if the aim of Science is to publish the truth. Who reviews what for which journal is another closely-held, fiercely competitive status credit: a reviewer for "Nature" holds great power and prestige and knows it. The idea of a journal that just takes any paper regardless of who else is publishing it is actively laughed at.

Reviewers themselves often work anonymously - which, if you think about it, makes no sense in a field which says it doesn't have any ego to puncture. Often, your paper is being reviewed by people who not only have an opposite theory to support but are getting a lot of money in funding and lecture talks and corporate sponsorship from it. You can bet that they don't hold back the criticism. The amount of planning we've gone through to present some of our ideas, which are pretty radical breaks from the established conventional areas of research in molecular biology, is phenomenal - simply because a reviewer that doesn't think we're on the "right track" (i.e. their own track) and will just dismiss it out of hand as being "technically flawed". Good luck publishing when that happens.

(Maybe I should state here that this is stuff that I've picked up from working with the people here. I haven't experienced any of it directly, thank Buddha. But you can tell the signs are there.)

The more I look at the Open Source software development model, the more I wonder how much we've gone down that path. What cults of personality are their already? Whose opinions do we listen to merely because they're that person rather than because their technical analysis is correct? This is especially damaging in areas where the person has no technical experience - me giving opinions on correct kernel module design, for instance. Why, to pick a favourite bugbear of mine, do so many people say "Oh, but you've got to have two GUI systems to get competition" but they don't support the same principle for having two Linux kernels, or two networking stacks, or two slightly-incompatible versions of the OpenGL standard? How can we make sure we value ideas and principles and tests rather than opinions and preferences and whims?

[1]: hey, I just discovered another four-consecutive-vowel word!

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Wed 9th Aug, 2006

How People Change

A largish group of CLUGgers met up with Pia Waugh at All Bar Nun last night for a quick chat. I can't remember how we got onto it but at one stage I was asserting that I had structured my talk about installing MythTV to say that people didn't have to throw out the old VCR and install a new computer to do the task - that they could incrementally install bits at a time and gradually get used to the new interface. I thought people would would prefer to have this gradual method of change than an all-or-nothing cataclysm.

Pia challenged me on this. She said that the change that people usually go through is the cataclysmic one. We'd been talking before about Windows machines and several people attested that friends using said proprietary operating system had bought entire new computers specifically because their old ones had become so clagged up with malware that they were impossible to use. Steve Hanley (I think) pointed out that most computer users don't want to understand why something is broken, or how to fix it, they just reinstall Windows entirely, treating it as a fact of life; Matthew Oliver knew a guy who would sometimes reboot Windows twice after installing a patch "when the first time didn't take". This guy would shrug and say, "everyone knows to do that" - as if computers are just a little temperamental at times and have to be sweet-talked into it.

Now, all this is true, but it doesn't mean that people want to do things that way. People, us Linux geeks included, would rather have everything continue to work the way we're used to and never have to change at all. So saying they go through cataclysmic changes and therefore they want to is post hoc ergo propter hoc. I don't think anyone really enjoys paying money for a new computer because they don't know how to fix the old one, but I can see that, compared to having to know how malware works and how to eradicate it successfully [1], reinstalling Windows or buying a new computer is probably easier (and more reliable). This does not mean that the person wants to change this way, and neither is it a way to get them to move to Linux - you can almost hear them saying "But I don't even know how to use this computer, darling, I'm never going to understand this Linux thing you keep talking about."

As another example, many people will be familiar with The Open CD. Part of the point of distributing Windows versions of popular Open Source programs that also appear on Linux is to let people become familiar with the programs we use on Linux without the paradigm shift that a full OS switch entails. The purpose of Live CDs is to allow people to look at Linux and get familiar with it without having to trash their OS completely or repartition their drives; Ubuntu takes this a step further and allows the Live CD to then 'install', creating a dual-boot system (I believe). All of these methods are ways of gradually easing people into using Free Open Source Software, both applications and operating systems.

Now, when we had the "Make The Move" talk at CLUG, we had a talk from a person from the (much larger) PC Users Group of Canberra. They've had a Linux SIG for years, but have never made inroads into getting a full-scale change in the club. Partly this is because there are Windows bigots out there. But one thing Rod said was that they've had little success with things like Live CDs and Installfests. I'd argue that this is because we're still stuck with that "why change?" question. If someone's already got Windows installed on their computer, they're more likely to boot into that by default than to boot into Linux simply because that's what they're familiar with. The only thing that makes these people change is a cataclysmic shift - that's what forced most people to go from Windows 98 to Windows 2000 and from there to Windows XP, after all; they had to buy a new computer and the new OS came with it and it was more difficult to install the old OS on the new machine.

But, when people want to change, it's very rare to get them to move in one great leap. On the one hand, we need to concentrate on getting people familiar with FOSS tools - which is why Software Freedom Day is so important. On the other hand, when cataclysms occur, I think that's when we should be leaping in and saying "Well, if you installed Linux, you'd never have that kind of problem at all!" and "Why throw away your old computer when you can make it fast, secure and free!" and "Yes, Mum, so you're not going to notice the difference, are you?". The arguments of libre-freedom, beer-freedom, and security-freedom are still our most powerful. Use them!

[1]: There are some people who go further in this know-nothing, nudnik approach, and actively refuse to learn what I would call elementary websurfing safety. I can only assume that either these people also wander down dark alleys in places like King's Cross and Soho because "it looks so interesting", or that they think that computers are perfectly harmless "because, look, it's never leapt up and bitten me when I did something you call 'wrong'". These people, in my bigoted opinion, need a real application of clue-stick; they must be actively punished for making spam and malware the menace it is today. Revoke their internet license forthwith!

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Mon 31st Jul, 2006

The "Yam Jam" game!

Courtesy of the #slug channel, I've come up with a game to pass the time with friends: each person says a word that relates to the previous word said. If at any stage the word can rhyme with any previous word said then the entire list of rhyming words has to be said. So a game would look something like:

PaulWay[w] Yam!
purserj Potato!
jedi Watermelon!
Hobbsee orange!
TheMuso Manderin
TheMuso Pear
purserj Cumquat!
PaulWay[w] Jam!  Yam jam!
And the game could continue with someone else saying another fruit or vegetable, or a condiment, or whatever.

Just an idle diversion...

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Fri 7th Jul, 2006

Make The Move - work in progress

This is now almost two weeks old, but I think it probably deserves something in the Heads-Up department to keep other people on the Planet Linux blogosphere amused, if nothing else.

Chris Smart (one of the men behind Kororaa), Rod Peters from the Canberra PC Users Group, and myself, gave a presentation at the CLUG meeting on the 22nd of June about an idea which grew out of a Programming SIG meeting on the 8th. Chris had the slogan "Make The Move" in his head as a promotional piece to get people to move from proprietary, closed-source operating systems to open, open-source ones like Linux, and we brainstormed for most of the session about how to get the word out, how to make it easy for people new to Linux to learn about it and get the most out if it. So we gave a presentation about this basic idea, talking about the various ways to get people interested and the ideas we had in mind to go beyond simple installfests to real promotion and after-'market' support and so forth. It's a deliberate, although light-hearted and hopefully enjoyable, attempt to augment the normally unashamedly technical CLUG meetings with a time and place where people new to Linux can still get together and Get Stuff Working.

(Rant about people who criticise me for not doing enough in front of the entire meeting, and then completely and magnificently fail to do anything, deleted. You hear me frothing at the mouth too much anyway.)

As part of this, Chris registered and put a wiki on it to start gathering ideas and stuff. And I've gradually, in between all the other things I've been doing, been putting text and ideas up on the wiki.

The idea is that is a storehouse of ideas and material to promote Linux in your area, and each LUG would customise it for their own methods and name. "LUV presents Make The Move", "SLUG presents", etc. etc. We're not really trying to duplicate other work such as ASK-OSS, Edubuntu, or many of the other efforts that I haven't time to think of right now. It's more a way for Linux Users Groups to get into the community.

That's the plan, anyway. Enjoy.

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Mon 19th Jun, 2006

LAQA - Telstra using Linux - confirmed!

A bit of research turns up these two stories confirming that, as of September 2003, Telstra had indeed converted most of its desktop machines now to Linux. They use Citrix for some application support. I don't know much more, my Google-fu is underdeveloped. Anyone in Telstra wishing to confirm or deny?

It still supports my theory that Telstra stands to lose big if Open Source Software is threatened...

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LAQA - Rusty Russell on Technical Protection Measures laws - II

In my last post, I didn't talk about the actual content of Rusty's talk, which was a trifle rude of me. Rusty continues to rise in my estimation - he's a good public speaker, he knows the topic backward, forward and sideways, and he thinks fast on his feet. As much as he might say that he wasn't keen to hear himself again, in listening to the talk several times (which I did when I was testing the various editings and encodings) he was continually fresh and interesting.

The fundamental part of this talk, which he addressed right at the beginning, was that this is not about patents, or whether copyright is wrong, or whether information wants to be free, or whether big media companies are exploiting artists, or whatever. This is specifically about the law limiting the access we have to the copyrighted material we already 'own'. Our rights over a ladder or a bucket of paint are unlimited - as soon as we get it home we can modify it in whatever way we want without the producer's consent. Our rights over audio, video and print are limited by law - you can't make copies and hand them out on a street corner, for instance. The new laws seek to change that further, and make any access which the copyright owner doesn't specifically allow, and which is protected in some way by a "Technological Protection Measure" - encryption, scrambling, or suchlike, illegal: not only can they sue you, but you can be charged and go to jail.

Here is where I respect Rusty the most: he has a fairly simple, clear-cut way to solve this problem. I won't go into the technical definitions: listen to the talk or read the slides for that information. But the change is simple: make the offense directly related to the purpose of distributing unauthorised copies of copyrighted material. This does what the industry wants: stop people wholesale copying CDs, DVDs, games, software or whatever. But it also allows all the fair use that you expect that is not directly related to distributing copies - you can make a copy of your CD for your car, you can copy your tunes onto your iPod, you can play skip over the 'unskippable' ads in DVDs (which many people lamented online and in the talk); you can do all these because you're not distributing copies.

The parliamentary committee that looked into this made a pretty clear judgement that is basically along the same lines. I think most people would go along with the concept that "copying" per se is not the problem, distribution of that copy is the problem. I really think that this has a really good chance of going into law, because it does what the companies claim to want without going any further. It's going to be very hard for the companies to argue that a law based on making distribution illegal doesn't stop "piracy". You can be sure they'll try. But the ACCC and various other government bodies are on the side of the people in this.

(For software the problem is more complex and harder to fight. But Rusty makes the point that effectively this law would require a competitor to ask permission to copy something, which is absolutely the opposite of competition. Sure, enshrined in Australian law is the concept of creating software to allow interoperability. But if Microsoft said that the encryption methods that allow Windows servers to trust one another had been circumvented by Samba, the entire Samba project would be dead. Can you imagine Microsoft giving permission to the Samba team to make their software interoperable?)

The battle still has to be fought, though, and this means petitions have to be signed and posters hung and trumpets sounded. The media industry has very powerful and high-up lobby groups - getting through their spin-doctoring is going to take a lot of voices both large and small. To me, it would work wonders to see a full-page ad in The Australian from Telstra saying that if we allow these laws to go ahead then it would cost them millions (because they use Linux servers running Samba, which would be threatened by the above, as part of their way of keeping costs low) and that cost would naturally be passed on to their customers. (I believe that's the case - I seem to recall a news post several years back saying Telstra had gone with Linux for a large portion of their machines to cut costs on Microsoft licenses. Can anyone confirm?) Can you imagine the uproar?

Get the petitions. Sign them. Put them up high!

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Sat 17th Jun, 2006

LAQA - Rusty Russell on Technical Protection Measures laws.

In which we talk a bit about Rusty's talk and more about what I did to it. Last night we had Rusty Russell's talk at the Linux Australia studios at James Purser's house (with James sounding like he'd been drinking liquid sandpaper). I'd guess around a dozen people were online on the #linux-aus channel on the IRC servers, asking questions and chatting. It was hard to resist spouting my opinion all the time, more a statement on my insta-expert bad habit. Overall it was really good.

It turned out that James's recording borked out somehow, so I then spent the morning reprocessing the audio. I joined the two parts of the show together, removed the bits of music (which was Dr Kuch off Magnatune, licensed for non-commercial use through Magnatune), normalised it, and started playing with trying to remove the background hum. Even James doesn't know where the weird flapping sound came from, but I considered it a mortal insult to allow such noise to exist in any recording I worked on. So.

Audacity's 'noise removal' feature is nice and simple - you pick a couple of seconds of background noise, press one button in the dialogue, select the audio you want this noise removed from, and press the other button. The actual process that goes on is that it takes a frequency spectrum of the noise, and then does a frequency filtering on the full audio and, when any frequency dips below the noise frequency it's cut to silence. It works quite well when you've got fairly loud voice, even, fairly regular background noise, and at least one largish (multi-second) gap in the speech where you can hear only the background noise - Rusty's occasional pauses to read the screen for questions on the IRC channel provided those amply. With James' background hum and flapping and so forth, I could either get minimal noise reduction or voices coming through a long metal tube.

The problem is that the filter has a hard limit - when the voice frequency goes a tiny fraction below the noise frequency, suddenly it gets 24dB attenuation or so. What you need is a soft roll-off - 6 or 12dB band below the noise 'floor' where the voice frequency gets gradually softer. Now, I have a product that does this: Cool Edit Pro. I've just set up a Windows XP instance inside VMWare Server; obviously, the thing I need to do is to install Cool Edit Pro and process it in there.

So, ashamed as I am to admit that the whole process wasn't done in Open Source Software, there it is. And I have to admit that I really need to submit a few suggestions to the Audacity team, because the interface of Cool Edit Pro is much much easier to use. You can zoom in or out by scrolling the mouse button, for instance - big time saver there. And you can grab the ruler and drag it to move around, rather than grabbing a rather small part of a scroll bar and trying to tweak it in tiny increments when you're zoomed in. I think I was probably faster doing things in Cool Edit Pro than if I'd kept it in Audacity.

Unfortunately, Cool Edit Pro's filter's didn't really do what I wanted - the noise was too loud and there were several significant spikes in its frequency spectrum. However, it did have another feature that Audacity didn't - a compander. Audacity has a compressor - in audio terms this is a strange pseudo-amplifier that takes all the sound less than a specific volume and amplifies it much harder than the noise above that volume. The effect is to compress the volume range in which the sound occurs - it's what radio stations use all the time (yes, even during your music) to make it sound nice and loud without clipping or throwing your voice coil out of your speakers. A compander is a compresser with an expander - obviously the expander widens the volume range.

So what I did with the audio was pick the volume point in the middle of where James and Rusty's voices were and set that as the 'knee' of the compressor. Then, above the volume of the background noise, I set the 'ankle' of the expander. This moved all the speaking right up into audibility, and all the noise dropped off below audibility. It was good, except for a couple of bits where James was speaking really softly and was getting cut a little. I really didn't have the time to mabulate the whole thing again by the time I found this out, so I'm sorry if some of James's words got clipped a little heavily. You can blame me, not the software.

(I also did a bit of manual silence and um removal, basically to tighten the show up a bit. Sorry, again, for not delivering it completely as it was given to me. I hope it's better than the original.) Anyway, finally we transported them back into the Linux realm and I encoded the OGGs at a variety of bitrates and qualities. The urgency which forced me to not fully check the voice had abated for otiose reasons, so I then also compiled up some MP3s and, by dint of a large piece of two-by-four with nails in it, forced my Bit Torrent tracker to recognise them. All this so James could actually download the shows he'd produced twelve hours or more ago.

I worry that I'd needlessly delayed things and caused myself more than a few problems in being such a perfectionist. Maybe people would have preferred, or at least been happy with, the broadcast exactly as I got it, just stitched together music and all and put in one big lump. I've still got that, so I can do that and make it available if people really want it. But you've got what I've produced for now.

I also set up a nice page that contains all the versions of the files that's easier to read than my tracker's default display. James has also put up a copy of one of the files on the Linux Australia website, which I shall unhelpfully direct you to his blog to find as I'm a Bit Torrent Bigot and am trying to encourage people to use Bit Torrent rather than old-technology HTTP, even if it is off the Linux Australia webserver.

(I suppose I could volunteer to run a Linux Australia tracker for them, on the LA server, so that the seeds can be on their nice fast server rather than my small DSL line. But I already have too many things to do...)

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Fri 9th Jun, 2006

Close Someone Else's School, Not My Children's!

Sorry, Pascal, but I cannot agree that closing schools is absolutely disasterous and must be prevented at all costs. There are preschools out there with five children in them, and student per class numbers generally are lower in the ACT than any other state in Australia. When Belconnen and other areas were rapidly expanding and lots of new families were moving in, having a school in every suburb made perfect sense. Now, with that same demographic moving into outer suburbs, having schools in the inner suburbs is haemmorhaging money.

I live in Cook, which now is an 'old growth' forest suburb: the majority of people in Cook are older people whose children have moved out over ten years ago. Sure, having a school at the end of the street is convenient for the minority of people who live in Cook who have children, but it's economically disasterous. Schools require a level of maintenance and administration that starts at a high level as soon as the school has students. There's several schools that will remain open - two within two kilometres. This isn't "Students won't have anywhere to study," this is, "Students will have to go a bit further to get to school". Hardly sensational stuff.

Sure, I wish the Government had spent more on having schools and facilities where they were needed, so that it didn't have to build a ghastly gaping gash through bushland that some people call the GDE. This road was built to connect people living in Gungahlin with their work in Woden. For Sydneysiders this would be like building a special freeway for people living in Hornsby to get to work in Bankstown. I ask the question, "why aren't they living in Woden?" Or Tuggeranong, which is close to Woden but is as affordable as Gungahlin. Where are the governments that are demanding the money from developers for failing to put in schools, shops, hospitals, workplaces in local communities? Or forcing them to put them in in the first place?

I do have problems with government spending. But making better use of existing resources and stopping a lot of useless expenditure isn't amongst them.

(And yes, I'm aware that technically Route Six in Sydney does allow people to get between Hornsby and Bankstown fairly directly. But it's not a direct, no-traffic-lights, bulldoze-a-big-hole-through- pristine-bushland highway, is it Sydneysiders? And don't you wish it was? :-)

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Fri 26th May, 2006

What Are You Feeling, Jason?

Jason, you blog that you can't describe how you're feeling, in part about the proposed laws in the USA banning, it seems, Fred Phelps and and his anti-gay, anti-'America' protestors from stirring up trouble. So I'm not sure exactly what your take on it is, nor anyone else's. But if I were a USAdian, I'd be all for banning anyone who goes to funerals and denigrates the deceased, all in the name of Christianity.

I suppose I just see it as just another symptom of the religious malaise that's infected the USA. Doing things 'in God's name' is now politically and socially acceptable - it seems to be the only reason needed. And behind the scenes, the right-wing conservative christians manoeuvre, distancing themselves from Phelps while at the same time still wanting to justify their own actions in terms of the same God. Phelps, in the non-sequitur of the truly deranged, says that he's glad that people hate him because otherwise he wouldn't be teaching the truth - and again because God wills it.

It reminds me of the conversation I had with a Seventh Day Adventist who came to our door a year ago. I said I couldn't believe anything written in the Bible because every group used the same source to justify their own ends. I sent them away with a reading list of Stephen Jay Gould's book "Rocks Of Ages", a book which tries to say that if Religion and Science could only agree to 'explain' different things - the latter everything that we see around us and the former what happens before we're born and after we die - then everything would be OK. (They never came back, and yet it wasn't anywhere near the size of the Bible...) I fear that the USA has a big pendulum going - the 1980s and 1990s were big times for science explaining the universe, so now we have Intelligent Design.

I'd be happy for the pendulum to swing if so many people weren't hurt and killed each time it crosses the floor...

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Mon 22nd May, 2006

Watch Mr Costello Kill The ABC!

Ooooh, $55 million over three years across the entire ABC! How magnaminous of you, Peter. I mean, that's just over 5.5% of their total budget, so that's going to make a huge difference to their extreme money shortage. After inflation it's more like 2%, so it's maybe paying for an extra programme, somewhere. That's very generous.

And we really understand why you're giving over 2000 times that amount to Indonesia, a country with ten times the population in just under a quarter of the area of Australia. Apparently, they can't raise taxes on their own, or can't pay for their massive rebuilding of their shores after the tsunami. Boy, I bet they're glad they didn't pay for a tsunami early warning system, as had been suggested in the region for the last three or four years, otherwise they'd be begging for even more money from us. I mean, you have to feel sorry for a country with a third higher GDP than us, too. Very generous on Australia's part.

Er, yeah, very generous.

Really, honestly, I feel like I could cry. My Dad worked in the ABC for more than 20 years as a sound mixer and outside broadcast recorder. The tales he tells of the vicious, cut-throat fighting for every dollar in the ABC could sell as a new hair-whitener. I fear that people won't appreciate the sheer quality of programming until it's gone. And then what? Who's going to start another non-commercial broadcaster?

Who else has the public interest foremost in their charter? Where's the law that says that the commercial channels must have the outcome that "Audiences throughout Australian - and oversesas - are informed, educated and entertained" (ABC Budget 2006-07). More like "entertained, manipulated and misinformed", if the bias of the commercial stations is anything to go by. I'm not much of a TV watcher or radio listener, but where's the commercial equivalent of The Chaser, Triple J, Catalyst, the Unearthed programme, Classic FM. Heck, most of them don't have a second digital TV channel!

I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more. The only question I'm left with is what the hell do I do now?

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Sat 20th May, 2006

Preaching Without Proselytising

In a fun-filled action-packed afternoon, Kate and I went to see Eddy Somethingorother at the National Museum. He's a graphic designer and gave a talk about his work and some of the projects he's done to the eager ears of a large audience of mostly graphic design students. He'd done the Honda 'Grrr' ad and a couple of short segments for SNCF (the French national rail system). Then he asked for questions.

I couldn't help it. My question was, "With the existence of the Creative Commons License and an increasing body of work in the public domain, how is the availability of existing art that you're allowed to use influencing your work as a Graphic Designer?" OK, so it was a bit all over the place, and it had a political agenda behind it, but I think it was a reasonably sound question.

Eddy sort of stared vacantly at me and asked me, "What was it you were asking again?" I explained a bit about using media from the Internet that was free to use. His reply was that he basically preferred to do everything from scratch and he didn't really think of using other people's work much. A few questions later, Kate and I realised that his vagueness was swimming in a big morass of being scared of presenting, trying to look cool and detached, and not really making the effort to connect with the questioner. When asked, "What's the pros and cons of working freelance, in a small group and in a large company?" by someone else, again he just said, "What are you asking?" I can forgive him for being nervous, but not bothering to understand the question and trying to make it sound like the other person is fault is not a very nice thing for a speaker to do.

But I had a quick chat to him later and tried to mention the other side of collaboration - putting his work into the public domain. Here I really put my foot in it, because I should have asked about whether he'd considered working with other people on collaborative artwork or collections. Obviously, a freelance artist's work is their lifeblood; trying to tell them that they should give it away is going to get all the bristles up really quick.

I wish I was intelligent, and could apply Pia's excellent advice in her talk about pitching Open Source to education groups - you have to find the angle that the other people are seeing the picture from and pitch the idea in that direction. (This is why, perhaps in retrospect, I was better off asking about what he thought about using other people's public-domain work - he could probably see the advantage of being able to grab off-the-shelf models and textures and pictures rather than having to go out and make or photograph them himself.)

But it also served as another point in the continued lesson that Open Source, and the philosophy behind it and the Creative Commons and other 'sharing' licenses, is still a paradigm that relatively few people in mainstream life really know about and think about. The idea that his Mac G5 runs on thirty years of public, shared development is unimportant: what matters is that it looks cool and it runs all the nifty proprietary tools that he needs to do his job. He just sees the price of those tools as the price of wanting to work in the workforce; like owning your own set of pantone markers or an A3 sketch book. The idea of having to pick up someone else's model and use that means more learning time, and perhaps time wasted to make the model look right or do the things you want, is a disincentive to even look for open, free formats and collaborate.

The question I ask myself is: how do I balanced trying to educate people like him, who are in a position to tell a lot of students and contribute a lot of experience, without coming across as a preachy, free-love hippy who thinks that everything should be given away for free?

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Wed 17th May, 2006

Dear Attorney-General,

You feel free to criticise Labor for coming 'too little, too late' to support your police-state Sedition laws. And yet your proposed changes to the Copyright act are 'too little, too late' and you want a pat on the back?

At least you've made it to the 20th century - finally allowing people to do the format shifting and time shifting they've been doing on music and TV for decades. This is not anything to be lauded, though - most other parts of the world have had these fair use provisions for that time. And you still have to make it to the 21st century, where watching a show once is not enough and where people have an iPod, a home media centre, a computer and a CD player and don't want to only have one copy of the music they paid for to move around all these locations.

No artist, musician or video producer wants to see their hard work restricted and confined like this. Only the copyright agencies and the big media corporations, who extort the actual rights to a song or a video off the creator with mafia stand-over tactics, want this. Notice how they're the ones telling you that artists 'want' these contracts that take away their rights, and how consumers 'want' to have Digital Restrictions Management placed on the songs and videos they've paid for? Notice how they're also the richest companies with the richest individuals? And how they're also featuring in movies like "Outfoxed" and "The Corporation" for being psychopathic, uncaring money-hungry machines?

And they're the ones who are talking about 'piracy' - ripping off artists from their hard won earnings. If you still believe this, try reading Courtney Love's Salon article on the music industry and you will realise that the 'pirates' 'ripping off' the artists are the media companies themselves. Perhaps for a more visceral understanding of the actual tactics of the record companies in dealing with musicians, you should read Steve Albini's article, which shows that far from 'protecting artists rights', record companies are ripping them off for everything they can get. Now that's piracy.

Most people do not want to share everything they buy with everyone. Most people don't expect to get music or video for free. But in contrast to the procrustean actions of the record companies, who want to screw every cent they can out of whoever can be forced to pay (for instance, the Copyright Agency lobbying for being paid for school's use of the internet, based on its own estimates of how much of that is copyrighted material that they lay claim to), people rebel. The labels are barely touching the professional pirates who are making realistic copies of CDs, DVDs and other media; they're picking on the easy targets - unsophisticated consumers.

So I would like to congratulate you on getting to 1990. When are you going to get to 2006 and give the people what they actually want?

Sent via on 17th May 2006

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Tue 2nd May, 2006

Control - Interaction Versus Specification

I realised, in bed last night, that there's a spectrum of control that runs from the immediate to the delayed and detached. The more detached we are from what we're trying to control, the more we have to specify exactly how we want the result to come out; the more interactive our control, the more we can fine-tune it on the spot to be how we want.

(This came out after having shown Kate the "How to shoot yourself in the foot in various programming languages" page, in particular noting the 370 JCL one: "You send your foot down to MIS and include a 400-page document explaining exactly how you want it to be shot. Three years later, your foot comes back deep-fried.", which relies less on the physical details of 370 JCL and more on the environment it was written in: old-style MIS bureaus where computers were attended by chanting acolytes and high priests in formal robes, and if you'd been really good you could even see a photo of a computer almost like the one you had in the sealed room doing work for someone else. Of course, now with everyone having a computer on their desks that leaves an IBM 370/135 for dead (240,000 bytes of memory! Count them!), you can interactively scale that graph to the size you want, rather than having to specify exactly how big every single element would be in a 4,000 page document. And that's where the realisation came from.)

One key thing, to my mind, is that Open Source has given us part of that interactivity. If you're a user with no programming ability, you have to specify how things should look and how things should work. If you have access to the source code and the programming ability to change it, all of a sudden you can interactively change the code to do what you want. The process of getting that algorithm to do the right thing, or the output to come out the way you like it, is suddenly much much faster.

And then because a lot of developers are on email lists, IRC channels and web forums, things can often be fixed much faster. Not only can the developers come to an agreement about how a thing should look quickly, but suddenly that forum post, email archive or channel log has become a 'standards document' that people can refer to at a later time. And, furthermore, they can communicate with the users much more quickly - the users have a slightly more 'interactive' experience in getting their particular bug fixed or feature implemented. With the closed business model that closed source is often associated with, the user has much less influence and a much longer delay before they see something being done; so they have to specify much more.

And, personally, I think specifications can lead developers down the wrong path. If there's something that doesn't quite make sense in the spec, then the smart developers have to go back to the client and get it cleared up; the dumb developers implement it in whatever way they think it should be done (or whatever way is easiest) and then the client inevitably says "No, that's not how we want it," and you have another round of specification-writing. Standards are good, and specifications are essential when you're wanting many people to work on a project (perhaps over a long period of time). But the more disconnected the end user is from whatever's being written, the more time is wasted writing specifications that only serve to insulate the programmer from any form of interactive decision-making, the longer it takes and the more it costs and the more lawsuits you end up with when things don't work quite as the user wishes.

(Users are a fickle bunch, too, and by the time a spec is implemented the user may have changed their mind. Which leaves the user with something that they don't want but agreed to pay for. Which is no solution at all, really.)

Look at Cricket or Tennis: umpires and linesmen and cameras and watchers all trying to make sure that the specifications don't get broken, and causing lots of upset and angst when the decision they make doesn't seem to be fair according to a different interpretation of the rules. Look at Ultimate Frisbee: no referees, and the players interactively agree about what's fair and not (inside the global specifications that govern all Ultimate Frisbee games everywhere.) Look at Calvinball: only one rule and lots of fun for its participants who interactively agree on how to play, but you can't write it down because codifying it is useless by definition. Is competition Cricket fun for its players or umpires? (Could someone even argue that they're not out there to have fun, they're being paid to do a job with their skills?)

Imagine a society like the Edenists in Peter Hamilton's "Night's Dawn" trilogy: people that have an inbuilt biological 'affinity' connection. They can 'telepathically' communicate with eachother, but they can also join a superconsciousness called Consensus that combines the thoughts and feelings of the entire population. If some new decision needs to be made, the society communicates interactively and comes to a consensus (hence the name) - some people might have a differing opinion about what the decision should be, but they are in the minority and can still see that the group knows their point of view and has chosen using all their intellects and feelings, rather than a small minority.

Now that's interactive!

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Tue 11th Apr, 2006

Patent #666 - System And Method Of The Beast

I read Paul Graham's article on Software Patents. It's got a lot of good points and it discusses its ideas well. I definitely agree with him when he says that there's nothing special about a computer executing an algorithm and a Babbage Differential Engine executing the same algorithm in cogs and cams and rods and steam. But I do think that he's not actually correct on a few points.

Firstly, I disagree with him when he says that there's nothing special about an algorithm that makes it different from a device which implements that algorithm. Pretending that the 1800s was a backward time when people thought that algorithsm were special because they could be executed in people's heads is just Victorian fancy. There are two key differences: the most obvious is that the mechanism that's implementing an algorithm like the Sieve of Eratosthenes is often your brain, which is a general-purpose computing device. To say that your brain is a device which implements the Sieve of Eratosthenes is to get the cart before the horse. The other difference is that some algorithms, like the Sieve of Eratosthenes, are actually impossible to implement completely. You can make a program that carries out the Sieve of Eratosthenes on an array of numbers, but only the human mind (so far) can carry the concept that this applies to the infinity of whole numbers, something that's impossible to actually make out of paper and wheels and cogs. So an algorithm is (sometimes) a different thing from the thing that implements it.

Patents were devised in a time of increasing invention - the Industrial Revolution. They protected an invention - a type of razor or a better mousetrap or a combine harvester - from another company merely disassembling it, casting moulds from the parts, making up new parts and fitting it all back together again; it was (and still is) far cheaper to copy than to invent. Patents gave the inventor a limited time to make money to pay back their time spent perfecting the original device. And it would protect against a few easy tricks: making a few minor changes which didn't affect the workings.

In that, Paul Graham is right: what the patent actually does is to try encompass all the minor variations so that the original idea is protected. These ideas were, and still are, often areas where many years of research can go into their conception, development, testing and packaging. It shouldn't matter if you implement the algorithm in steel or wood or brass, six foot tall or three inches, in C or Java: the work you put in was in developing the algorithm, and the mechanism is relatively irrelevant.

But there's two big differences between software and hardware. The obvious is that to try and build a mechanism that could implement CSS in rods and levers and mechanical switches would require most of a room, would require a large steam engine to power, would make a lot of noise and would be almost impossible to maintain. Software is faster, cheaper, smaller, uses less power, easier to maintain and upgrade and is far more reliable. The other difference, which the RIAA and MPAA and BSAA would rather people forget, is that you can copy software with almost no effort, without harming the original, and the new copy does exactly what the old one did. It's the epitome of 'give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for life.' - you can teach him without losing your own fish, too (relatively speaking).

Paul does point out that we're now at the stage where it takes a startup as long to receive a patent for the technology that they want to protect as to either succeed or fail as a company. But while it may be that some startups are made out of an experienced professional (software) engineer, a good idea, and an open field, and a patent flows forth naturally, this is not where all the patents come from. Most patents come from big organisations like Microsoft and IBM, who can afford to amortise the cost of expensive patent preparation across their organisation and against their existing money. Ironically, these patents are better defended - it's the small start-ups with patents in a new field which get bought up and scrapped for their patents by the patent trolls.

And this is what makes patents, especially software patents, such a bad idea. Not because the original intention of patents is bad, but because the whole system no longer protects the small garage inventor against the depredations of large companies, patent-troll or otherwise. It's now designed for big business, and all the patent reform proposed in the USA (under the banner of being good for small patents) is actually designed to make it easier for big companies to get more patents and protect the ones it has, and harder for a small company to protect itself against patent infringement by big business. Instead of having to actually front up in court, Microsoft will simply get its lawyers to label the patent infringement suit as a 'harrassment' suit and thus cost the small company even more. Fair? I think not.

This leads me back to where Paul doesn't seem to be looking at the same world that I see. He says, "I doubt Microsoft would ever be that stupid," (to attacking Linux on patent grounds). He thinks that good hackers care a lot about matters of principle, and "if a company starts misbehaving, smart people won't work there." This explains why Microsoft is probably the largest single hirer of programmers throughout the globe? Or are they not the smart ones? Or are they the unprincipled ones, writing viruses by night to infect the very operating system they work on by day. (You know, that'd explain a lot... :-)

No, sorry, Microsoft has been a corporate and industry bully for most of its corporate existence. It's systematically abused so many parts of the legal system, the ethics and morals of doing business, and the financial system, that you have to start listing them by category, or by decade. And all that time it's had programmers working for it; these programmers have been smart, well educated and at the very least on some fringe of the hacker culture. They'll be copying MP3 files and downloading movies and distributing copies of Windows, despite Microsoft's corporate statements against these practices. They're just trying to make a buck from doing what they love: cutting code; and they probably either buy the corporate line that Microsoft really does do what's best for everyone, or they just rationalise it: they're not responsible for what Microsoft Corporation does.

Paul leaves off another reason that I can think of that patents don't seem to matter much in software: that software patents haven't been allowed to exist up until very recently. I see it as somewhat ironic: when computers were big things and only big companies could afford them, the one thing that made a computer valuable (software) couldn't be patented. Now that patenting an algorithm can net you billions because millions are using computers everywhere, we no longer need to have big organisations with corporate dress policies in order to create top-quality, award-winning, faster-than-everyone- else-by-a-country-mile software. The Open Source Software movement is giving away not only software like OpenOffice, Gaim, Gimp and Inkscape; it's giving away algorithms like Ogg Vorbis and Theora. It's coming up with new ideas like Van Jacobsen's Modest Proposal at LCA 2006, or his solution to TCP/IP congestion in the 1990s, or new technologies like BitTorrent. Patents? Open Source don't need no steenkin' patents to survive. And, from Paul's description, it would seem that startup ventures don't need a patent before they can actually start doing something.

As Paul points out, the idea of protecting the inventor is only half the issue with patents. Thereafter, on the public record, you have information about how to do something better. Even before the patent 'expires' and allows people to use the idea directly, people can look at ideas and see what other people have done. They may come up with a better way to solve that problem, leapfrogging the old idea entirely. Paul talks about corporate knowledge, and secrecy within the corporation - as well as the "need to know" problem, the old idea of "Job Security Code" is relevant here.

I suppose I agree with his conclusion: that we can't just discard the patent system. Maybe we can ignore them, if as Paul says the only actual use of a software patent seems to be as a bargaining chip when being acquired. But the idea of having an entire, expensive system that is ignored for its actual original intended use seems absurd. By the time most of these patents expire and the world is free to use them, they'll be either ubiquitous or useless. And if they're primarily there to get big businesses to share that which they would otherwise keep secret, maybe we need a bit of a better mechanism than one which allows patent trolls to exist at all.

As an aside, I'd say that there's two other methods that big companies can employ to get rid of patent trolls, besides the one that Paul suggests. They both centre on removing the only mechanism by which patent trolling companies can exist: money. One is to fight them outright in the courts: get patents thrown out, sue them for deliberate harrassment, tie them up in legal battles like the one Microsoft threw at the DoJ (and at every other competitor that opposed them). The other is the whack-a-mole principle: create a lot of sock-puppet startups that look like they're abusing the patent troll's patents but then conveniently fold up or disappear as soon as the lawyers get near the final round. By the time the patent troll company has paid all its expensive staff for achieving nothing, they won't have anything left to fight the remaining battles. What happens to their precious assets then is left as an exercise for the reader.

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Duck And Cover, People!

When Pia makes an announcement for people to stop bringing their personal problems to the developer's table, my guilty instinct makes me wonder what I've done wrong. I hope nothing that I've written has made her say that; I feel too new to this blogging thing to be sure of my conduct. So I'm left wondering what's happened, and the gossip in me wants to hear the gory details... :-/

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Thu 6th Apr, 2006

What does 'Free' mean, again?

Pascal Klein notes the mixed reception to Linux from a bystander. I think you're right, Pascal, on the various reasons why 'free software' sounds like 'free phone' or 'free dinner' to most people. Indeed, 'free software' does still mean that there are some hidden terms and conditions: you have to be moderately competent at knowing about computer hardware and software, you have to know how to get help, and you have to be prepared to find out the hard way sometimes. I like to compare it to riding a bike: it may require a bit of training and you need a bit more safety equipment than before, but you can do a lot more and things that were long and tedious are now quick and fun.

(As an aside, I tend to play on people's paranoia at the point where they say "but can it save in Word format?" and so forth. I ask them if they trust Microsoft to always allow you to open your documents, and if they think it's possible that they would do something that means that you'd have to pay them more money to continue working. Or ask them if they like DVD Region encoding. This segues nicely into the freedom to access your stuff, when you want, how you want, which is what people want more than the flashy interface or noble principles or buzzwords.)

Pascal's comment on political parties delivering on their promises is also great food for thought. One thing that is determinedly ignored by the USA, Australia and Great Britain (und so weiter) is that the 'terrorists' are not doing their terrible deeds because they hate Democracy. They're doing it because they think that this is their way of highlighting their cause: in Osama bin Laden's case, it's the cause of a people that have been continually bashed to and fro by the USA and Israel. In my opinion, it's like fucking for virginity (to use the phrase), but I can understand the sentiment.

A long time ago, a guy who I would no longer call a friend was criticising the Aboriginal people in a community he'd heard of. They'd trashed the cars they'd been given, their houses were pigsties, and their children were badly clothed, underfed and uneducated. "They don't deserve any help at all!", this redneck declaimed. I tried to point out that all these 'gifts' may have been useless to them, or (worse) been tied to doing what the Government wanted; their rejection was the only form of social protest these people had, since they were in the middle of nowhere. This idea didn't get through, as you can imagine.

The Government, aided and abetted by the media, is happy portraying all Muslims as raving fanatics who want to convert everyone to Islam or death. It does so for the same reason that it calls people 'intellectuals'; 'the cafe latte set'; 'the chattering classes': to make us call us 'us' and them 'them'. The fact that there are raving fanatics who want the above dichotomy doesn't help set the balance straight. I'd say that any Government that tells you 'x' is 'evil' is as evil as they claim 'x' to be.

I promise not to rant on Politics so much any more...

(How appropriate: "Walking On Sunshine" by Katrina And The Waves just started playing on XMMS...)

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Parliament finally gone mad

I just read about the "Legislative and Regularly Reform Bill" proposed in the British Parliament. This is being called the "Abolition of Parliament Bill" or the "Doomsday Bill", because it basically means that Ministers can add, amend and delete legislation as they see fit, as long as it passes a few minor requirements (e.g. a new crime can't be punished by more than two years imprisonment - less than that is OK) and, basically, the Minister proposing it says that they think it's a good idea. Very little of the requirements apply to amendments, and the fact that the Bill applies to itself means that they can immediately alter it to suit as soon as it's passed. About the only assurance the British population has that Ministers won't be abolishing speeding fines if they get caught speeding, or punishing calling them names with eighteen months in jail, is that Jim Murphy, the Minister proposing the Bill, says that they reckon they won't do anything wrong.

It's just so freaking wrong in so many ways I'm at a loss to choose which one to rant over. It's so amazingly scary that anyone could even think of proposing this, let alone actually get it into Parliament, that I literally tremble in the core of my being. They're only allowing one hour of debate on it, too - it's being raced through Parliament. They're justifying it in terms of trying to deregulate business, which is not only transparent but is nonsensical - when business is unregulated, it's the people that suffer. The fact that most Ministers are not trained in law and have little idea of how to actually construct a good law, so that it sits neatly with the other laws and doesn't make things more difficult for everyone, is just the icing on the cake.

All I can think of is that there are lobby groups in big business in Britain that are laughing their heads off... And, if it gets passed, the British population won't know what hit them...

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Wed 5th Apr, 2006

Infuriated In Cook

I got a letter back from DEST today from an address known only as ''. I can only assume they think they're being chummy and helpful by calling it 'palsbox' and not 'replies' or 'useless-bureaucrats' or 'corporate-mouthpiece'. Because I certainly can't tell the difference between any one of those from this letter.

It answers none of my questions. It instead starts with a pallid and meaningless platitude about how they're already looking at some kind of strategy for using the internet in education. It's apparently called "Learning in an online 2003-06", which indicates even more bureaucratic mindlessness: not only can't they copy and paste titles correctly, but they don't even get it proofread. It then goes on to try to quote chapter and verse, before finishing abruptly to say that they're working on complying with Copyright Agency Limited's wishes. No signature, no information as to who sent it, no nothing. A stamped date - amazingly enough it's today's. I'm lucky it's a compressed black and white TIFF file, at 87 K, because at 2480x3507 pixels it could have been so much worse.

Part of me can accept that this is a busy ministerial office dealing with hundreds or thousands of letters, emails, faxes and phone calls all asking for individual attention. It's impossible to give them individual attention without spending far more time and money answering all the questions than actually doing something.

But that bit is overwhelmed by the feeling that the response is no response at all; that my question has not only been not responded to correctly but its actual import (that Copyright Agency Limited's request is not valid) has been completely ignored. That the form letter lacks so many hallmarks of a realistic response - signature and attribution, timeliness, layout, relevance - seems to me to indicate that this is not just bad work, it's active nastiness. To go any further along the road of the justifications in the previous paragraph is to invite the ridiculous: "They didn't even have the time to make it look like a personalised letter, or name who wrote it. They're obviously so busy that they weren't able to actually address anything I said at all but instead had to parrot the party line."

So my response is going to be a letter to the Prime Minister's department (which seems more ironic than anything) telling them that I am not happy with the standard of work from Minister Bishop's office. I'll probably try to find a nice way of pulling out the flamethrower, planting it firmly against the coccyx of the respondent, and lighting 'er up with a combination of napalm, nitrous oxide, acetylene and iron filings - a way of responding directly to the letter I received that says I was not happy with their service and to actually try to get a sensible, to-the-point response. There's a temptation to also claim that they've appropriated government stationary, since the complete lack of attribution makes it impossible to prove that the Copyright Agency Limited hasn't written this out holus-bolus.

It would help if I felt that any of this would actually change anything.

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Wed 22nd Mar, 2006

Another Great Leap Forward for Stupidity and Ignorance

Kim Beazley is now proposing to censor all home internet connections unless one specifically opts out, apparently because there are stupid people on the internet that haven't the know-how to set up a firewall and teach their children about responsible internet usage. Because, let's face it: the internet is veritably awash with feelthy, feelthy stuff. You can't go to Wikipedia, Google or Yahoo these days without being bombarded with ads that make goatse look like a model of human interaction.

Yeah, right. The truth is that Beazley, in a desperate bid to find a platform that he can criticise Howard on, is beating the pornography drum good and hard (ooh, the double entendre!). The truth is that it's just as easy to find bad role models in our own homes as it is by being sent links to or whatever. Tackle the social, moral and ethical issues before you tackle the technology. Most internet filters don't work, most children know how to get around the ones that even pretend to work, and if you're just assuming that this filtering is going to replace a balanced and responsible view on how to treat other people, you're kidding yourself.

I'm not denying that there are people who don't know how to protect their children from internet problems. I set up a computer for a friend in Melbourne that, when I returned in three months, had been comprehensively rooted by her ten-year-old son trying to download all sorts of questionable software from dodgy sites. I installed ZoneAlarm. He found that he could just get what he wanted by clicking 'Allow' on every alert it popped up. I wasn't in a position to either teach him what to trust and what not to, or to just take it all away and say "you only use the internet with me to help you". And his mother, nice though she is, was never going to be able to keep up. So maybe I'm part of the problem and not the solution.

And I am definitely a Labour supporter. I just think they've gone off the rails. Labour in Australia are more Liberal than the Nationals, in Labour's misguided attempt to appeal to the majority of Australians who think that Labour is blue-collar and that they're white collar. To my shame, I know blue-collar people who vote Liberal because they think that Labour isn't offering what they want. Liberal isn't, but because they feel betrayed, they've changed sides. And Howard does have an excellent line in Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt coupled with We Offer What You Want that would make Microsoft proud. It's hard not to buy into the bullshit sometimes.

Enough ranting. On with the working.

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