Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Tue 1st Aug, 2017

Back on electricity

I rode my electric motorbike today after several months off the road.

Firstly, I'd had problems with the bike cutting out for a second or so while riding. I wanted to find a solution to that but it's very difficult to work out what might be wrong when I cannot replicate this in the garage. And it's very difficult to work out what the controller lights might be telling you when they're down on the fuel tank and you're supposed to be watching the road at 80km/hr.

Then I left it off the charger for a month or so and a couple of factors caused the battery to drain. Finding cells that are supposed to be 2.5V minimum at 0.7V is not a good sign. Basically, I don't disconnect the DC converter so it's constantly doing a small amount of work keeping the battery topped up. It then took a fair amount of work, not helped by going away for several weeks, to get the cells back to a state where the onboard BMS would consider charging it again.

So this afternoon after work I took it for a couple of laps around the block here, doing a few gradually increasing loops to see how it would go. I didn't hit the low battery alarm, but I'll keep gradually increasing the distance nearby to see if I can hit any problems and to exercise the battery more. It helps the BMS level out the cell differences.

I've probably lost about half the battery capacity or more. It's very difficult to say without proper testing equipment. But I'm up for a new battery, I fear.

Still, if I can find the cells I want I will get a battery with about 32% more kilowatt-hours (~10KWhr), 36*1.5, weighs 64% (54kg) and takes up 55% of the volume. Just got to hope that someone will sell them to me...

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Tue 23rd Sep, 2014

That time that I registered an electric vehicle

So, tell us a story, Uncle Paul.

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

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

Oh, okay then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Fri 19th Sep, 2014

Learning as we go

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

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

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

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


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

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Sun 4th Nov, 2012

Why ask the question?

A friend at work mentioned that his daughter had been given an assignment in maths to find a series of five numbers such that the median is less than the mode, and the mode is equal to the mean. Naturally, I couldn't let this rest until I'd worked it out, and eventually I got to proving that it's impossible. Here's my proof - if someone finds a hole in it please let me know :-)

Let the five numbers be a, b, c, d, e, in ascending order. For there to be a mode that is not the median, two numbers have to be the same and every other number is different - those two numbers have to be a and b or d and e. Let's consider the case where they're d and e - the other case is symmetric. For the mean to equal the mode:

  1. (a+b+c+d+e)/5 = d. In other words:
  2. a+b+c+d+e = 5d. Since d = e,
  3. a+b+c = 5d - 2d. Therefore:
  4. (a+b+c)/3 = d.
Now, we know that a, b and c are all less than d. This means they can never sum to be equal to d, and thus it's impossible to find such a sequence.

Hopefully the next person who gets given this rather bizarre question will find this and get the answer without straining their brain coming up with cases. It is, of course, quite possible that the question had been garbled in between the teacher and me - it is, of course, trivial to think of a five number series where the median is less than the mean which in turn is less than the mode. Ah well, that's that off my brain now... :-)

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Tue 17th Jul, 2012

Satisfying Sudokus

I do like Sudoku puzzles. There's something satisfying about the types of logic, the positive and negative inferences, one uses to solve it. I have several processes I use, depending on whether I'm using a paper and pen or a computer or a phone. I'm up to solving some of the "Very hard" in GNOME Sudoku - in SudokuWiki terms I can usually solve anything that doesn't need one of their "tough" strategies, although I've had a couple of times when I've recognised e.g. a unique rectangle as well.

But some puzzles are more satisfying to solve than others. I hate ones where you have to use any kind of guesswork - in other words, trying out one number in a position and seeing if it breaks any rules anywhere. I don't like having to find positions where there's a unique number as a result of box, row and column intersection. Not being able to solve a puzzle that should be solvable at my skill level is frustrating - especially as I suspect that some puzzle setters rate things I find hard as easy. And there's a nagging doubt that, for some puzzles, my way of solving a Sudoku occasionally leads to it being harder to solve than if I just, for example, turned on GNOME Sudoku's "show possible numbers" display and filled in the places that only listed one possibility.

Incidentally, this is why I find it amusing that someone wrote a program to solve Sudokus as fast as possible by trying possible combinations in turn, as a kind of "so there" to all those humans who toil away thinking them so smart to solve a Sudoku. The point of climbing Mount Everest, Mount Kosciuszko or Mount Painter is simply because it's there; the amazing thing about a dog that walks on its hind legs is simply because it can do it at all. Computers might be much faster at solving virtually any logic puzzle than humans, but that doesn't diminish the satisfaction of doing one in the meaty confines of ones own brain.

And, strangely, the ones that are satisfying to solve also display a level of symmetry to the eye. One I solved just tonight looked a bit like a fylfot, and it was pleasing the way lines of two and three numbers would provide some insight into solving the next box. I could use one or two techniques for a while, and then switch to another couple of techniques later in the process. Others I've solved have looked like crosshatchings, or have many numbers clustered in boxes one and nine and have boxes three and seven blanks.

So I started wondering about writing my own Sudoku generator that would take five by five matrices listing the order in which cells were to be filled, and two symmetry options for horizontal or vertical: as is, mirrored, rotated clockwise, anticlockwise or 180 degrees. Use a character: 0, 1, 5, 2, 3. The cells could either be lettered A-Z or blank, so, for example:

ABCG____H____I_DEFJ______55 would indicate:

So the square pattern in the top left quadrant has been turned by 90 degrees clockwise ('5') to make the top right quadrant; this then gets turned 90 degrees clockwise again ('5') to make the bottom right quadrant and thus, symmetrically, the remaining quadrant is the last rotation of the quadrant. The overlapping in the fifth row and column is handled by not filling in a number if that cell already has one. Sudokus need at least 17 clues to be solvable, from Wikipedia, but with twenty-five to thirty-two clues being the more usual range, having letters A-J with four areas for symmetry should be enough.

Now to sit down and work out how to write a program to generate this.

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Sat 7th Jul, 2012

The lightbulb moment

Tony, the other person in Canberra building an electric motorbike, came over last night. We were both keen to try out the new 150W DC-DC converter I'd got recently to augment my auxiliary battery when supplying power for the headlights (permanently on, at the moment) and other systems. Each headlight is about 55-60W, with one for main drive and two for high beam. Having crashed the bike in part because the light was just not strong enough, I wanted to kick it up a notch and make sure I had enough light to drive safely.

So, we clipped off the strange proprietary connector on the DC-DC converter, fitted a pair of Anderson connectors for the 120V end (to match those on the 120V fuse box) and a pair of female spade lugs for the 12V end (to match the fittings on the auxiliary battery wiring. We plugged it into the battery pack and all that happened was that the green LED came on. That was all we were expecting; sure enough, a multimeter showed it was outputting 12.5V on the output stage. This obviously wasn't impressive enough for us.

Tony had the bright idea of plugging it into the headlights of the old bike, still in their boxy plastic housing. The high beam worked. The high beam side of the dual-output lamp worked. The low beam worked - but showed us a very interesting thing. The output was noticeably dimmer than the high beams, even though it should only be 92% as bright (barely noticeable).

We pulled the bulb out and tried a couple of other experiments. We plugged it into the small 12V battery, and it did the same thing - low beam was definitely dimmer than the high beam. And a careful examination of the actual bulb showed that the filament was damaged - it looked rough and slightly irregular compared to the smooth, regular coil of the high beam - and there was a small amount of soot on the inside of the bulb near the low beam coil. So it was definitely physically damaged. Even the small battery would still give full output brightness if the bulb had been working correctly.

This made me feel a bit better about the accident. I was still riding beyond the range of the headlights, and it's still my fault. But it wasn't that the bike electrics were incapable of driving the bulb. If I'd noticed, and turned on my high beam, I would have been fine. I'd charged the auxiliary battery in the bike the previous night; it definitely would have given me full range of vision if the bulb had been working. I feel a lot more confident that the bike will give me full range of light, even if the traction battery or DC-DC converter dies and I have to run on auxiliary battery alone.

I'd also started to wonder whether I should put an external switch, or full DC relay, on the auxiliary 12V systems - the input from the battery charger, the output to the battery monitor, and the DC-DC converter. If the DC-DC converter is draining 150W from the traction battery pack continuously, it'd last about 48 hours from full charge to dead; I didn't want to find out that the converter had killed the $4000 battery over a weekend. But we realised that once the DC-DC converter has brought the auxiliary battery back up to 12.5V, the load on that circuit would be quite low - the DC-DC converter simply isn't going to be able to push 12.5V against a 12.7V auxiliary battery. It might be worth putting a suitable 15A diode in series with the lead to the battery, just in case the DC-DC converter doesn't have back current protection, but I kind of doubt that that'd be left out.

Of course, disconnecting all the auxiliary electrics is a good thing to do if I'm going away for a while anyway. The auxiliary 120V system connects from the battery to the fuse box via an Anderson connector that I can pull out. It's easier and less prone to Catch-22 problems than a relay.

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Tue 26th Jun, 2012

Not taking the bad with the good

I finally looked my TV recording schedule in the face and decided to delete all my recordings of Top Gear, and remove the schedule so it never records again. Why? Mainly because I realised that I actually hate it.

The main thing I hate is actually Jeremy Clarkson. It took me a while to realise, but it really hit home when I was watching the episode where they race across Japan. Clarkson is shown speeding more or less the entire journey; speed cameras in Japan allegedly require a photo of your face, so he holds up a picture of Bill Oddie. This made me realise what he really is: a bully. He can't stand losing, he cheats outrageously, he then denies it, and he puts everyone else down - even his guests, when he thinks he can get away with it, but mostly his co-hosts. Watching Clarkson for five minutes fills me with a burning desire to find some way of putting him in his place.

And then there's the whole "we're naff" theme. When set any of their usual construction or adventure challenges, they act completely hopelessly. After a while you realise that this is a calculated thing - they're not, actually, really that clumsy, idiotic or clueless, they're actually putting it on as a kind of act. Yes, they've made moronic caricatures of themselves, which they then fit themselves into. This, to me, is not humour; it's infantile. How any Briton can hold their head up and say "Yes, Top Gear really represents the best of British television" is beyond me.

It was in the episode when the three (first season) Top Gear Australia hosts took on the UK team that the two of these congealed unpleasantly together. The first challenge has the UK team driving cars where the pedals are in one car and the steering is in another car welded on top. Only - in a pathetic, tired attempt at humour - the Australian top cars are turned upside down. Ho ho ho, those funny Australians, upside down on the other side of the world, they'd be used to it, ho ho, oh my aching sides.

You can see the three Australians are clearly pissed off at this; they know that they've been handed a teaspoon and asked to shear a sheep, only they can't complain lest they look unsporting. It's the same with the other challenges - each one that Clarkson comes up with is off-beat, and has a twist deliberately designed to give the UK team an advantage. Even when the Australian team organises a fairly straight-up competition at using motorbikes to round up sheep, Clarkson thinks he's been clever by purchasing "Austrian" bikes, rather than "Australian" ones.

Only, yes, that's the "we're naff" side coming through again - as it becomes obvious that not only have they bought really good bikes to ride (KTM), but that the UK team's idea of being able to work together is not merely non-existent, but in some weird negative state: they almost spend more time criticising eachother and 'accidentally' being stupid than doing anything else. And, yes, in another event Hammond and May 'accidentally' give the Australian team more points than the UK team - in fact, enough points to even them up after the previous rounds.

This is pitiful. I don't care about the sportsmanship - which is still atrocious - it's just bad TV. Who wants to watch a soccer game where both teams miss the ball, 'accidentally' hit own goals, make deliberate mistakes and try to trip the other team up? No-one. By the time we get to the last round, where they 'unnoticeably' substitute The Stig for James May driving a rally car, I have ceased to care. Even if the Australians win, it'll be only because the UK team stuffs up in some allegedly humourous fashion. If the UK team wins, it'll be because they cheated. Most likely, I imagine, it was a tie some British TV producer's idea of promoting the two brands without snubbing either. I don't know, the recording cut out before the show finished, and I have as much interest in finding out as I do trying to see if I can crash my motorbike again.

Then there's the clear bias that Clarkson has against any electric vehicle, and in fact any vehicle which isn't somehow a symbol of power, and his willingness to cheat, lie, and outright make up crap about them. Tesla took the BBC to court after trying to get this straightened out for months to no response. In October, the judge in the case decided that "no Top Gear viewer would have reasonably compared the car's performance on the show's airfield track to its likely performance on a public road." Funny, that, because that's exactly what Clarkson is claiming - if he says "the range is 55 miles per charge, not 211", he's not comparing it to 211 miles on the track, is he? If the car had "reduced drive", and not "run out of charge", why did they show the film with them pushing the car back into the shed? The other four claims are still being pursued and I can't find any evidence of a decision yet on them.

At the heart of this is the dichotomy of the show: when criticised, they simply claim that they're "merely entertainment" and not a fact-based show. Funny, that, because they spend an awful lot of time talking about facts: torque, power, top speeds, times around the track, weights, lengths, etc. It fits in perfectly with Clarkson's attitude: I'm going to criticise anything I like, but you can't criticise me because my role is not to be critical. It's morally bankrupt, in my opinion.

Top Gear Australia is bearable, mainly because even when they do get set challenges - doing the Oodnadatta Track mail run in small european cars, for example - they at least give it a go. They come out looking like they've done a good job, not been told to be naff because that's what the public expects. But, no, I've got more interesting, and less personally irritating, things to do than to watch Top Gear.

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Thu 7th Jun, 2012


The electric motorbike is - was - very close. I had cut the bottom out of the fuel tank to fit around the controller and battery management system, wired everything into the 12V system, got the traction battery charging, received the replacement for the cell that had died, hooked that in without frying a BMS board, and made a mock-up of the crash protection for the traction battery. So I put the bike on the trailer on a frosty Monday morning, to take it to a couple of welding and fabrication places for quotes.

All unsuspecting.

As an aside, a friend of my brother-in-law came over to have a look at it on Sunday and suggested a polycarbonate battery case, with solid bars to hold it in position. The roll bar system I'd made up, while structurally good, would stick out quite wide, reducing my cornering angle; the mountings for the polycarbonate would be closer in. And the polycarbonate would reduce weight, would resist abrasion and rebound from an impact rather than bending permanently, and not catch fire if something catastrophic was to go wrong (the acrylic sheeting I had in mind for the covering actually burns quite well).

So after the quote from the engineering company to get the roll bars made came in about five times the price that I'd expected it to be, I went and saw a plastics company who said they could do a polycarbonate shell for more like the price I was expecting. Still, a small crowd had gathered to ask questions at the engineering company - I can definitely hear the attitude change between two years ago ("it'll never be as good") to now ("hey, that looks pretty cool!") in the questions from the greater public.

Likewise, when I took it to the Canberra Riders group meeting that afternoon there were lots of questions and lots of ... enthusiasm is too strong, but certainly a level of appreciation for the project. And, since I wanted to give the battery a bit of a work-out and generally show the project as nearly finished, I took it off the trailer and rode it around the car park a bit, then took it for a ride down a nearby disused road.

It's easy, at this point, to think about what I should have done. Should have had an escort, should have noticed my lights weren't too bright and my visibility was down. Was the controller cutting out on me as I started to accelerate because it could secretly predict the future? Unlikely. As it was, I rode the bike up the road a bit, through the two chicanes I knew were there, and started to accelerate into the main stretch.

And found the big traffic island that had been put in the road, at somewhere between 40km/hr and 60km/hr.

The trope here is one's life flashing before one's eyes. That doesn't happen for me. All I recall is seeing the traffic island, thinking "Oh no", and then being on the ground three or four seconds later. I picked the bike up and started both assessing the damage and cursing my foolhardy stupidity. I checked myself over - everything seemed to still work, no broken bones - and started picking up the pieces of the bike - the left mirror broken off, the windscreen cracked, the indicator dangling, the left handlebar control cluster broken beyond repair. A new dent in the fuel tank, just where I'd beaten out the previous one and found the repair from the one before that...

At this point two of the Canberra Riders came looking for me, probaby because I'd been gone for some time. They made sure I was OK, then one stayed with the bike while the other took me back to the car. Then a couple more riders followed me down and helped me lift the bike onto the trailer. Actually, they did the lifting, because my left shoulder really wasn't up to bearing weight. And the front wheel wasn't turning either. They tied it down, made sure I was OK, and followed me some of the way home. Those guys - I don't know their names, and I only vaguely remember their faces - helped me out when I most needed it without being asked or expecting reward. That's what motorbike riders do.

The rest is mainly painful. Three fractured ribs, a non-dislocated fractured collarbone, and some grazes to my knees. A worse-for-wear helmet, jacket and gloves. A lot of guilt and self-blame for being such a stupid, overconfident, unthoughtful idiot. A lot of thanks to luck for my injuries being that minor. Care from a beautiful, kind, thoughtful woman who never once reiterated what my conscience was already beating into me. Several days of rest, not being able to lie easily or get up simply. Another three to six weeks of healing before the shoulder knits together.

I can cope with the financial outlay. I can cope with the pain. We all do stupid things, and we move on from them. I don't dwell on it, really. I'm really more inclined to look at the things that somehow, amazingly, survived. Me, basically intact, with no ambulances or surgery. The battery, with not a single scratch or BMS board damaged. The rest of the bike is still sound. The bike actually worked. It's a temporary set back - life still goes on.

And only today I got an email from a guy doing an electric motorbike conversion in Sydney wanting to know some details about the project. Yep, life still goes on :-)

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Tue 3rd Jan, 2012

Time to make something better

I've just managed to release the magic smoke from some or most of my battery management modules - the little boards which sit on each cell and make sure that it doesn't over-charge and notifies you when the cells are getting low. Unfortunately, EV Power's basic design has a fundamental flaw: they require two through-hole soldered connections which are very close to the cell terminal. With the large cell interconnect blocks, this makes it rather easy to end up with one cell's sensor wires touching the traction battery. When another cell somewhere else also has its sensor wires touch the traction battery, the tiny MOSFETs that do this switching end up with a potential difference of several tens of volts with over a hundred amps ready to gleefully emit magic smoke.

I consider it a basic flaw in EV Power's design. They could supply the modules with wires already soldered in and epoxied over. They could have supplied explicit instructions about how to wire them up which warned me of this possibility. The most recent design had an even worse flaw in my opinion - the holes which you feed the sensor wires through to provide some strain relief on the solder joint were on the wrong side. Earlier designs had it so the insulation of the wire would be the bit touching the terminals if things went wrong; the new design makes sure that you put the solder joint is right there to contact the traction battery.

In addition, the circuit board didn't go all the way across, instead using a wire and a lug (in some kind of supererogatory effort to save a fraction of a cent in circuit board cost, as far as I can see). This means that the sensor wire solder joints are literally pressed against the terminals unless you turn the board sideways. I did try to avoid this, but apparently not fervently enough, and the result seems to be numerous module boards with scorch marks and (in the next-to-most-recent design) burned-off heat-shrink.

Now I have to find another BMS, because there's no way I'm paying for any more EV Power products. I would strongly recommend anyone considering using them on 60AH Thundersky cells look elsewhere. I will now be ordering a Lithiumate Lite BMS from Elithion - the communications interconnect is top-soldered only. EV Power's BMS probably works fine for 90AH cells and anything larger than a 61mm between-centres connection. But for me this is definitely a dud.

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Thu 25th Aug, 2011

Git for Nomic

I read of an interesting project today: Open Knesset (in Hebrew). It takes the laws created by the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) and checks them into Git, an open-source, distributed version control system. Other people can then get those versions and modify them to their own preferred wording. Because git provides information about what lines of each text file have changed, it's easy to see where people agree and disagree, and to see what improvements people might have. By merging and copying from other people's work, you can converge on a more universally applicable system of laws.

Long ago I started playing Thring Nomic, and I and some friends created Mornington Crescent Nomic. Nomic is a game where you start with an initial set of rules and people propose modifications to the rules; the modifications get voted on and the ruleset changes. You can win either by satisfying some condition in the rules, or by proving that the game is in a state of paradox. It's an amusing system for exploring how rules work and what makes rules function - you get very good at coming up with loopholes and thinking of problems with the way rules are worded.

The fundamental burden of traditional Nomics is that the ruleset changes and other game mechanisms have to be coordinated by a person, usually designated "the Speaker". I wrote a system of Perl scripts and a database to encode and automate some of this (it's not worth linking to, it's mainly defunct). The type of game you play, of course, depends in part on the functionality of the system implementing it; in CGI Nomic there's no point in proposing a rule that states there's a fourth sub-level of rules, because the system was only ever designed to cope with three. (Well, you could propose it, but it would be impossible to implement in the game system with out me revising the code.)

Most games, and most Nomics in my experience, work on having a common, single set of rules. But what if everyone worked on their own personal set of rules, and could request updates from other people? I would say "I've got a new rule that allows people to collect a point for each new rule they've created that gets into another person's ruleset", and people would choose whether to add that rule to their ruleset or not. Rules would be numbered by the ID of the commit that first introduced them, to avoid overlap. And there would have to be some understanding of 'consensus' in the game - for instance, you can only declare a thing to be true if two thirds of all the rulesets allow for it to be true. So I can create a rule saying "Paul wins the game", but it only becomes true if two thirds of the people then copy that rule (verbatim) into their ruleset.

The automatic versioning might also come into play with fixing rules. One of the traditional problems in Nomics is that a rule might be proposed which has a flaw that the author missed but that's obvious to someone else. Usually you can't change your proposal, so while there's some incentive to get it right first time, there's also an incentive to vote against version A and then propose version B. With git, however, you can see what someone else has done and say "hey, I like that, but I think it could be better written like this". And then the other person can see your improvement and might think "that version really is better, although it misses out a thing I wanted to avoid", and changes their old rule to a new version. Then you might copy that because it has the best of both authors, and others might do the same. That way you can collaboratively work on fixing rules rather than being limited by the fixed interaction of traditional Nomics.

It'd be an intriguing game to play, that's for sure. One where everyone has a copy of the rules that is divergent to a lesser or greater extent, yet one where there is a growing consensus about what's going on in the game. Would it inevitably fracture, or would it keep a core of rules that kept on working and people kept on using?

If only I had the free time to try it out.

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Wed 8th Jun, 2011

CodeCave 2011 wrap-up

After a hectic two evenings preparing for CodeCave 2011 and a morning that seemed full of reasons to stay at work, I picked up James and Rusty and we headed up to Yarrangobilly Caves with Tridge and Ian in convoy. After a small panic of me not remembering the landscape (and trusting my memory rather than e.g. a map or a GPS) we arrived. Andreas had got there beforehand and unlocked so we moved in.

I was immediately very pleasantly surprised - Caves House is really well appointed, with an excellent kitchen, nice wide corridors, plenty of heating and great facilities all round. I had been worried about finding a forty year old oven and one knife (I brought my own favourite cleaver and carving knife just in case) but it was excellent.

The other thing that was good was that everyone pitched in and helped in the cooking and cleaning. I wasn't surprised by this - I think open source people generally expect to pull their weight and contribute, and I think everyone understood that I was only passing on costs rather than making a profit. But I had been a little worried that I'd have to set up rosters and roust people out from under their laptops to help me, and that wasn't the case at all. I had planned a group menu that pretty much everyone joined in with, and I really enjoyed having help as I cooked (as much as I also enjoyed the process of cooking for friends). Another win.

We had quite a variety of projects being worked on. Andreas was working on an Arduino home alarm system, Ian was continuing to work on his password manager integrating with the arcane complexities of XWindows' clipboard, Andrew and Tridge worked on getting SaMBa to talk to various Windows servers via IPv6 (you can guess where the problems lay), James continued ironing out the wrinkles in Zookeepr, and Rusty took up Tridge's challenge to write an algorithm that could find a bright dot reliably in a picture, not easy when the actual source is a quarter of a pixel wide - this was for the UAV Challenge: the bright dot is an infra-red light source, the picture is a IR-bandpass image of a field with that source in it, and each quarter of a second a new picture is taken, during which time the plane can move over twenty metres.

I was learning Go, something I had wanted to attempt at the previous CodeCon but had failed to get the compiler correctly installed before leaving contact with the internet. This was a general theme in the background of the weekend - nice as it was to be away from all the quotidian distractions of life, including those of the internet, it would have been rather useful in certain circumstances: looking up Wikipedia articles, for example. While Tridge's grand plan of taking his quad-copter up high enough to get his phone in contact with the 3G network, and then to use it as a wifi access point for emergency internet access, didn't eventuate, it was wished for on more than one occasion.

In between hacking and feeding ourselves, we watched Tridge fly his quad-copter (briefly) and went for tours through the three main cave systems at Yarrangobilly. I'm always left in wonderment at the amazing beauty and delicacy of the cave formations: flowstone, straws, helictites (which grow against gravity), shawls, and more, all solid, real examples of the amazing processes of crystals, physics and time. Fractals so perfect in their execution they make computer-generated ones look fake; persistent, unfathomably patient processes eroding away and building up in intricate, complex sculptures. Places where you can see these geologically slow processes already subsuming the man-made fittings that have been there for a blink of an eye. Caves really do have an aura of wonder to me that awakens the scientist in me.

Tridge had the good idea of each of us giving a talk about what we'd learnt so far and what we were working on and still to overcome, in a convenient spot in the self-guided cave. We didn't disturb anyone else and it was quite wonderful to have that completely different setting for something as interesting and familiar.

We packed up by about 11AM on Sunday to go on the final cave tour, and then to have lunch at the thermal pool. Sadly it wasn't warm - it was tolerably cool; with a cold Winter upon us there was nothing about it to entice one to stay in. Still, it was kind of fun to do something different again. And there was still one treat in store - we found an open place on the snow plains south of Kiandra and Tridge flew his model plane. It went very well despite the wind, which would have been at gale strength in scale and had the motors struggling to keep it going upwind.

Overall it was a really great weekend, full of interesting talk, cogently argued ideas, personal insights and wonder-generating surroundings. I was really glad to have been a part of it and I hope to run another one next year!

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Tue 10th May, 2011

Shiny Stuff!

I got my battery frame panels at the end of the weekend, and they look really cool:

Shiny aluminium plates

To get these I had to:

That cost around $650. While expensive, it totally feels worth it. I was worried that the 3mm aluminium plate would be too soft - my experience with aluminium pieces like window frames and so forth led me to believe that I would have to go with 5mm plate just to get something that didn't flex under my fingers. That experience is clearly with inferior products - I can put as much pressure as I like on even the largest plate with my hands and it doesn't even give in the slightest. I am totally confident that this plate, held securely in the frame, will easily be able to support the weight of the batteries.

And how much is that? Well, according to NCOP 14, the frame has to hold the batteries against 20 Gs of force from the front, 15 Gs from the side, and 10 Gs from rear, top and bottom. With 83 Kgs, this means I have to support about 1245 Kgs from the side. In other words, I have to imagine the bike hanging on its side and 1.2 tonnes hanging directly from the central battery frame panel.

And, you know, I'm pretty confident of that. Most of that weight is going to be directly transferred to the frame, which is already designed to take that carrying the combustion engine anyway. The panels feel strong enough to hold that load and transfer it to the bike frame easily. The edges, from the water jet, feel a bit rough but the corners are sharp and there's no tearing or wavering. Now to actually get enough time to start putting bits of it in the bike! (I need to find a tame person with a decent metal brake to do some of these bends, though...)

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Performance Pay for teachers considered harmful

Mikal Still blathers about performance pay for teachers - he thinks that "the only people who object to performance pay are those who secretly know they under perform?".

Well, I for one object, and they're worth a blog post.

The problem is: how do you judge the teacher's actual performance? How do you separate this from the abilities of their class? How do you know, empirically and repeatably, that they're better than another teacher?

The answer is: you can't. A teacher's ability to teach is an intangible thing, like an artist's ability to create. It covers not only the obvious skills of passing on information and concepts, but also their ability to engage the class, work with good and bad students, and to keep the whole group interested and active. The best teachers I've had have not been those in which my entire class did brilliantly, or where our class's results were demonstrably better than the others. They've inspired me, sure - but maybe other people in the class still found it a chore, or just didn't care that much about the subject.

And we've already seen teachers cheating on marking students' work to make sure their class gets a better grade. Link that to pay and there will be a much bigger reward for that kind of bad behaviour. Then you have to have all sorts of extra supervision and suspicion, which costs money to implement and hurts morale. And exactly how do you say "this person's artwork isn't as good as you marked it"?

And how do you reward the teacher aide who got given the entire year's worth of difficult students to babysit while the teachers went off and rewarded their talented students? By assessing how their problem children went? This happens even now.

Morally, judging one person by the performance of other people is wrong, especially when those other people are affected by a lot of other factors besides the teacher's 'ability to teach'. Would one suggest performance pay for police based on the amount of crime in their suburb?

And practically, no-one who suggests 'performance' pay for teachers also suggests increasing their average pay. So it's only rewarding those that artificially do well by cutting pay from those who already can't afford it. This doesn't trim the fat, it only makes the back-stabbing and cheating pay off more.

The larger question is really "what will it take to get teachers to be better respected in our society?". The answer, in my opinion, is three fold:

  1. Take back the control of how things are taught from people in the education department, who may never have taught in a classroom or done an education degree, and give it to a body of teachers who have real-world experience.
  2. Pay the teaching profession in proportion to the amount of work they actually do now. Teachers are treated as if their job is simply from nine to three, but in real life every teacher I know has spent countless hours before and after school and on weekends preparing lessons, doing research, marking, helping some students, training, watching over the children outside of lessons (e.g. 'playground duty') and more. Teaching is paid as a thirty hour a week job where it's more like a sixty hour a week job.
  3. Don't make education the forgotten cousin in the budget. We waste billions of dollars on defence projects that never see the light of day, millions are spent commissioning great swathes of reports which are never acted on, yet the increase in actual school funding is minimal.
In short, as it is said:

"It will be a great day when schools get all the money they need and the army has to run a cake stall to buy a tank."

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Sun 1st May, 2011

TTXGP Round 1 - Wakefield Park

On Saturday afternoon I rode up to Wakefield Park for the first round of the TTXGP in Australia - the electric motorbike racing series. I joined Tony, who is also building an electric motorbike and who had ridden up the day before. (Aside: riding the GS-500 long distance isn't really comfortable, and what is it with all these people that do 120Km/hr? Here's a hint, going that much faster will get you a fine and waste a lot of petrol but won't get you there any appreciable amount faster). We were staying at the on-site cabins, a cheap accomodation for race crews, which was simple, clean and pretty decent. The Formule One is not as nice, and a bit more expensive. But anyway.

I got to meet the team from Catavolt, who've been putting together a race bike and had set the record (for a while) for land speed on an electric motorbike. They're running a forced-air cooled version of the Enertrac hub motor I'm using, and are looking at the dual coil version. Team Ripperton lead by Daniel (who finally got sick of all the usual hassles of petrol engines and decided to go electric) was also there, as was Anthony, the guy (I think) who's making the electric drag car up in Sydney. Going out to dinner with them was an experience - this is car talk as you'd hear in any Goulburn pub, but fully technical and all about electricity and construction. Then back to the cabin to talk more technical stuff before bed.

Next day after a cobbled-together breakfast I walked down to where the two groups had set up. There was a lot of checking chargers, checking voltages, checking duct-tape (called 'race tape' to make it sound more authentic) and general talk. The two teams knew eachother fairly well and they obviously got on together. The biggest problem was trying to get a good supply of power - the various circuit breakers on power boards and in the shed kept on tripping as the chargers sucked down the power, competing with the tyre warmers and compressors and so forth. Finally (oh, the irony) they set up a petrol-driven generator to get clean, reliable power.

The really interesting thing was that each group had many things in common but many differences. Ripperton's bike is a Mars brushless DC motor with an A123 60AH battery pack; Catavolt uses the Enertrac motor with a Headway 38120S pack. Voltron over in Perth runs two Agni brushed DC motors with a prefabbed pouch cell battery. I suspect as we get more entries - and I'm told there will (hopefully) be six different teams competing in the next race event - we'll just see more combinations of motors, battery technologies and controllers. That's the fun of it!

The actual racing was, let's be honest, not particularly exciting. Two bikes on a 2.2Km circuit was never really going to be dramatic, and with both teams running fairly conservative throttle limits, the acceleration and top speed were sedate compared to the regular petrol bikes - around 110Km/hr top speed and 1:22 lap times for the Ripperton bike. There were a few worrying things - the Enertrac motor heating up enough to smoke the anti-corrosion compound in the motor, the controllers switching off for a variety of reasons - that made all of us that were really keen to see the bikes do well cringe momentarily. Yet for the most part it seems to have gone quite well - both crews had literally finalised their bikes in the last week before the race and were trying new things, and with no major component failures or crashes they'll be improving and perfecting for next time.

And I have to say that if that's the future of racing, then bring it on! A race where I can speak at a normal volume while competitors fly by six feet away? Awesome! The Catavolt made the barest whisper of tyre and slip-stream noise as it went by - the Ripperton bike with its chain drive was only slightly noisier. We've come to see howling exhausts as a manifestation of power, but really that's just lots of wasted energy. Light the tyres up in burn-outs, pull wheelies on the straight, and do faster times than other people - that's the real show of power. It's going to be awesome!

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Fri 29th Apr, 2011

Constantly learning

After I build my tenth Electric Vehicle, I think I'll just start to have a basic knowledge of how to do so.

After all, just today I learnt about the Tritium Wavesculptor, a high-end controller for brushless three-phase DC motors (which aren't really DC motors, they're actually AC, it's just that the simpler controllers just output on-off square-like waves to energise each phase in turn, but that's another story). And they make a battery management system too - one that is actually formed (by chance) for the specific type of cell I have.

I learnt this not in a search for controllers - apart from already having one, I had discovered the EVnetics Soliton One (I refuse to link to EVnetics' site since it's Flash-only, but here's Rebirth Auto selling one for a mere $2,995 USD). Since that was far more controller than I needed - even the Soliton Jr doesn't really work under 240VDC, which is twice my standard pack voltage - I hadn't really looked around for more. I actually noticed a reference to a "Tritium Wavesculptor" in a post on the AEVA forums about converting (of all things) a VW Type 3.

Tritium are an Australian company that's been around and creating EV controllers for, oh, nearly a decade! How is it that I haven't heard of them?

Clearly, this is a field that needs a really good directory of motors, controllers and batteries. And, just as clearly, the market is fragmented - dozens of forums (with names from the normal to the incomprehensible and unguessable), dozens of suppliers, minimal coherence of specification (e.g. some cells are measured in grams per watt hour, some in litres per amp hour, etc.) and dozens, even, of supplier lists and directories on forums, enthusiast and club sites, and elsewhere. I feel the need to create a motor comparison and controller comparison site, if I didn't think I was already struggling for time just to do the things I want to do that are relevant to me right now.


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Wishful thinking

My current "it would be so cool but it will never happen" fantasy project idea:

Using direct drive should be sufficient - at a tyre circumference of say 1.8 metres, at 5,500RPM the car will be going about 594Km/hr (unless I've done something grossly wrong with the units of those calculations). But getting a gearbox to reduce the ratio on those motors, say by a factor of two, puts the top speed at a more reasonable 297Km/hr and puts more of the motors peak efficiency within our standard rev range. Still, trying to find a gearbox that can deal with 900Nm of torque is a problem.

As a comparison, the Ultima GTR that has set several world records used a seven liter V8 producing 720bhp (528Kw). I'm delivering 200KW (268bhp) per wheel in a curve that flattens out at around 3500 RPM. A similar car has a torque of around 811 lb/ft - 1100Nm; I can deliver 900Nm per wheel up to around 1250RPM. It's too late and I've spent too much time browsing random stuff on the internet to work out how to convert that into an acceleration time for a 1000kg car on wheels with a radius of about 307mm. It's probably fairly big. So an electric conversion doesn't make it into a GTR-killer, but it's still pretty compatible.

So overall the UltimaWatt project would cost over $100,000. Anybody interested in sponsoring this project ☺?

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Mon 18th Apr, 2011

Unexpectedly finding oneself playing 'Mao'

One of my favourite games, when I get to play it, is ' Bartok' - a Nomic-like card game where you start with an initial set of rules (similar to the popular card game 'Uno') and each time someone wins they get to add a new rule and another round is played. After a number of rounds, remembering what rules are in play, and what you have to do to obey them at any one time, can be an interesting challenge. I usually don't play with the question rule ("asking any question is illegal") because it makes the game a silent, tense affair.

Next up the scale, then, is "Mao", where one person decides a secret set of rules that no-one else knows. Players try playing and are told whether their play is allowed or not, and they have to try and work out the rules. Of course, not telling the other people what you've worked out is a standard way of getting ahead in the game. I like Mao less than I like the question rule, because it's all about trying to work out everything in your head and saying anything is a distraction. And, as the name implies, throwing in one or two nonsensical or counter-intuitive rules (e.g. "it is illegal for someone to play a jack and not immediately play another legal card") is just part of the fun.

So I was somewhat disturbed to realise, in trying to book international flights recently, that I was in the middle of a game of Mao without realising it. Airlines have an extremely complex, ever changing, and sometimes completely bizarre rules about what flights are offered and how much they cost. Then each of the many flight searchers - Zuji, Skyscanner, Expedia, Lastminute, etc - has their own way of combining these options. Seemingly sensible outward journeys will be combined with ludicrously long returns; prices will suddenly seem to jump up for no given reason, and route options you'd think were right there - indeed, that you can easily prove exist with other queries - are ignored.

The nonsensical rules I've discovered so far are:

And then there's the misinformation:

This is not to say that these are the only deficiencies. Most sites make it difficult to order the flights other than by obvious methods (e.g. price). All provide no way (that I've seen) to exclude certain airlines or airports, or set cost or time ranges. Excluding options listed on the fly would also be an invaluable feature. I'd love to see a site that allowed you to select a range of seat pitch and width options. It's sad to say that the regular things that would make these sites a pleasure to use - quick load times, low image count, reduced advertising, simple and readable layout, presenting all useful flight information when requested, being able to compare different options easily, being presented with useful alternative information, being able to print or select options for email easily, and search forms that are easy to fill out from the keyboard alone and change on the fly - are almost forgotten in the frustrations of these sites.

The site that I have to give most credit to - including a link - is Skyscanner. It has a good range of flight options and sort options - total travel time and departure time are very useful, for example. And then tonight, after I'd near given up in despair, I found the options on the left-hand side that I'd ignored, which allowed you to set a maximum journey time, remove airlines, and (most importantly) choose an outgoing and return flight in separate lists. If only I'd spotted that yesterday!

They still need flight details expanding on the page, the ability to limit flight selection by price, and to realise that for some routes - e.g. CBR to just about anywhere - you're going to have to pull together a couple of separate flight options rather than only go with carriers who fly the whole distance or with code-shares.

And still, I had more success with a travel agent - in fifteen minutes she could find all the options, try every possible combination out, eliminate the obvious wrong ones, and present me with a simple list of the best options available - including a 'Y' journey where we go to one destination and return from another nearby. And at a competitive rate, too.

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Sun 3rd Apr, 2011

Great minds think alike

The next major task for the electric motorbike is to build a frame that can store the battery. They need to be held in place with a lot of strength - the battery frame and its contents need to be able to withstand a 20G impact from the front, for example, and it needs to be able to fit the 38 cells I have as low as possible to make the bike handle well. I'd made up some cardboard mock-up cells and had worked out a way to get them into the frame - just.

Then I'd realised that I'd forgotten the space on top of the cells - there needs to be about a three centimetre gap above the top of the cell for the interconnects and cell management module. And then I needed to include the thickness of the actual frame. And I realised that one of the frames would be sticking right where my toes were supposed to be. This needed a rethink.

I've found that I get a lot better results and ideas when I brainstorm with friends, so I invited my two brothers-in-law to come over and play with some cardboard boxes. I showed them what we had to work with and, between drinks, we started rearranging things. We also talked about the actual requirements, and we started discarding the ideas which had been limiting me - like whether we used the side fairings I'd bought for it.

It's often said that progress doesn't happen with the word 'Eureka' as often as it does with the phrase 'that's interesting...'. And sure enough, Trev came up with the break-through idea by just rearranging things and observing, testing and improving. Then I made a few suggestions, then Rob made a few more, then we talked about how to build it, and before an hour was up we had a pretty much complete idea of how to construct the whole thing. And it all fits lower than the original fuel tank!

The key insight, as it later appeared, was that making room for the cell interconnections inside the frame chews up lots of space. Turning the cells on their side used horizontal space, which is less constrained. By putting the interconnects on the outside, I can see every cell's monitoring state and check the connections easily. The only variation is the bottom row, which faces forward because that way I can fit six batteries across the bottom row and still have room for my toes.

This photo illustrates the whole thing. The bottom layer is six cells across (facing forwards), and each other layer is made of eight batteries facing side-out. (The smaller squares are one cell, then I made three- and four-wide groups for ease of construction and reduction in cardboard). You can see on the right the rear upper engine mount which sticks into the second layer of cells - when this is removed that row can move an inch back; this in turn allows the front group to move down, which then in turn allows the top group to move forward. There is plenty of room there even with plates between each row.

Then the whole outside is covered in a solid plate of something - we're currently debating whether steel, aluminium or acrylic is better - that provides water and abrasion resistance. Steel plate with laser cut holes with an acrylic plate behind it is my current favourite - the holes provide viewports through to see the battery management system, and also mean that the bike has pinpoints of green light glowing from it at night. Inside the plate there are rubber offsets which both keep the plate away from the interconnects and press the cells into their niches. The outside plates attach at hinge points at the bottom and bolts go through from the top to a central plate which holds the whole thing together.

If the outer plate isn't seen to be enough to hold the cells in place, I have idea to fix that as well: put a steel strap around each group of cells and, on the ends, attach a flat plate to which a bolt has been attached. This then bolts down to a rod attached to the plate in the middle. The steel strap will sit inside the channel on the side of the batteries, holding them just as well as the frame I made up before.

The method of construction is still a little up in the air. Rob likes the idea of just bending acrylic into place around wooden moulds. Trev likes aluminium for lightness and for the horizontal plates to support the cells I think that's good. The central vertical plate I think I would make from steel and I would definitely prefer the outer plate to be steel for abrasion and impact resistance. All these can be cut from plate using water jet cutting - in fact, this design lends itself much more to water jet cutting than other designs I've considered. That makes it cheaper, as well as much more awesome.

Hopefully I'll have some plans together this week and I can start taking them around to fabrication places to see what they'd charge to make. The other good thing about this plan is that it's probably even possible for me to make it so that I can simply bolt the bits together myself, rather than having to pay someone to put it together. It feels like I've got the whole project back on track!

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Sat 12th Mar, 2011

I should be more electrified?

Last weekend I got the electric hub motor running. You'd think this would be the cause for great celebrations, fireworks and national days of rejoicing, but strangely it leaves me feeling like it's a fairly hollow victory.

I'd spent the week assembling bits and pieces, soldering and crimping, fixing things and getting things running. I managed, somehow, to avoid frying the DC-DC converter supplying the 12V power for the controller and contactor after connecting its 12V leads to the 130V battery. I checked everything with a multimeter. I ran through every possible combination of wires and, on the very last possible sensible combination got the motor turning over without sounding like it was trying to chew up a cheese grater. I uploaded a video at the time. It was still sounding a bit odd and the controlle was occasionally cutting out when I backed off the throttle, so I got a friend with an oscilloscope to come over and have a look at the signal. I also layed out the controller flat on the table, which meant I could get the power wires straight rather than crossing over eachother. We fired up the motor on Friday and had it running for five minutes or so. The waveform looked OK, but since neither of us really knew what a bad or good waveform looked like it was somewhat moot.

At this point we noticed the cheap plastic caps that came with the lugs that I'd bought for the power leads were melting. Then the solder in the power wires started melting (why they put solder into the wires is beyond me). I went and got my thermometer cable for the multimeter and determined that the power wires were sitting at about 70°C! And that was only running for five minutes! This raises all sorts of questions.

Anyway, I decided to get a better video than the previous one. Armed with the knowledge that my phone had a high-definition video camera, I tried taking videos with that. Kate suggested putting light on the motor so you could see it moving rather than just a dark blob. I tried my other video camera, a ContourHD unit that I bought for attaching to the front of the bike, on helmets, and so forth - but the field of view is too wide and the sound is pitiful. And in a burst of idiocy I deleted the good video and kept the eight second out-take. (As strange as it may seem, these weren't excuses to start the motor up again.)

So now that I've got the video uploading away I thought I'd write this update. I should feel happier - a major milestone has been passed, and theory has turned into practice. But the major work now is to try and get a battery frame welded up on the bike; I want to use a professional metal fabricator for that. That has to go past the engineer to get his approval. Then I have to get all the batteries, controller, contactor and other parts actually in it, and attach all the cables. Then I have to get the 12V system working. Then I might be ready to actually run it down the street.

So it still feels a long way off. And I'd like to get the bike at least running in some fashion for the first practice event of the TTXGP at Wakefield Park near Goulburn at the end of April. And there's that cable heating problem to watch, or better yet fix. And how does one register an electric motorbike anyway? It still feels like a long way to go.

Here's the 'better' video:

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Sun 20th Feb, 2011

A crimp in my plans

Well, yesterday I hooked all of the cells up and installed and wired up all the BMS modules. That's 76 wires about three centimetres long, 76 crimp connectors and 76 solder joints - two per cell module. I used crimp connectors because I had a bunch of them from hooking up the controller cables - Jaycar has 100 packs of connectors for about double what a pack of 12 cost - and so that I could disconnect and rearrange every module if necessary (i.e. I wouldn't have a mess of cables when I disconnect it).

After a while I got a technique up. I borrowed a friend's crimping tool (I tried pliers and they either didn't get enough force or cut straight through the connector), but because it's fairly cheap it tends to bend out of line when you squeeze it as the normal hand motion applies sideways force (due to the way your fingers curl). Solution: put the bottom half in the vice. This way I could exert all my force straight on and the tool itself wouldn't twist in my hand. This reduced the number of bad crimps down significantly. I also got into a bit of a production line - cut a number of segments of wire, trim all the insulation with a stanley knife, then crimp all of the segments and arrange them. This meant less tool swapping and allowed me to get a good technique on each operation.

I worried a bit as I was soldering everything up, but not because I thought that I would accidentally adger the circuit on the BMS modules. They're copy-protected in a crude but effective way - a blob of translucent epoxy on the centre of each module. You can see the LEDs shining through but nothing of the circuit or components. It wouldn't stop a dedicated counterfeiter for a second, of course, but it's enough to stop me making my own. I don't really care about this - if I need one I'll buy one, and if the company that makes them goes out of business I'll just cut the epoxy off one and figure it out on my own - or just buy a new circuit. I like the ones Elithion make - expensive compared to an analog BMS but you get so much more neat information!

No, I worried because I was hovering over a bunch of exposed metal connectors that could easily kill me if I was stupid enough to make a good circuit between two ends, or even parts, of the battery. It's only 130V, but if it gets a low resistance connection it can do 180A for as long as you please - about a quarter of a second will do it to stop your heart permanently. Fun, eh? The problem is in getting too used to handling them, too blazé about the accidental touch, until I do something stupid.

Anyway. There was a fraught moment getting the charger working. The charger takes a feed from the battery that goes through the relay in the BMS, it recommended hooking it up on the positive side (why?). I then proceeded to attach the other lead of the charger to the positive terminal, and wondered why it wasn't charging. Moving the connection to the negative terminal started it up just fine.

The only minor annoyance at the moment seems to be that the BMS turns off the charger as soon as the battery reaches 3.65v per cell. This means that about seven or eight of the modules show their red "I'm diverting current around this cell to stop it overcharging" before the BMS turns charging current off. I figure I'm going to have to this cycle about half a dozen times to get all the cells up to roughly equal charge - I can see cell voltages of between 3.34v to 3.44v at the moment. It only takes about two to three minutes for it to go from starting the charge to stopping it, though, so I'll do that a couple of times this afternoon and monitor the cell voltages and see what happens. The readout on the charger isn't getting beyond around 137V anyway, so I don't think there's any damage being done.

Now to start getting the controller inputs wired up and see if I can starts the motor up!

P.S. Here are the pictures.

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Mon 24th Jan, 2011

A thousand household uses

This afternoon, after Jon Corbet's fascinating and ever-diplomatic talk about setting up Linux Weekly News, I attended the Training Allies talk of the Haecksen Miniconf. This was an eye-opening tutorial for men about how to support women in the FOSS community. The format was that we would be given a social situation and someone would have to behave in some way that socially disadvantaged women. Then the other people in the situation would get suggestions of things to say that could help defuse or reverse that comment, and people from the audience would contribute their own thoughts about how to deal with that situation in a positive and constructive manner.

I found it extremely challenging to get up and say to a woman "are you here for the partners' programme?" even in a role-played situation. I never want to have to be in anything like that situation. If every man could feel the way that I did when they went to say that kind of comment, there would be no sexism. It's hard enough when such a comment is made accidentally, or without thinking, but when it's a deliberate, pre-planned thing it pushes really hard on all the buttons I've developed from a childhood of being bullied at school.

Other than my own physical discomfort, though, the whole thing went very well and was well received. I think Val's absolutely right when she talkes about "magical man sparkles" (don't let me analyze vampire movies right now, though) - men get instant 'blokey' credentials with other men and will heed a comment that would be ignored or criticised if made by a woman. We need to use these credentials to change the way other men act and think about women.

I had the opportunity to put some of this thinking into practice sooner than I had anticipated. Picking up dinner from an indian restaurant, I had been greeted by the woman at the counter who had taken my phone order; a man also working at the restaurant was standing at the counter. We had just started talking about my day when he said "She's very pretty, isn't she?"

I didn't even have time to consciously think abou what we'd done in the Allies session; something just stuck in my head about his choice of the word 'pretty'. I replied with "We're all pretty, aren't we?"

A grin, a laugh, and we moved on to other topics and I talked about how cool LCA was. The lady said "it sounds like it's an awesome day", and I had to agree. Maybe there was something even cleverer to say, but I'm pretty happy with having come with something that defused the situation without being negative. Picking up a take-away order isn't the time to fight the appropriateness of a comment like that, but I feel that by making light of it indirectly makes the statement "you do not have a right to single her out for comment to another person, nor make me part of whatever game you're playing". The lessons I've learnt in dealing with how to enable women in FOSS also apply equally well to everyday situations.

There is no victory for feminism, no point at which we can all shout hurray and not worry about it any more. Feminism is just another way of fighting injustice and prejudice, and that happens everywhere. We all have to think carefully about the example we set. Ultimately to me it boils down to hypocrisy - treating someone else in a way that you would not accept being treated. We will all have to continue to fight hypocrisy wherever we find it in whatever form, and with whatever energy and tools we have to hand.

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Wed 19th Jan, 2011

AGIMO standardises on Microsoft

To Minister Andrew Leigh,
Federal Member for Fraser

Dear Minister Leigh,

I read a paper recently published at:

Which states (on page 10) that:

(Office Productivity Suites) "Must support the Office Open XML file format as defined by ECMA-376"

This is a deeply concerning thing to me and many people I know for the following reasons.

ECMA-376, commonly known as "Office Open XML", is a 7000+ document that Microsoft forced through ISO by stacking committees, bribing officials and other underhanded means (see Microsoft has also publicly stated that it has no intention of following the standard ( and it does not already follow the "Strict" standard anyway. It seems extremely unwise to me to mandate a standard that is not supported by the single vendor that wrote it to comply with what their own software did.

One must ask, therefore, if there is a better standard. Indeed, there is - ODF, also known as ISO/IEC standard 26300:2006. This standard is around 600 pages long and is also supported by over twenty different applications, many of them free to use and distribute, from OpenOffice to Microsoft Office. This not only gives agencies the choice of software to use, but cost savings to be realised should free alternatives to costly commercial software be chosen.

The rest of the document has similar specifications which seem to make little sense unless the goal is to put money in a software or hardware vendor's pockets. Specifying the use of Microsoft proprietary mail protocols (page 10), the Microsoft Windows specific program iexplore.exe (page 11), support for the proprietary MPEG-2 codec (page 12) and use of the Microsoft Windows 7 operating system (page 20) seem like needless specification at best and vendor lock-in at worst.

One feels that a whole-of-government computer deployment plan should not have the implicit specification that the government pay whatever a bunch of proprietary software vendors choose to charge.

If you would like to meet with me to discuss any of this further I would be happy to do so.

I have also written this on my blog - see

Thanks in advance,


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Sun 9th Jan, 2011

Nothing to show off

Due to an interesting but otiose set of circumstances, the Canberra EV group got permission to have a stall at SummerNats - the yearly "more than a car show" festival at the start of January in Canberra. At first glance this appears a bit like inviting the Skeptic Society to a Church Fete; but there are many reasons that people have for converting vehicles to electric power, and fuel economy and helping the environment are but a few.

Take, for instance, the White Zombie, a 1972 Datsun 1200 that has been converted into an electric drag race car. This thing does 11 second quarter miles - well into supercar territory (quite a bit faster than a Holden HSV GTS). And because all of its torque is there from zero RPM, it takes off like a bullet - you can see in videos, it just doesn't accelerate much after the first six seconds, and that's because the controller is programmed to not ramp up the amps too fast. And that's not the fastest - here's a drag car doing a 7.56 quarter mile. Let's see any of the burn-out champions get anywhere near that.

Likewise, the TTXGP is bringing electric racing to motorbikes. In the year that I've been following this there have been at least half a dozen companies that are now putting out electric bikes both for road, sport and dirt. The dirt bikes are particularly attractive to run on electric motors as they get a lot of torque at low revs, something that dirt bikes are specially customised to do with petrol engines. The process of running these races and having electric drag cars is changing the minds of the racing and horsepower community.

So instead of talking about noise and exhaust emissions, we talked about torque curves and quarter miles. I also talked about customisation - one of the big things at SummerNats is that the people bringing along their cars are customising them and making something that is distinctly their own. I saw a customised Suzuki Mighty Boy (which was rad) - so even if it's not a fully blown 351 Chevy with triple weber carbies and a supercharger, someone can still get into customising it and showing it off. I think the scope for that kind of customisation is one reason for doing electric conversions - you can choose your motor, drive train, batteries, controllers, everything - and lay it out with the same care and attention that the high-end car audio system competitors do.

And a friend pointed out that there's another attraction. Every car made after about 1986 has to obey increasingly stringent emissions rules. This severely limits the amount of customisation you can do to a 2008 Nissan GTX or Holden HSV. That's why a lot of the cars at SummerNats are older: the scope is wider for modifications. But you could take a current muscle car with a dead engine and convert it to electric running, and you wouldn't have any emissions specs to look at. Maybe that's not a huge selling point, but it's an interesting thing to note.

I'm trying to avoid being judgmental about the people and cars at SummerNats. It's loud, and it's just not really the kind of place that I would normally hang out. When the burn-out competition started I could smell it before I heard it. But all in all the crowd was friendly; no-one came and trolled us, the people we talked to were all pretty interested in the possibilities one way or another, and they could see that we were passionate about our bikes and cars in our own way. The fact that we had a stall there at all is the big revolution. And who knows - maybe next year we'll have the electric go-kart ready to spin the wheels, or get the electric drag car that's being designed in Sydney down to show how it's done.

I haven't uploaded my photos yet but Tony has a set online. You can see me standing around in front of my bike in a few of them. The most interesting one to me is the second to last one comparing the different battery technologies. On the left you have a gel-cell lead-acid battery delivering 80 amp-hours weighing 32 kilograms - annoyingly heavy to lift. Next to it you have four of my cells, making a 12 volt, 60 amp-hour battery that weighs just over a quarter of that, at 8.8 kilos. The next yellow battery is another lead acid battery, capable of delivering as much power as my cells are, and only weighing a fraction more at 13.2 kilos - but it only has a quarter of the amp-hour capacity, at 15Ah. That's why we're going with Lithium cells.

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Sat 1st Jan, 2011

Radio drama

I've just finished up the year by putting on two Radio plays from Girl Genius, the multi-Hugo winning graphic novel 'Gaslamp Fantasy' series. For friends at their New Year's Eve party we performed Agatha Heterodyne and Death wish Dupree, and for my shared family's New Year's Day party (because I wasn't around for Christmas) we performed Minor Heroes (yes). I asked permission from Phil and Kaja first and got a response from Alice, one of their minions, to the effect that they're intending to release the scripts and the shows under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-commercial license (which it says in the headings of 'Minor Heroes'). I didn't get around to getting a script from them in time, so I ended up transcribing the shows myself - I'm sending them the files for their own reference, in case that helps them.

Overall, reactions were good. I only had helpful feedback, anyway, no criticisms, and we got more and more people packing in for the later episodes at the first event. I think sometimes it struggled a bit as both the audience and some of the actors weren't familiar with the genre or the characters and story, but that's hardly a problem. It was pretty cool to do.

Here are some notes for myself and others should people find themselves wanting to do this well in future:

Hopefully this advice will stand you in good stead if you happen to want to perform a radio drama some time in the near future. If not, what's wrong with you? :-)

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Mon 20th Dec, 2010

Sorting things out

I've just spent the last two days working at my Dad's place, packing up his worldly possessions for his imminent move to assisted living. It's a long process, fraught with frustrations and difficulties. He has a lot of stuff, and he wants to keep most of it - much of it things that I think he hasn't used in the last decade, isn't likely to use for the rest of his life, and are of no great utility or scarcity. For the rest of the week I'll be boxing stuff up and transporting it to storage (another favour from another part of the family) and trying to keep him focussed on choosing the things that he absolutely cannot live without to take with him. There'll be plenty enough of that.

After the first day I found myself reflecting on my own possessions. I have a cupboard full of computer equipment - boxes of USB cables, collections of zip disks (and a working drive too, I checked the other day). Stacks of CDs, backups of my music collection, several terabytes of spare drives, enough components (minus the case) to make a complete half-decent gaming computer, etc. etc. etc. I have a garage whose walls are stacked with wood that I've collected for wood turning (one of my other hobbies) as well as parts for the electric motorbike. I have CDs that I would never voluntarily listen to again, books that I do not want to read. Why do I have all this stuff?

For some of his stuff, at least, he has a justification: for example, he has a collection of quarter-inch audio tapes spanning his entire career as a sound engineer. What are my USB cables here? A record of my history as a parts hoarder?

So I'm going to have a big give-away at an up-coming CLUG meeting, as well as try to sell things for reasonable prices. What I can't sell I'll give to a charity. What I can't give away I'll recycle or throw away. I always feel much more frustrated when the piles of junk are threatening to swamp all vestiges of free space. Some of this will also be a de-cluttering of my life: try to reduce the things I'm holding onto just because I might get into e.g. ultimate frisbee some day. I'm a neophile and I'm interested in all sorts of sports, hobbies and intellectual pursuits, but the downside of this is that I have to actively say no to some things because I simply have no time to do them if I'm going to have any time to do any of the other things I already do.

Explaining packing up Dad's stuff to people has made me philosophise about why this occurs. We firstly have to discard the related problem of hoarding things because they have physical value. "Waste not want not" still works even when a hardware store is a fifteen minute drive away, and I suspect it'd still work even in a "Diamond Age" of created matter: the time to get and make the thing is still a cost, even if the item is given away for free. We don't hoard photo albums or old emails or have favourite albums solely because of their ability to hold photos or words.

The other value of what we hoard is in the memories things evoke. We have wonderful associative memories, but it means that it's harder to step through them sequentially and enjoy it all again. The gold medal isn't really for winning the race, it's for us in the future to remember what we did in the past. These things become tied together: I have a pair of ice hockey boots that I keep because they're useful and it's cheaper to use them than to hire skates (and the hire skates are nowhere near as good as mine), but when I see them I remember the good times I had when skating.

The good thing, though, these days, is that things that evoke our memories need not take much physical space. Why have suitcases full of photo albums that you never browse, when you can fit all the photos on a USB disk that you can stick into a digital photo frame that will then cycle through the photos and show you them. The digital generation understands this in a way - few people other than devoted photographers want to mess around with film these days, because where do you keep the stuff? Not online, that's for sure.

I can't help thinking we're swinging too far the other way. People take hundreds of photos a day on holidays, a number they have no way of even reviewing - and less inclination to. We praised digital photography for being able to know what the shots looked like and re-take them if needed; now we just shoot fourteen of everything and assume we're going to have time to review them later. But I'd rather have the portability, choice and post-processing options of digital - and I'd rather page through photos on a large computer screen than in little 4"x3" segments of reprocessed dinosaurs.

And we should remember that the ultimate point is our memories. Who cares about your ninety-eight photos of the Tiergarten if all you can say about it was "I don't know what it was like, I was too busy taking photos?" Likewise, who cares about a great big chunk of tapes, if all that matters about them is that you did great work producing them? I couldn't be stuffed trying to convert any of the audio. But the photos of my Dad and I building a cubby house? Those to me are worth scanning and preserving.

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Mon 6th Dec, 2010

Excuses, Excuses

Valerie Aurora recently posted an awesome article on LWN about sexual harassment and gender attacks at open-source conferences. I highly recommend everyone read the Geek Feminism wiki's Conference Anti-Harassment Policy template-like-thing; it's not just about women, it's about making sure no-one gets excluded or picked on.

Sadly, of course, these things get derailed - one of the classic tactics for people who secretly want to keep the bias is to make excuses or side-track the issue into meaningless debates on other topics. This month's "think of the children" topic is autism-spectrum disorder sufferers. Apparently, they're functional enough to come to conferences, commit code, and handle complex social and personal interactions in email, but they're to be forgiven for making sexual attacks on women because they can't do any of that personal and social interaction stuff. Naturally, the debate is heading off into exactly what, exactly who, how much and in which direction, all about men and nothing about women.

What's actually censoring me off is that I think the whole autism thing is hugely overblown. And personally I think it's actually an attempt to marginalise a bunch of people. Think about it this way: people that have an obsession with order, dislike the messy complications of socialising and come up with rules and systems for their lives they are called obsessive-compulsive, Aspergers sufferers and so forth and are treated as defective; but people that have an obsession with intuition and unexplainable powers, dislike the restrictions of science and logic, and come up with fanciful or imaginary explanations for common phenomena are called artistic, spiritual or religious and are treated as inspiring examples to us all. What's wrong with this picture?

Yes, as the book "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" shows, some people have very strange reactions and hard to deal with problems. As it also tries to explain, these aren't just weird ideas picked out of nowhere; they're 'logical', but in a way that other people find irrelevant. Why is Christopher's idea of hating the colours yellow and brown so wrong, when his father's irrational actions would be seen by some to be just 'natural' protectiveness? The book never labels Christopher's condition, although the cover (added by the publishers without the author's consent) occasionally names it specifically.

The other clue to me that autism is an artificial label is that it is a 'spectrum' disorder. This means that there are a variety of different manifestations of the disorder and a spectrum of levels from mild to severe. Does this not mean that everyone could exhibit some level of autism, and we just classify some of it as 'normal'? It would be possible, I believe, to come up with a set of questions which would show that most of the population suffered from some kind of autism. Where does the 'a-social' level begin? How much of any one trait must one show in order to be labelled autistic? Because these are so arbitrary, it means that it has just become a useful label for those that consider themselves 'normal' to classify other people as 'not normal'.

And what about those people who can't 'do' logic? Who seem incapable of explaining their actions other than by 'it felt right'? Who don't think the rules apply to them? Who want to break the rules (whether the rules are road speed limits or societal conventions) because 'they're there to be broken'? Who ignore their own doctors', psychologists' and family's advice because it doesn't suit them? Who tell groups of people that trust them that unless the group believes a particular book they're going to be eternally tortured and punished? Who think that it's OK to kill doctors who carry out operations that their religious beliefs disagree with? Are these people OK just because they're able to have a nice social conversation?

I'm not getting away from geek feminism or harassment here: I'm trying to demonstrate that autism is just being used here as a label to hide behind. Funnily enough none of the people who have actually carried out these attacks or showed pornographic pictures at conferences say "well, I am autistic, so that's why". And many of the people who are most vehement in condemning these sexist attacks are identifying themselves as having some form of autism spectrum disorder. The real culprit is mysoginists, and the real answer is to have a code of conduct in plain sight that says what is right and what is wrong.

It is worth mentioning that I think that the real underlying problem here is that a bunch of guys are afraid that the things they've been doing which they see as perfectly innocent may be categorised as harassment and may lead to them being ejected from their favourite conference. Most of those things are probably fairly harmless - thinking certain people are attractive or watching pornography in private, for example. Some of the behaviours, though, are harmful to others (and to themselves) and these do need to be corrected. Generally I'd say what stays in your own mind is no harm to anyone else. But generally there's no reason to comment about anyone else's gender or preferences at a conference, any more than there is a need to make fun of someone else's hair colour or naivety. Having had one incident at a conference which made me feel extremely humiliated, I don't think that there should be any reason to make anyone else feel uncomfortable about who and how they are.

And I also think it worth saying that in general I think people at LCA and OSDC, the main conferences I've attended, have been positive, open, frank, forgiving, and reasonable. The best moment I've had was when I was wearing the "one in ten" T-shirt and a big guy walked directly up to me (somewhat confrontingly) and said "that's a great T-shirt, where can I get one!" :-) I hope I've never been directly or indirectly insulting to anyone, and I think that generally the conferences have a very positive and supporting attitude. Arjen's formation of Blue Hackers at OSDC 2008 is an example of how inclusive and supporting these groups can be for people who find it difficult to deal with some things.

And if someone comes up with a T-shirt of the Backup Project flyer I'll take twelve! (But please make it in black - I can't wear the "one in ten" T-shirt because it doesn't suit my colour scheme... :-)

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Thu 2nd Dec, 2010


I just thought of an idea for the E-bike. Have an RFID tag sensor in the bike and one or more RFID tags with things like the keys, my wallet, etc. The bike will still turn on with the key, but if the correct RFID tag isn't sensed nearby it will limit its top speed, acceleration, etc. So if something goes wrong with the sensor it's still driveable, but only to get to repairs. But if it's stolen it's near useless even if hotwired.

I've also worked out how to set up the switches on the bike. For cars, the key switch has four positions - lock, accessories, on and (momentary) start. A bike has three - lock, off and on; but a bike also has a separate motor kill switch (usually near the right thumb) and a (momentary) starter switch as separate things. A bike also has a footpeg switch - if you put the footpeg down and the bike is not in neutral, the motor will switch off (because taking off with the footpeg down is a sure way to have an accident). For combustion-engine vehicles, there is one electrical system - the 12v system; for EVs there is a separate (high-)voltage system to run the motor. (You're crazy if you try to run an EV on twelve volts, because the amperage the wires will have to carry to get the same amount of power will mean huge cables or things bursting into flame.)

So I have the key switch turn the twelve volt system on and off. This allows the headlight, signals etc. to work, and also provides 'system' power to the motor controller. The 'motor kill' switch then engages the contactor, a whocking great relay capable, in my case, of carrying 400 amps. This connects the battery to the controller and everything is ready for take-off. The 'ignition' switch is useless, but I'm tempted to repurpose it to cause a roll of thunder to be emitted from the onboard speaker, or flash the LED strip lighting menacingly, or activate the tesla coil, or shoot lasers or something. Or something useful, like put the motor into 'reverse' mode so that I can have power-assisted reversing.

There are a couple of criteria here. I want to make sure that the systems remain as 'standard' to a regular bike as possible, so I can lend it to a friend without a half-hour tutorial and so that I can hop from it to a regular bike without nuking the engine or something. This means the clutch lever might be dropped but I won't repurpose it (whereas on a scooter it's the rear brake and, when one goes to change gears, can result in amusing and health-endangering stopping). I also need to make sure that the lights and emergency indicators can remain functional even if the main 'motive power' battery is dead (or at least completely unusable - e.g. fuse blown) - this is for the Australian National Code of Practice for building electric vehicles.

Unfortunately for me, I bought a DC-DC converter that outputs 12V in the mistaken belief that I could simply wire that up to the power battery and have power to drive the lights even if it was too low to drive the bike. It turns out that I have to have lighting as a separate circuit so that even if something goes horribly wrong - one cell dies, a cell interconnect fuses, a bit snaps off somewhere, or even just the main fuse goes - I can still be illuminated at night. So I do need a (small) separate 12V battery; and because 12V lead-acid (and similar) batteries charge at 13.4V, the 12V that the DC-DC converter outputs is not enough.

Anyone want to buy a barely used 150W DC-DC converter with an input from 84 to 120 volts?

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Mon 29th Nov, 2010

Scarcity in abundance

It's starting to really worry me.

Over the months I've noticed gradual disappearances from my supermarket. Bundaberg Sugar now doesn't appear at all - it's all CSR (a foreign-owned company) or Coles's rebranded CSR sugar. P&N cordials have disappeared in favour of Cottees (a foreign-owned company). Even though Golden Circle (now owned by Heinz, a foreign-owned company) has cordials there, my favourite pine-lime is now absent. Yes, we can all see the shelves gradually decreasing in biodiversity but when something you really like is gone substituting another brand sometimes isn't enough.

We know why, of course. Coles and Woolworths own nearly 80% of the grocery market. Companies pay them to stock products on their shelves. Their aim is basically to stock the one or two popular brands and then fill the rest of the space with their own labels - "You'll Love Coles", "Woolies Home Brand" etc. (BTW, is it only me or do the labels for YLC insult one's intelligence? '"I drink milk because it's lovely!" - Megan, milk lover'. '"Oh, please" - Paul, throwing up'.) They actually ask for these payments in advance and in some cases are regardless of how much is actually sold - which is basically extortion in my book. Aldi is worse in my opinion - you have one choice, their own brands, sourced from wherever is cheapest. When Walmart comes to Australia they will kick Coles and Woolworths' arses, but only in the race for utterly selling out.

The fact is that every time you buy something from a foreign-owned company, that money goes to another country. Every cent that an Australian business owner gets then gets spent in their local community and supports other Australians; every cent that goes to a foreign owned company helps absolutely no-one in Australia. This isn't about blind patriotism - I'm thinking about the people, not the government. The flow-on effect of that money supports many more families than just the business owners. I also worry about food and business standards in other countries: the pressure to import bananas comes entirely from the big grocery chains, who couldn't care two hoots about preventing disease from wiping out the entire banana industry in Australia as long as they can make a short-term profit. And since most of these companies aren't using local goods - 80% of all groceries have ingredients sourced overseas - trying to reduce the distance that our goods travel to get to us is vital to reducing our impact on the only planet we can live on.

One ray of hope here is that IGA and other local smaller grocery stores have realised how to market themselves. Their costs will always be higher, so their actual difference is to stock better produce or more variety. The range of beers at my local IGA puts Dan Murphy's to shame, and makes Coles look quaint. They're almost like a delicatessen.

I start to think that there's actually a business model for a chain of stores that specialise in exclusively Australian-owned and Australian-made produce. Yes, your range is not going to be as great. You won't find Arnotts, Vegemite, Uncle Toby's, most chocolates, Kleenex, Golden Circle, Cottees, and more. Yet you will find IXL, Sanitarium, Maggie Beer, Devondale, Bega, Bulla, Quilton, and a big range of Australian native produce. You can shop there knowing that everything has been sourced from local companies and local foodstuffs. To me that's not just a practical but an ethical decision.

If only...

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Mon 22nd Nov, 2010

Powered by cardboard

I spent a productive weekend of planning and preparation on the electric motorbike yesterday. This was different to the week before, where a combination of bad weather and apathy caused me to stay indoors and flop around for the time I had planned to be working on the bike. This time I was better prepared, and as an added incentive I made sure I got the friend of mine who's been helping me with it enthused so I knew he was coming around and couldn't prevaricate.

We got the fairings worked out. We discovered that the reason the front and left-hand side fairings weren't fitting correctly was that the headlight mount had been bent in the crash and the headlights were only fitting by virtue of the fact that one of the mounts had broken. We discovered that the measurements on the EV Works website say that the LFP60AHA cells are 203mm tall but that their specification sheet that's linked to on the same page says they're 212mm to the shoulder and 215mm to the top of the terminal post. Rob made plans for the cell mounting cages while I worked on trying unsuccessfully to straighten the headlight mount. We discovered that the controller will fit near perfectly under the seat - with a weatherproof housing for the electrics it will be perfect. We learned that buying a bike that's been in an accident might be cheap but it comes with downsides.

That afternoon I constructed the rest of the cardboard mock-ups of the batteries, and determined that they would indeed fit in the frame - just. Rob's preferred method of construction is to buy the metal, cut it to size, get a welder and start attaching bits of metal to the frame where they need to go. I need a bit more of an idea whether that's going to work, so that I don't find myself grinding it all off because I should have fitted the batteries some different way. We're going for four groups of seven cells in frames, set up so that the cells are fixed together with straps, joined in series, and then the whole group is slid into the frame together, with extra cables between the groups. Then we have two groups of five, or some other combination that's going to fit in the space available, joined together the same way.

The complicated thing is dealing with the tops of the batteries. They each have a BMS monitor module across the terminals, and a cell interconnect (basically a thick piece of braided copper mesh) between the batteries. By my calculations the sides of this interconnect sit just over 10mm away from the edge of the battery, so having a 10mm-wide right-angled piece of metal to clamp onto the top of the cells to hold them down gives too many opportunities to short something out. Yet how do we hold the batteries down, to make sure they don't vibrate in place and wear the interconnects and/or start moving more enthusiastically around the battery frame? Rob's idea was to have foam rubber on the sides of the battery cage and to design it so that tightening the bolts on the end caps clamps the cells in place, but I'm not sure that's going to really stop the cells lifting up if I hit a speed-bump too quickly. I need something non-conductive to clamp the cells down.

So I'm going to do up the plans in something (SketchUp possibly) to take to the engineer. I've taken the headlight mount off, removed the wiring loom, and readied it for a bit of blowtorching. I've taken some photos, but my Gallery setup at home has eaten some really rather toxic mushrooms and I'm currently trying to triage it. If Gallery2 would actually work, rather than sitting sullenly and ignore my uploads, that'd be great too.

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Sat 13th Nov, 2010

If only I'd set this up earlier

One of the problems with building an electric vehicle is making the battery pack. There are a number of interdependent variables - weight, amp-hour capacity, volume, maximum voltage, and cost - and many trade-offs to be made. Even if you limit yourself to a particular voltage (because you have a particular motor) and total pack weight (because you have a maximum 'kerb weight' for your vehicle) there's still a lot of options. And you want to know a fair bit about each choice - cost, number of cells (which determines the number of joints you'll have to make), maximum amperage deliverable, and so on.

At about the time that I heard about 'pouch' cells - lithium cells that have a tough but flexible plastic wrapper instead of a hard outer casing, often used in mobile phones and portable electronic devices - I started making a spreadsheet of these options. I threw together a few formulas to determine some of the information about my specific pack but then I shared the (Google) spreadsheet with a friend and he put in his own calculations. Then I realised some of the cells I'd been looking at were Lithium Polymer (normal operation voltage 3.7V) rather than Lithium Iron Phosphate (3.2V) and so some of my packs could have fewer cells. And of course, it hit me - I needed a database.

So I hacked one together in Django, and transferred all my information into the database (by hand). Then I wrote the code to put together a pack of batteries based on your requirements. I released it to the denizens of the Canberra EV group with little fanfare. I added a few extra bits and pieces, like simple displays of the cells by manufacturer and online store. And now I present to you this finely crafted link to release it, still on my testing server at home, to the rest of the world.

Feedback, as always, is welcomed.

As an aside, it is a difficult thing to get some of this information. Many manufacturers are Chinese, with badly-translated, hastily thrown together and hard-to-use websites. Many I'm not sure there's any point in listing since they seem only to cater for manufacturers buying 1000 or more cells or wanting custom engineering. Some, like Saft, seem to have very little information and what little is there looks awesome, but they sell to the defence industries and I've never got a reply from my email to them. Some, like one Australian manufacturer I won't name here, are very hard to deal with by email and seem to think that websites are brochures, not sales desks. Many of the Chinese manufacturers, especially of cylindrical cells, work through Alibaba and various other direct-ship quote-based pseudo-services. A lot of the sellers of cylindrical cells seem to be selling the same thing ('Headway' cells), which triggers my scam detectors. For me, it's just not worth trying to trawl through all those sites trying to find useful information.

I am willing to hear from anyone that can supply more information for me, especially online stores, but I prefer to get full information (especially for cells) with verifiable information. There's a lot of "we're totally coming out with a radical new cell that is ultra-cool and is far more powerful than anyone else's, but it's all hush-hush because we don't want our competitors to steal our technology" claims out there, and I don't want to list speculative numbers. Give me a URL to a full data sheet.

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Wed 10th Nov, 2010

Digital Progress

I recently had the chance to see the World Nature Photography Competition exhibition and, thinking of my brother's interest in photography, I noted two things. The first was that almost every photo was digital - I remember seeing only two photos that I could identify as being taken on actual film. As one of the photos was a black and white shot of a wolf moving the film grain was there to 'add' to the atmosphere - in other words, we're supposed to associate wilderness and motion with film grain. To me this is like 'motion blur' - we've been taught to expect the blur of a moving object exposed on celluloid film and now computers have to simulate this to make it look 'realistic'. (The eye can't track fast-moving objects well, but it doesn't see them as blurs). This is significant as my brother reports a still-strong body of 'analogue' photographers who decry the modern hocus-pocus of digital photography.

The other interesting thing was that the winning entry had been disqualified for faking it (though the photographer denied the claim). How was it faked, you ask, in this world of digital photographic manipulation? Well, the photographer is claimed to have put a stuffed, posed wolf in the scene used a trained wolf hired from a zoo (correction thanks to my brother). On the one hand I'm left wondering what other little manipulations have gone on in the other photos to 'enhance' scene and enhance the chances of winning. On the other, if faking a scene is more likely to be done by putting a prop tame animal in, then I don't think we have too much to worry about yet.

And on the gripping hand, the actual manipulation of scenes from the 'wild' wasn't confined to just that: other photographers had tacked bacon hidden on a tree branch to attract bears, scattered seed for birds and food for foxes and wolves. If this is what 'nature' photography is all about, I think a fair number of our 'nature' photographers need to get it out of their heads that the world is a kind of studio to be staged and set as they will - especially since most of the categories were looking for 'wildness'. But when you're talking about prizes, there's always going to be a bit of surreptitious 'what can I get away with' thinking - some people just end up carrying through with their thoughts.

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Fri 15th Oct, 2010

That old "last minute preparation" feeling

A quick search around my various machines shows I haven't actually blogged about getting the motorbike running (sort of) and showing it off (sort of) at the Canberra Electric Vehicle Festival 2010. This post attempts to correct that.

You will recall in our last thrilling episode, I had attempted to get the motor running and failed. Now, with only a week to ... what's that? Oh, yes. Then, with only a week to go, I wanted to be able to show off the bike running at the Festival - or at least the back wheel turning under its own power. This meant pulling apart some of my connections on my mock-up box and testing things out one by one - a time-honoured debugging technique.

I'll spare you the whole exhausting detail. Fixing problems is a matter of connecting everything up, applying power to the Kelly controller, carefully observing the little flashing red light and looking up the error codes in the booklet. What I learnt in the process was:

Unfortunately what I didn't work on in that week before the festival was actually putting it all together in a neat, safe way. The EV Festival coincideded with Software Freedom Day, the Turning Wave Festival, and at least one other all day event that I'd been invited to go to; I was trying to help arrange the first, arranging to go to part of the second, and steadfastly refusing anything else. On the Friday night I looked at the mess of cables and connectors, the possibility of something going horribly wrong, and even just the possibility that I would be making EV building look like a boffins-only activity and gave up.

Two weeks before the show I also realised that it would be much better looking if it had panels on it. I'd taken the front and side fairing off because of damage in the accident that got me the bike in the first place. Naturally, I should have ordered the panels two weeks before that to get them in time. So I ended up showing off a bike that was more or less frame, wheels, seat and motor, along with the controller and a cardboard mock-up of the battery.

So on the Saturday I wheeled the bike onto the trailer, drove it down to the fair, helped set up the crash barriers for the driving course, set the bike up, walked around talking to a few people and looking at the other exhibitors, heard about pouch batteries, and generally talked more or less non-stop about the bike. I had printed up some helpful fliers with a brief run-down of the components, and they came in handy. Then I packed the bike up, drove it back home, unpacked it, and drove down to Gundagai for the Turning Wave festival.

Audience reaction was mostly positive. A few people told me it had to make noise, and I was glad I had my ready response: plans to build a box linked to the throttle that can make any sound I want: sports bike, Harley Davidson, V8 supercar, jet fighter, Millenium Falcon, TARDIS, Shepard-Risset Glissando, etc. Most people liked the idea of it costing around $10,000 all up - comparable with a modern sports bike. One boy felt the motor controller and asked "is this the battery?", to which I had to sadly reply that it would be lovely if it was but the real battery was much larger. No-one spoke against it - if they didn't like it they moved on, or weren't there.

So overall it was a pretty good experience. It strengthens my desire to have the bike working by the end of the year, and to demonstrate it at the next festival.

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Thu 14th Oct, 2010

Putting coulombs on the charge card

(I have to nod my head to my good friend Dunx for the title, though an explanation would be otiose.)

Finally I've put the order in for the batteries for the electric motorbike.

This is not a small decision when the cost of the batteries is over $3500. It's more so when there's that feeling that you're going to regret buying something that you're still not quite convinced will fit in the space available. Add to this the feeling that you wanted something larger and more capable but that would be simply impossible to fit, or almost an order of magnitude more expensive. And there's the looming question of how, exactly, is the whole thing going to perform. That's a lot of buyer choice anxiety right there.

We can reduce the choices down somewhat by starting from the fixed things. The engine, muffler, exhaust, air intakes and various peripherals that I removed from the bike and am not going to put back weigh around 84 kilos; that's how much weight, roughly, I can put back in the bike in battery pack. I'm adding the extra weight of the motor over the rear wheel (16kg), the motor controller, DC-DC converter and some other stuff, so it's probably going to be slightly heavier at 'dry weight'. This is something that the engineer can sign off on; we haven't made the whole thing unregisterable yet.

Likewise, to run the motor at 100km/hr requires 96 volts; at 3.2 volts per cell that's 30 cells, but I want to be able to comfortably exceed that for emergencies. A rather unfriendly email from a battery supply company taught me that the next size up of charger is 38 cells - and the cells really don't like being charged much more than their peak voltage. So 38 cells it is then. (If it turns out that I can't fit 38 in the bike, either due to space or weight, I can more definitely fit 30 anyway, and I'll just have to accept that its top speed isn't quite what I'd hoped.)

38 cells fitting into 84 kg makes for a weight per cell of around 2.21kg. By a happy chance, that is almost exactly the weight of the ThunderSky 60Ah cells. Unhappily for me I was hoping to use 90Ah cells as they have a better energy density. It was, I think, this unhappiness that then caused some of the delays.

It started when showing off my bike at the Canberra Electric Vehicle Festival 2010. A friend and I were talking about batteries and he mentioned 'pouch' cells as being his preferred battery component. These are like flattish bags with two metal tabs sticking out of them; Their chief advantage is much better amp-hour per kilogram and amp-hour per cubic centimeter. You can't squash them and you have to build a rigid pack around them, but that's OK since you have to do that for the vehicle anyway.

And some of them can deliver phenomenal quantities of current - the 70Ah cells I started looking at could deliver 350A continuous and 560A peak - enough to give 50mm² cabling a serious headache. Serious electric sports cars use these packs for their mind-cudgelling power delivery. Then we got a quote for them and stopped salivating: at over $13,000 for an equivalent pack to the ThunderSkys mentioned above this was seriously out of my league - at least for this bike.

As is often the way with me I then spent a quantity of time researching different batteries, finding various options and constructing elaborate spreadsheets to compare them. It compares rectangular (including pouch type) and cylindrical, calculating $/Ah, g/Ah and cc/Ah for comparison. The ThunderSkys come in at a very competitive $1.6/Ah but a modest ~37g/Ah and ~23cc/Ah; the best cells get down to ~22g/Ah and 10cc/Ah but an excitingly expensive ~$4.6/Ah. Then again you have to wade through who sells which cells - and half of the manufacturers won't deal with you unless you're ordering at least 1000 cells in one go.

In the end I was back where I started - 60Ah ThunderSkys, which I ordered today from EVWorks. $90 odd for delivery is cheap compared to the cost of the things being delivered, and especially to the $1000 or so charged by a USAdian company to send the same cells here. And with EVWorks I could buy pretty much all the remaining components - contactor (to turn the thing on from the key switch), cables, battery management system, charger, cell interconnects, cable lugs (yes, I get to use lugnuts), and conduit. I'm sure there's something I've forgotten but I can't think of what.

Anyway, the main task now is to read up the National Code Of Practice NCOP14 Guidelines for Electric Drive - its basics are covered on EVWorks's website - and work out what I have to do to make sure it will pass inspection. And also not fry myself or the batteries.

Oh, and the fairings I ordered (from the UK) have arrived too - I may try and get it looking nicer and take some photos. I have to have something better looking than this...

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Mon 9th Aug, 2010

Hard electrons

On Sunday I nearly got the electric motorbike working.

The problem is that it's sort of hard to tell how close I got. Everything was plugged in and in place, but nothing actually turned on, went beep or spun round. It's that sort of 'back to the drawing board' feel that I imagine makes scientific research so depressing - what bit of the large supply of things isn't working, and how do I deduce which one it is?

I'd spent the week preparing for it. I got the motor fitted with a tyre (from the excellent TJ's Tyres in Braddon), where it was opined that the fact that the spokes were bent where they attached to the wheel was a cause for concern. I got the awesome Laurie who runs Suspension Smith in Fyshwick to make me up some spacers and find an axle that would make sure that the motor fit in the middle of the rear suspension arms. I borrowed eight large UPS batteries in order to supply the 96 volts that is my aim for the battery pack's minimum potential. I spent the rest of Saturday going through my wiring and control box trying to get all the things that were supposed to connect together to do so correctly.

That bit is the real challenge. You see, there are five large and twenty-eight small connections from the motor controller; the large ones are the battery terminals in and the three motor coils out, the smaller ones do everything from turn a light on when the controller's 'on' to detect the position of the throttle to connections like 'boost' that aren't connected to a wire on the break-out cables and aren't documented in the manual. The motor itself has ten connectors (power for the three coils, hall effect sensors for each coil, ground and five volts, and the temperature sensor to and from). Some of the controller's outputs attach to external things - LEDs, variable resistors for throttle and brake, power supply, etc. which have to be put somewhere. So it's a bit bewildering working out how to connect it all together.

So on the day Rob and I fitted the brake and torque arm, fitted the spacers and axle (which were perfect!) and ran the cable. Then I lugged one of the batteries, the controller and the huge splay of leads out and started connecting things. I'd built a little kit box, used two D-15 ('VGA') connectors for the controller's inputs, and soldered all the wires to a circuit board. It's all reasonably neat but nothing like waterproof or robust enough to run - it's only really there to give me a chance to work out how the electrics all go together before I start actually finalising where everything goes. And the familiarity with its less-than-professional construction made me tentative as to how it was going to go. Would connecting it spin the motor up to maximum RPM? Had I something round the wrong way that would have its magic smoke escape?

With Rob holding on the front brake, I gingerly connected the battery to the controller. Nothing. I connected the mock-up box to the controller. Nothing. I switched the switch on. Nothing. Hmmmm.

I remembered that the controller required separate power and that was the only jack I hadn't soldered up. I did a quick soldering job and checked the polarity, and attached a spare motorcycle battery to the mock-up box's power input.

Nothing. Double hmmmm.

And that was more or less it for the day. We had to go out to lunch, Rob had to go and play hockey, and the next big task was to try and work out why all my clever soldering and wiring had produced a dud. The important lesson was that instead of one big box that everything plugged into, which was a pain to solder and required special connectors, I should have had each little subsystem in a separate box (or a different part of the same box) with its own connector. That way, when something breaks you can narrow it down fairly easily, and you don't have so much that's interconnected and jammed together. The Kelly jumper leads bundle the leads for the same functions - throttle, brake, LEDs, etc. - together, so you can have a separate box for each.

Also, buying an extra set of connectors isn't necessary, since Kelly supply you with a set and they're push-on pull-off 'quick' connectors so they can be taken apart again, but it is very helpful as it means you've got a test set if you botch something completely.

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Mon 26th Jul, 2010

Riding on and off the road

After several weeks of indecision I registered this week for a racing day at Wakefield Park on a motorbike riding day. My hesitation was due to a couple of factors: I had an unfaired Suzuki GS500, which only the true optimist could consider a race bike; much as I enjoy the speed of the straight and the skill of cornering, I also enjoy not crashing and injuring my bike and myself; I hadn't done a ride outside Canberra before and was unsure how I would go; I had to ride the bike from Canberra to Goulburn, do the track day, and then ride back home; the certainty of there being lots of other people dressed in their full-on racing gear with high performance sports bikes sneering down their noses at this poor fool on an unfaired road bike with standard narrow tyres, while not worrying me overmuch, still didn't appeal.

Thankfully, various people I talked to told me, basically, to quit looking at the negatives and think of the positives. So I headed off at 7AM on a chilly Sunday morning for a day of fun and adventure.

I stopped just before the end of Lake George to stretch my legs, thaw my hands out and remove the mask which, though keeping my face from freezing, was directing all my breath up into my glasses to fog them up. I was glad I had had the break - I hit heavy fog just north of Lake George and discovered the fun of trying to keep your visor clear of mist with one hand at 100km/hr (I'd slowed down a bit to take a bit of extra care). Thankfully my remembered directions of how to get from the Goulburn turn-off to Wakefield Park came back perfectly and, after letting one peleton of traffic past me on the single lane road, I arrived.

I immediately started asking around for Canberra Riders people, particularly Heidi as she had said she was going to be there, she had a recognisable name, and her gender reduced my search set considerably. During the day I must have asked most of the women there if they were or knew her, but all to no avail. I hope those people can forgive such an odd question or questioner :-)

Soon enough we were meeting for the rider's briefing, where we were introduced to the signals that would tell us if there was a rider off the course but upright (one single yellow flashing light), a rider down off the course (two yellow flashing lights), a rider down on the course (one red flashing light) and the end of the session (one yellow flashing light and a chequered flag at the starting line). I signed up, paid my money, and took the bike up to the marshalling area - for I was in the novices group and we were first.

By this time the fog had mostly burnt off and the sun was coming through. The first two laps were done in single file with no overtaking, following a pace bike and learning the course. Then the jockeying for position began. I had met up with another Suzuki GS-500 rider and we spent most of the lap with me following him. We talked afterward and he said he felt a little less like an outsider with someone else riding the same thing - a feeling I shared. A friend had turned up at this point who had driven around the course at other times in a Porsche, and we talked about lines and apexes and cambers and stuff like that.

The second time out we were still led but it became obvious that the one fundamental problem that race tracks face when booking different categories is they really need four 'advanced / race' divisions, one 'intermediate' and one 'novice'. Given the choice between going in novice class and missing out on the day altogether, many of the faster people end up in the same group that I and other people new to Wakefield Park were in. By the fourth session there was no doubt I was amongst the slowest on the field - I was regularly getting overtaken at virtually every corner. People with racing slicks and 900cc tuned bikes were in this class - there's no way these people can claim to be novices.

And yet it really didn't matter. There weren't enough people in each group to make it dangerous or crowded, they all realise that they have to get around you rather than you making way for them, and the best I could do was just to keep to a good line, make my intentions plain and not do anything suddenly. I kept my rear view mirrors - I doubt they would make me go very much faster if removed - and it was useful to see people coming up and plan for them. And I had a lot of fun, gradually improving my lines, feeling how much I could rely on the tyres when they were cold and warm, finding and refining that line that leads from one corner to the next to the next... I think I improved, but I had a lot of fun and that's what mattered the most to me.

I finally met up with a bunch of Canberra Riders people at the end of the day, and two of them said they wouldn't mind if I rode home with them. I wasn't really keen to ride back alone anyway, and they were going to much more scenic route through Tarrago and Bungendore. The highlight of my day was seeing the guy I'd been following tapping on the window of the Renault that had been tailgating me up to the lights and telling him off for tailgating in the rain. I'd only known these people for two hours or so and they were looking out for me - that's a community worth being a part of!

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Sun 18th Jul, 2010

Manual work

The FZS 600 now has a hole where its engine used to be, and is a good deal lighter. For those of you who find yourself contemplating doing a similar conversion, let me annotate the workshop manual procedure for removing the engine:

  1. Exhaust pipe assembly. Paul: This will require a 12mm socket for all but one bolt, which is hidden behind a metal pipe whose only bolt is somehow behind the exhaust pipe assembly. For that you need a 12mm ring spanner and a lot of patience, as you'll only be able to move the bolt by about 15 degrees before you have to take the spanner off and reposition it.
  2. Exhaust pipe gaskets (4).
  3. Oil filter. Paul: If only I'd thought to open the sump plug rather than drain everything through the oil filter. And yet the engine still has a bit of oil in it to stop it getting rusty...
  4. Shift arm. Paul: Another thing that the accident broke off.
  5. Drive sprocket cover. Paul: This sits on two dowel pins (see 7) and will seem to be welded on. Use a flat-blade screwdriver.
  6. Drive chain sprocket gasket. Paul: Where the hell was this?
  7. Dowel pins. (2). Paul: Don't remove them, you'll only lose them. Keep them in there, they don't need to be out for the engine to be removed.
  8. Lock washer. Paul: remove? how? It's under the drive sprocket bolt. Note that there's no instruction to remove the bolt, and indeed it is basically impossible to do without an air socket driver - and even then you did keep the rear brake on so you can lock the rear wheel, right?. See 9.
  9. Drive sprocket / Drive chain. Paul: Hahahahaha. Instead, loosen off the rear wheel axle bolt and wind the wheel adjustment nuts out to give you some slack in the chain. Then use a 1¼ socket to turn the drive sprocket and a large screwdriver to lever the chain off the sprocket. To do this you'll have to remove the weird rod which sticks out in front of the drive sprocket - it slides out easily, it slides in easily, it's highly polished and I have no idea what it's for.
  10. Magneto / sidestand / neutral / engine oil level switch leads.
  11. Ground lead. Paul: Don't believe your friend when he tells you he's removed this lead.
  12. Plug caps (4).
  13. Crankcase breather hose.
  14. Cover.
  15. Water pump outlet hose.
  16. Radiator outlet hose.
  17. Engine outlet hose. Paul: At this point, you'll want a number of sturdy blocks of wood underneath the engine because when you start removing the mounting bolts the engine will try to head in the direction of the centre of the planet. Also place a ramp to the right hand side of the engine, because that's the direction it's coming out.
  18. Engine mounting bolt (front left).
  19. Engine mounting bolt (front right).
  20. Engine bracket (front).
  21. Engine mounting bolt (rear upper).
  22. Engine bracket (rear right). Paul: No, really, remove this little plate here. You might think it's possible to remove the engine just by unbolting it from this plate, but it's physically impossible. And don't just unbolt one side and swivel it out of the way. Go on, remove it.
  23. Engine mounting bolt (rear lower).
  24. Engine. Paul: Hahahahaha!!
Paul: Saying "remove engine" is like saying "and just lift that bag of cement above your head with one hand". If you're in zero gravity, or have a handy engine hoist, this is less tricky. You will need to push the engine forward as far as it will go, lift it up as high as it will go, lever the back end out half way, twist it delicately around to get the oil filter mount out from the front of the engine, and then gently lower it onto the ramp. If you happen to be in normal earth gravity and don't have a handy engine hoist, this will involve a certain amount of straining, struggling, and words of power.

I can, however, proudly say that the bike has not drawn blood from me.


So stick this in your manual in the appropriate pages. It will save you a fair bit of struggling and cursing, and possible accidents where you find the engine inextricably wedged somewhere or a crucial tiny sticky-outy thing bent in the process of the engine galloping earthward at some stage. And don't bother buying a manual, either. You can find the PDF for free on the internet.

The engine bay is not as large as I'd hoped, and does have some annoying protruberances which I need to check with an engineer before I grind off. I may also be able to mount at least one layer of cells outside the bars on each side - the engine sticks out at least that far. Some more logistic

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Sat 10th Jul, 2010

Just a stage I'm going through

Sometimes it seems like a great idea to indulge yourself. You know, when you've had an awful day at work, when you've been having trouble sleeping for months, you've had trouble trying to describe to your partner exactly why your day at work was so awful, and then just when you think she's cared for you and wants you to be happy again you find out that you've done something inexplicable wrong and you're going to enjoy another sleepless, uncomfortable night without any help or consolation.

At times like this, it can be easy to indulge in amateur theatrics. Getting horribly drunk, being sarcastic, destroying something - the temptation to do something violent, unmissable and defiant rises to levels hard to resist. Metaphors for the futility of existence in an uncaring world come quickly to mind. Symbolic gestures of the struggle of one person to come to terms with a world that does not seem to care what he suffers beckon.

It is at this point that I would caution the reader. Step back from that metaphorical brink, look around, and pause. Nothing you do now is going to help - in fact, pretty much everything you do is going to make things worse. There are people that are worse off than you - even now, there are people suffering far worse, often through no fault of their own. Your situation is not that bad. You have probably faced this kind of problem in some guise or another before. You just need time to sort things out sensibly, and that time will come somehow.

No metaphors here. Just persist.

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Sat 3rd Jul, 2010

Committed to the job

There's an old joke that goes: what's the difference between 'involved' and 'committed'? In making bacon and eggs, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed. Well, having just spent $1500 on a broken motorbike, I feel committed to building an electric motorbike now. Up until now the parts I've bought - the Enertrak hub motor, the Kelly motor controller and peripherals - could all have been sold to someone else willing to build an electric motorbike. But the choice of a bike is a personal one, and I'd be lucky to get $500 for the bike now if I sold it for parts. So I've now committed money I really can't get back.

The problem with building an electric motorbike is that what you ideally need is a motorbike that is working in every respect but the engine is blown. This isn't the usual failure mode of bikes - they usually get enthusiastically smashed into or scraped over immovable bits of terrain at speed. My initial 'wanted' requests on classified ad websites and on web forums were fruitless, and from my many and various web searches I determined that no-one was advertising the type of bike that I wanted. I also didn't really want to buy a bike that was registered and working and try to resell its engine and peripherals, despite one claim that with the right bike that could make my money back. Time to look further afield.

A friend who's a bit of a bike expert and is helping me with this project recommended Motorcycle Disposals, a company in Sydney that takes bikes that have been wrecked, repossessed or confiscated and sells them for whatever they can get. Their web site is a bit 1990s but proudly declares that it is "best viewed in Mozilla Firefox v 3.6" (which is nice) and its main page, the list of bikes they're currently tendering for, is kept reasonably up to date. If you're prepared to spend a bit of money on some replacement parts, or don't mind something with a few scrapes, then there's plenty of bargains there ready for the new rider to take away.

However, the bikes on that page are only about half of their total stock - they're the ones that are rideable or popular so are a good bargain. They have at least that many bikes that have been written off and can only be used for parts, less popular bikes, and bikes with engine problems or larger defects. I spoke to Joel one day and he recommended coming and having a look through their extra stock to find an option. This meant a 300-km drive from Canberra to Sydney and back, so I planned this with the bike-expert friend and we set off.

We narrowed it down to four options. One I liked but was on the expensive side was a Honda CBR1100XX 'Blackbird' - a large, modern bike with a very strong frame and sporty looks. For my purposes I was looking at larger bikes (to carry the load of possibly 100Kg of batteries and 26Kg of motor) with good fairings to reduce wind resistance, and this fit the bill. Better yet, the exhaust had just been sold and I reckoned I could do them a deal on the radiator and oil cooler. But its entire front fairing and headlight assembly was missing and that cost a fair bit, making it a bit less appealing given my budgetary constraints.

There was a Kawasaki ER-6N that was OK, a Honda VT250 that was running but quite old and a bit small, and a Yamaha FZS 600. The latter was within my price bracket, had a motor with part of the engine and starter missing from impact, was a solid build and of modern appearance. I reckoned I could bargain them down a bit on the price, since I wouldn't need the radiator and exhaust, they could be easily unbolted, Motorcycle Disposals also has a side-line in spare parts. Rob and I repaired to a nearby Subway to deliberate.

We fed ourselves, fulminated briefly at the diabolical slowness of 2G modem speeds, and did some searching. The Blackbird looked like costing at least another $800 to get back to working order, and though I could afford it in the long run it was harder to get enthusiastic about it. The FZS 600 only needed a nosecone and windscreen, which could cost less than $400 all up. Finally Rob said "What time do they close?" I looked up the web site. 12:30. "What time is it?" 12:30. Time for a quick phone call!

Joel said that they'd stay there for me and we hurried back. I made them an offer of $1500, $250 less than their asking price, and after a bit of theatrical clutching of hearts and reeling, they agreed when I threw in the exhaust and radiator. It turned out that they didn't need the radiator since it was dinged, but they took the radiator, I signed the bill and wheeled the bike up the ramp onto the trailer. After strapping it down securely we headed off, feeling slightly odd at picking up a non-working bike.

Fuel efficiency was 12.5Km/l (8l/100Km) going up with the empty trailer, and about 11Km/l (9.1l/100Km) going back, compared to the Liberty's usual 15Km/l (6.7l/100Km) on the highway. We felt it most when we were on the hills - it was like we'd added an extra ton of car. I went at 100Km/hr on the return journey too, just to lessen the effect of towing a bike-shaped sail behind us.

The brightest moment of the trip was on the Federal Highway. A Ford Laser Sports coupe - one of those ones with the blue stripes down the centre like it's a giant equals sign - rocketed past us at easily 140Km/hr. Five minutes later we passed a police car on the verge with a speed gun, and we spent the next ten minutes trying to figure out why they hadn't taken off after the boy racer, and the general injustice of seeing so many speeding violations happening and no evidence of police action despite the numerous police cars we'd seen on the road that day. Then, near the Bungendore turn-off, we passed a highway patrol car that had pulled over the sports car.

We felt like going back and high-fiving the cops. It's a vicarious form of justice, to be sure, with more than a touch of schadenfreude thrown in, but it was totally worth it.

Finally, we got the bike home, unstrapped it and gently wheeled it off the trailer again, and parked it in the garage in front of the other two. It feels odd to have gone from owning a car each, to owning a single car, to a car and scooter, to a car and scooter and motorbike, and now we're a four vehicle family. I'll probably sell my bike when I finish the conversion and have the electric bike on the road, but until then it's going to be a bit crowded in the garage.

The Yamaha FZS 600 "Fazer" is actually a moderately rare bike, as it was only made from about 1996 to 2001. It's unfaired - which is a bit of a shame - but has a good solid frame and the motor probably weighs about 100Kgs or so, so putting in my preferred battery pack is going to leave the bike at specified weight. It has fixed front but adjustable rear suspension, which is important as we have to readjust it for the weight of the hub motor, and it's black.

I can't prevaricate any more about building the bike now...

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Tue 29th Jun, 2010

Simple successes

Friends of ours are returning to the USA from their semi-yearly trip to Canberra. We met up for a final dinner before a dance, and they mentioned that they were big fans of Tom Lehrer. As it happens, so am I - my Mum wisely bought me a record of "That Was The Week That Was" back in 1987 or so and I loved it. In 2000 she also gave me "The Remains Of Tom Lehrer", a remastered 3CD set of his entire recorded output, including several that had never been released before, wonderful stuff he did for PBS and light orchestra versions of some of his more popular ones such as "The Hunting Song" and "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park". It also comes with a booklet with a foreword written by Dr. Demento and with lots of fun stuff, including the Mad comics done of some of his songs, illustrations from the various records and other interesting tid-bits. "Remains" is a must for any true Lehrer fan.

Now, as it happens, I knew where I could lay my hands on another "Remains". You see, my father-in-law volunteers at the Life Line book fair, and he picked up another brand-new-still-in-the-wrapper "Remains" some time ago for $5. A scheme lit up in my head when I heard they wanted a copy, and afterward I asked John if he would give his copy of "Remains" to them. He did, and I did.

It's rare to find a gift that just absolutely knocks someone else out of the park. It's even rarer that that gift is something that you can lay your hands on relatively easily and cheaply. To hit that spot with these friends - to give them something that they and their kids enjoy and treasure when I won't see them for possibly years - is its own reward. I just feel really glad that all the pieces of the puzzle just came together in front of me.

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Mon 17th May, 2010

Catching the EV bug

In the past year or so there's been a fair number of people who have come along to one Canberra EV group meeting and never come again. Based on what they were interested in and what the meetings have consisted of, I suspect they saw that we were (at the time) more dealing with the theoretical and policy ideas rather than practical vehicle making - Canberra EV has a vague idea of running a group project but no actual plan, no shed to build stuff, few tools, and most of the people are either not building one or have already built their own. Seeing what they perceive to be a lack of practical action on our part (myself, possibly, included), they go away again.

(Or maybe they realise that it's a bit more difficult than just having someone invite them over to convert their old vehicle in a weekend for the price of a couple of beers and a few lead-acid batteries. But who knows?)

Recently, a young guy has started coming along who's dead keen and a tinkerer besides. He built his own electric go-kart out of an old frame, a bunch of second-hand free starter motors, a bunch of second-hand free lead-acid batteries, and an on-off switch. It fuses starter motors fairly quickly but he's worked out its something that he can do. And I, in my own way, am keen to see him not leave because we're not doing enough to help new people - and I'm also interested in building an electric go-kart, too.

He lives in Goulburn and commutes to Canberra each day, and he wants an electric vehicle to do that. I've suggested to him that he gets an old ute - something with a bit of carrying capacity for the batteries. To give him some leeway in his journeys - no good having to do a run to the post-office at lunch and finding out you can't make it home - I've suggested to calculate for 300Km and a top speed of 140Km/hr. But how do we actually convert those abstract numbers into an idea of what to actually buy?

Well, let's do a bit of research. From the Green Vehicle Guide we know that the Tesla Roadster uses 231Wh/km (watt-hours per kilometre) and the Mitsubishi i-Miev uses 132Wh/km. So let's settle on 200Wh/km as a rough guess of how much our car conversion is going to use. We need to go 300km, so that's 60Kw that we need to store in the batteries. Picking 192 amps as a reasonable maximum for our motor - the Kostov 11" motors are rated at 192A - we can then derive from W=VA that we need about 312.5Ah in the batteries.

Picking two 160AH Thunder-Sky LFP160AHA cells to supply 320AH, we need 120 cells to provide 192V at the battery pack's standard resting voltage. That would deliver 960A continuous and up to 6400A peak, making the pack able to deliver 184 electrical kilowatts continuously. The whole pack would weigh about 660kg and cost about $24,960 from EV Works - or possibly less if you bought direct from the manufacturer.

Then you've got to buy the motor, controller, wiring, and various electrical accessories to run the traction side as well as the accessory side. And the car, of course. So you're easily looking at the thick end of $30,000 to do the whole conversion. It's not a way to save money, by any stretch of the imagination. But I think I've got the EV bug pretty badly, because calculating this kind of stuff is interesting to me.

Aside: Steve Walsh has taken the time to correct my statement that going at 120km/hr would use 'a lot of' petrol. In analysing this graph from this page on fuel economy in automobiles, we determined that for most of the cars on that graph there was about a 10% drop in fuel economy at 120km/hr compared with going 110km/hr. Someone going 130km/hr would be losing about 22% or so. The average loss between 55mph (~88km/hr) and 75mph (~120km/hr) is around 25% (taken from the study that the graph gets its data from).

Our car does about 15km/l in a 300km journey from Canberra to Sydney - with fuel at about $1.40/l, it costs about $28.00 for that journey. An extra 10% on that is about $2.80 - 25% would be about $7 extra. So not, perhaps, the 'lot more' that I'd speculated, but still needless. Instead of 2h43m to do 300km, it's about 2h30m - so they've saved 13 minutes for about $2.80. If that gives them a smug feeling of pleasure at being faster than those other mundane people that just do the speed limit, then I suppose it's cheap entertainment - unless they pick up a speeding ticket, where it gets a lot more expensive.

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Mon 25th Jan, 2010

Artificial Manna

I read Marshall Brain's short story Manna recently, and it was a very clever articulation of the benefits and disadvantages of automation and increasingly zero-cost matter, energy and data. At the risk of over-analysing a fairly unsophisticated example, however, my opinion is that his Manna-dystopia is less likely than the technology or management profiling might suggest.

I always end up thinking about the logic and construction of plot in stories. So the section of the story where he talks about Manna, a computerised system of managing workers (first human, then robotic) by breaking tasks down and monitoring performance of every task, doesn't ring quite true. I can understand that it's possible to make a system that does this basically, but I think it's unlikely that it would ever get to the same level of control if implemented in real life.

Firstly, the inputs to these systems are never perfect. The idea of people pressing buttons whenever the bins are full implies that people care but they just don't like complaining to the staff. I think it more likely that patrons simply won't bother to press the button for something even as trivial as a waste-bin being full or as important as a flooding toilet. You've also got the social aspect - if patrons know that an automated system is going to pay attention to a call button, they're going to play with that. They may toggle it all the time; they may try to vandalise it or break it; they may press it merely to try and get attention from the staff for something else.

Secondly, the Manna system implies that everything in the restaurant can be broken down. What if a patron has an accident? What if a patron starts screaming abuse at a staff member? The more you build these edge cases into the system, the more likely people are going to try to find ways around it. The system detects raised voices? You bring in some screaming kids. The system knows about how to deal with someone who's bleeding? Try fainting. It's going to be a constant battle for the people maintaining the Manna system to encode the responses that are appropriate to the situation. Taking away people's natural ability to adapt and think on their feet and replace that with a business system will never succeed in the long run.

And thirdly, toward the middle of the book the Manna system runs everything. It pays minimal wages, calls you up whenever it needs a person regardless of time or availability, and because there's so many people unemployed it can dictate the terms on which you work or replace you. But what of unions? What of civil protest? What of consumer advocacy? What of human rights? This whole section seems to be based on the - to me rather alien - USAdian labour system, and a pretty biased view of it too. I think it ignores the whole history of the rights of workers from the industrial revolution. Admittedly, it's doing this to present why this situation is so bad anyway, but this process doesn't make the story more believable.

I've spoken to one person who believed sincerely that labour unions are a kind of evil manifestation of shiftless, devious workers attempting to get everything they can from their nice, kind-hearted employer. The fact that this same person enjoyed the luxuries of an eight-hour day, compulsory superannuation, considerable health benefits and leave allocations worked for and bargained for by those very unions he so denigrated was lost on him. I myself don't believe that all employers are heartless, money-grubbing Scrooges determined to crush their workers under an iron boot, and I believe that many modern companies point to exactly the kind of worker freedom and independence that would make the Manna system both unnecessary and overly restrictive to their growth.

The Australia Project part of the story is a vision of how life could be if hardware and materials emulated the opening and freedom of software, but the Manna part isn't a convincing proof of the death of capitalism. I believe that will come as a totally unintended side-effect of the economics of abundance...

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Tue 19th Jan, 2010

Martial Arts for the knowless man

With a view to improving my fitness with something also useful, on a whim I went to a Martial Arts "Birds of a Feather" session at LCA yesterday evening. Cool things were seeing the different types of martial arts, from Aikido to Shaolin Gung Fu (Pia Waugh on animal styles, unlit poi balls and quarterstaff) and having a friend, dealing with a knee injury and Leukaemia, show that he can still easily demonstrate some pretty effective combat styles. Slightly painful but still fun things were having the various holds tried on me, including a surprising number of ways you can make someone's wrist really hurt (fortunately, for a short period of time). Slightly less fun but fortunately not painful was the Capoeira guys, who had a bit too much ego for their own good I felt. Capoeira is a rather curious combination of martial arts, dance moves and gymnastics, but I don't think I'll be trying it any time soon.

We started with a bit of a warm-up, and then the experienced people in the group demonstrated some of the different styles. I don't remember much of the exact details, so the highlights were:

Pia was talking afterward about setting up her own dojo for her style of Gung Fu and I immediately put myself forward. It seems to be pretty full on, but not incredibly aggressive or macho and seems to concentrate on discipline and harmony. It's going to be a question of what I give up to make time for it, and possibly the same question for Pia. But it was a pretty cool time, even for an absolute beginner. I thought of demonstrating some of the SCA fighter technique but having swords with basket hilts that are tethered to your hands is kind of vital to reducing the number of injuries...

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Tue 22nd Dec, 2009

Power from the people

I read the article at with a kind of despairing interest - because what it says is absolutely right, and it makes me feel very sad about the democracy we supposedly live in.

A precis of the story is: the "Mandatory Filtering" the Federal Government is proposing to introduce will not be stopped by writing letters to your Member of Parliament or to Senator Conroy, signing a petition or blacking out your home page or avatar. It will be pushed through, because the ALP is (supposedly) indebted to the Australian Christian Lobby (the ACL) and because they wield enormous lobbying power at the highest levels of government. We need to change our tactics of getting through to our politicians, Josh says, or fail to stop the filtering being enacted.

The problem here, I would argue, is not that those opposed to the mandatory filter (like myself) are mumbling to themselves. We are doing all the traditional things that people do when trying to get their members of parliament to listen to their opinions: writing letters to politicians, talking to our friends and organising media coverage. These have worked for most issues in the past. Trying to organise avatar blackouts and internet recognition is a way of socially protesting in modern times, and it isn't really intended to reach the politicians.

The problem I see here is that politicians such as Senator Conroy and the various other ministers I've written to and spoken to are all basically plugging their ears to the voice of their electorate. We get form letters that reiterate their invalid, nonsensical and specious arguments, don't answer a single point we raise, and keep on going in their own direction without listening in the slightest to anything we say. They're listening, instead, to the ACL, who get to whisper in their ears directly and imply that they have all these unseen, unnamed christian voters out there who agree with them. As Josh says, the ALP owes the ACL a few favours - favours that the ACL are more than happy to imply are worth much more than they really are.

And the opponents to mandatory filtering are not without friends in Parliament House. Politicians from Senator Kate Lundy and NSW Minister Penny Sharpe down are trying to also counter the spin and the denialism of Senator Conroy and the ACL. But what are the ordinary people supposed to do? Have a cake sale and raise a couple of hundred thousand dollars to buy a couple of high-profile lobbyists? Start setting fire to cars and blowing up ISPs? Donate some money to the ALP with a little note in the bag? Do as Bernard Keane suggests and create a letter so complicated and confused that bureaucrats actually time to answer it (as if...)?

The problem here is that the public are not being listened to. A majority of Australians don't want mandatory filtering. It's being sold as stopping child pornography but the Minister has said that it could be extended to blocking information on euthanasia, abortion and safe sex - things which the Christian right gets all hot under the collar about but where the information alone is not illegal in Australia. It doesn't stop the real criminals, or even a determined teenager, and the whole illusion of children being randomly exposed to 'unwanted' content is a nebulous decoy.

What are we supposed to do if the politicians who represent us don't listen?

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Thu 30th Jul, 2009

The cost of beliefs

I was recently walking around the Australian National Botanic Gardens with friends when we discovered a sign that had been vandalised. References to geological times had been scratched out in a crude attempt to remove any reference to how long ago various features of the Australian continent were formed. My partner, who frequents the gardens, noted that the Creationists had vandalised the sign. It was certainly hard to refute - nothing else on the sign was touched, and the erasure was limited to those specific words, so there's little evidence for any other objective than obscuring the date ranges of geological periods.

I have a large amount of contempt for the vandal(s) that did this, and those that think that defacing public property is reasonable as long as it supports their own world-view. It costs the gardens about $1000 to replace that sign - that vandal has just asserted that their point of view is worth $1000 or more. And in the grand scheme of things it's hardly proving their point - they leave no other information or evidence to prove any contrary assertion. So really this is just a childish attempt to stop someone else from being heard by shouting louder.

Yet this is not done by a child - the scratching is fairly precise and it's too high for a child to reach. So some adult has thought that it's perfectly valid to deface public property to keep their own little world-view intact. The same adult would presumably be outraged if their church was defaced; so why is their defacement OK?

The thing that really annoys me is that it's not even a scientific debate. There's only one type of person who does this - people who believe that a literal interpretation of their own holy book is absolutely right and no amount of scientific evidence can show differently. They're so prepared to ignore scientific evidence they'll try to remove any sign of it. These people fiddle with scientific procedures to prove their own conclusions - they put their hand on the scale when weighing the evidence. Science and logic has always tried to reason out its arguments based on common ground that we all agree on. This person hasn't even tried to be reasonable.

Why do we keep being reasonable with them?

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Fri 3rd Jul, 2009

Paul's top ten songs

Pia's post of her top ten songs has made me think about what ten songs I consider most memorable - things that have really changed my life.

  1. Quench - Dreams. The first one is easy - this was the song that turned my ears to trance and techno. I'd been sort of imitating this style of in my head, and irritating my brother by doing it 'beatbox' style, for years; it was like there was techno in there but it hadn't discovered what it was yet. Then I heard Dreams on Triple J and it nailed me to the spot. I listened to this album again recently and it's still a brilliant and powerful fusion of good beats and killer analog synth lines. The "Dreams 2001" remake and the Hybrid remix of Miss Shiva's rework of this classic are great, but the original is still the best.
  2. beXta - Rhythm Gun. It was the afternoon before going to my first rave; I was listening to 4ZZZ's "Crucial Cuts" programme and they had an interview with beXta, who was playing that night. This mind-pounding, rip-snorting raver started up and in that moment I knew I was going to have an awesome time at the rave. One little secret I feel I can let go of now: the second time I was at a rave and beXta was playing, there was a sort of mini-stage beside her that a couple of people were dancing on; they didn't seem to be choreographed or dressed up or anything. So when "Rhythm Gun" came on I got up on that stage and danced, raising my hands in the air with the chords. I got off the stage after, feeling embarrassed, but if I hadn't got up there I'd have spent a lifetime regretting it.
  3. Jean Michel Jarre - Oxygene II. It took me a while to track this down in high school, but then I played it until the tape wore out. I listened to this album recently too and it still amazes me - it's so sonically dense yet it has this great sense of space, and the melody line is just so instantly recognisable. How did he make those -- those -- those amazing rippling, wooshing, stereo-sweeping sounds?
  4. Mike Oldfield - Crises. A classic album in its own right, with "Moonlight Shadow" being Oldfield's one mainstream hit, but the twenty minute title piece has some brilliant lead lines and has this dark, story- laden feel. The first and second themes and their reprises - in particular the sequencer + delay line section toward the end which builds and builds and builds... musical genius. It was this album that got me started with Mike Oldfield - the second was Incantations, which is another wonderful album. Crises, however, was the one that my friends recognised and liked too.
  5. Yello - The Rhythm Divine. Off the brilliant and inspiring album "One Second", each piece holds up in its own right, from the wonderfully atmospheric "La Habanera" and "Goldrush" to the instrumental story-telling of "Hawaiian Chance" and "Si Senor The Hairy Grill" (wtf?). But "The Rhythm Divine", with Shirley Bassey's liquid vocals, grabs you right in the heart and tugs. The last chorus, when she just continues effortlessly up the scale, gets me every time. This is one of those tracks for me that defines musicality and expression (over, some might argue, my other preferences).
  6. Tangerine Dream - Logos. I remember going into the record store in Indooroopilly Shopping Town with some spare money and looking for this band called "Tangerine Dream" that a friend had mentioned I might like, if I liked Jarre and Vangelis and so forth. This was a total risk - I had no idea what I should buy - so I figured a concert album would probably be a good bet. Unlike some of my other purchases before and since, this was an absolute winner - it's classic analogue-era TD: melodic brilliance, moving chord progressions, and a pulsing beat that refuses to be stopped. Like "Oxygene II", compilation albums often cut this short but it must be listened to in full length just for the atmosphere. I also found a good friend of mine had been in the audience at that show - I could only say "Wow!"
  7. Art Of Trance - Madagascar. Another chance encounter - in the departure hall in Heathrow Terminal 3, spending the long hours between 5PM (when I finished work at BAA) and 11PM (when my flight departed) I was browsing around looking for something to listen to. I espied the "Platipus Beginners' Guide" and recognised the label as one that published several tracks I had enjoyed in the past. I stuck this in my CD player and never regretted it the whole flight home, particular "Bluebottle" by POB and "Rock Rose" by Star, and in fact the whole second disc is an ambient classic. But it was a particularly significant flight for me for other, personal reasons, and I remember listening to "Madagascar" in the last hour of the flight, as I espied Toowoomba and Redland Bay and the familiar landscape of my home town pivoted under me. The driving pulses of the main theme felt like they were pushing the plane on, and I really wanted to be home...
  8. Peter Gabriel - Sledgehammer. What's not to like? A driving song, easy to sing along to, and a video clip by Aardman Animations. This track has cheered me up on some dark days, but it's hard to explain exactly how I relate to the lyrics.
  9. Kate Bush vs Infusion - Running Up That Road. I rarely frequent record stores, but I occasionally go in just to look around and present the appearance of a DJ. So imagine my surprise when I found a limited-release single by Infusion, remixing one of Kate Bush's more memorable pieces, in the 'miscellaneous' bin. The B side is simply blank and there's no record label details or anything - that's how rare this record is. It's this kind of gem turning up in the mullock heap that makes all those other crappy purchases all worth while.
  10. Vangelis and Jon Anderson - I'll Find My Way Home. Another of those pieces that means so much more to me than it really should. Jon Anderson's beautiful, clear voice combined with Vangelis' musical genius and mastery of sound. I tried to explain to my mum once what I thought the story behind the lyrics was and I got too choked up with emotion to speak. I don't really think I can explain it now, either - especially because the most moving bit for me is the bridge, where there are no words at all.
There are so many more that I could list just on being awesome, or love listening to. Heaps of Trance, Techno, Drum & Bass and Psy Trance that is great stuff and cheers me up; wonderful orchestral works and modern classics; Goon Shows and Irish music and 80's Pop and Rock and the Doctor Who theme and all sorts of other stuff. But those tracks above have a special place in my history and in my heart.

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Sat 17th Jan, 2009

Wooden laptop case cover for 'real'

People following my ongoing saga of building a wooden laptop case cover can finally give a half-hearted cheer, as today I have actually made one. It's real, it clips onto my laptop, it looks just the right colour, it has the right texture and feels great, and I finally feel like I've actually completed what I set out to achieve. And it's 100% wood.

Um, yeah, that should be '100% wood glued to a plastic case'.

OK, So it's cheating. But I worked out almost as soon as I'd made the metal pieces that the front edge - which had to bend round in a gradual 90° curve and then produce two very small but significant 'tangs' that hook into grooves in the top of the screen - wasn't actually going to work because making those tangs was beyond my skill. They certainly weren't going to hold if made out of wood. And while the idea of having a wooden cover that was more completely wood (it still had to have those metal bits in it) was attractive, the idea of it actually attaching to my laptop was even more so.

So I bought a new cover (couldn't find one second hand), sanded it lightly, and then prepared my implements. I first needed to bend the front edge of the veneer into roughly the right shape, as it was quite dry and brittle and would snap if I tried to press it onto the plastic it in that state. My plan was to get a bit of water, wet down that edge, and then press it in the mould I'd already made; that would bend it into the right shape with no breaking whatsoever. So I went to get a bucket of water and a sponge, foolishly still carrying the veneer in my hand.

It was whilst walking through the door between the main work area in the woodcraft guild's shed and the tea room (where the buckets and water are kept) that the gods of woodworking demanded appeasement. A light gust of wind, channeled in the doorway, neatly snapped the veneer in three pieces - one still in my hand, the other two fell to the floor. I stood quite still and very slowly let my frustration subside silently - there were children present - before getting the bucket and learning how to mend the veneer.

Step one: apply masking tape to the veneer (this would have gone on the inside face if it had any recognisably different faces). Step two: apply veneer tape to the other side - this is basically like a long strip of stamp material: wet one side and it becomes a glue, smooth it in place, and when it dries it holds the piece together. Step three: carefully remove the masking tape.

Now to bend the edge. Which requires... water. Which will unstick the veneer tape if used too much. Right. After adding just the right amount of water, I gradually eased the top form of the mould over it, and pressed it into the bottom form. Hooray for small miracles, the tape held and the veneer as a whole bent neatly and without snapping (again).

Next step: apply polyurethane glue. This is like your regular Aquadhere® but stronger, space-filling (it foams up), resistant to solvents, and (spotting a theme here) sets faster in the presence of water. In fact, you have to lightly dampen the wooden surface in order to get it to set well. (And if you get any on you, you have to wait for two weeks with the affected appendages blackened from stuck-on dust while it naturally abrades away.) Fun stuff to work with.

Working quickly, I removed the top form, damped the veneer down, applied glue and spread it around before the veneer could bend too much (due to the fibers swelling up on the wet side), and threw on clamps to every available part of the mould. I could see the glue foaming up in the drops of water left on the Contact® of the mould. Then, and only then, could I relax.

Then it was simply leave it for four or five days and then gently try to prise the glue away from the mould - it hadn't stuck to the Contact®, but had happily stuck to every non-covered surface it could find, and it had found plenty. I also had to cut away the excess wood from around the edges of the cover, as I had left these intact - this was another area where my lack of expertise led to some rough edges. The glue had also foamed through the gaps, in the wood and set itself in a nice, undissolvable coating on the front of the piece. The wood had also shrunk as the glue dried, pulling the cover into a neat arc. This was beginning to resemble my other cover, and a disappointingly familiar wave of hopelessness washed over me.

Still, not far to go, and this was only Tuesday before LCA. With a scalpel I carefully scraped the layer of glue off - in some areas it had simply foamed between the outer scratch-proof layer and the wood, so I could get a blade in there and cut it away. Other areas required very precise cutting to get as much of the impervious layer away while still leaving wood. I also discovered that the veneer glue, being impregnated with water, had combined with the polyurethane glue to set into a scalpel-resistant polymer. There was also excess glue sticking on the other side which had to be cut and scraped away. Then I flexed my sanding muscles sanding the remaining surface clean and removing all visible areas of glue.

Finally, the finishing (heh) touch: some Shellawax, a special blend of waxes, oils, solvents and magic. As I had suspected, as the Shellawax soaked in, the wood fibers expanded again and I was left with a near-straight cover again. Two coats of this, some vigorous scrubbing with 0000 steel wool to heat it up and remove the streaks, and there it was, finally finished.

Yes, there are still flaws - the cracks in the piece where I glued the fragments together, the chunks out of the edges, and a number of other little imperfections which it is my privelege as the maker to not have to tell you about. But it's beautifully smooth yet textured to the touch, water resistant, and looks damn good. I'm not sure whether I'll give a lightning talk on it at LCA because I don't know if I can fit that saga into three minutes, but I'm going to take it and not the previous cover to LCA and just use it.

Torvalds' Trousers, but I hope it lasts :-)

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Tue 2nd Dec, 2008

Going to town on a train

I've always loved rail travel. So here I am on the 5:05 from Canberra, heading to Sydney. A plane and even a bus would be quicker, and there would be some possibility that I could have got a lift with someone going this way as well. So why put up with being constantly rocked around, with other people who swear and play the guitar?

For the fun of it, of course! I've never seen some of the countryside I'm travelling through, out the back of Bungendore and Tarago. I've driven under the railway bridges and followed the line from north of Goulburn to Bundanoon, but never been on the track watching the cars. And it really is quite beautiful in an Australian way - rocky creek canyonettes (canyoninas?) and river banks green with recent rains, the rolling hills that yellowy-browny-green that only Australia seems to call fertile, and sweeps of countryside seen from other vantage points. I'm just going past a whole set of brick - brick! - pylons crossing a river that have no bridge or track on them. What is their story? What is that mysterious high-security spot just south of Bungendore that you see easily from the train but never see from the road? What is that huge shipping container area - devoid of cargo - just near Tarago? So many new things to find out! So much countryside I now appreciate for its own character, its twists and turns and long straights, that car drivers never touch.

It's wonderful. And it doesn't cost that much either!

Footnote: added links to Google maps for the two places I could find - the mysterious high-security area isn't showing up where I expect it to be - it's like the track, road, fences with cleared area around them, dams and buildings all just ... don't exist ...

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Sat 22nd Nov, 2008

Talking for real

Right. With two weeks to go until OSDC, I feel like I'm actually nearly ready to give my talk. The slides are all written up, and my first practice talk-through took 25 minutes - should fit into the 30 minute slot nicely. I aim to do about a dozen more talk-throughs so I can get my notes up to speed, and so that I don't read from the slides, speak too fast or ramble too much. I've spoken at CLUG before but this is an order of magnitude larger audience and three orders of magnitude more important. I really want this to go well, and I'm determined to do it well.

Damian Conway is my inspiration here - I will not fail him!

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Wed 8th Oct, 2008

Look Out Eddie Van Halen

Back in the days when Icehouse was in, Crowded House was big and I was getting deeply hooked into Yello, I had a Roland Juno 6. It was my Dad's, but I played it a fair bit. One of the leaders in the analog synthesis days between full-on knob-for-everything setups like the Moog and the start of MIDI and digital control, it is still legendary for producing huge bass lines and stunning synth leads. Then our house burned down and took the Juno with it, and though I often thought of getting another synthesizer I never did.

Until now. It started with playing the piano at friends and relatives houses; then Kate suggested I could accompany her violin playing. As I got more into LMMS I started realising that having a keyboard to record lines and work out notes and melodies on was going to be very useful. So I did some research and found the Roland Juno G, which sat between the full-on knob tweaking of Nords and Moogs (all digital, now, of course, but still faithfully emulating the analogue sound synthesis process), the 'play the demo song' integrated-speaker cheap synthesizer market, and the 'it has 4096 patches, all pianos' professional keyboard. This may sound like a no man's land, but the market segment is for people who want a range of instruments, the ability to fiddle with how they sound, and don't need heavy 'piano-action' keys. Unfortunately, they don't make the Juno G anymore.

Fortunately, it's successor is the Juno Stage, which is basically version 2 - all the features of the G but without the confusion between it and the Juno D. You get knobs to control attack and release, low and high frequency rolloff, and cutoff and resonance of the filter - which you can twiddle on the fly. It comes with 1024 different patches, a variety of modes including split keyboard (SuperSaw on the left and piano on the right is a favourite) and lots of nice features that I haven't truly discovered yet. So I bought it, brought it home, and started practicing again.

Gradually my fingers are warming up again, playing scales and old tunes I used to know. But what has amazed me is the amount of pure inspiration I'm getting from the sounds. A new patch will make me start writing new melodies out of thin air, and when I find that some presets consist of an arpeggio and drum rhythm on the left hand, new mystical tunes will flow out of my right hand and almost amaze me in the process. That and the joy of working out the chord progressions (the title of this post is a nod to the classic synth line of 'Jump' by Van Halen - I hit the first two chords (C, F in my playing) and then had to figure out the next (B) later by experimentation - I don't know what the actual song used but it's easiest to play on G, C, and F) for songs I remember. Playing the Doctor Who theme or the theme to "Axel F" or "Fletch" (yay Harold Faltermeyer) is always a blast, and it all came right back to me.

So I'm now doing regular practice of my own devising, before I seek out someone to teach me how to play more. I'll report how I go plugging it into the computer (yay USB MIDI interface) in another post.

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Fri 25th Jul, 2008

No good title

History has been revised. Thank you.

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Tue 20th May, 2008

The conspiracy to keep children quiet

Thanks to Steven Hanley, I read Paul Graham's essay "Lies We Tell Kids". His basic point is that adults often don't tell children the strict truth - either by omission or by fabrication - because some questions are hard ("Is there a God?") or destroy the innocence of childhood ("What is a prostitute?"). To my mind his essay parallels Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen and Terry Pratchett's observations in the "The Science Of Discworld" series that we simplify complex stories by abstracting or leaving out details - "telling lies" by omission.

I'm lucky enough to have four nieces; since Kate and I have decided not to have children we have focussed our "raising the next generation" on these four (although I tend to be catholic, if not necessarily orthodox, in playing with any children). They are all reasonably well-adjusted, normal girls in my opinion and I think that, to varying degrees, their parents have tried to be fairly honest with them. On the Tuesday before the Armstrong family went away for a six week trip around the world, they had their family dog put down because of its extreme ill health and the likelihood that it would die while they were away. This was done by a vet in their back yard with the family and their cousins watching and supporting them through that terrible time, so Paul Graham's section on how we lie to children about death particularly resonated with me. These girls haven't suddenly become morbid, or afraid of death, or casual about it, because of that experience - they're still quite normal even after we've exposed them to something that other parents would go to great efforts to hide.

The girls know me as somewhat eccentric, partly because I play running and card games with them, partly for my collection of evil laughs, and partly because I'll bore their ears off with science and technology if they let me. I send them coded messages and make special hiding places around the house for when we play hide-and-seek. I'll tell them when I don't know something, or when I'm glossing over details in an explanation in order to make it twenty words rather than a hundred. I do think that a fair bit of my behaviour is related to keeping them behaving as children - or rather as young adults - rather than making them conform to one or the other but not both at the same time. To me, spending ten minutes talking to one of the girls when she's in trouble with her parents and explaining that I understand why she did the things she did - even though they were wrong - is far more valuable to her than being left with a sense of injustice that "you just can't win against your parents" and "no-one understands my side of the story".

Paul Graham talks at the end of his article about a sort of 'truth debt' built up by all the elisions, fabrications and contradictions the adults have told around children as they reach adulthood. "There's never a point where the adults sit you down and explain all the lies they told you," he observes. My way of dealing with this is to start early, be honest about the things you can be, and tell them when you're not being honest about the things you can't be. I hate telling lies, especially when I know that sooner or later I'm going to have to tell the truth later and then explain why I told the lie. Sure, I don't intend to freak kids out by telling them things that shatter their illusions of how the world works too quickly, but neither do I intend to shore up that illusion with even more outlandish fabrications.

I do hope that this little essay doesn't warn too many parents off from allowing me to talk to their children :-)

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Wed 19th Mar, 2008

Stupid Quote of the Day

Andrew Donnellan quotes Albert Camus rehashing Pascal's Wager as if it's some kind of useful way to affirm what one believes. The certainty that the god that they believe in is the god that will be actually judging them is ... amusing.

I would counter with the Atheist's Wager: "You should live your life and try to make the world a better place for your being in it, whether or not you believe in God. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will be remembered fondly by those you left behind. If there is a benevolent God, he may judge you on your merits coupled with your commitments, and not just on whether or not you believed in him." Perhaps a reading of the relevant chapters of Richard Dawkins' book "The God Delusion" might also useful debunking of this warped logic.

And I would also add that any God that requires my belief as a "jealous God" is a pretty poor god by even human standards. If a human required constant devotion and commitment in spite of complete and utter disdain and ignorance of the devotees, we'd call them wishy-washy or vain at best and spiteful or megalomaniac at worst. Why do so many religions then excuse their god of these emotions, coming up with ever more convoluted ineffabilities in order to justify a tyrant? I wish I could find what I thought was a Robert A. Heinlein quote on this, but it wasn't in this otherwise excellent collection.

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Tue 29th Jan, 2008

Dancing With A Will

Staring at my beer at 8PM on Monday night, it seemed like a crazy idea. Get eight people (preferably four men and four women) to do some Irish Set Dancing (a traditional social dance form with little connection to Dance Dance Revolution or other computer games) in a pub I barely knew on the first night of Linux Conference Australia? No-one from the group who'd signed up was there, the pub was full of Uni students drinking and socialising in their own groups, and I was this complete unknown who'd lugged a small but heavy guitar amp (generously lent by Andrew Naughton) down there. At least the pub owner had been keen, but it looked like I'd bitten off more than I could chew.

When most of the people in the group that had signed up arrived, it looked even worse; they were keen, but I knew that trying to convince two older guys to dance with eachother (meaning no offence to them) was going to be a hard sell, no matter how keen they were about the dancing idea. Reluctantly but with the boldness of the lunatic I plugged the mike and music player in, stood up and started giving some instructions. My quick 'one two' test of the mike received a few friendly but off-putting heckles from the guys at one table. But Rob and Jen were willing and learning, and with nothing to lose I called out "any of you people willing to get up and learn some dancing?"

John, the owner of Naughton's Hotel, gets the credit for what happened next. He knew the students - they'd been coming down to the pub for a while, it seems - and called out to them, "come on, you lot, get up an dance!" Soon one couple got up, then another, and then a fourth, and in astonishment I was teaching a complete set the basic steps and the first bits of the South Galway Reel Set. I started them on a nice slow hornpipe and they got into it, and I swear I have never seen a group of people who've never seen set dancing or even done much traditional social dancing before do it so well! All eight of them were really great, getting around a house in just the right time and still laughing and carrying on.

They responded enthusiastically to suggestions that we do it again at the regular speed, and I taught the first two figures easily. They had a break and I was afraid of losing them again, but they all came back eventually and we did the last three figures. There were a few flailing feet and the 'stomp the ground' action associated with mocking hillbillies, but they were still all having a great time and the rest of their peers were applauding and cheering on. And they were all dancing really well (given the above caveats) - keeping in time and not going too fast or slow. They grasped the geometry of the set quickly and were still laughing away and having a great time. The set finished with a massive cheer and everyone (including me) sat down tired but happy.

And you could have knocked me over with a feather when one of the other guys that had been watching on came over and said "'scuse me, sir, but would you have the music for the Heel And Toe Polka?" Well, anyone that keen cannot be denied, and for the first time in my entire existence I can honestly say that I was sorry I didn't have the Heel And Toe Polka on my music player. I rustled up something that was a reasonable approximation of it and grabbed a partner and soon five couples were polka-ing up and down in the available space. It was, in a word, awesome.

I'd love to do it again on Friday Night. All I have to do is get some of the women around at LCA - especially the organisers - to find some partners and I'm pretty sure we can get another set done. I'll check with the organisers though to make sure that this is both a sanctioned activity and isn't going to get too much in the way. But after that experience on Monday night I am more convinced than ever that Irish Set Dancing needs to move beyond the older people that currently do it and be shared with the young and enthusiastic. How can anyone not enjoy teaching such a excited, able group of people?

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Sun 27th Jan, 2008

What A Week

I'm now sitting in the common room at St. Mary's college, having registered at LCA and bumbled my way around getting a room and accidentally leaving my schwag bag at the pub. Since we're still waiting to have the wireless networking connected, I now actually have time to reflect on the last week.

I've been staying with friends of mine in Brunswick, and it's been really great to spend some time with them after a long time of talking via email. Playing a game of Go with Mark was a long-held desire and, though I still got badly beaten, I managed to take a couple of stones off him and gain territory where early on he had a definite lead. So while I'm certainly no master I think I'm ready for the Go BOF at LCA.

I did my Red Hat Certified Engineer training during the week, finishing with the exam on the Friday. Unfortunately, I found out on Saturday that I had failed that exam - still achieving my Red Hat Certified Technician qualification but it seems like last place now. It has only increased my appreciation of just how capable and expert the people that have those four letters after their name. Now I have to figure out what I did wrong, a task made more difficult by the fact that they aren't going to actually tell me.

I sort of finished my wooden laptop case cover and am aiming to give a lightning talk about it at the end of the conference. Given that it only barely fits on the back of the case it's hardly a good example of what I'm aiming for, but with a coat of polyurethane sealer on it it does look nice, if I do say so myself. Hopefully it will amuse people somewhat to have a project where they can actually hand around a sample.

Now here at the Fedora Miniconf waiting for Steve to get the wireless network going.

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Mon 21st Jan, 2008

What The World Needs

When explaining to a friend that you are technically breaking the law if you sing "Happy Birthday" in a public place without an appropriate license, I realised that what we need is a new song to sing when celebrating a person's birthday that has a Creative Commons license. It should also be short, relatively repetitive, include a space for singing the birthday person's name that can be extended or contracted easily, and easy to sing.

In fact, "Happy Birthday" is remarkably badly suited to singing by large groups of inexperienced singers and amateur musicians:

It does have simplicity, repetition and the undeniable fact that it's almost ubiquitous going for it, though.

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Fri 18th Jan, 2008

Broken by design?

One of my less desirable habits is to leave things to the last minute. The more critical the result, or the more complex the procedure, the more I seem to prevaricate. The psychological reasoning seems to be that if I fail afterward I can always say, "well, I didn't really put any effort into it," as an explanation of why it failed. This leads to a reputation of failure and minimal effort I am keen to avoid.

This is why, with two weeks to get ready after I came back from visiting my family in Brisbane for a two-week sojourn in Melbourne doing a Red Hat training course and attending LCA, that I left my packing until 10PM the night before I was due to leave first thing in the morning. Thus I left my USB sound output, vital to the mixing I want to do at LCA, behind in my frenetic and near-random scooting around the house collecting ephemera.

This is also why, during the same period, with the promise I made to have a finished, good-looking version of my wooden laptop case cover for LCA 2008, I left the actual glueing up until two days before I was due to leave.

I had learnt a few things from the previous test run:

The initial results were good - the bits were all in the right place, the outer veneer bent perfectly without cracking along the vital top edge, and there was easily enough of the Tasmanian Oak backing to do the third 'live' run.

Then the problems started. The first problem was that it was slightly damp, it was the day before I left, and I wanted it to dry out. I left it sitting in the shade outside against a post. When I returned it had bent thirty degrees on that corner. I wet the outer surfaces again and pressed it in a rigged-up frame made of oven grilles and a heavy pot, since I still wanted it to dry out. Even now it retains a set of unusual and possibly uncorrectable bends which make it non-planar when not attached to the laptop.

The second problem is that the front metal piece is slightly further down than it should be - it overlaps the middle ply rather than being beside it. This means that the connection to the laptop top is going to be a bit more of a strain than it should be and is a side-effect of glueing up the whole thing in one go (because the glue isn't tacky when I'm putting it together and therefore the parts in the middle have less friction applied than the parts on the edge). I hope that this will turn out to be a blessing in disguise, but there's no obvious benefit to being one millimeter too short over one millimeter too long so it remains to be seen whether this will actually make the whole thing unusable.

So in my non-copious spare time between now and this Sunday I shall attempt to get some fine sandpaper and some good clear wood sealer and paint it up. If I can find some clever instructions for flattening laminated wood that don't require a week to implement then so much the better. And next time I may consider glueing up the back and middle before adding the front, and using a glue which actually binds to metal. Which may require Kate to be taking photos if the glue can't also be cleaned up with a wet rag (since I spread the glue with my fingers).

But I really wish I had given myself more time.

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Wed 16th Jan, 2008

Using people the right way

In preparation for LCA 2008 and the possibility for mixing at the party on Friday night, I looked at my Creative Commons music collection. I'd already bought pretty much all of the music on Magnatunes, and my previous encounter with Jamendo left me thinking it would take ages to trawl through to find the good stuff amongst the dross. But the paucity of tracks I had made making a coherent, melodic and thematically consistent mix difficult. I had to stick my head back under the waterfall again.

Fortunately, by chance this time when I went to Jamendo I noticed the "Browse by Popularity" feature, and suddenly it clicked. Of course! Jamendo is a "web 2.0" site, so it encourages listeners to rate the music and compiles those statistics. A further hint that I was on the right track was that Atomic Cat, which I'd previously identified as great stuff, was up there in the top three. I started downloading what turned out to be 3.52GB of music, and a sampling so far shows that all of it is pretty good quality. At last I feel a bit more comfortable about doing some CC mixing!

Now to go through and work out which have a 'no-derivs' license and try to email them asking if a mix for which they get credit and which will meet all the other terms of their license is OK, so that I can actually publish the thing according to the terms of the license. I don't know what these people were thinking but it was apparently along the lines of "let's make music of a form commonly mixed by DJs and then deny any DJ, even one that uses CC licenses, the chance to use our music."

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Fri 28th Dec, 2007

I need a cheap hit-man - 001

I'm staying up with my Mum for this Christmas, and as part of that I'm helping her out with various jobs around the place. One of these jobs is to plant new trees at Chapel Hill Primary School, where she works as a teacher aide - trees she's raised or bought herself, too. Why, you might ask, would an ordinary teacher aide be coming in on a holiday to plant trees when the school should be buying them and getting the groundsman to plant them? Oohhhhohohohhhohhh. Yes. The groundsman.

His name is Steve, and from all reports he is a shiftless, lazy bastard with the spine of a sewer. He refuses to do any work at the school unless it is mowing - hence we drive large stakes in around the trees (again, purchased by Mum without any help from the school) to protect them from Steve trying to mow over them as much as from the kids. And that's it - he refuses point blank to do any work that would require him to get on a ladder, or to do any work which could be classified as someone else's job, on 'demarcation' issues. "Not My Job" would seem to be his catch-cry.

And even when it is his job - such as building up a terraced wall to stop erosion, he comes up with some bald-faced lie to excuse himself from it. In this case, he claimed that if he built up a terraced wall, kids might fall off it and hurt themselves - so instead it gets left as a six-foot scree slope, which kids would supposedly be safe on. If all that fails, he just lies about when he's going to do it. "Oh, I can't do that this week, ask me next week" is the excuse he foists on the enquirer; what he's busy with is a complete mystery, as he seems to rarely be in his shed and off doing 'banking' or something else.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the headmaster is a nice, kindly man who wouldn't hurt a fly - in other words, Steve has bullied him into never trying to get him to do any work. In the one instance that the deputy headmaster came in and gave him a direct order, Steve brought in the union to say that only the headmaster could tell him what to do. And my Mum is convinced that there is no other way to get him to change, in fear of the problems she would have when some bureaucratic Education Department investigator comes and questions her, Ross and Steve and makes it known (by their heavy-handedness) that she's the one that complained. I'm not convinced that's right, myself, but Mum's been there for nigh on thirty years and wants to just last out the rest of her working life there rather than have to find another job. (And my personal bet is that if Steve got wind of anyone trying to oust him he'd get the union to make sure that such an investigation was as loud and obvious as possible.)

The thing that hurts me so much is that my Mum is suffering under this clown, doing what she can, breaking her back and her purse, to make the school environment something that she loves, and this retarded boot-scraping is blocking her at every turn just to make sure that he never has to do a single thing. The grade 4's plant some screening plants so that they don't have to watch everyone go in and out of the toilets, but the holes are in the middle of a patch of grass and Mum's bitter experience is that they will get mown down by Steve rather than have to do more work getting around them. So she digs a trench the entire way along and fills it with mulch. Steve walks by and says, "I don't know why you bother with mulch there, they'd grow much better with just the grass around them." As if this horse-biscuit is suddenly an expert in gardening; it's easy to see that he'd rather not mow around the plants...

There's got to be a way of getting him out of there. I occasionally say, "It can't be that hard to find a reasonably-priced hit man" in situations like this, but the Muslim world seems bent on proving that that's not the answer.

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Thu 22nd Nov, 2007

Deadline: LCA2008

I recently received a piece of good news in my wooden laptop case cover project. The stumbling block had been trying to get the thin veneer of burl bent into the right shape to go around the lip of the front edge, when it was obviously too uneven in grain to be able to bend easily like the prototype (Tasmanian Oak, grain along the curve) did. I had considered steam bending the wood but that required a steaming rig, which I of course put off creating.

I was discussing it today at the ACT Woodcraft Guild, because they're building (of all things) a forge and wood steaming area in a separate shed. To my delight, I found out that with veneer, the thinness of the wood allows you to simply soak it in water and (gently) press it into the mould to form the required bend. Once dry, it should then hold its shape pretty well. This method is also used by cabinetmakers to flatten a piece of veneer that has gone wavy over time (wood warps as it dries out).

So, my aim now is to have a finished laptop cover by LCA, in just over two months time. And, preferably, to then find the right venue for a lightning talk on the process...

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Fri 16th Nov, 2007

Too much time on their hands

Who decided that November was (National) Blog Posting Month? It's already (National) Novel Writing Month, where you need to put in at least 1,250 words per day in order to achieve their goal. And now we're supposed to blog every day about something? Does the name of this blog, Too Busy For Words, not mean anything to them? Fat chance of that happening. Most of us have lives, and don't feel the need to comment on inane bits of them every day just to fulfill some arbitrary challenge.

I've been working on improving the documentation for LMMS - in other words, writing documentation for it; turning earring holders for my nieces so that they can give them to their friends; trying to find a new job to replace the old one that runs out at the start of December; tending the vege garden - in other words, finding water to keep it alive; trying to find our old household budget and/or make a new one; and more. I don't have time to just witter on about anything in order to make someone else's arbitrarily set quota. I'll probably write a good portion of that 40,000 words in the documentation anyway, it just won't be a work of disjointed fiction like some of the worse NaNoWriMo contributions and software manuals I've seen.

(Thanks to Steve Hanley for reminding me that NaNoWriMo is in November.)

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Mon 5th Nov, 2007

Open Source Weaving

In a recent trip to Canada I spend some time on Cape Breton Island at the correctly spelled Celtic Colours festival. They have a great series of concerts, but also a huge program of community and educational events which make it a great way to see the island. I didn't involve myself in the two-day weaving workshop, which I now partly regret as I've always been a textile enthusiast. A little-known fact about me is that I can spin, knit, and weave on an inkle, card or two-shaft table loom - one of Kate's prized possessions is a beanie that I knitted from wool I'd spun myself. Apart from the workshop, however, there were several gallery showings, open days and craft exhibitions where I got to see people weaving.

This rekindled my interest in weaving, especially after seeing the overshot woven coverlets popular there. My first thought was "when I get back, I should buy a loom." My second thought, when my woodworking side kicked in, was "no, I'll build a loom!" I asked around some people at the ACT Woodcraft Guild if they knew of plans for a loom; their response was "Google should have it!" But my Google-fu is not as good as it could be: I can find plenty of plans for sale but no free plans online. My next step is to go along to a meeting of the Canberra Spinners and Weavers and see if they have any books on building looms, or people who wouldn't mind me documenting how their own loom was built, and searching through the books and magazines at the Woodcraft guild. Then I intend to post documentation online and make it available under an open documentation license of some sort.

I also dug out my piles of cotton thread and old card weaving frame made years ago, with the intent to weave myself a better belt than my previous effort - in fact, my first effort, which is the one I still use for holding up my woodwork pants. I might also try to teach my nieces how to do card weaving - I've already given one set an inkle loom, but that didn't seem to grab their attention...

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Fri 7th Sep, 2007

Go team legs!

I had a really good day yesterday. I decided to put the money my Mum had sent me for my Birthday on a day pass at Perisher, since I'm unlikely to be able to get to any of the rest of the season due to trips abroad. I went with Rob, Kate's brother, who's a snowboarder; so I had to hang around for half a minute while he re-strapped his boots into the board. Since he (for most of the day) would have to wait a minute for me to make my rather cautious way to the bottom of the slope, I didn't make a point of it :-)

Going to the snow during the week is a great idea - the crowds are almost absent. Apart from one keen Sydneysider who was taking advantage of the APEC summit to come snowboarding, it was pretty much just the people who were holidaying at Perisher who were there. Since about half of them were in ski lessons for the better part of the day, and we were on the Towers run on Mt. Perisher (a blue run normally not encountered by all but the most advanced of learner groups), we really only encountered the few who were capable, confident and determined.

It also gave me a really good chance to get a long time to talk with Rob, and since we're both people that like thinking about life, the universe and everything and discussing ideas, we talked for most of the day on everything from why CEOs, celebrities and national leaders should be forced to spend time outside their cossetted, five-star, divorced-from-reality lifestyle and actually do jail time or meet real people who might actually tell them what the real world was doing, the tactics of dealing with emotional doomsday devices, the problems of investing ethically, how to use software and more. A good bonding session.

Rob also gave me lots of good tips on how to ski correctly, since his wife Julie is a ski instructor and they've been teaching their two girls to ski. I tried, and in the end I think I regained the basics of the Stem Christie turn, but still wasn't getting the lift on the turn and the rotation of the knees that carving uses. By the end of the day I was able to almost keep up with Rob, and was really getting a feel for it again. Alas, I probably won't get another chance to ski until next year; however, my brother and his partner are planning to come down for a week or more to do some skiing so I'm already looking forward to that!

And despite my knees feeling pretty sore yesterday (due to my bad technique), there's almost no soreness or pain in my legs today. Go me!

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Thu 30th Aug, 2007

Not The Real Reply

Dear Jim, Thanks for your unsolicited commercial email regarding the opportunity to work at Microsoft, an email which would now cost you a hefty fine and possible jail term under the US CAN-SPAM act. I'm sorry to tell you that I cannot take up your 'generous' offer, as I am busy in my new role as a Patagonian Prune Fisherman. However, I would like to ask you to fill in this short survey I'm doing to see what kind of recruiter you are. Keep in mind while you fill this in that I may or may not be bothered to tell your supervisors about your lackadasical and slip-shod approach to recruitment. Still, we all like a laugh, eh?

  1. What is your current address, and do you like living there?
  2. What is your favourite colour?
  3. How would you solve the four-colour problem? Your solution must be better than the Haken and Appel proof.
  4. Do you do any research on people you're emailing about working for Microsoft? If so, what kind? Be specific.
  5. What is your dream job? (N.B. Incorrect answers will be penalised harshly.)
  6. You and a party of four people need to walk up a narrow path at night-time using only a single torch. You would take one minute to traverse the distance, your younger sister takes two minutes, your elder brother takes five minutes, and Bill Gates takes ten minutes. No more than two people can walk on the path at any one time and they need the torch to traverse it. What is the quickest time to get everyone to the other side, and how? [1]
  7. What's your current average and maximum words-per-minute speed typing on QWERTY, DVORAK, left-handed DVORAK and right-handed DVORAK keyboards?
  8. Is there anyone of your friends, co-workers, superiors or lackeys that you would consider recommending for the slave trade? If so, please give names and addresses and known locations where we can pick them up. We offer a reasonable bounty per head.
  9. What is your passport number, full name, date of birth and country most recently visited? Was it nice there?
  10. Please give me a copy of your most recent CV and current salary.
  11. What do you think you could contribute to the Open Source Initiative or Free Software Foundation? Please do not include inside information on Microsoft code and protocols - we prefer the challenge.
  12. How long have you worked at Microsoft? How long do you expect to work there?
Have fun,


[1]: For people who recognise this old chestnut, the answer is of course that Bill Gates calls up his private helicopter that takes you all to the other side in four minutes.

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Tue 28th Aug, 2007

Are They Really That Desperate?

It was with some amusement a month or so ago that I received an email from a recruiter at Microsoft asking me if I'd like to apply for a job at the august body he represents. Now, in the past year or so we've seen Google doing this: scanning blogs, email lists and web pages looking for likely techies and offering them jobs. The last one from Google was about a month before this; on the Canberra Linux Users Group we rather shamelessly discussed who had got what, determining who had got the stock form letter and on who the recruiters had done any actual research. And in light of the 'internal' Microsoft email that got blog-memed recently from a former Google employee who moved to Gatesville and told the HR people there what they could do to improve their standing in the recruitment and employee relations stakes, I suppose this new email should have come as no surprise.

While I'm not quite as vociferous or as pronounced as Eric Raymond regarding working for Microsoft, I do feel at the moment that it would take a lot more than a six figure salary, regular trips to all the major open source conferences and a new Tesla Roadster to make me work there. My opinion is that the Microsoft corporate ethos is fundamentally tainted - they are working on the principle that they must own and dominate everything. We've seen the Halloween letters showing that their approach to Linux and open standards is Embrace, Extend, Extinguish and I see no reason for or evidence of them changing in the intervening half decade. Once you've read a bit of E. E. 'Doc' Smith and his sesquipedalian descriptions of the gnawing, unassuagable greed that gnaws at the villains, you recognise the signs in Microsoft's continued attempts to dominate an industry that has already proved that it needs no master. Take OOXML - not only is it a phenomenally bad standard, but then they rush it through the ECMA process and try to ram it down ISO's throats by sending technical advocates out to all the undecided countries trying to convince them of its greatness. I would never prostitute myself in that way.

So maybe my reading of the letter is somewhat biased. But I find a couple of points on it amusing. The second sentence is "I found your CV online" ... but I have no online CV (at least, none recent enough to refer to my address). Later in the email they cover up by asking for my most recent CV, of course. And the tone of the email is laden with the idea that, far from this being a friendly one-on-one email, I should be grateful that Microsoft has even deigned to email me at all. "Competition for our positions is very tight..." eh? If they've got so many people begging for positions with them, why are they bothering to email me out of the blue? And if I do burn with an uncontrollable desire for a job with them, I then have to fill out no less than thirteen questions - basically a mini interview - including such gems as "Describe your dream job" and "Is there anyone else in your set of peers or friends who you would like to recommend as a candidate for [...] positions at Microsoft?". On my "me" page (easily findable from my home page) it lists my age, degree and current city of residence, and in their email he knows I'm in Australia, yet the questions include "In which city do you live?" and "What country are you a citizen of?" I could even hate them just for ending a sentence with a preposition. They're not even telling me about a specific position, they're just saying "we might have some job or other for you, so apply - but don't expect a response, we're busy people here."

Hint to all those recruiters out there: do your research. If you're going to send an email to someone to ask them if they'd like a job, you are contacting them specifically - you cannot make it look like you're using a form letter even if you are. We're all very wary of unsolicited emails these days, and we know that recruiters are now using the blunderbuss scatter-gun approach to recruiting people. Your email should be telling us why you've picked us, and what specific position you are interested in us taking. You should also have a rough idea of what the person's attitudes are from your research - so you're either emailing them because you think they would be a good match for your company, or you're going to say that you don't know what their opinions are and would like to hear from them if you're wrong. And never ever tell them in the same email that they might also not actually be listened to at all. We're just as picky with what we reply to as you are, and the prospect of wasting our time jumping through a bunch of hoops in order to get ignored will prompt a quick filing of your email in the circular wastebasket...

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Mon 27th Aug, 2007

Welcome to Melbourne, part 0001

I'm obviously prejudiced - I just keep on finding reasons to hate Melbourne. I was catching the train today from Eltham into the city, and the prize specimen was the guy sitting beside me on the platform. First he opens up a Twist and just throws the wrapper away in front of me. Then he starts snorting and spitting the phlegm on the ground. I mutter an imprecation under my breath and move away, only to find that the only other seat in the shade is occupied by a girl blowing smoke everywhere. I return to try to put up with gronk-boy and find he's lit up too. Fortunately there was enough of a breeze to be able to stand upwind of him, but the fear of having another smoker light up and fumigate the rest of the platform began to prey on my mind...

I'm sure this is by far not the worst of the antisocial behaviour that goes on every day on public transport, and there's plenty of just as antisocial behaviour in Canberra and virtually everywhere else. Maybe it's just a sign that I'm becoming old and curmudgeonly and intolerant.

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Fri 24th Aug, 2007

The world must wait for my music

I found out on Thursday that my two tutorial proposals for LCA 2008 - on programming with PVM (which I wasn't overly worried about) and making music with LMMS (which I was really keen on) - have both been rejected. I'd like to find out more information about exactly why, but I'm actually a bit disappointed by this - in particular I'd hoped that the LMMS talk would have the required combination of interest (since I thought I had detected an undercurrent of interest in son et lumiere in the Open Source world), snappy presentation description, presenter knowledge and something a bit left of centre. Obviously not quite enough.

My fear, now, is that I'm going to end up being more critical of every talk and tutorial I see on the program; comparing them to what I could have done. I fear this partly because of course it's going to reduce my actual enjoyment of the LCA content and process, and partly because I know that I will find some talks that sounded good on paper to be less interesting in practice - Rasterman's talk on Enlightenment and Jeff's talk on the future of GNOME from LCA 2007 are my benchmarks for this - and I don't want to become jaded or put other people off. The last thing that everyone needs at a Linux conference is a bunch of people saying "Oh, I could have done a better presentation than that".

So what this obviously means is that I need to start looking into screencasting. I played with Istanbul at work and it looks good - I'd like more control on the actual quality settings than what it's minimal configuration options in the GUI allow...

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Fri 10th Aug, 2007

Musical melange

I've started to listen to Jamendo's quantity of Creative Commons licensed music, via the very nice plugin for Rhythmbox written by Guillaume Desmottes. It seems to be very heavily used by European contributors, and the sheer quantity of music there makes it very attractive for people wanting to put music in their own Creative Commons licensed productions. Downloading is via BitTorrent or eMule, which is also a nice touch. It does, however, (borrowing Jeremy Clarkson's turn of phrase), have a few problems.

The chief among these is basically no quality control. You get quantity, but finding the needle of quality amongst the haystack of frankly ordinary offerings seems to be mainly reliant on you listening to everything. The genre descriptions won't help you - misspellings, random extra spaces, miscellaneous capitalisation, accented characters, and genre labels that read like short novels (what ever 'Alternative Pop Rock Trance Drum and Bass Hip Hop' is, it's certainly not well defined) just get in your way. And it's not just the labelling - there are tracks there with so little musicality that they even make my awkward, simplistic offerings look good. Add to this the feeling that, as an English-as-an-only-language person, I am seen as a minority by some of the artists and it leaves me thinking that Jamendo is a community that understands itself, but doesn't bother to make itself accessible to others.

This is not to say that that there aren't some good artists in there. So far I've found Atomic Cat, Bad Loop (which I knew about before), and the amazingly excellent psy-trance of Quantica. Thanks to Rhythmbox's ability to search on a genre ('Trance', in this case) and use that as a playlist to sample the entire collection, I continue to trawl through Jamendo looking for good artists to use for future Creative Commons mixes.

(Footnote: it appears that Quantica has put a no-derivatives license on their music. They also run their website entirely on Flash; so I feel very little interest in conveying my approval (financial or otherwise) to them at all.)

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Fri 3rd Aug, 2007

Mood: The rage of a black hole

There are two things that the world needs less of:

Playwrights who think they're oh so very clever about 'confronting' us.

People who don't listen to what they say.

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Wed 11th Jul, 2007

The Colour That Should Not Be

I was excited to read Pia's post on the opening of the new Software Freedom Day shop.

Until I saw the colour of the shirts.

Then my eyeballs involuntarily popped out of their sockets and tried to hide in my jacket.

look if you dare

Iridescent throbbing green? Who came up with that? It's the colour that suits nobody! Lime Green was a disaster when it was last in fashion, which was in the bad part of the 1990s! It's the kind of colour that you only see in T-shirts worn by special tour-groups for children, and splattered across you in a paintball game. Where was the choice? Where was the voting form on the website that said:

What colour T-shirt would you like this year?
A normal colour
Ugly Brown
Lime green
I'm afraid not even a coffee is going to get me over seeing that.

Needless to say, I'm not going to be buying or wearing one, and I will if possible not be taking one.

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Fri 29th Jun, 2007

That strange feeling in the stomach

I've been trying this Shangri-La diet for almost a day now, but I have already come to a couple of conclusions:

I'm going to try the 'spoonfull of sugar' method this afternoon.

The other little 'data point' in this was that it suddenly made sense of an old friend of mine: he was thin, ran every morning, ate no breakfast and minimal lunch, and was still in perfect health. He also drank like beer was free - he's the only person that I've seen who approached drinking like a man bent on self-destruction. This diet may have the clue to how all those parts fit together. Beer contains quite a few calories, and if he's drinking enough of it he'll be getting most of his energy intake in that. And if that's his primary source of calories, and it induces a feeling of mild nausea and dizziness - also used in the body to indicate poisoning - then he will have effectively trained his body to want less calories and to use them very efficiently indeed.

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The Sour Bear correlation

Browsing around for a categorical statement about the four types of documentation (which I though Kathy Sierra had mentioned somewhere), I found out about the Shangri-La diet. Basically the idea is that you break your subconscious association between taste / eating and calorie intake, by having periods during the day where you eat nothing, drink water, and in the middle take a small quantity of calories that are nearly flavourless. A weak sugar solution or light vegetable oil seems to be the best bet - I don't think I could go to swallowing a raw egg, let alone quickly. This breaks the 'Pavlovian' body response which causes us to get hungry, so we eat less while still getting the required calories per day. And while Kathy Sierra notes that it can even work too well, to the point where she has to consciously think about eating, I think that I can probably stand to get over half of my projected daily calorie requirement (which is 2416.74 calories according to in this way. If it helps me cut down on my weight, which is over what I'd like and still rising, then so much the better.

And then I look at the bag of chocolate and 'sour' candy on my desk, and suddenly it really hits home. Before writing this, I stopped concentrating for a moment and my hand automatically moved a sour bear to my mouth without me actually thinking about it. This was after I'd been thinking "The Shangri-La diet, eh? What a good idea. I could start that now, maybe." Time to start breaking some bad habits... Given that the same site calculates my ideal weight at 72 kilos, and that in turn puts my projected daily calorie requirement at 2142.18 calories, I think it's going to be a good thing.

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Thu 7th Jun, 2007

I love my nieces

I took a gamble the other day. Kate's sister's family was over, and, on an impulse, I gave Kira (my eldest niece) a copy of my latest mix, the auspiciously numbered 42 - Mach 6, on CD. I know the girls like a lot of different types of music, and I wasn't expecting them to feel obliged to like my particular tastes given they also love Scottish Country Dancing, Hi-5, and Saddle Club. But I know they like dancing generally and they like 'modern' music with a good beat (probably to Kate and Sue's disdain), so it was a gamble with good odds.

I came home yesterday to receive a note that Angela, Kira's younger sister, had sent to me. I knew that there was every chance that Kira would share the CD with Angela - she thinks of others a lot. This is what the note said:


your CD is great I'd love 92 coppys incase 1 brakes and I'm left with 91 which is my LUKY number. or maby you could just give me 1245.

Love Angela.

ps. I haven't really lisend to all of it yet!


Where the numbers 91 and 1245 come from I have no idea. But how can you not love that?!

Which also means that you can now get the latest mix on my mixes page.

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Fri 18th May, 2007

That's not my suburb

Apart from being an excellent example of framing in the media, Martin Pool's map post also left me mightily puzzled. Because I used to live on Kooyong Rd, the road that crosses Dandenong Road that the motorcyclist's bike hit in order to kill him, between there and the train line. But the train line is way too close to Dandenong Road - it left no room for where I lived - and it took a quick check with Google Maps to work out what was going wrong. Not only is the train line way too far south (down) - you can see the 'corridor' it should go through if you look at the junction to the left of the 'Malvern Road' text and go diagonally south-east (down-right) from there. In addition, the streets to the east of Kooyong Road don't match up either - there's a walk bridge across one point mid-way between Kooyong Road and Wattletree Road (the road that goes straight east where Dandenong bends to go south-east), but that's it.

So is this just another case of the 'easter egging' process in maps, where mapmakers make changes - adding fake roads, etc. - in order to show that you've copied their map? Or is it just a clueless graphic artist from North Fitzroy who thinks going "south of the river" is socially blighting and has been asked to copy the map in ten minutes so that they don't get sued? Or is there another, even more sinister, reason? Send your ideas to :-)

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Wed 16th May, 2007

A Busy Week

I've now come down off my hectic week, so I can report on what I've been up to:

Thursday at the CLUG Programmers SIG meeting we had Bob Edwards from ANU talking about elementary microcontroller programming, in this case the range of PIC chips. I didn't know the difference between a Von Neumann and a Harvard architecture until now, and it does make sense when you're talking about microcontrollers to have processors that are slightly more complex but can guarantee instruction execution in one or two clock cycles that RISC guarantees, and also avoids some of the security problems with mixing instructions and data in the same memory.

There's a whole bunch of extra little oddities about PIC chips, too: only eight stack levels, a bit that can be set that will prevent you from reading the contents of instruction memory back (but will still allow you to flash it) for code security, bank swapping, compiler warnings that are still there even when you're actually doing the right thing, and more. Once I've finished some of my other projects, I may get around to working on some of my microcontroller-based hardware ideas.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday were spent running the Canberra Irish Set Dance Weekend 2007. It was very successful - we had around 70 people show up over the weekend, eight sets of eight people dancing on Saturday Night, and a huge increase in the number of interstate visitors (including two people who I only found out on Saturday had found out about the weekend because of an article in "New Idea" that I'd never seen or heard about, but am requesting from the library). The food was a great success, the sets we learnt were well suited to the intermediate-to-advanced calibre of the dancers, and overall people's comments were very positive. The most suggested improvement was to have the dance run later and/or longer; but amusingly there are a couple of people who think that a four-piece band can pack up all its equipment and get out of the hall in about five minutes, and won't mind being replaced by CDs... Getting the band to play for longer is hardly a problem.

On the weekend, I'd talked to a couple of the teachers and interested people about another project of mine, the Set Dance Music Database. This is mostly driven by my Rocket library, which is now capable of displaying a table, displaying a form for editing or adding a row to a table, and validating the form and adding or updating the data to the table as appropriate. It also does a bunch of extra stuff - nice human-readable, sort-on-click field headers, 'computed' fields, drop-down menus in forms for lookups, and much more. I've yet to write up the full POD interface for it, and it's not as efficient as a custom-written page (of course), but it makes making pages easy - it follows the 'gradual improvements' idea that I believe Rails uses: show something simple by default but then allow the user to add more complexity without great effort.

Now to get back to recovering from my continuing throat infection, working on my laptop case cover, and playing Supreme Commander. Yes, Tim Connors, as shameful as it is to play computer games that are less than a year old, I balance it by other paeleophilia :-).

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Wed 28th Mar, 2007

Warm water evades freezing

A little science problem came up today, and I post this in the hopes that either by talking about it I'll come up with the solution or that someone reading it will know the answer.

You see, in the lab we have an old tap system suitable for laboratories: it has four taps and three outlets - one hot and one cold tap have separate outlets with those 'serrated' nozzles suitable for attaching rubber tubing to, and the other two taps combine to control a central 'washing' water outlet. It's somewhat of an antique, especially so because they don't make them any more and you can't get the parts for them (or so the department technicians say, and who am I to argue?). So when the hot 'combined' tap stopped turning off completely and started jumping its threads (so that when you got it nearly off it would then jump down a level and allow a good stream of water again, quite the opposite of what clockwise turning is intended to do) this is an engineering problem of the first order.

For weeks we've been plagued with it dripping in the background. I can mostly drown it out with headphones (the lab's small enough that I can afford this cone-of-silence approach), but the others' sanity has been suffering. Finally, today a guy with a serious box of tools arrived and immediately started the task of working out where the 'off' tap was to the supply. This, too, was a harder task than one might think.

It turned out that the pipes wended their wily way through the innards of the building in such a manner as to completely elude the plumber. After watching him drag the ladder around our room and the adjacent corridors for some time, I found myself thinking of a trick that I'd heard plumbers use when they want to attach a new pipe or work on an existing fitting where a tap doesn't exist - say, between your house tap and the mains water supply. They dig a pit around the pipe 'upstream' of where they want to work, and fill it with liquid nitrogen. The water inside freezes solid, a state they can easily maintain until they've finished, and then they simply let it melt and the water's on again. No mess, no fuss.

I suggested this to the plumber, and he knew the trick, but he claimed that it was impossible to do on this line because the water was running. Anything above a very slow drip, he vouchsafed, would prevent the water from freezing up, especially as this was the 'hot' line. So they shut the hot water to the entire building off while they worked on our plumbing, having salvaged another replacement tap from Trellis knows where, and it now shuts off correctly, albeit with a fair amount of twisting that implies that this one, too, will fail in its own time.

However, this 'flowing water' excuse has puzzled me mightily since then. Liquid nitrogen boils at -195°C - more than enough to freeze the carbon dioxide in the air, let alone the water in the pipe. The only reason I can think up for the plumber's explanation is that liquid nitrogen is essentially working in a very hot environment - like trying to cool down molten iron with water - and that the amount of heat it absorbs in its boiling and heating up to our temperature isn't enough to cool the water down that much.

Water has a specific heat capacity of 4184 Joules per Kilogram Kelvin - in other words, one litre of water absorbs 4184 Joules to go up by one degree Centigrade. I don't have any data for the specific heat capacity of liquid nitrogen, but nitrogen gas has a specific energy of 29.124 Joules per Mole Kelvin which, at a molar weight of 28 grams per Mole for N2 works out to around 1.04 Joules per gram Kelvin or 1040.1 Joules per Kilogram Kelvin. And that's just to get a one kelvin degree change.

The water has to go from 25°C to 0°C. Thanks to metric measures, there's twenty millilitres of water in a pipe one centimetre in cross-sectional area and twenty centimetres long, which is slightly larger than normal (it'd be 1.13 centimeters in diameter). So, for twenty grams of water to freeze from room temperature requires 2092 Joules to be taken out of it, and that would be done by 10 grams of nitrogen going from -195°C to 0°C. Liquid nitrogen has a density of 0.807 g/ml means I'd need about 12 millilitres. Even if we assume that only one percent of the nitrogen absorbs heat from the water, it's still only about 1.2 litres of liquid nitrogen. Hardly a problem.

So the only other reason that I can think of is that ice is an insulator, and it becomes less dense as it freezes, so that might stop the water in the middle of the pipe from being frozen. But I can't really believe it's that good an insulator. Pykrete, maybe, ice by itself, no.

Please email me if you know the answer to this puzzle.

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Wed 21st Mar, 2007

LMMS - solution and problem

Recently, I've been really getting into LMMS. Akin to Fruity Loops and Cubase, it's designed for composing music using all the things we lovers of electronic music like: repetitive drums, FM synthesis, digital effects and sample playback. You can probably lay down a good traditional rock-and-roll or pop song using it too.

Of course, at version 0.2.1, it's still a little rough around the edges. Occasionally I can crash the thing: although I haven't got around to finding their bug list, I have got into the habit of saving regularly. A lot of the tools have that 'programmer-only' functionality: in order to copy and paste, you select the 'select region' tool, select the region, choose 'copy', choose the 'move region' tool, move the original region, and press 'paste' to paste the copy where the original used to be. Makes perfect sense. Oh, and you can only do that in the piano roll view; you can't copy and paste in the song editor. At all. Dragging regions around, and dragging tracks up and down the song editor, also moves around in a drunken, crazy way that seems to be in proportion to how fast you move: move slowly and it'll probably follow you, move quickly and it's all ended up at bar 400 or so. Exciting.

The most irritating thing I'm finding at the moment, however, is that the TripleOscillator instruments all 'pop' when playing notes rapidly one after the other. You can hear it in this simple example made with the default patch here. This is one I will have to write a bug about, because it's quite hampering to not be able to play regular instruments that fast, and it occurs in both the preview output and the 'export to OGG file' output, which I'd expect to be of higher quality.

But, criticism of new work aside, it's still pretty slick. You get a whole bunch of presets for their standard TripleOscillator plugin and a good (if somewhat minimal) selection of samples - get more at Freesound Project. Each instrument and sample can have an individual effect, and I've just found a whole bunch of LADSPA plugins in the Planet CCRMA repository for Fedora that just slot right in and work great. And a big feature is the ability to add automation to any control that looks like a knob (and the two-dimensional 'sound position' for each instrument). This means that you can gradually fade in a track, you can move it from left to right and back, you can twiddle around with its resonance or attack or arpeggio range or even the knobs on the LADSPA effects! The automation editor interface is still a bit cumbersome, but the fact that it exists at all opens up exciting new vistas for experimentation.

So, what have I done with all this? Well, from my listening habits you'd probably guess that I've made another 140BPM trance track. And this is where I'd put on my Jeremy Clarkson voice and say "And you'd be wrong." Strangely enough, it's Drum and Bass. It's licensed under the Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution - Noncommercial - Sharealike license (naturally) so you can play it, mix it and give it friends. It's called Magnetic Deformation and I've even gone so far as to make up the cover art for it's projected album, Dark Matter. One sample in it is called "Ambient For You" by Aaron Baron, available on Freesound under the Creative Commons Sample Attribution license.


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Thu 15th Mar, 2007

Thin pieces of wood

Today I bought stage two of the wooden laptop project: the actual wood. For $65, I picked up two pieces of veneer - slices slightly less than a millimeter thick - and a similar but much larger sheet of Tasmanian Oak to use as the backing. Unfortunately, I didn't get the names of the actual timbers, but one is classic burl and the other a classic fiddleback texture. Both of these have a very distinctive grain that will 'shimmer' and change colour depending on lighting and view angle, when they're polished up nicely.

I've mostly completed the bottom form - this is the part that sits underneath the layers of wood. It has slots cut in it to fit the bits of metal that are going to attach the shell to the case. (The bits of metal are another piece of engineering in themselves, and I'll be talking to a bespoke engineering firm about it). I now need to wrap it in a nice layer of plastic to keep it from being glued to the work. Then I need to work out how to cut the reverse shape into another piece of MDF.

Trevor, my pseudo-brother-in-law, had some good suggestions on how to actually glue the thing together. His main suggestion was to steam the middle section - whose grain will be running 'front to back' and will therefore be harder to bend round the curve on the front than the top and bottom layers, which will be parallel to this curve. By steaming and bending the piece of wood into at least a close approximation of the right shape, I can glue the whole thing together without having to put undue pressure on the perpendicular grain.

However, another idea just popped into my head. If the top and bottom middle pieces were metal all the way along, then they could be bent into the correct shape easily. This would not only give much more strength to the parts where the most stress is going to be, but would mean that no steaming or complicated bending need take place. It might be a bit more expensive, but paying a bit for less fiddling around is fine by me.

Anyway, you can find pictures of the veneers (and the ongoing photo-logue) here.

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Wed 7th Mar, 2007

Getchore Mixes Heyah

In the last week I've done more mixing than in the previous year!

This is mainly due to me doing some casual mixing at Toast, a local nightclub, on Tuesdays. This sounds a lot more impressive than it is; it's just a chance for people who like Tech Trance to get together and mix it up. The number of people in the club has never numbered more than eight when I've been there, and that includes the two or three other people mixing and the girl behind the bar (who happens to be the daughter of the guy who works in the lab next door - that's Canberra for you).

The first mix in this new batch is the one from 27th February 2007. This one is entirely from music purchased from Magnatune, and as such it will probably sound quite familiar to those people who listened to my LCA 2007 mixes. This also means that it's licensed under the same CC-by-nc-sa license as the LCA mixes. So, go ahead, knock yourself out, use it as much as you want.

(You should, however, know that I found that the last track on the mix blends superbly with Sasha's track "Golden Web" from his Airdrawndagger album. However, since that's not licensed under CC, I can't give you that mix. You'll just have to lie back and imagine it.)

The second mix was done on the weekend thereafter, when I decided I'd gone too long without some really good trance music mixing. I threw the Mach 5 - Full Trance mix together pretty quickly, but I'm very happy with how it's turned out. It's not quite as non-stop thumping as I'd originally thought, which makes it a pleasure to listen to.

The third mix was done live at Toast again on 6th March 2007. This, like the Mach 5 mix, is not CC licensed. In fact, it's not licensed at all. I'm breaking the law even giving them to you. If you download them, you'll be giving a great big finger to the RIAA, the APRA, the big record labels and other very important and well-paid people, and you'll be depriving the artists of well nigh on three cents of income. I want you to think very carefully on that before you consider doing anything rash.

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Mon 5th Mar, 2007

An Enjoyable Farce

On Saturday night Kate and I went to see " Noises Off", thanks to some friends who had free tickets spare. It was put on by the Canberra Repertory at Theatre 3, which has a pretty good line-up of interesting plays this year.

"Noises Off" is two farces in one. On the one hand, it's a play called "Nothing On", a traditional sex farce with the usual complement of doors opening and closing and people in underwear. On the other hand, it's a farce about the group of actors performing in the play "Nothing On", and their eventual disintegration into catastrophe as they get worn out by performing "Nothing On" and their own internal relationships. Half way through the set revolves around so that you see the 'behind the scenes' view of the play being performed.

I don't usually enjoy farces - something about the gradual slide into madness makes me yearn for a 'correct', happy ending. But this was an absolute hoot - several sections had me in stitches. It combines very clever scripting with brilliant timing and a lampooning of the traditional 'actor' temperament. If it comes to a playhouse near you, go and see it!

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Fri 9th Feb, 2007

Wooden computers

When I bought my new laptop recently, I bought a cover for the screen as well. The picture showed an attractive, bright red wood burl finish, but, of course, this was fake. What I got was a dark red / maroon piece of plastic that clips onto the back of the screen.

Now, I do like it. It's different from the regular screen back. But I'm a woodworker. And so I thought I could do better. A piece of plastic pretending to be wood doesn't quite meet my standard. Especially as it doesn't have the figure of wood - the way light reflects in the fibres that gives it the 'shimmer' effect of fiddleback.

Originally I'd thought I'd buy a piece of something decorative, like oak, casuarina, that would also be fairly flexible. I'd then cut it down to size, steam the ends and bend them in a suitable mould, carve in the ridges that attach to the case, and that would be it. But advice from the knowledgeable old men at the ACT Woodcraft Guild suggested this would be still too brittle at 3mm thick and would lose its bend too quickly. However, I could make a ply with a nice veneer back; this would keep its shape and have sufficient strength to hold onto the case. I realised that I could also insert pieces of metal into the ends that would be curled around to clip onto the frame, and they wouldn't splinter or wear.

So, $2 purchased some off-cut pieces of MDF from the Woodcraft Guild. A trip to Capital Veneering showed me a huge variety of decorative veneers. They also have sheets of veener made from strips of Tasmanian Oak in quantity; the veneers and the other ply sheets are 0.6mm thick. This allows me to have a five-ply case cover at just over 3mm thick. The outer layer is the showy veneer, and the rest are laid cross-grain to eachother for maximum strength and minimum expansion due to moisture.

So: shape the MDF into a top and bottom mould for each sheet, and coat it with plastic so that nothing sticks. Lay the sheets down, putting a layer of waterproof glue between each one, inserting the metal retainers where applicable. Finish with the veneer layer, and clamp it down in a large press to dry. Pull it out when it's set, take off any extra bits, sand and polish it, apply a waterproof finish and there we go. Sounds easy, doesn't it?

My ultimate plan is to make these not just for myself but for friends and other interested people. But I'll price it appropriately. The raw materials cost around $30 to $40, but the preparation that I need to go through to make each one will be large, and I imagine I'll need to charge in the vicinity of $100 to make it at all worth while. But that's just a pipe dream: I'll see how the first two (for myself) turn out before I decide to inflict my handiwork on anyone else.

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Wed 31st Jan, 2007

Wikipedia - not just for experts

Today I updated the Wikipedia article for Laparoscopic Surgery; I felt it needed to include the risk of pain in the shoulder and extreme pain in the stomach that can make it very difficult to breathe. I included a reference and everything. Let's see what happens to it, eh?

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Tue 23rd Jan, 2007

The mixes at last

On Monday[1], I completed the first of two mixes that I'd been wanting to mix for Linux.Conf.Au 2007. In hospital, I completed the second, slightly shorter, harder and faster mix. I call them the Flashing Google Badge Mix and the Wired Kernel Hacker Mix. You can call then "free to download and remix".

I've taken this time to post them because I wanted to check the actual status of that. This year I bought a bunch of music from Magnatunes - $125.04AUD worth, to be precise - because their music is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Sharealike license. That link is taken directly from their site, and under the 'license' link of any CD it allows you to select from a bewildering array of other licensing possibilities for film, podcast, sampling and a huge range of other uses. I read up a bit on their 'student' license (which is what they call the non-commercial use license) and it said that I could get free access to the audio tracks by emailing their licensing person. So I did. I explained that I was an amateur DJ mixing music at one of the premier open-source and open culture events on the planet, and that I wouldn't receive any money from them and would keep within the terms of their by-nc-sa license.

Almost immediately, the conversation took a tangent I didn't understand. She replied saying that they'd be happy for me to distribute any one of the Magnatune compilation albums, which are premixed and prepackaged. I explained that I worked from raw source material, and she understood that but didn't offer anything but the compilation CDs again. I elaborated that I really wanted access to a large part of their entire electronica catalogue, but that I would buy the music (seeing as it sounded like they weren't prepared to give it away in the quantities I needed). I also confirmed that my mix would be under the by-nc-sa license.

And here's where we definitely took a turn into complete incomprehensibility. She replied saying:

If you are want to use various artists from our catalog, instead of the Magnatune Compilations, for the giveaways, our 'Compilation' music license is required.

The one-time fee for this license runs at about $60 per song, or $600 per album, for 100 units. This license would allow you to redistribute or sell the mixes and keep the profit. I understand you are on a limited budget and would be happy to work out a custom agreement.

$60 per song was way above my head, and suddenly we were talking about selling the mixes? How had this come into the conversation? Afraid of rousing the sleeping demons, I snuck away, bought the music, and investigated the license. Which, sure enough, says that I can remix it and create derivative works from it as long as I:

  1. Say who made it and where it came from.
  2. Don't charge for it.
  3. Allow the same thing to be done to my mix.

All of which are fine by me. So if anyone can explain how I and the licensing from Magnatune got so tangled up, I'd be happy to understand it.

You can find the track listings at here for the Flashing Google Badge Mix and here for the Wired Kernel Hacker Mix - when I've finally got the templating engine working. Always one more thing to do, you know?

[1] - while I was waiting for my appendix to be too painful to bear.

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From Little Things Big Things Grow

It's been an uncomfortable three days for me. On Saturday I left LCA early in the morning to go down to Melbourne. There, Kate picked me up and we went to a friend's place near Bendigo to do a weekend of Irish Set Dance. Pushed to its limit by six days of seven o'clock starts, past midnight finishes and bad bedding, my body finally decided that enough was enough. I slept through half of the day - curled up on a sofa - and recovered enough for the Saturday night dance.

Then the nausea started. It gradually progressed to an ever-present pain in my gut, mostly on the right hand side. Kate and I drove home on Sunday night with me taking Mylanta, painkillers and it easy[1]. On Monday I moped around - standing up and doing stuff was painful but lying down or sitting playing on my computer was bearable. At 10:30pm the pain started getting a lot worse, and I went into hospital.

(Oh, and by the way, they also don't tell you that morphine makes you feel very odd. To me it felt like someone had scrambled the back of my head, and that was what was blocking the pain. It also made me strangely angry - at the constant noise of drip pumps, fridges, nurses walking around in hard heeled shoes, the light which they never turned off or blocked, and overall the frustration of being in pain and unable to do anything about it.)

A little over twelve hours later they were removing my appendix. I'd had a similar incident thirteen years ago, but had merely gone on a drip for five days and gradually it sorted itself out. This time it wasn't going away, and with the keyhole surgery the commonly perform these days it was a relatively simple procedure. I was barely conscious for Kate's first visit, but recovered enough for her second visit to appreciate Mum's relayed joke that they should have just taken the thing out the first time and saved me the trouble.

The problem is, surgery seems like a Faustian bargain. It will definitely remove your appendix, but it won't stop the pain. The pain just migrates to the three new wounds you have in your chest, the gut reacting to being prodded, and a nasty thing where some of the air they pump up your stomach with to allow the endoscope to get a good look around gets trapped in the body after they close everything up. This migrates upward and you get annoying amounts of pain from your right shoulder tip.

On Tuesday morning the real fun started: an excruciating cramp near my solar plexus caused by another air bubble that stopped me breathing. Luckily a nurse was nearby to hear my feeble but sincere cries of "help". Sitting up stopped the pain in my chest, but started it in my shoulder again. Hooray. I'm now typing this at 1:30AM, afraid to lie back down again...

[1] - this is a slightly mangled example of a zeugma.

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Sat 13th Jan, 2007

Getting ready for LCA 2007 the hard way

Today I spent a good deal of time getting ready for LCA 2007. Of course, the easy bits were packing my clothes and spending time with Kate. The involved bit was getting ready should I be asked to do any DJing for the Roundhouse party.

Aside: I still don't know if I'm actually going to be doing anything more than spectating. The last two years I've mixed it up, and the curious electrophile can download them from different format, and while I'd still like to play I think the programme looks great as it is. Given that I've just downloaded $120 worth of Magnatune electronica with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Sharealike license with the express intent of creating a mix with the same license that people at LCA can now truly share and enjoy, it'd be kind of nice to do a set, though. If I don't do it at the Roundhouse, I'll mix it up one night and make it available during the conference.

The thorn in my side is that MixMeister, the software that I use to put together these mixes, is a proprietary, closed-source application that runs on the world's most illegally copied proprietary, closed-source operating system. Some day I will be able to use fully open source tools to make my mixes, but no open source tools I've seen have come within a tenth of its usability and features. My plan for this year was to have it running under WINE, so that at least the more obnoxious of the proprietary, closed-source shackles could be thrown off. But, though it installs and starts beautifully with the standard install of WINE under Fedora Core 6, once you load any music it basically hits a missing syscall in WINE. In fact, there's an entire missing subsystem - the ability for applications to register callback functions that can watch the status of another thread's IO. MixMeister has one thread scanning any new tunes for key signature and beats per minute, and the display thread watches this and tells you how far it's got.

The curious thing was that I found a patch set that would add all of this functionality. (Believe me, it was pretty extensive). However, it was written in 2003 and by the time it was reviewed it wouldn't sync with the current source tree. So they left it unpatched. For a project of WINE's size and stature, this seems pretty bizarre. Obviously, they were waiting for some muggins with some burning desire to get this functionality working to sit down and do all the manual editing to add the code and change it to use the newer function names and so forth.

Muggins being me, of course.

So, this morning I sat down, unrolled the source, and started wading through with a text editor manually applying the patches. Several times I had to do a lot of digging, as some function or structure would have changed and now no longer be recognised. Since up until now I wouldn't know a TEB structure from a ULONG_PTR, this was ... amusing. Still, the thought that at the end of it I would have a working MixMeister in Linux kept me going.

And I think that not really knowing the WINE gestalt actually made it easier. If something wasn't recognised, I'd just look for other references to the same thing. grep -r wait_fd * may be a blunt instrument, but with a bit of persistence you'll usually find a working example and keep on going. There were only two points at which I just commented something out, and in my reading of the source code I think it makes sense. I've flagged it and I'll watch what happens when I submit the patchball.

In the process, I found out about the neat bug in make -j 2 which causes compiles of complex things like WINE to not work correctly because of strange build parallelism issues which don't get resolved correctly. I spent 15 minutes trying to work out why all of the compiled tools were missing. I should try make -j 3 and see if it resolves itself.

Anyway, I've applied most of the patch to git, and I need to add two files to have the whole thing complete. Of course, just like my GEdit patch, I can't test it. This time, it's because the WINE packages in Fedora Core 6 provide some bits and pieces which the WINE 'source-compiled' environment doesn't pick up. So it can't find the WMVCore.DLL when I run the patched version, and it works but doesn't have the patches when I run it with the unpatched version.


So I reformatted my portable drive as a FAT drive so that my copy of the proprietary, closed-source operating system that came with my laptop can see it as well as Linux, copied all my music files back onto it (37GB worth), packed my passport and my key list for the key signing, took the necessary sedatives to ensure a good night's sleep, and prepared for the new tomorrow.

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Sun 7th Jan, 2007

Getting yourself in trouble

I shouldn't do it. It's not very nice, not particularly clever, and it probably leads to angst and hard feelings all round. I know that every time I do it I get that hot, tingling, blushing sensation as my body prepares to attack or run away, and while there's a certain power in that feeling it has absolutely no connection with level-headedness and rationality. Given that I'm usually doing it while driving, that's a bad thing. In a way, I'm breaking my central rule of do as I would be done by. And yet it has a seductive power all its own.

I'm talking about, of course, racer baiting.

We've all seen racers driving around. They own Mitsubishi Lancer EVOs, Subaru Liberty WRXes, imported Nissan Skylines, and similar: small cars with massive bonnet scoops, skirts, gigantic alloy wheels and racing decals. It also seems mandatory that they have a "For Sale" sign on the back, as if they've only just realised how expensive insurance and running costs are. They're the first off at the lights, even if the next set fifty metres away have traffic banked up behind them, and they swerve and dodge through the traffic as if they're carrying four people simultaneously having heart attacks. Well, with their driving skills, I certainly wouldn't blame their passengers from feeling like having a little medical emergency in order to get out of the car.

Normally, I try to let them past. I don't mind the occasional bit of irritating driving, such as synchronising with a van in the other lane, in order to catch one of these porridge-minded cretins and slow them down a bit. But my general rule is that the further away these accidents waiting to happen are from me, the better off I am. Just by being near me they make me nervous, and when I'm concentrating on watching out for their antics I'm not concentrating on the rest of the traffic. So I try to let them past and dismiss them from my mind.

Every once in a while, though, one of them stands out. Today, Kate's dad gave me a lift home from work and, just as we moved away from the lights, we had one of these morons change lanes with barely enough room between him, us and the car he was overtaking. It was a stupid act, made doubly stupid because he was rapidly accelerating away to a red light. We caught him up and ended up beside him at the lights, and that's when I couldn't resist a bit of racer baiting. I typically wave and look, a gesture which, while overtly friendly, says "remember me, that car you cut off? And how desperate you were to get ahead of us? Yep, here we are, safe and sound, and you haven't saved any time at all! Amazing, eh?"

The usual response at the first baiting is a not so friendly wave back, and this pea-brain didn't disappoint. Even better, he deliberately swerved in front of us in order to even more forcefully point out that his black Subaru Impreza WRX was far superior to our Toyota Yaris, all previous evidence of traffic navigability to the contrary. And, swerving through the traffic madly, off he went again. This would have been absolutely marvellous had we not again caught him up at the next traffic lights. Having studied the lights along Belconnen Way to a moderate degree, this was fairly predictable to me, so as we passed (turning left while he waited to go straight ahead), we waved again.

This time, of course, only the finger would suffice to show us his true IQ score. Er, I mean, his true driving ability. Er, I mean, his sheer rage at being denied his birth right, denied the chance to show us and the entire world what the entire Subaru off-road rally team what talen they've been ignoring all these years. Yeah, that must be it.

The problem is, of course, that afterward it takes me some time to come down from the adrenaline. Just writing this post and describing the sensations lifts my pulse, tightens my chest and makes my toes flex involuntarily. This, I tell myself, is stupid. Why do I do this to myself? And what have I done to another human being: made him even more likely to do himself and/or someone else an injury or material damage by making him concentrate less on the road and more on my tauntings. I don't feel proud of this. It's really rather childish.

I just have to give it up, though. And here I will admit I do have a large chip on my shoulder about my driving. I think I am better than average - I drive smoothly, save fuel and wear on the car, and drive comfortably within the limits of my ability. Of course, apparently 80% of drivers think they're above the median too, which is statistically impossible (a phenomenon apparently known as the Lake Wobegon effect). So presumably I'm about average, and may be a little better at some things and worse in others. Fair enough, criticism taken, less ego need at the steering wheel. When I see others doing the things that I don't thing I should do, that's when I get a little shirty; and when it's done by such stereotypical racerboys it begs to be mocked.

Must... give ... up... mockery...

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Sat 9th Dec, 2006

Tomorrow's Atheist

I recently read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. I heard about it from a guy coming into the Woodcraft Guild shed when I was there one fine Thursday, and loudly proclaiming that he'd had to do a review on a book he hated. His impression of it was of an author with a big agenda and with little sympathy for those who don't see his way. "What is it, then?" I asked jovially; "The God Delusion", he replied. With that recommendation, I had to buy it.

I do feel that the above anonymous reviewer is right to a certain extent: especially in the earlier chapters, Dawkins comes across as unsympathetic - to put it mildly - of people who are either sympathising with religion or trying to play nice around it. Even the title can come across as a bit arrogant, although he points out in the introduction that the word "Delusion" has the right dictionary definition but the wrong social overtones for his intended use.

But I think he does this with good reason. Dawkins mentions Stephen Jay Gould's book "Rocks of Ages", which advances the idea of "NOMA", or Non Overlapping Magisteria. Basically, science can explain everything that we see in the physical world, religion offers explanations of what happens before and after we're around to experience it, and various other Magisteria (such as Art and Ethics) have their own fields to explain. If they could all just keep within their own fences - and not have an artist criticising a scientist on whether the Second Law of Thermodynamics is aesthetically pleasing or culturally relevant, or a swami telling us that cows are more important than humans - then everyone would be getting on just fine. Dawkins says

But I believe, as I think Dawkins does, that that doesn't happen. In particular, religion knows no bounds to what it should control. It tries to tell us how the world was made, how to run our lives, and what is good and bad art. I'm sure there are other magisteria that it (generically speaking) tramples on. The Declaration of Human Rights (article 18) allows for freedom of religion, but many religions don't allow you to pick and choose: in some, you can be stoned to death for changing your mind. And yet if you try to take their religion away, they will demand that you stick to the same declaration that they deny other people. These people aren't just about sitting in their corner being nice, these people are about telling others how to run their lives. (This also goes for more 'mild-mannered' religions such as Church of England, for reasons that Dawkins elaborates.) And all from a set of stories which make no sense, which teach lessons that have to be heavily 'interpreted' to avoid the obvious flaws, and which have as much justification for being a basis of a moral and ethical code as, say, this one I found.

But, obviously, I'm biased.

To get a less biased opinion of what people think of the book, I looked at its page on Wikipedia. From this I got the impression that, while religious people may like to feel a bit superior over 'non-believers' from time to time, they hold no candle to book reviewers. Book reviewers are instantly better than the author that wrote the work, and instantly know far more about the subject and are better qualified than the author to choose what should have gone into the book. Many of the reviews mentioned on the Wikipedia page propose that Dawkins didn't really understand the field of religion, philosophy or human nature well enough, and therefore his book is fundamentally flawed.

I can't help but feel that there's none so blind but those that don't want to see. It's not a book criticising every aspect of Christianity, or a book elaborating on every facet of human morality, or a total proof that evolution is the only true way that life on Earth has come to be. It touches on all those subjects briefly, to make a few points that cover the main areas of discussion, before moving on. Its fundamental point is made right at the start: that we sometimes don't know that we can try a new thing or choose not to do something. The God Delusion seeks, in my opinion, only to be a "consciousness raiser" for the general topic. This is why he includes a helpful list of atheist groups for people to turn to for further information, and he lists his references so that other people can learn from the sources he's read. The Bible has far more glaring omissions than this book, yet none of the reviewers want to subject it to the same scrutiny.

I could ramble on for much longer - I did, but I trimmed it out as being otiose - about the good things this book says. Ultimately we must make our own minds up - even about whether we believe what Dawkins has to say. The God Delusion, by advocating such scrutiny even of itself, is far more intellectually and morally justifiable than any religion which tells people to take everything, ultimately, on faith alone.

P.S. I read a letter in the paper from a theist who attacked the book. Tiresomely, he just reiterated Pascal's Wager and St. Thomas of Aquinas's arguments, which Dawkins has already expertly rebutted. The thing that worries me most about the theistic scholar is their tendency to just rehash existing arguments and quote secondary and tertiary analyses; in their attempt to get the high ground, they just end up making even taller and more precarious towers to stand on. Tedious.

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Thu 30th Nov, 2006

Mormon-be-gone spray

I finally found the ultimate way to get rid of Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and all the other religious callers who want to give you 'just a little leaflet' and discuss how their religion can enrich your life. The conversation went like this:

Hat-wearing, white-shirted person with daughter and friend: Hi, I was just wondering if I could just give you this...

Paul: No thanks, I'm an atheist.

HWWSP: Oh, OK then.

He sort of nodded, the smile slightly frozen on his face but not obviously moving toward hurt, angry or anticipation of the fray. Placing his daughter's hat back on her head, they turned and left. The other guy hadn't said a word, but just kept smiling.

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Fri 10th Nov, 2006

Interesting carpentry

Well, that was more excitement than I needed.

For the last three or four months I've been building a table. Not just any table, but a dutch sliding leaf table; when it's finished, the main table will seat six (1.5m long) and two 'leaves' can slide out from underneath to seat ten (2.5m long). I'm following the instructions in a woodworking book, and my 'brother-in-law' Rob has a table of the same construction, so I also have a working model to go off.

The process has been a lot of fun, and a useful lesson in how to tackle big projects. You need some planning, so you know how much wood to buy and what shape it should be, but at some point you have to put saw to wood and actually start building things. In that case, don't be daunted - just start with some part that needs doing, and break large procedures down into simple steps in order to find something that you can do now. It's all remarkably like programming, really.

There are, of course, a few differences. For instance, if you glue the table frame together badly, you can't really just unglue it and start again. It's easy to take wood off, but it's much more difficult to put wood back on. The old saying 'measure twice, cut once' is very true. And today, in the brief forty-eight hours while I borrow the long clamps from the ACT Woodcraft Guild, I glued the table frame together. (I had a small window of time because they don't normally lend this sort of equipment, but when you've been coming along every Thursday for two or more years and no-one is going to be at the shed between when you borrow them and when you return them, and the shed boss is amenable, you can get away with it.)

There were four interesting - in the Chinese 'Interesting Times' - parts to this procedure. Firstly, I had to do it alone. This wasn't a big problem - I'd pushed it together before by myself - but with glue drying I had to work quickly. Secondly, I discovered that one of the joints was pulling together at an angle, so I had to adjust the position of the clamp, holding it and the two blocks that spread the pressure and the two blocks that kept it off the side of the legs while I screwed it together. For other people this takes six hands, but I had mastered the technique of doing it with two and one knee.

Then I found out the third interesting thing: the two longer clamps I'd borrowed for the lengthways beams were not, actually, long enough to reach. With one, I could take the clamp ends off two clamps - I had a spare - and bolt them together, forming one longer clamp. This allowed me to discover the fourth interesting thing, that one of the tenons wasn't cut correctly and forced the joint apart; with the glue drying rapidly I had to take that joint apart, cut an extra bit off, put glue in the mortises again and clamp it together.

Then it was back to trying to work out how to make one clamp reach an extra thirty centimetres. In order to pull evenly in the middle of the joint, I had put the one Franken-clamp on the other two, shorter, clamps (which were in the middle of the joint). I briefly considered and discarded plans for constructing an elaborate wooden extender. It would take too long and the glue would be completely dry. If I had some chain, I could bolt the chain to the long clamp and around the shorter clamp. Chain; wire; wire rope...

Ah-hah! I had some excess wire rope in the length on the garage door. I took it's little clamp off - lucky I had bought a spare - and resolved to get some half-decent wire or bolt cutters in future. Then I wrapped it through one hole in the long clamp shaft, around the short clamp, and tightened the nut on the wire rope clamp up (having managed to lose the other nut on the floor somewhere). Miracle of miracles, it held! With the wire now tuned to high 'C', and all eight joints of the table frame pulled together, I let out a much needed sigh of relief. My pulse stopped its frantic pace, my shoulders relaxed. It was done!

One joint isn't quite perfect. But it's not bad for my first table.

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Mon 6th Nov, 2006

Co-operation reworked

We have an espresso machine at work, which has greatly improved the quality of the coffee I drink (up from plunger coffee). However, occasionally I come to the machine and find the filter-thingy still attached and full of spent grounds. Even worse has been the occasions when someone has frothed their milk and forgotten to wipe it off. These people work in botany and zoology labs where controlling rogue infections can be vitally important to not only the validity of their experiment but their health. So leaving dry, not-sterilised milk to rot on the frother has been a source of irritation. And I always like to leave the thing cleaner than I found it - why is someone leaving their work for other people to do?

I found out the other day. I'd just made coffee and was gently manoeuvering my cup out of the machine when Ian stepped up and grabbed the filter handle and said "I'll take care of that". He then explained that his idea was to leave the filter on the machine. The next person completes exactly the same steps when making a cup of coffee - empty out the filter, add new coffee, make the coffee - just in a slightly different order (his first step is my last step). And it means that cheaters - people who receive the machine in a clean state and leave it filled with coffee - now have to do exactly the same amount of work as everyone else.

It's left me feeling rather odd. It's going to take a while to retrain myself to his ways, and through that time I'll be thinking 'but, but, but this is leaving it dirty!'. But I can't find a flaw in his logic, the grounds are already steam-sterilised and will probably only be left in the machine for a day or two before the next person uses it, and it does mean that the people who really do irritate me - the ones who do less work than everyone else - are now doing their share. It just still feels ... wrong somehow... :-)

I can't think of any other real examples where you can make the use of a shared resource fairer by redesigning the workflow. But there's got to be similar systems.

And, though this might be considered stretching the point, the GPL and the Free Software movement has been making the point that, by stepping outside the bounds of 'paying for' and 'owning' software, we avoid a whole raft of 'fair use' and 'copying' issues. There are so many things that proprietary applications have to restrict its users from not doing - reverse engineering, selling or giving away, leasing, using to create another product - that are null issues in Open Source software. We should keep looking for these 'alternative' ways of solving problems, stepping outside the box and saying 'what scenarios can we envisage that would mean that you never had this problem?'.

It's the way of the future, man!

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Wed 1st Nov, 2006

Everyday stuff

Bad news: in a quiet moment, I tested the Opti "Value Series" 375W UPS that the lab bought a year ago to keep the server alive over minor power hiccups. It didn't fare well: when I switched the mains power off, the server immediately died. Nothing on the front panel indicates that it's not working correctly, and the "Linux" software Opti supplied doesn't install correctly, and nut doesn't seem to recognise it, so I have no idea what its problem is. Next time, we buy a UPS based on whether nut supports it out of the box.

Good news: I finally got around to getting ClearSilver working on my home machine, so the 'mixulator' script I wrote to take the Tab-separated files that MixMeister can produce as a playlist and massage them into my (hard-to-read) mix website format is now working. So I've put up the track listing for my Go Ahead mix, for those people who want to know what they're listening to.

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Wed 25th Oct, 2006

Preparing new ground

I got the new laptop yesterday, as anticipated. So I spent most of the day 'preparing' it. This consisted of:

Then it was time to go home, and after doing the cooking and shopping and picking the laptop up from work (I rode home, and I didn't feel like carrying the new laptop in my pannier bag) it was time to try my hand at configuring WiFi. The computer was easy, it was the bundled Belkin mumblejumble 802.11g Wireless Router that was ... interesting. Mainly because it's made the process of letting it control your entire network and connection to your ISP really really easy, which means that everything else has been left out in case it confuses people. Once you get past the two big stickers that say "Do not plug this in before you've run through the install process on the supplied CD", leaving implications that it will open your internet connection to 1337 haxors, snip all the flowers off your roses, and steal all the chocolate from even your most secret hiding places.

What I've gone with is a sort of routed configuration: the Belkin maintains one /24 range for the wireless addresses and anything else that hangs off it (it has four wired ports so we can have small LAN games for regular computers), and the "Internet WAN" port is connected to my regular wired home LAN as a static IP machine. The Belkin then does NAT, so it's not really 'routing' per se, as the machines on the wired segment can't see individual machines on the 'Wireless' segment. Still, with a bit of help and a couple of ten-second hold-downs of the rest button, I got the bulk of the settings I wanted - WPA 1 and 2 with reasonably long pass phrases, and the password to administer it isn't "" any more. But actually getting a 'routed' network seems to be impossible - if I disable NAT, I can no longer get access to the router at all and it comes up with an address in the "I can't get a DHCP address" range.

This morning, amid much hammering of servers, Fedora Core 6 was released. I hadn't quite been up all night checking on it, but at a sleepless 5AM I checked and Lo, the torrents were available even if the main page was unavailable. I set the home machine to download it via BitTorrent, set the work machine to retrieve them off (because it wasn't yet on and went back to sleep.

I'll tell the story of installing Fedora Core 6 soon.

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Mon 23rd Oct, 2006

The Curse of the Waypers

Last weekend we did the Alpine Rail Trail with a friend from Albury. 'Did' is probably not the right word: firstly, we didn't go all the way from Wangaratta, but started in Beechworth. This means that your ride starts with about half a kilometre of mild uphill then fourteen kilometres of almost continuous descent through the hills toward Everton. Then you perform a near-tergiversation and head east toward Myrtleford and Bright. We did pass various people going up that long hill, a job I don't envy.

Secondly, I didn't go all the way. This is because my knees decided to invoke a little-known clause in their contract that states that they are allowed to invoke excruciating agony on prolonged use if not wearing the right footwear. I first discovered this on a bushwalk along Wilson's Promontory, where both my brother and I were afflicted. The shame of having to distribute both our packs to the other three people on the walk and hobble along as best we could damns me to this day. I now no longer suffer under the illusion that Colorado boots are for hiking. I had since then discovered that wearing appropriately designed shoes with arch support allowed the knees to work normally and not invoke their bodily rights. Alas, I was wearing the very shoes that I had successfully done two week-long bushwalks in with full pack, so I couldn't just blame the shoes.

However, I had rashly forgotten to bring my clip-on cycling boots, cheap Shimano things that were on sale at the time I bought the bike. I've cycled for over a year on various tracks and distances - forty kilometres around Canberra, riding hard up and down hills to work - with nary a twinge of unhappiness from the knee department. Sure enough, I rode to work today, and while my knees kept reminding me that they had suffered in the past, it was really only a reminder and no injury flared up, despite standing on the pedals up Clunies Ross Street. So the Shimanos work and my Raichles, despite being an excellent bushwalking shoe, do not work for cycling. Lesson (painfully) learnt.

Ignoring this, the ride was really quite enjoyable and easily doable even for a person of my moderate fitness. It was also wonderful weather - despite the very warm temperatures earlier in the week, a cool change came through that meant that I spent half of the ride wearing a jumper. We stopped in at the Gapsted Winery, ate our lunch and sampled their wares. The knee problems came very suddenly - almost within a hundred metres I had gone from a slight twinge in my left knee to continual pain in both legs. We arrived into Myrtleford, stayed at the Golden Leaf motel (named for the tobacco industry that is part of the valley's farming) and took taxis to and from The Ovens Hotel, which has excellent meals and bar staff whose passion for beer shows in the availability of James Squire Golden Ale and Porter, and Beechworth Premium Ale (brewed locally) on tap.

On the Sunday we had breakfast and the other two headed off. At that moment I received a call from my Dad and we briefly troubleshot his network problems. In this conversation it was revealed that he'd had knee problems, and so had my brother and sister. So, I can blame it all on having Wayper Knees! Wonderful. I got the Bus-a-bike service to take one person and bike from Myrtleford rather than three people from Bright; unfortunately the price wasn't much less. I then picked up some wines, checked out the berry farm, picked the ladies up, stopped in and got some lawsonberries and blueberries (frozen) and some fresh asparagus (from a different place, not frozen), and drove back home via Albury to drop our friend off.

So, overall, it was a reasonably pleasant weekend. I need to see a specialist about my knees, because I'd like to do some more cycle touring and want my knees to last the distance next time!

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Barely contained excitement

An air of barely contained excitement exudes from me today, as I find out that the laptop arrived in Sydney yesterday (on Sunday) and was delivered to Star Track Express for local delivery. A bit of prodding at the Dell customer support people, after a fifteen minute wait for the next available operator, elicited the knowledge that the consignment number was BXD39 plus the Dell order number. I found their online consignment tracker and determined that the delivery is estimated for tomorrow, three days before Dell reckons it will get here. Of course, Dell is probably hedging their bets...

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Tue 17th Oct, 2006

Notebook hassles and I haven't even got one!

I've realised now that, when it comes to spending money, I'm a coward. Except for brief moments of irrationality (such as buying the Nissan NX, which I did when I was sleep-deprived) and small-purchase madness, I tend to be near paranoid. I check out the options, look around, and read lots of reviews, all in the hope that one product will be obviously superior in price and performance. It doesn't mean I'm well-educated, because anything that gets in my way of evaluating the options in the simplest manner possible is too much like hard work. I end up confused and pick the one that's easiest to buy.

I finally rationalised that I could buy myself a notebook after Steve Walsh pointed out the salary sacrifice options available at ANU. While it still doesn't mean that I necessarily need a notebook, it does mean that I don't have to grab the money from the home loan in one big lump. But do you think there's an easy way to compare the different makes and models of notebook computers? A way to find all the notebooks with various qualifications - e.g. processor, screen dimensions and price range - and compare them? Even when you might only be considering models by one manufacturer?

Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha! and other side-splitting hilarity.

Most notebook makers assume you know the exact model that you want by an obscure number-and-letter code that is absolutely meaningless to all but the cognoscenti. How is a W7P-v different from an AC6? Who knows! Most notebook makers don't actually sell their wares to you directly, so they don't quote prices at all. Most of them assume you know what their self-imposed categories mean. What's the difference between 'Ultralord' and 'Lightyear' models? We're not going to tell you! In order to compare notebooks, you often have to resort to opening the various pages - or, worse, PDFs - up in separate windows and tabbing between them trying to remember whether it was the PDQ-T or the LV4-M that had the wider screen. Most of them don't tell you their weight except buried in the 'technical specifications'.

Theoretically, you can use sites like ShopBot to find which outlets have which notebooks at which prices. Of course, you can't shop by features, so you have to search for specific model numbers or by general price range and evaluate what you get from there. Then, once you've found a supplier for the notebook you've chosen, you have to actually try to buy it through them, incurring a whole new area of risk. Other, more Linux friendly sites like Emperor Linux are good - as long as you're in the USA, because that's where their notebook come from. Good luck getting support in Australia for that.

So at the moment my leanings are toward Dell. Their range, while not extravagantly large in Australia, still covers most needs. You pick a rough area of utility and then the notebooks are displayed for you, side by side. Once you choose a basic model, you then customise it to your tastes (rather than knowing that, if you did want the 1440x900 screen, that's model number FYT-B - but it doesn't come with Bluetooth). Some things get thrown in for free, seemingly at random, and they have lots of lovely "Free upgrade to 80GB hard disk if you buy within the next 37 minutes!" style push-alongs. But overall, it's absolutely streets ahead of every other notebook manufacturer I looked at - Lenovo, NEC, Toshiba, Acer, ASUS... All of those seem uninterested in making it easy for you to buy the thing; they just want to have a page that the retailers can point at to give the full specs - in other words, making you go through an extra two or three clicks to get enough information to know what you're buying.

Add another note to the great pile of "Good Ideas I'd Make My Fame And Fortune If I Ever Implemented": make a site that allows people to search for notebooks by features and compare them side by side. Include a variety of different manufacturers and an average price (or price range) for each model based on the online stores we're currently monitoring. Allow people to build systems and see what models suit their criteria (or near by it - sometimes you want to know that if you didn't need the Firewire port you could get something $300 cheaper). Also have a model suggestor which leads them through a simple set of questions (e.g. "Which is more important, weight or screen width in inches?"). Finally have links to the Linux On Laptops database to show you what Operating Systems had been tried and tested on your potential purchase.

*sigh*. Too many ideas, not enough time.

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Go Ahead, make my day

Over the last week or so I've been working on my new Goa mix. Mixing is very much like writing - sometimes things just flow easily and tracks go into place one after another smoothly, sometimes you get one track that you know you want but you can't find anything that sounds good coming after it. I started with a first draft of this mix, but after listening to it a couple of times I thought "this isn't what I want to hear" and threw the whole thing out. (Well, actually, no - the packrat that's said "Why did I just delete that, I really want to use it again!" too often in me has backed up the mix playlist file. I might put it out some time soon - it might appeal to some people.)

This mix is in the grand tradition of my early mixes: 'Infinity Mix' and 'Aleph Two'. The first is 3:57:03 - yes, just under four hours of trance and techno; the second is 3:22:54 long. The longest so far is the Antipodean 'Laidoutback' Mix at 4:11:31. But my intention is to change that, with a 4-CD-set aim of around 5 hours 20 minutes. And the Antipodean 'Insert Funky Title Here' Mix, which is a selection of the more clubby, funky Australian tracks I have, is probably looking at getting pretty close to that too - I think it's well into the four hour area now.

So, for all those people who love your Goa with a touch of Psy, I present the Go Ahead! mix in 160kbit MP3 (305,344KB) or 64kbit MP3 (126,524KB) format. OGG files and the track list will be following shortly. They're available through BitTorrent, and I'd appreciate people keeping seeding as long as possible as it's all going out to you from my home internet connection. This is why I don't offer HTTP downloads...

I always welcome feedback about the mixes, both good or bad. Drop me a line at

P.S. I haven't heard any Goa track actually sampling Dirty Harry uttering those immortal words "Go Ahead, Make My Day". I can't understand why not. But I'm borrowing them as the name 'Goa Head' was already taken by a series of Goa trance compilations.

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Fri 13th Oct, 2006

Descending to our level

Warning: Religious Content

There was nothing unusual about this Sunday, except for the white flying saucers descending from the sky. To global surprise, the creatures that emerged where older white men with flowing beards, dressed in robes and speaking perfect English. They announced to all, in voices that seemed to effortlessly be heard everywhere, that they were the Gods, descended once again to earth to put things right. Christians around the world were greeted with paternal love; members of other religions and atheists were politely addressed but were obviously treated like children who hadn't learnt good manners yet. The news reported that every Christian official from the Pope down had been personally visited, but the Gods were everywhere and talked to everyone.

There were a few obvious struggles at first. Later tallies calculated that about four hundred radical fundamentalists of other religions had suddenly broken out in boils, coughed blood, and died. They'd been carrying bombs or other weapons and the Gods patiently explained that they'd been intending to try and attack Christians and the Gods had simply used their divine powers to intervene. The public response from the other religious heads was a restrained dissent, saying that these Gods might well have descended from the sky but nothing could gainsay their firm belief that the True Gods weren't the Christian ones.

There was a brief time of global peace. Wars ceased as the Gods simply transported the protagonists to their homes. Weapons caches disappeared, to the consternation of the USA most vocally. Anyone of Christian faith was cured of any disease and stolen property was returned to them. Around the world the more liberal Christian congregations were celebrating openly, and Christian churches were packed as millions converted to the religion. Some optimistic estimates said that this paradise-come-true lasted for more than four days.

Then reports came of slightly disturbing things happening. Almost every single TV Evangelist had disappeared, and their bank accounts were suddenly emptied. The Pope had been heard to be debating some finer point of Biblical interpretation, although the Vatican later released a short statement that said that His Holiness now deferred to the Gods' interpretation. Sellers of 'holy wares' and trinkets claiming to be blessed by the Gods briefly appeared, and less than half a day later no-one could find a trace of them. Statues and images of Jesus Christ, from the great ones at Rio De Janeiro and Monroe, Ohio down quietly crumbled to ash and were blown away. The Gods also patiently explained that various sects of Christianity were not, actually, correct and were therefore not receiving their Blessing. Anyone who disagreed with a God over anything from ownership to theology would have a complete and seemingly permanent change of heart, although they would often afterward have trouble trying to remember the exact logic used to convince them.

More disturbing was the violence. In Pakistan hundreds of Muslims tried to storm a Christian Church and instantly disappeared, never to be seen again. A violent mob of Christians in Japan set fire to a Buddhist temple; the arsonists later confessed on TV to having done wrong but having seen the errors of their ways after meeting Gods afterward. The Buddhists whose temple was now ash received no compensation and the incident quickly disappeared from the news, the site being quietly sold to build a new Christian Church within a week. Within a day thousands of non-Christian churches were smoking ruins and hundreds of thosands of 'unbelievers' were dead or dying, and the only obvious repercussion was that the culprits were found later confessing calmly and saying that they were truly sorry and wouldn't do it again. People who had converted to Christianity after the Gods had arrived often did not have their sicknesses cured and their property returned; when queried, the Gods simply replied that the sufferer had not been true in their conversion. One God was quoted as saying "Only those who have believed in Us deserve the right to receive Our grace". Everyone who read this found themselves unable to argue against it, regardless of their intellectual convictions before.

It seemed gradual at first. But even the most devoutly Christian believers seemed, somehow, to find themselves in the wrong on some point or other. They'd come back from a conversation with a God at their local church telling everyone happily how they were no longer a Protestant and now believed in Catholicism, only to have their entire family argue them back with tears and shouting. It suddenly seemed that everyone knew someone who had had a family member disappear, or (even worse) break into boils and die. The lucky ones would have a God immediately visit them and tell them that they should be happy, as the dearly departed had sinned somehow and had 'suffered appropriately'. Bibles, the older the better, became a valuable commodity; Churches were printing pamphlets on the correct ways to address the Gods and what the official beliefs were. A miasma of quiet hysteria gripped the world, as everyone feared the consequences if they disagreed with the Gods.

Then came the Great Sickness. It struck anyone not a practicing Christian but was otherwise totally non-communicable. Unbelievers simply wasted away - while they felt no pain and looked perfectly healthy, no food or medicine could give them nutrition and no water could relieve their thirst. Quickly the stigma were put together - it struck more quickly the more you'd been exposed to Christianity and the more you had believed in it but turned to another religion. Atheists seemed also to become deaf and mute. The longest death seemed to take about five days; the quickest less than half an hour. Many tried to suddenly convert to Christianity and, initially, a few seemed to survive, but quickly the symptoms came back and they died just the same. The Gods would, again patiently, explain that these people had never truly converted, only believing in Christianity for the relief from sickness that it offered and not the everlasting redemption of the soul. The people that loved them would almost seem irrational - first stating that their father, sister or partner had obviously not been a good Christian and therefore, regrettably, deserved only what they had got, but almost immediately proclaiming their many good qualities and begging the Gods for any way to have them back.

Then, suddenly, the Gods departed. The population of the globe was now a scant two hundred million, and entire areas of the globe lay barren with not a person living as far as the eye could see. The Gods' final message was heard by every person, on that final Sunday four weeks after they had arrived. The message they imparted seemed burnt on everyone's mind - no-one had any problem reciting it from memory as long as they lived. It said,

"We are your Gods, and We have failed. We created you in our image, to become a civilisation proud and free; instead, you warped and twisted Our words to justify your ends. No commandment remained unbroken, no person remained sure in their beliefs. Your fear of us outweighted your love, and your desire of personal wealth overbalanced your care for the others you share the Earth with and those generations yet to come. You must remember Us, and remember the lessons we have taught; you must keep this world safe for your children and your children's children.

"We will be back to judge you again."

Paul's footnote: I am a practicising atheist. This story is intended to make the point that no religion is 'the' answer. More evils are practiced in the name of religion than good; even those who claim the highest beliefs are still capable of the worst deeds. Human fear, ignorance and self-interest are the real enemy. Nobody of any faith can stand up to the scrutiny of their Gods; we are better off acknowledging that and living by good principles rather than arguing over who wrote them. The choice of 'Christians' and 'Catholics' in this story was merely to avoid being seen as anti-Muslim - substitute the religion you personally love to hate.

And, of course, the real question is: what would happen next?

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Tue 10th Oct, 2006

The Great Audio Temptation

I've just discovered another source of music: Audiolunchbox. It's going to severely tax my desire to use Magnatune, because Audiolunchbox has one big thing that Magnatune doesn't: all my favourite Trance artists and labels. Most of Platipus Records and Dragonfly Records seems to be there, as well as such acts as Shpongle, Infected Mushroom and other pretty big names in Trance and Psy. I'm surprised Astral Projection isn't on it, but OTOH it's probably something Audiolunchbox are arranging with labels as they go.

The prices are very reasonable: tracks are 0.99c US each, and come in 192kbit VBR MP3 format with no DRM. Albums are $9.90, which includes cover art - but you can still just buy all the tracks separately. Unfortunately their comments system doesn't have any spam prevention, so it's pretty useless, but the rest of the site is very smooth: links to labels, artists, what other people have purchased, all the things that make buying music online good. The site also works on a subscription / credits system, so (as I understand it) you buy a subscription which gives you a number of subscription credits each month - one credit is equal to one track, albums are usually ten credits - which work out much cheaper than buying 'a la carte', which is still offered. Signing up is easy and doesn't seem to have any hidden costs. The site, unlike some of the artists' sites, is completely flash-free and designed to be cross-platform.

Sure, the terms of use still don't allow you to mix the files, upload them anywhere, or give or sell them to anyone. No surprises there. You can back them up as many times as you like, put them on as many machines as you like, and burn them to CD as many times as you like. All they're basically asking is that you be reasonable. You can download the tracks individually or as a group together in a zip file; download speed will be fast enough for most people in Australia (I averaged about 400KB/sec). I saw some files that you could preview, but didn't see any previews of albums, so I don't know yet how this is arranged. That's be my only criticism - I don't mind streaming a low-quality file down to preview new artists and new tracks.

So, with a new album freshly purchased and in my hot little hands, I can see that I'll be looking at buying more from Audiolunchbox in the future. Of course, I still have to buy a bunch of stuff from Magnatune for the LCA 2007 Rave Night, or whatever it gets called.

(Speaking of which, I'd really like to hear feedback from people that have heard my other sets and mixes, particularly at the last two LCAs. What styles do you like? What would you like to see and hear from me? Do you want me to mix at all? Talk to me...)

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Mon 2nd Oct, 2006

Geek Identification Symbols

I went Ice-skating with someone who doesn't want to be named in this blog and her/our/the nieces, and randomly picked my LCA 2006 T-shirt to wear. While wandering around holding their hands and occasionally bodily lifting them up from the ice, I noticed a girl wearing a T-shirt with "Schrodinger's Cat Is Not Dead" on the back. I met her when I was dropping my skates off to be reground (the last idiot had put a furrow so deep that I had stopped being able to hockey-stop and started being able to throw myself sideways onto the ice - same movement). One "Great T-shirt!" later, and I was introduced to a girl Unix geek and her little sister.

We chatted for a time about T-shirts (her front said "Schrodinger's Cat Is Dead", of course, which I didn't guess and shows how stupid I am - but at least I got the joke), network games (I'd been up until 2AM playing Starcraft and Neverwinter Nights with friends the previous night), unix geekery and how playing network games can give you a sense of belonging in small town Australia.

I went back to someone who doesn't want to be named in this blog and said, 'Did you see the girl with the "Schrodinger's Cat Is Not Dead' T-Shirt? I met her, and on the front it reads, "Schrodinger's Cat Is Dead".' This someone else said "I don't get it." And a little part of me that was already dead - the part that had hoped someday to have a partner who thought of computers as more than just rude tools - moaned in its undead sleep.

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Mon 18th Sep, 2006

The Turning Wave Festival

On the weekend, A Person Who Doesn't Want To Appear In My Blog and I went to the Turning Wave festival, a new Irish music and dance festival in Gundagai. It's the first year the festival has run, and if the signs are anything to go by then it's going to be a new fixture on the programme for folk and Irish music lovers in Australia.

We got down in time to miss the opening concert, but I wandered up to a nearby art gallery to shoot the breeze with a guy there (coincidentally, they'd moved down from Katoomba in the last year or so), and briefly managed to mention free software, while someone else listened to a concert. Then we got set up in our caravan at the little-further-out-of-town Riverside Caravan Park, and went to the main 'welcome' dance at the RSL. I called the first dance, which turned out to be the Mazurka Set once I'd emptied my brain of heap sift operations and sorting efficiency and filled it with Grand Chains and Swings. The Canberra Ceilí Band pumped out some great tunes and kept us dancing until 11:30 or so.

We survived the night, glad of bringing our doona, my extra-warm sleeping bag, and our pillows; we then occupied the rest of our day with walking up and down the hills and going to concerts, dances and classes. One particularly brilliant one was Ben Stephenson and Adrian Barker from Trouble In The Kitchen, who talked of the research they'd been doing as Folk Fellowship Award winners, researching old Irish and Australian tunes in the National Library.. A cracking combination of great stories and inspiring and moving songs.

That day, being Software Freedom Day, I had been wearing my bright orange T-shirt and talking to anyone that I could buttonhole about software freedom and what it meant to our culture, as well as its more obvious benefits of cheapness, reliability, and so on. I managed to give out about six copies of The Open CD and four copies of various flavours of Ubuntu. Interestingly, the shirt fit right into the orange, white and green of Ireland, so I think I blended in a bit too well!

We hunted down dinner at a local cafe and I hung around for a bit, waiting for the session to start at 9PM. A session is where a whole bunch of musicians get together and some old guy, usually hunched over an accordion or concertina, closes his eyes and starts playing. Everyone picks up the tune and plays three or four repeats, then someone else plays a tune that they know that links with the first, and so it goes for up to half an hour. For a dancer, this means that you dance continuously - going straight from the end of one figure to the start of the next - knowing that at any moment (if you're unlucky) the band will get to the end of the tune and may peter out, waiting for someone to play something that everyone else knows. So you can get through an entire dance such as the Mazurka (all Reels) in ten minutes of solid dancing, if you know what you're doing (rather than the twenty or more minutes it can take with breaks). It was such a session, in The Quiet Man in Melbourne, that really inspired me to learn the sets off by heart, so that I could enjoy the music and the dancing all night rather than having to wait and ask someone else who remembered the set. In typical form, by the time someone else and I were too tired to dance (given our bad night of sleep) at 11PM, Ben and Ado were just arriving with a whole bunch of dancers fresh for the fray, and it was looking like they really would dance until the pub closed at 3AM. Just my luck.

That morning we had organised a typical full Irish breakfast with two friends of ours staying nearby. This consisted of a grand fry-up: bacon, sausages, black pudding, white pudding, tomatos, mushrooms, baked beans and scrambled eggs (the last two of which I did not partake), finished off by muffins with a non-traditional-Irish Rosella Jam and coffee. This kept us fuelled until dinner!

In catching up with my morning double-shot cappucino I spied the Gundagai Computer shop across the road. Inspiration struck! I rang the owner and they were quite interested to take the remaining copies of The Open CD and Ubuntu I had, so I dropped them off at the shop next door. So Gundagai too, hopefully, will benefit from Software Freedom!

(The other moment of the weekend that I thought really resonated with the whole spirit of Software Freedom Day was where Margaret Winnett, one of the best and most respected set dance teachers in Australia, was talking about some of the footwork she'd learnt in doing various sets. She said that the guy who had taught her these particular steps said that his only payment was that she teach them to other people, and keep the knowledge alive. "If you bottle these steps up," she said, "and don't teach them to other people, they only die." Now, one can argue that there indeed copyright that pertains to those steps - that the person who first danced them 'owns' them in some fashion. But not only is it as impossible to stop people copying the steps as it is to stop people copying CDs, but it's also impossible for that person to make any kind of money if they'd actually been able to stop people copying them for free but had instead demanded a payment for the copy. And, further to this, copying someone's steps, or their tunes, and teaching it to other people, is wholly within the spirit of Irish music and dance. It's spread across the world because of this. Truly an inspiration for free and open software.)

After that we caught up with a living legend, John Dengate, who grew up in the area and told many tales and sang the many songs you can probably remember that mention Gundagai somewhere. We finished up at the farewell ceilí in the afternoon, once again with the Canberra Ceilí Band playing but this time with Conor Keane and a couple of other Irish musicians that had come over to the festival. Then we only had the relatively short drive home.

Overall we both thought that there was slightly too much choice in the programme - they were being a bit ambitious on their first attempt. But I'd much rather that than have too little to go to, and they got a lot of things, like the programme (which was done in a manner similar to the National Folk Festival's, and hence showed a lot of polish), right in the best possible way. So I think we'll be winding our way back along the track to Gundagai next year!

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Mon 11th Sep, 2006

Up in the blue mountains

For my birthday, Kate arranged for the two of us to have a holiday away in a secret, undisclosed destination. This turned out to be a cottage in Blackheath, about ten minutes west from Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. We drove up on Thursday morning in showery, blustery weather - Sydney had received rain and howling winds the previous day, and the weather was setting in for the duration. This did not, however, prevent us from receiving the usual allocation of idiot tailgaters that all drivers in the greater Sydney region are allocated by the State Government.

After enjoying the pies from a local bakery, we went out for a walk to Govett's Leap Lookout, along the newly renovated, wheelchair friendly Lady Fairfax path. Kate's enthusiasm got the better of us and we walked further along the ridgeline to (one of the many) Bridal Veil Falls, which gives you a good view of water spilling merrily down a creek and into a void. What I really wanted was a remote-controlled plane or helicopter with a video camera sending pictures back to us; then I could just fly my eye along the creek and out into space. It was pretty spectacular. The Blue Mountains does a good line in giving you a lookout that you can see straight down the cliff face...

We had a fairly simple dinner and watched The Sting, which I always enjoy. I picked up a new thing from it; near the start where Hooker has greeted his girl coming off the stage and a vaudeville comedian goes on. You don't get to hear all of it, but sure enough, he tells exactly the same joke that K tells to J in Men In Black, as he wakes up in the restaurant after a night out that he doesn't remember. Little details like that amuse me. It's also a little off-colour...

On Friday, the weather cleared and we walked through the Grand Canyon just north of Medlow Bath. You go down one steep defile into a temperate rainforest, and follow the creek along. It descends into a gorge that, with the appropriate equipment, you can descend into and follow; but the trail leads onward beside this narrow cutting until it widens out and you can cross it again. Then the climbing starts, because you've got to pretty much regain all the height you've just lost. Our calves are still sore, three days later, but it was well worth the effort.

In the afternoon we went on the Scenic Skyway, the cable-car that goes directly across Katoomba Gorge. This was amusing, but I don't think it was great value for money at $16 each (return). You get to stand on glass panels which go from translucent to transparent (thanks to liquid crystal technology) - if it weren't for the scuff-marks and the obvious bracing, you might think you were standing on something very solid but transparent in the middle of a cage moving slowly across the gorge. You can guess from this that I wasn't really impressed with it.

Kate had booked for us to go to Solitary Cafe, a prestigious cafe that's won many awards. We had the tasting menu, or degustation menu if you prefer the old style wording; at $84 each (without wine) this was a pretty expensive gift. It was delicious, and I did like sampling many small meals rather than committing to one and limiting your flavours, but unless they come down rather significantly in price I don't think I'll be indulging my curiosity too much. Still, it was a very pleasant night, and I really enjoyed passing the time with Kate, talking about our plans and our ideas.

On Sunday we packed up, headed north-west off the plateau and went to Jenolan Caves. I'd been there once when I was six, I think, so all I could remember was a bit of the entrance, where the cars and buses pass through to get to the parking areas. We went on the Lucas Cave tour, and at $16 each this was definitely good value for money. The tour guide was excellent, and that praise coming from Kate (a tourism management lecturer with years of experience in the industry) is hard-earned indeed. He involved us, he talked about the formation and discovery of the caves as well as the geology and conservation of them, and he guided us along expertly without fuss while answering myriad questions. I particularly took note of one description he gave of the conjecture that some initials found in the cave that are two years earlier than the 'official' discovery were possibly of a woman. He noted something along the lines of, "We may not have been able to find out who she was because the deeds of women weren't as well recorded as they should have been" - an excellent way of being diplomatic and pro-women without being misandrist or denigrating the times in which the cave was originally discovered. Well done, that man.

For a final bit of adventure, we took the short(ish) way home, via some dirt roads avoiding Oberon to Goulburn. The car's pretty dirty now, but I think it shaved at least a good hour or two off our journey if we'd retraced our steps to get there. So thank you very much, Kate, for a wonderful weekend.

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Mon 28th Aug, 2006

The Weekend Marathon

It's been a long weekend. It started at about noon on Friday, when a chemical spill in a nearby building forced the evacuation of our building as well. This didn't inconvenience me too much because I was packed and ready to meet Chris Smart for our drive up to the SLUG meeting. We had decided to accompany Pascal Klein - Chris on kazoo, Rainer on tenor crumhorn and myself on steam-driven ukekele - as he'd been invited to speak of the cornucopia of wonders available to the artist in Open Source Software. I was also keen to see what SLUG meetings were like, after having heard a few playfully sly remarks about how disorganised CLUG meetings are.

Pascal had already arranged to stay with Jeff and Pia, so the rest of us had to book somewhere to stay for Friday night. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, we booked a place not far away from the IBM building (a half-hour train-ride and walk away) through Wotif. It was Glenferrie Lodge, which is basically a step up from a backpacker's hostel or YHA lodge; the three were all in the same room (one queen and two bunks), but we got a hot breakfast and only payed about $60 per person for it.

The SLUG meeting was ... interesting. They do seem more organised: people were recording the meeting on video and audio for, I assume, later streaming to people not able to attend. They have a 'SLUGlets' talk for people newer to Linux in the second half of the evening, in parallel with the second, more technical, talk. Other than that, they didn't particularly seem more organised or disciplined than a CLUG meeting. All I mean by this, just in case you're firing up a ball of pitch to launch at me, is that we all have pretty good meetings and we're both as welcoming as a Linux Users Group can be, in my uneducated opinion.

Afterward we had dinner at a somewhat pricey but suitably delicious nearby Indian restaurant. I managed to spend a pleasant half hour treading on people's toes and have Conrad Parker call me an idiot, as a result of me playing somewhat of a 'Devil's Advocate' role in my arguing of my "One Frickin' User Interface" opinions, which I share and take inspiration from Hugh Fisher. The conclusion we agreed on was that, while it was a pity that there was wasted effort in Open Source Software as people reimplement various wheels because the other wheels are not in their favourite programming language, GUI or network protocol, this was a necessary thing to have software that evolves and moves with the times. The alternative is to have software that is written to a standard dictated by a single body, and we can see where that's got the proprietary software world...

(I do think it's significant that a lot of projects are specifically trying to reduce duplicated effort - look at Mark Shuttleworth's talk at LCA 2006. But I concede that to lock everyone into programming for one standard may be too high a price to pay; and it may still not avoid the problem of incompatible people or concepts. Sometimes you need a Thunderbird and a Mutt, so to speak. I also liked the Wikipedia article Not Invented Here's observations on duplicated effort in the open source community: ego also plays a part in it, sometimes.)

Aaanyway, we stumbled back to our hotel after midnight. After a night not punctuated by anyone snoring, we enjoyed our hot breakfast and headed on through the wilds of Sydney to Pia and Jeff's place. We arrived in time to help with some T-shirt folding - I particularly liked the moment three of us returned with all the packing bags to find the younger members of the team on their knees folding T-shirts industriously. It looked so like a sweatshop I wish I'd taken a picture. Unfortunately, a delay in the compiling of the address and order lists meant that we had to leave before the main bulk of work could begin.

My personal thanks go to Chris Smart for driving us hither and yon, in the ugly and unpleasant weather of Friday and with my erratic directions through the more confusing bits of Sydney with an outdated map. It was also really great to have a long time to talk politics, religion and software with Rainer and Pascal and Chris. I think we all had a great time.

I got home, answered a few bits of mail, tucked into bed and slept for thirteen hours. Then I helped Nick get his MythTV system working on Sunday (a feat at which I was only partially successful), bought a set of drawers on wheels to fit under my new desk, and went to Kate's sister's place for dinner. It feels like I need another weekend to recover from that one.

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Wed 16th Aug, 2006

The new modern comedy

It seems to me that the current 'sitcom' is mutating like a cancer. It's growing from focussing on people we can relate to (e.g. Captain Tony Nelson in I Dream Of Jeannie, who is trying to be a fairly normal person in a respectable job) to people who we actually despise (e.g. Stephen J. Fry in Futurama, who has no ambitions, no hope, no clue, and no self-control and is still, nominally, the star). While the humour itself can be sophisticated, the characters are on a downward slide - the only thing compensating for their neuroses and stupidities are the neuroses and stupidities of every other character. Family Guy is my current personal low tide mark: even Stewie, nominally way smarter than the rest of them, never actually succeeds at anything, often having overlooked something completely obvious. I just can't find any humour value in something that values dysfunction so highly.

What I hunger for is a comedy that has a fairly normal family, for example, handling the usual routine of hardships and triumphs that constitutes an ordinary life. They're smart, witty and have all the modern comebacks. They have jobs and problems we can all relate to and solve them in ways that make us think "Gee, I wish I thought of that." They feel like friends that we'd like to have, rather than people we'd rather avoid.

No character stranger than Joey from Friends or Kramer from Seinfeld need apply.

Sure it can be done. Just don't think "Selling a half hour TV segment to a major channel" because they'll never take it - the current mindless drivel already suffices. Think "Quality IPTV". Think "Youtube" and "Democracy Player". Think "Get a bunch of three minute clips together and become the next internet meme". Hell, if "Tripping The Rift" can get signed up as a TV broadcast show years after the three-minute one-joke ramble disappeared into internet obscurity, then sooner or later the TV stations will come begging. At that point, if I was responsible for the show in question, I'd point to the Black Mountain Tower and claim it as a new installation artwork entitled "F**K YOU TV EXECUTIVES". Because it would seem that any idea that TV stations get their hands gets buggered into a grisly, ugly shade of its former self.

Actually planning and writing anything for this "Ordinary World" sitcom is there somewhere on my list of things to do, between "convert the home network to IPv6" and "install an Asterisk server and invest in VOIP."

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The sheer pointlessness of it

Amusing myself today, I had a ten minute IRC conversation with Steve Walsh at which I won 15-2 times at the game of Questions. Since I also lost at The Game beforehand, I think it sort of cancelled out.

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Mon 14th Aug, 2006

I Wonder Where That Came From?

I've now officially been riding to work for more than a year now. That, however, isn't supposed to indicate that there's been any consistency to this - I've ridden 56 times in 365 days. Like any good geek, I've been noting my times and speeds and so forth, along with some little personal notes like "Ugh. Unfit again. Stupid!" and "Good speed considering I wasn't totally shagged out afterward :-)". It's little nuggets like that that cheer one up, you know?

I've discovered a few other things during that time. My cadence has sped up as I've realised that I can actually speed up your pedalling rate without going into a whirlwhind of thrashing pedals. (I still maintain that cadence is not a linear progression but more of a power function - after a certain point you put more effort into moving your legs at that speed than you put into moving the bike.) Headwinds seem to make a lot of difference. I like spring and autumn best, because your hands don't freeze off and you don't finish up covered in sweat.

But the weird one I discovered is that my times are always better when I pass (or get passed by) people. I've suddenly discovered a competitive urge in me that I didn't really know about. And, to tell the truth, I'm not that happy with it. I was the typical nerd at school who was hopeless at anything requiring gross motor skills but who was first at the door when the computer club opened every day. So why this sudden urge to be better than others? Or has it just lain dormant and affected everything else too subtly for me to really see?


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Fri 4th Aug, 2006

Right music or wrong music?

I find myself in an ethical, legal and preferential dilemma.

I've been saying for some time that I should start looking at music from new distribution systems - Magnatune, to be precise. Magnatune's licenses permit DJ-mixing for non-commercial use, such as mixes that are given away - which is what I do with my mixes. It seems particularly appropriate to use Creative Commons licensed music when mixing at LCA[1] - something that a couple of people have asked me about in the past. So finally I got the playlists from all the Magnatune artists that I thought I'd like and started listening to them. I picked a rough guess at about $50 as what I'd pay the various artists whose work I liked and was going to use.

Technically, it's good stuff. There's a fair variety of styles, from techno-industrial to downtempo to electro breaks to drum and bass. But, though I hate to say it, none of it is of the quality of, say, Push, Man With No Name, or Astral Projection (to name some artists whose styles are pretty recognisable and, in my uninformed opinion, fairly duplicatable); or Nic Chagall, Perry O'Neil, Stalker and the remixes of 'Sand In My Shoes' by Dido, to name some tracks that I've bought on vinyl recently. The feeling of giving the tracks a value of $50 was akin to the feeling of paying for a minor filling - I could see the value and the correctness of paying but I didn't feel I'd get any pleasure out of the transaction. But not paying any money feels even more wrong.

My main disappointment came when I got an email through Discogs from a guy selling a whole bunch of stuff (1111 releases, to be precise) on eBay, some of which was on my wantlist. I would use up the $50 just in buying two of these albums at full price, if you could find them in a store; I could buy three to five second-hand CDs from the UK for the same price (depending on how I spent my money) and I'd get names I actually recognised: Transwave, early Trancemaster and Reactivate, Infinity Project, and Man With No Name, just to name a few. That's quality I can trust.

Of course, with buying those CDs I'd be back at square one: none of them have any license which allows random DJs to mix tracks off their albums for free. Oh my wordy lordy no. Foolish for even thinking about it.

So my dilemma is simple: buy the right thing that I can legally and ethically use but that doesn't turn me on, or the wrong thing that I know I'll like but am not allowed to use.


[1] - Linux Conference Australia. The fact that I still persist in using proprietary, closed-source software on a proprietary, closed-source operating system to do these mixes is the one great thorn still in my side. I'd pay money for people to program a free, open-source alternative to MixMeister...

(I'm also considering putting a "Tip Jar" beside me when I'm DJing at LCA 2007, with a sign saying "80% of this goes to the artists that created the music". I wonder what the reaction will be...)

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Tue 1st Aug, 2006

DC Marketing scam part 002

Got another call from DC Marketing, this time on 02 8404 2207. If you get a call from any number that immediately hangs up, Google it. If you end up at a page on or, you've got scammed by DC Marketing.

I'm into proactive response, so (thanks to JT's pointer about who owns the block of numbers they called from) I called Powertel to complain about their customer. I also called Optus (my mobile phone carrier) and complained to them, to pass the hurt on. If everyone did that, then Powertel and whoever else they use for their telephone service will disconnect them. They've already had to move their Post Office box at Spit Junction because one disgruntled person started hanging around it with a baseball bad waiting for the mail collector to show up...

There is no question that what they're doing is wrong. Their marketing is completely misleading. They're not paying a cent for their calls, but instead are getting you to pay to call them. They're calling unlisted mobiles, which is a direct violation of the laws about cold calling - you're supposed to get a list of numbers to call from the phone companies, rather than just trying every number possible (which is what they're doing). And the phone companies will hate them because the call setup process to a mobile ties up a lot of resources, which is instantly torn down again without a cent being billed. You can bet that Optus and Telstra will take them to the cleaners if they get the chance.

And the grand irony is that, if you read their website, the "DC" in their title stands for "Direct Contact"...

Still, I got my "pinch and punch for the first day of the month" in on my brother before he rembered to call me, so the day can't be all that bad... :-)

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Thu 22nd Jun, 2006

Alan Jones, Broadcasting Bigot

And while I'm up here on the goat, I'll just say that there was never a man so evil, so hateful and so black in character as Alan Jones. There was a good article in a magazine I read today about Jones, a man who only once has actually turned up in court to defend his slanders and defamations of people - and that only because the prosecution subpoena'd him as a witness (probably just to piss Jones off - it was Stuart Littlemore, the man behind Media Watch). The brief quotes from Jones about the Cronulla riots, which were taking the racist hatred of the people and pretending that this was just "the voice of the community" while broadcasting them, would turn your hair. Evil stuff.

One question that they ask in the article is: why is there no book on Alan Jones? He's one of the top broadcasters in the country, he's led the South Sydney Rabittohs through a Grand Slam (whatever that means), and he was at the centre of the "Cash For Comment" scandal. No book? Why not? Because he's threatened to sue anyone who publishes something about him. So much for "fair hearing".

In the documentary "Outfoxed", they pointed out that there was an interviewer who the Fox network has as one of its top presenters - I can't remember the name - who was slandering and lying and reporting biased, bigoted misinformation; yet you couldn't sue him for slander since it's only slander (in the USA) when the other person know's that they're not telling the truth, and this person was basically so deluded and so perpetually biased in favour of the Republicans that it was impossible to prove that this person didn't actually believe what they said. Jones, I think, is in the same mould - a person who is so well aligned with the broadcaster's aims that their latent insanity and refusal to accept the reality that the rest of us live in is forgiven in the face of their manifest excellence at raking in tonnes of money.

I don't know what to do about him, though, short of proposing curare on his razor or a high-powered rifle from a good vantage point. You can't take them out, you can't out-speak them, and they have thousands of people who will back them up every step of the way because they share the same delusion. If you listen to Jones, I beg you to regain your sanity and join us in the real world. Switch off the radio and don't listen to the bigotry.

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Why not copy a computer?

Saddle up the goat, I'm going for a ride, thanks to Leon's article referring to the "Copy The Cat" article.

OK, here's an even easier challenge than that: Copy a computer. It doesn't have any biological stuff, so you aren't going to require nanotech or complex chemical laboratories to even start making one. A lot of the parts are readily for sale - PCB, chips, capacitors, etc. You've got a complete blueprint of one inside your computer. It shouldn't be that hard. Let's leave aside copyright issues here. Go on, copy it.

What, you say you can't do it now? That it would take months of time to disassemble the board, to source all the parts, to check the design actually worked the way your now disassembled board used to? And you'd need big complex stuff like wave soldering machines and seven-layer PCB printers? Well, the original board manufacturer's got all of that, why don't you?

The "Copy the cat" argument is absolutely bollocks. Its primary fallacy is Irrelevant Conclusion: "if we can't do it, only God could have" assumes that everything we can't do must be explained by God. That's These people probably don't have the first notion of what a potato does and its role in the overall survival of the potato plant, let alone how to synthesise starches and amino acids and cellulose in a lab. "Oooh, we can't copy a potato, that must mean God exists!" has to be right up there with "God must exist because I can conceive of God existing!" in the realm of "Stupid ways to justify the existence of God."

Because that's what these people are doing. They use "Intelligent Design" because people are weary and cynical of hearing that "God created it all". "Intelligent Design" never means "Aliens created us." It never means "We don't know what created us." It means "And I have this book here that tells us that God is the Intelligent Designer." I do not wonder why these people are trying to hide their stupid, contradictory, hermetic little religions behind the airy sophistication of the "Intelligent Design" moniker: because they know that "Creationism" died back in the fifties. They just can't let go, and their circular, bigoted beliefs tell them to go out and proselytise; like good little marketing executives, they've just simply rebranded it. Claiming that "Intelligent Design does not require the espousing of any religious belief" is really just blushing, just preaching, heh, to the choir.

The fact that they're prepared to play word games with "Fortunate Mutation" - using the popular cancer-derived, eugenics-forming idea that mutation moves 'away' from some 'ideal' - is just further proof that these people have abandoned any "Intelligence" in the "Design" of their arguments and are just relying on sophistry to carry their arguments. Further down they argue that just because we can't create a cat from non-cat materials, there must be an intelligence in the universe. Just another fallacy, carefully wrapped up as a logical deduction. And they have the absolute hide to then ask that ID "be examined on a scientific basis" - as if this hasn't been done countless times before and every examination proved that their arguments are specious at best and absolutely wrong at worst.

You may wonder why I'm so angry. It's simply that these people are the worst kind of hypocrites. They lie, they twist facts and words and arguments, they deny any proof that they're wrong - and then they claim that they're right anyway. They are prepared to do this to weasel their way into an education system that continues to cast them out. Their believers just lap up these 'proofs' in slack-jawed self-confirming agreement, refusing to listen to any of the arguments that might prove that they're wrong. I would be prepared to conclude that belief in God required the sacrificing of ones logical faculties if I didn't know a couple of believers in my local Linux group who are, in every other respect, intelligent, logical and well-read.

It really does make me despair.

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Tue 13th Jun, 2006

Soccer Fanaticism proved non-infectious in clinical trials.

It's amused me in the last couple of days that several people I've spoken with have been talking about staying up late and watching the FIFA 2006 competition. There was even a newspaper article sounding the alarm that pubs wouldn't be allowed to serve alcohol during some of the matches (as if it's mandatory to drink while watching people kick a ball around). The Braddon Pub in Londsdale street had opening times out to 5AM for some Australia vs. Ethniklashistan games. It seems that people can't stand to record these games, they have to know right now.

I haven't deliberately watched live TV in decades. Most of my TV comes via MythTV, and most of it is recorded from preset schedules for things I know and like. If I were a person wanting to watch the soccer, and I absolutely had to watch the night's soccer game in time to tell everyone about it at work, I'd simply set MythTV to record it, wake up an hour earlier in the morning refreshed, watch the game while doing some stretches or something, and then go to work and laugh out loud at the poor saps who have been up in the freezing cold that night, shivering in their blankets and punishing their body with lack of sleep. But since I'm no more than ephemerally interested in it, I don't.

(At the urging of several people in CLUG, I'm trying to work out when I can do a MythTV install-fest. The basic plan is to give people a simple written sheet of instructions beforehand, and get them to turn up with hardware and as much of the software as possible installed. Then we go through people's machines and fix problems. We try and get as much working as we can, but there are no guarantees. If you turn up with a bucket of parts, you get put at the back of the queue. But this competes for my Infinite Free Time...)

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Sun 4th Jun, 2006

On How To Run An Event That's Not Quite Popular Enough...

The culmination of six months of arduous planning was this weekend, when Kate and I ran the Canberra Irish Set Dance weekend. Now I am tired and my feet are sore. A combination of factors otiose in their complexity means that the event wasn't the success I'd hoped it would be, chief amongst them being that it made a loss whereas last year we made a profit. Though the people who came thanked us profusely, has this made up for the plethora of arguments and problems Kate and I had in organising it? Though I enjoyed myself dancing and running the event, is it really worth our while running it again? I wish I knew.

I probably just need some sleep...

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Mon 29th May, 2006

"Missed Call" scam - DC Marketing

I got a call from 03 8102 9565 the other evening. When I say "got a call" I mean "missed a call", since they seem to have tried for about 0.5 seconds to contact me. A brief bit of research turned up a large quantity of pages about these numbers, and the antics of DC Marketing, who are based in the UK with an office here.

Basically, they ring your number but immediately hang up. You don't recognise the number, so out of curiosity you ring back. They then give a rather deceptive spiel which asks you to ring a 1900 number to claim a valuable $40 prize. The $40 prize is actually ringtones, and while one or two might be free, if you accept the prize you're then subscribed to buy ringtones off them. So as well as suckering you for the 1900 call, the 'prize' is dubious at best and deceitful at worst.

Despite DC Marketing's legal bluster, this is almost certainly illegal, but because it's only poor punters losing their money the police aren't going to be getting involved any time soon. This has pissed a few people off enough to track down DC Marketing - one guy has even apparently hung around their post office box with a baseball bat. I can't condone the violence, but to me it's merely a sign that people feel increasingly disempowered by the law processes and by companies hiding behind legal smokescreens while unashamedly ripping people off with dodgy marketing.

Heads up, y'all...

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Sat 20th May, 2006

Change is as good as a holiday

On Thursday, Kate and I took two days off to go down to visit her brother and their family at a place they'd rented in Jindabyne. Rob and Julie are keen skiiers, Julie having been an instructor, and Nicole (10) and Megan (5) are learning. Thursday was a write-off - we got to Jindabyne as hard, cold rain started looming down on us and it was looking like a very bad day to be on the snow. Instead we played cards, went for a walk, ate, played more cards, and generally stocked up our reserves for tomorrow.

Friday was much better, though a bit windy still. Kate and I did the 10Km cross-country circuit at Perisher, which was overall very enjoyable. Unfortunately the last bit, which winds down the slope to the Nordic shelter in ways that are normally rather difficult to attempt in cross-country skis anyway, was the only part of the track that was ungroomed, so we really had to fight through the snow (as opposed to gliding along on well-packed track). But, all things considered, it was a lovely run, and I agree with Kate that one of the great joys of the Snowy Mountains is to get on cross-country skis and go out to somewhere away from the madding crowd and into the pure bush experience.

That afternoon, however, I changed. I bought a half-day lift pass at Perisher, hired some skis and boots, and became a downhill skier for the rest of the day. I skied with Julie and Nicole, which was very good - Nicole and I were very similar in our overall skill level (I had more coordination but less actual practice) and so we were equally tentative about how to tackle new and exciting adventures, like coming down the Vista run on Mt. Perisher with snow falling and dark clouds making the entire slope a monochrome grey. Call me a coward if you like, but losing all ability of depth perception on 45° slopes makes me more tentative in my approach. Finally, we met up with Rob (on snowboard) and had some group fun captured on film. Kate had elected to spend the afternoon minding Megan in the car, which I think Rob (usually on Megan-minding duties) tacitly appreciated.

On Saturday Kate and I had planned to try to get to Mt. Kosciuszko, by taking the chair lift up from Thredbo and cross-country skiing along the Main Range. The weather forecast had been for mild to strong winds on the peaks, but there were no clouds as we approached and dead calm in the valley so we bought our one-shot lift passes and went up on the main chairlift. Half way up I remarked, "Hmmm, you can start to feel the breeze now." Three quarters of the way up I'd pulled my neckwarmer across my face and was having to lean over for Kate to hear me. When we arrived the wind was blowing snow from the range - the hard, frozen-rain type snow not the fluffy stuff - straight at us. I looked at the long uphill slog, straight into the wind, with black clouds looming over the first hills, and pretty much decided then and there that we weren't going to Kosciuszko that day. Then Kate announced that there weren't any markers, and we'd have to find our way using compass and map held against the gale, and that put the seal on it. We were coming down.

The descent, however, was worse than even that portent-laden prediction. Gone were my smaller, wider, more manoeuverable downhill skis - instead I had straight planks ten centimetres taller than I am attached to my feet only at the toes. We found the 'green' run start, which looked like the start of a rollercoaster - I could see the run out but I couldn't see just how steep it pitched in until I was half-way down it. Snow-plouging with cross-country skis is much more difficult, as is virtually every downhill technique I'd learnt the previous day. Then it got worse: the track got steeper and took a right turn sharper than we'd be able to do in our skis. The other side was a steep drop-off into black diamond territory. I managed to only fall over four times in coming down the next fifty metres to where we had a bit of a breather in the shelter of some trees.

I contemplated the scene before me. I could see the track for the next twenty metres, and then only the Thredbo village, far far below. Between there and me lay five hundred metres of vertical distance, and I could not see any of it - the entire course between me and safe flat ground at the bottom of the slope was hidden behind that lip twenty metres away. I don't mind admitting I was absolutely freaked out. I put my skis on my shoulder and started trudging down the mountain. Kate tried skiing a bit further, doing careful traverses, and in watching her I felt an intense pride and love for her braving something that had I had not the courage to attempt. Then a snowboarder knocked her over as she was preparing for another traverse and she took her off her skis and followed in my footsteps (literally - they were better packed at that stage). Naturally, the snowboarder didn't stop to help or apologise. We finally made it down to the nearest chairlift, descending what I'd estimate to be a hundred metres vertically. We could see that the terrain started to even out - slightly - but by then we so completely pissed off at Thredbo and all that it stood for that we just rode straight back down. Like a final seal on the Thredbo Experience, a smoker sat close by us while we were having lunch and phoned up her friends to come over and smoke with her.

Lessons learnt:

So, to salvage an otherwise awful day, we went on a walk beside the Thredbo River at Bullock's Flat (named after a guy named Bullock who ran a sawmill there, not after any kind of oxen). We collected pastries at Nugget's Crossing and had afternoon tea back at the ranch at Jindabyne. We drove home with my usual dehydration headache starting to kick in, and me drinking as much as I could to at least stave off the long-term effects. I dropped Kate off to do her duty as a door person at the ANU Film Group and went to Pascal Klein's 17th birthday party. I'd missed "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon", but there was still "Die Hard" to go; I also introduced them to Give Me The Brain and Bartok (so the evening wasn't entirely wasted :-).

Oh, and it was sheer pleasure to wake up at 7:30 warm and cozy beside Kate, rather than at 4:00 cold and stiff and separated from Kate by a lumpy mattress edge. Conduction through the floor is an absolute killer.

Then, just to cap the weekend off, we took up Kate's brother-in-law Trevor's offer of a perfectly good table being thrown out from CSIRO, and replaced the nice but heavy, wooden and not-designed-for-computers desk I had with a keyboard-aware, powerboard-enabled slightly larger desk. I then purchased an inordinate quantity of cable retaining devices and went mad on the underside of the desk. Some double-sided sticky tape attached the network and the KVM switches to the undersides of the desk, and suddenly the previous cable infestation that had driven Kate mad was now beautifully and securely restrained out of the way. I even put the network switch so that its front face shows between the desk and the keyboard stand, so that I can see the state of the network (such as it is) just by glancing down, and still have all the network cables conveniently routed under the desk. It's beautiful, I tell you.

I'll post pictures of it tomorrow. Now I must sleep.

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Fri 19th May, 2006

Gain? Questionable. Pain? Absolutely!

I finally got to the Ultimate Frisbee practice session that the ACTUA website reckoned didn't exist but my friend Hugh (who used to play before the knee reconstruction - a warning to others?) thought was on Thursday nights at the Willow oval in ANU. This is, of course, not just a pick-up game, but it's a serious attempt at training for playing in the leagues. At least I wore the shoes I had that would provide the most grip on wet grass out of the pairs I owned, but I still felt a little odd standing around in jeans when everyone else is about ten years younger or more and wearing shorts and training gear. And cleats. Having more grip on the ground would have definitely been useful.

They were very gracious about having a new person turn up out of nowhere, and Ian and Tom did a great job fitting me in and making sure I wasn't too confused or outclassed. We did a warm-up run, some stretches, some practice defence and skills exercises, and then played a good-spirited game. And I had a great time. Fortunately my throwing and catching skills are pretty good, so despite learning a few new techniques I was still getting accurate passes, even sometimes under pressure. Finally we finished up and I realised that I had 13 minutes to get to the opposite side of the campus for the ANU Film Group's screening of Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, which I wanted to go to and at which Kate and a friend would be.

Boy, was I knackered by the end of it. I couldn't keep up a jog across the campus, my neck had picked up some crick that adrenaline had neglected to mention to me before, and I could feel the aches and stiffness beginning to set in. I had to have several new parts attached just so I could be knackered in them as well. I'm seeing a chiropractor so that the grievances in my neck can be partially sorted out, and will try to do some stretches and exercise over the weekend to iron things out. And it was pretty obvious that I wasn't keeping up with the Fit Young Men that I was marking in the game, especially towards the end. I can at least be proud that, despite not having done a lot of fitness training before then, I kept up throughout the whole session.

And I can't wait to go to the pick-up game on Sunday... :-)

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Mon 15th May, 2006

Ether? Nyet!

Sorry, Leon, but that page on the existence of the ether and questioning the Michelson-Morley Experiment is pure bunkum.

Far from there being "Few attempts [...] made to replicate the experiment itself", this is one of the most re-tested and re-checked experiments there is. Far from "several of them [also finding] experimental evidence for an ether", no observable effect has been found. Indeed, the Hills and Hall paper published in 1990 put the maximum speed of the ether at only 2x10-13 metres per second. You should expect at least that the speed of the ether is at least the speed of the earth's orbit around the sun (30000 metres per second)!

But, more than the factual inaccuracies, the style of the whole page gives itself away as the work of wishful thinking at best. Phrases such as "The real facts were given", "These are the notes taken by generations of students", and so forth - the sound of the voice of authority. Quoting the "Director of the Orgone Biophysical Research Lab", which is basically another branch of quackery dressed up to sound impressive. Claiming that this kind of knowledge is being suppressed by the establishment because it's too radical or breaks too many rules. It pegs my conspiracy-theory and mad-science cliche-ometers.

And it turns out that Richard Milton (the site's author) already has his own page on That's good enough proof to me that it's junk.

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The Middle Ground of social responsibility

I met a nice lady while having my lunch today. She's a Tibetan Chinese lady that works in one of the other labs here; unfortunately I didn't follow her accent enough to pick out either what her name was or where she worked. She's here doing her PhD for six months, and then its back to China to do some field studies.

It's fascinating to talk to someone from a different culture, to find out how similar and how different things are. We both live in societies that have compulsory voting, but for people from Tibet the issue can be simply being able to read the Chinese names of the candidates, let alone trying to find out what they stand for or even what they look like. I can't begin to comprehend what it was like to have the Long March or the Great Leap Forward happen, let alone imagine what it would be like to have them happen in Australia, but we could both look at the One Child policy of the Chinese Communist Party and see this as the only sensible policy to get the world population down to a sustainable level.

Imagine if you couldn't even read the words on your screen now. How useful would Linux be then, if you were unable to read or write at all? Imagine if a computer was an alien concept akin to having a flying car for its expense and availability. How useful would Linux or Free Software be then, if you were barely able to afford to keep yourself fed and clothed? These are real situations, and even the One Laptop Per Child project won't solve these issues if it can't get into the countries that need them or the devices you're gleefully donating to a country are being sold on the black market far from their intended destination.

Between the rigid social control of Communism, and the hedonistic "everything's available if you've got the money" attitude of Capitalism, there must be a middle ground. Somewhere where the people are informed about the issues and vote sensibly without either being manipulated by the media or simply being told what's good for them. Somewhere where no-one attacks or exploits another, not because its too expensive or against the law or they'll be killed by the army if they do so, but simply because they know that it's the Right Thing To Do. A place where ideas are shared freely, not because of some Party rhetoric or because God told them to or because people who don't share are labelled as social outcasts, but because each person is personally and independently convinced that societal altruism works.

My main concern with Australian, and in general Western, society is that any attempt at enforcing social standards is seen as Government Telling Us What To Do, and for that reason 'inherently' bad. This, to me, ignores the responsibility of the members of society to uphold the standards that they want. If the Government should not tell us what standards to maintain, then either we maintain them ourselves (and acknowledge that responsibility) or we are merely small-a anarchists, bent only on achieving our own ends without regard to the society we live in.

None of this is particularly new, but in an age where politics seems to be increasingly polarised, I feel it's important for all of us to seek a middle ground. Open Source Software people already practice some of these ideals - in particular, I think we're more conscious that doing the right thing by other people takes an effort but is always payed back in what others do for us. If the Distributed Republics that Neal Stephenson suggests in "The Diamond Age" - where membership is not a matter of physical location but of a state of mind that is constantly tested and informed - actually existed today, I'd join one straight away.

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Tue 9th May, 2006

Two Player Card Games

I hear your cry, Simon. Let's start with the game that I would play with two players.

Bartok is a game in the 'crazy eights' group - in other words, it's like Uno. I play a simple set of rules like this:

  1. The dealer deals five cards to each player one at a time, and one face up in the middle. The player on the dealer's left starts.
  2. You match what's on the top of the middle pile by suit (spades match spades) or rank (three matches three, jack matches jack).
  3. If you can't go, you pick up a card (from the deck).
  4. If you do something against the rules, you pick up a card.
  5. The first person to get rid of all their cards during their go is the winner of that round, and invents a new rule for the game.
It's best to start with simple, Uno-like rules at first. Draw twos, Skips, Reverses, Wild cards, and saying a key word on your last card. But you can get much more adventurous - rules that swap people's hands, or move cards around, or allow you to put an extra card down, or cards which allow you to play out of turn. Some people start with a rule:

If you ask a question, you pick up a card.
But I find that stifles things, leading to a very silent and rather tense game. But, for sure, add it in if you like. There's a good list at Malcolm R's Nomic directory. The real fun part of Bartok is to have a rule which is slightly different to what you were expecting or is usual. "If you play a two, the next person draws three", or "If you play an Ace, then the next player can put any card on it", or "You can play an Ace on any suit except the suit of the Ace".

In one game we had the "Sorry" rule, where if you did something against the rules and another person gave you a card before you picked one up yourself, then you had to say "Sorry" to them. Not doing so counted as an illegal action... This continued until we had the "You're Welcome" rule, where the person being said Sorry to as a result of the Sorry rule had to say "You're Welcome" to the Sorry-sayer. Not doing so also counted as an illegal action... Anything that gets players interacting usually works well.

Of course, with only two players you need a bit more creativity. Two player Uno is possible, but it tends toward 'runs' of one player consecutively playing because 'skip', 'reverse' and 'draw two' are all deemed to miss the other player. The flexibility of Bartok allows you to go for keeping play going between players consistently. I also like the idea of giving each new rule a name and having to invoke it when playing, leading to a dialogue like that from Tom Stoppard's play "The Real Inspector Hound":

1: I ruff
2: I huff
1: I bluff
2: I bark
1: I twist
2: I knip one
1: Snap
2: You're in spoon
1: Oh? Damn.
2: I advance
3: I fold
1: What are you doing here?

But maybe that's just my Mornington Crescent playing sensibilities coming through.

Otherwise, there's a huge list of two-player games at what seems to be the ultimate resource for card games, John McLeod's website. There's even a version of Cripple Mister Onion - don't use the link, it's infested with adware. You'd think these people would at least detect that I'm running Linux and haven't got a frigging registry, so not only can't I download some software to scan it, but your ad that pretends to do so and says I have 47 errors in my registry makes me want to offer you up to Cthulhu as a plaything. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

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Mon 8th May, 2006

<strike>Meredith</strike> Mercedes college IT admin - part 2

Well, obviously I needed to be insulted and aggravated some more. An hour after I sent my response, I get a reply which not only contradicts itself (Albert doesn't seem to remember whether or not he's seen Wikipedia before) but continues to insult my abilities, my intelligence, my manners and my motives. It's half top-quoted, half in-quoted, it has one of those confidentiality and responsibility disclaimer footers that are the legal equivalent of bull nipples, and to top it all off he finishes up with:

"My suggestion to you is to be less confronting and perhaps then you will not receive abrupt responses."

Oh, good one! Gee, does the pot want to call the kettle black some more? I can only assume this has been taken as a personal insult, or the fact that I inadvertently misremembered Mercedes College as Meredith College has enraged Mr Sabadin beyond sense and reason. I have the real, visceral desire to send the full copies of the correspondence to their headmaster and point out that if his students give his college a bad reputation with a few people who might see the edits on Wikipedia before the reviewers come in and revoke them, then their IT director manages to give an even worse impression amongst his peers. Who then blog it as a warning to others.

But the inevitable feeling that this is yet another fight that I really have to ask myself whether I want to participate. Spend some more time writing and posting (because there's no way I'd trust an email to get through untampered) a letter to their headmaster, only to find that the well has already been poisoned? Because, in the grand scheme of things, a few students have been defacing a site that is very good at repairing and removing such defacements? Compared to the problem of bullying, or parents being unhappy at fee increases, or the question of which of the sporting teams has disgraced the school recently, the Wikipedia issue pales into insignificance. I feel that the best I could hope for would be no response at all, or a "thank you for your concern" form letter. The worst would be months of aggravation, or possibly even some lawsuit claiming defamation and aggravated verbal assault, somehow. Who knows?

It seems that this is the danger with trying to do what one sees as the right thing.

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Meredith College vandalises Wikipedia

I go to the Wikipedia front page every once in a while to see what new articles have been featured - basically to expand my range of trivia. The article on solar eclipses had been locked down due to vandalism. I don't know what it is about me, but I'm always curious about what's happened in these situations, so I looked up a couple of edits. I noticed that one of the IP addresses was from Meredith College in South Australia; looking at all the edits from that IP address I concluded that a bunch of students had decided that Meredith College was their personal playground.

So I became a grumpy old man and wrote a stern letter to their contact email address, along the lines of how I considered it as bad as schoolkids vandalising public property. I was hoping for something that would be read out at school assembly to put a bit of scare into the students and to get the site administrators to watch Wikipedia edits more closely to track down the actual culprits. (I think that's where this morbid curiosity comes from - I was always too afraid of being caught to do anything really bad at school, so perhaps seeing what other people got up to gives me a vicarious illicit thrill. I don't know.)

What I got back made me question what Meredith College is paying its IT staff:

Hi Paul,

You are surprised by this, you've obviously never been to school or
perhaps many years ago before the internet.

If what you say is true, I happy to assist in tracking down the students
who are vandalising you website.

You have provided a link, but what logs will give the information to
trak down these students?

Unfortunately, without names/proof there is not alot I can do to help in
your predicament.


Albert Sabadin
I.T. Systems Manager
Mercedes College
540 Fullarton Rd, Springfield
South Australia 5062
Well, thank you, Albert, for insulting my education and my intelligence. Thank you also for missing enough words from your letter to also make you look like a complete berk. You haven't heard of the largest publically available online encyclopaedia in the world? And you accuse me of being too old to remember the internet! Perhaps you've heard of Google? Maybe you could use the latter to find the former?

No, I'm not surprised at children being like children, Albert. I'm not surprised at them being interested and amused by breasts, or calling people gay, or accusing them of alcohol and drug abuse. I am surprised that a Catholic school tolerates this, though. I don't want to get into a Yorkshireman "In My Day" speech, but we were taught to remember that our behaviour in public reflected on the school. Does that mean so little these days?

Tracking down the students is your job, not mine, Albert. I've provided you with more than enough information. Your students are not only defaming the Adelaide Crows and its players directly, but they're also mentioning other names which I'd be prepared to bet were students there. Put two and two together, Albert. And do so before you get hit with the lawsuit from the Crows.

And even if I can't provide you with exact names and incriminating evidence, you can still do something, Albert. You can log which computers are going to Wikipedia and track down the students. You can give them a roasting in school assembly. But you can't pretend it hasn't happened. If I saw students in the college's uniform spraypainting walls, or abusing other people, or being rude in public, I expect you to do something about it whether or not I can identify those students and can front up with incontrovertible evidence. In a way, that IP address provides far more actual proof that your students were abusing Wikipedia than any photo or letter can provide.

(So I wrote a slightly less vehement and vilificatory email in reply. We'll see what happens from there.)

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Fri 28th Apr, 2006

Kill All Smokers part 001

There's someone outside the building smoking. We happen to be in the lab next to the front door; to get a bit of 'fresh' air in we've opened the windows. They've been standing there for the last fifteen minutes, smoking away and listening to their iPod and obviously waiting for someone to pick them up. The smoke has now completely penetrated the lab and is completely distracting me. I could cope if it was a nice aromatic pipe smoke as described by Neal Stepenson in "The Diamond Age", but no; it's ordinary, 'dirty leaves on fire' smoke from a standard boring cigarette.

Smokers, I think, just don't realise how annoying they are. Maybe it's because they've lost all sense of smell. Either the chemicals in smoke twist their brain into believing that no-one else minds their smoke, or they do so subconsciously out of the sort of retrojustification that we all indulge in to justify our own antisocial habits. Perhaps they just don't even think of the habit any more - their fingers light the thing, and their lungs breathe it in, without the slightest conscious thought. Maybe they justify it by thinking, "if someone wants me to stop they'll just come and ask me, and until then I'm going to stand here and make a good reek," (an idea which reminds me of a child saying "I'm just going to wave my fists about and walk toward you, and if you happen to get in the way that's your own problem.") I don't know. I've never smoked.

What I do feel like doing is going up to them and saying, "Do you mind if I just stand here for a while and let off some really noxious, rotten egg, toxic wasteland farts for a while? Because it makes me feel good, and it's actually quite good for my digestive system, and no-one else seems to mind or says anything to me while I do so anywhere else. Perhaps you'd like to join in, and we can comment on the types of food we eat to get the really horrendous birds-falling-from-the-sky smells that I think is a sign of a good fart. If you don't like the smell, just say so and I'll flip a coin - on heads I'll pretend to be polite and cork myself up, surreptitiously scowling at you in your persecution of my innocent pasttime; on tails, I'll discard all pretense at politeness and openly abuse you for daring to take my rights away, quite possibly openly farting in your face beforehand." Of course, to complete the effect, I'd have to eat a special food that costs about $30 per packet, stained my teeth and made my breath smell bad (so that even if I wasn't tooting merrily away it'd still be unpleasant to be in close conversation with me), the pack would have to warn me in violent, graphical detail that farting may kill or maim you permanently (!), and the fart would have to be a glowing cloud of green gas that everyone for fifty metres could observe and that you could never quite get rid of from your clothing.

Do you think that's going a little too far? :-)

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Fri 21st Apr, 2006

Song: "The Living Years" by Mike and The Mechanics

I have my father staying with me for ten days or so; he came down to Canberra for the National Folk Festival and is staying to see a few sights and generally catch up with us. His visits, and ours to him, in the past have felt too short to have really good chats. So this time he's stayed over the break. I took a week off work to be with him and also to get a few things done around the place.

Two things have soured this for me slightly. Firstly, he's working on a degree in English Literature and has numerous assignments that are due by the time he gets back. So he's been closeted in his rooms for quite a lot of the time - we've had a few chats and a few walks and a few drives but no extended period of time where we've got bored of eachother's company. So that might be a good thing, but I can't help feeling we'll be both regretting not spending more time together when he comes to get on that plane home to Brisbane.

The second is that there's been a number of unpleasant arguments. Never quite the same level of protracted intensity that we managed when I was down in Melbourne, when we argued heatedly and without progress for an hour as we wandered around the outside of Chadstone Shopping Centre. But that's because, after that incident when Dad said, "Let's just forget this argument," I said, "No, let's remember it, and whenever we feel ourselves getting worked up like this we're just going to back off and let things cool down so that we can spend more good time together." It works, sometimes.

Part of the problem is that both Dad and I like to be right. We often take a contrary side in an argument because it's interesting to explore things from that perspective. I think that we have a few other less desirable habits, too. I tend to have instant sarcastic answers leap into my head, and only training and vigilance prevents them from being spat out at the other person in an attempt to do them more damage than I do myself. Dad, when he gets worked up, will interrupt, claim he doesn't interrupt, criticise you at great length when you interrupt, tell you you're shouting, start shouting at you, criticise your way of delivering your point, and, in fact, use most of the tactics of Conversational Terrorism. I see the problem as him (innocently or deliberately) forgetting the original topic of conversation and getting caught up in Wanting To Be Right - he'll do anything so long as you eventually say "OK, you win, you're right, whatever," even to the point of insisting you say why he's right and that you sincerely believe whatever he was saying. And you better not try this in a resigned, can't-be-bothered tone of voice...

I try to not do any of these things. I also try to steer around them when Dad veers toward some lurking back alley in the conversational roadmap. The frustrating thing is that we also have perfectly normal conversations where we discuss a wide range of political viewpoints (for example) with perfect equanimity. I've had one conversation about his writing this week that has turned into a seething miasma of ugliness, and another that went twice as long that was perfectly amiable and (moreover) in which he agreed with me over several points. The only conclusion that I can come to is that the circumstances are entirely within Dad himself - that if he's frustrated over something he'll tend to be frustrated in the conversation, and if he's relaxed then everything's fine. I'm still not ruling out the "wants to be right" idea, because the things that we've discussed when it's all gone smoothly have been things we've generally agreed upon (like politics) and have just been espousing our own particular views rather than trying to convince the other person of some particular point. It could even just be me, unconsciously shifting my point of view around to run parallel to rather than crossing his in an attempt to not bring up any point of conflict. I don't think so, but I can't be sure.

At other times I've watched him, hunched over his guitar while his hands that normally shake with Parkinson's Disease find their way unerringly over the fretboard, plucking or strumming out a melody with skill and musicality. He's writing a story about the musical thread that connects him with his mother and daughter - maybe this is the thread that keeps him together? Or listening to him talk about recording the Folk Festivals in '77, '78 and '79 - times I can barely remember but are as clear as day to him. "Bernard Bolan? Is he still playing? I remember him at the Adelaide Festival..." Or the other afternoon, when he played handball with me and some others, including kids young enough to be my children - and did well! OK, he wasn't so fleet of foot, but he played a good game and he was definitely no worse than any of us. He got to Ace a couple of times and held his own there too.

This is the Dad I love. And it's the one I want to spend most of my time with.

So I stuck my neck out a bit and, when we'd had breakfast and Kate had gone out for some shopping, said that I wanted to talk to him a bit about why sometimes we wrangle and why other times we agree.

The first thing he said was that he'd been wanting to talk to me about the same thing.

And so we did talk about it. I still don't entirely know what conclusion we came to. Partly because we're such unrepentant talkers that any example we give is likely to be corrected, expanded and continued rather than just demonstrating a point. But I think the key was that we both need to give the other person space in the conversation. We both tend to give elaborate and lengthy expositions, complete with two to five examples of varying complexity, including corrections. It all starts sounding like an Iain M. Banks sentence, which can take up to half a page. Though I hate to use the term, we need to go for soundbites and bounce them off the other person in more of a dialogue. Now there's a concept. Dialogue, eh? I'll have to think about that. :-)

Dad also knows he gets frustrated when he thinks people are being patronising to him. He hated me wanting to help him do up the zip on his jacket, even though he knew I was only offering to help rather than doubting his ability to do it at all. This also works against him when he feels like he's being treated as incapable of understanding a point. (Unfortunately, I do think sometimes he gets so fixed on his own point that he fails to listen to anyone else, and that's where things go downhill). But anyway, I suppose I can understand this; no-one argues at their best when they're already frustrated by something else.

Finally, the time came for me to drive Dad to the airport. We talked about some small, inconsequential things, moving onto the (children's) story he's writing for one of his subjects which he's been showing my nieces and the critique he received from Julie (sister-in-law-in-law-sort-of) on it. He said that he'd come up with this good idea about using the large number of big words that he's attempting to in his story: a glossary at the back. It's just such a spectactulary bad idea on so many levels - no book I've ever read has had a miniature dictionary in the back except for technical references and stories where you need to translate from elvish or imaginary friend language or whatever, and a second mini-dictionary could be called unhelpful, incomplete or supernumary amongst other things. The solution to using big words and adult phraseology in a chidren's book is to not use it, not to try and make workarounds and excuses for it.

When I stated this opinion, of course, it was on for young (me) and old (Dad).

I really tried. I tried telling him that this was just my opinion, that he didn't have to accept it if he didn't agree with it. I tried telling him that he was dominating the conversation. In short, I tried to give all the signals that I'd sort of previously set out as ways that he should pick up that this conversation was not going anywhere. But no, he can't leave it, until finally I just cut him off with, "This topic is over," and stop talking. Eventually he simmered down, and even (amazingly) let me help him with the QuickCheck McDonalds-style checkin that Qantas now has (i.e. make the customer do most of the work). It was not a good way to see him off.

So now I have to come up with an email to tell him the problem: he just better get used to being wrong. Because he is sometimes. Making the other person abandon the argument because he's being a conversational terrorist does not make him right. He's just going to have to learn how to deal with this, and the sooner the better. I want to remember him cuddling his guitar, or doing bold new things (like offering tapes of the 1978 National Folk Festival performances 24 hours after they'd been performed...), or hiking. I don't want to remember him as The Man Who Couldn't Admit He Was Wrong.

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Thu 20th Apr, 2006

Leon Is Blogging Again! Let Joy Be Unconfined!

Good to see you back on the scene again Leon. I was hoping that you'd pull through, and to hear that you've made a speedy and relatively trouble-free recovery is excellent news. As you say, health care is a place where things don't just work, they have to work; machines, drugs, people, practices. Having an OS like Linux that not only holds records for staying upright through thick and thin but is also free has to be a good thing for them.

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Buy This Book And Make The Author Rich!

I read Mikal's mention of the teenager's guide to preparing for the second coming. I'm inspired to write a book with the title "How Awesome Was It Supposed To Be Again? A Teenager's Guide To Understanding The Disappointment After Realising That The Second Coming Isn't Coming.". Or maybe "How Awesome Is That? An Adult's Guide For Turning Teenager's Into Gullible Fools To Do Your Bidding". Or "How Stupid Are You: A Teenager's Guide To The Myths, Contradictions And Schisms In The Christian Church". Yeah, that one's going to get me a million.

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Mon 10th Apr, 2006

A letter to the office of the Honourable Julie Bishop, Minister for the Department for Education, Science and Training

Dear Office,

I address this email to 'Office' because you neither signed your name or used it in your email address. Nor, in fact, did you sign or print your name on the form letter you sent me. I find it difficult to believe that this is correct procedure - that an unattributed letter can issue forth from a Minister's office. Your form letter also cuts off abruptly, which either indicates that you were supposed to send me more than one page, or that your form letters are even more cut down than usual.

Overall I am extremely disappointed by your response. Your form letter does not address any of my concerns in the slightest. It reiterates the very claims from the Copyright Agency Limited that I believe have neither basis in fact nor social, moral or ethical justification. It is written in the laborious, roundabout style that Don Watson so ridicules in his book "Death Sentence" - long words, buzzwords, and the mouthing of bureaucratic phrases that have long since lost their meaning. It also shows clear evidence of a lack of proofreading. In short, it is no answer at all.

My concerns are simple: that the Copyright Agency Limited is attempting to charge for material for which it has no right to charge. It is doing this by proposing its own methods and its own standards for judging how much it can charge, and proposing its own schedule of fees for these services. It does not propose anywhere to show how it fairly distributes the funds it collects, which should be a requirement of any agency that is allowed by the government to take money from the public purse. In requesting this increase, it is morally bankrupt for attempting to profit from the effort of people it does not represent, and for taxing the education of our future generations. Far from being allowed to extend its scope, it should be placed under more scrutiny and asked to justify its current activities.

I don't expect an individual response. I do expect a response that tells me that my concerns are heard. I do expect a response which is signed, named and dated identifiably, so I know who is speaking with the Minister's voice. I do expect a response which uses simple, well-written language rather than bureaucratese. I do expect a response which is addresses my actual concerns, not a piece of something very like propaganda.


Paul Wayper

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Sat 8th Apr, 2006

Strange transformation of town occurs not just every 100 years!

On Saturday, Kate and I and a small selection of our relatives went to the little hamlet of Bundanoon, in the Southern Highlands about half-way between Canberra and Sydney. On one weekend during April every year, a bizarre transformation occurs there which transforms the town oval and surrounds into an enclave of Scottishness the like of which rivals Scotland itself. Everywhere, people are wearing kilts and tam-o-shanters with attached red hair, saying "Arrrrr the noo!" in a rustic brogue, and eating the traditional Scottish dishes of Haggis, neaps and tatties, pancakes, kebabs, meat pies, and vegetarian thai curries.

Yes, it's the 29th anniversary of "Bundanoon is Brigadoon". It doesn't happen only every 100 years, folks! After the traditional traffic jam for parking in the morning (light this year), we had the traditional march along the main street of all the traditional scottish pipe bands (measuring 2.3 on my Skirlometer) and associated hangers-on: the fake fencing school, the utes full of dressed-up preschoolers, fire trucks and old tractors (which are presumably scottish because they've been kept going by spit and ingenuity for far longer than they deserve). Then we had the traditional scottish country dancing, in which Kate and some friends did very good demonstrations of how to recover after someone's made a mistake during a dance, and then the oval filled up with people partaking of traditional scottish sports of caber tossing, stone-lifting, haggis-throwing (using a simulated haggis filled with shot) egg-throwing and water-balloon throwing.

Then comes the real fun: four or five large men lift the "Stones Of Manhood": 100Kg, 115Kg, 130Kg, 145Kg, and 165Kg spherical stones to be lifted onto full- sized beer barrels (over one metre in height). One of the competitors was from New Zealand and is a fully qualified surgeon - he was the tallest and also the one without the noticeable gut. Finally it's all capped off with a massed playing of the bands: 750 people in 21 bands all marching up and down the oval playing traditional scottish tunes (measuring a peak of 7.6 on the Skirlometer). Then we engage in the traditional traffic-jam to get out and the traditional headache and that accompanies a trip out into the Big Blue Room without sunscreen (despite me being very good and wearing my hat and sunglasses all day).

I know I'm mocking all of that, but I do actually enjoy the day. I'm ridiculing the people who want to pick up scottish heritage when it suits them, and the hawkers who go around such fairs selling rainforest trees, painted ceramic tat, T-shirts, essential oils and soaps, and ironing board covers. I love the shortbread and tartan (if only I could afford a kilt in the Queensland (being a Queenslander) or Stewart (which I'm actually allowed to wear as my maternal grandmother is one of the not-royal ones) tartans - $900 for a handmade kilt (which means every part is hand-stitched except the belt-buckles) - ouch! I'm not quite sure if I want to go the full hog - which will cost you another $900 for the Prince Georgie jacket, the skean dhu, the socks, the little tags for the garters, etc. etc. etc. The scots do know how to part a person from his money...) And there'll always be a part of me who is moved by the calling of the pipes - and not to plug my ears.

And it was a nice day out with the nieces, who don't yet have my cynicism regarding tat-vendors and who can encourage me to put the boring adult side of me aside and enjoy the spectacle and the fun.

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Wed 5th Apr, 2006

Filling The Glass

To start the exercise, please take a glass,
And add to it some water - nearly full.
Then add to it some flowers: it's a vase.
Its purpose is enhanced: more than a tool.

The same technique can be applied to feet:
You start with walking - functional yet tame.
But learn to dance, to waltz - you're more complete;
And two can dance together - that's the aim.

And so my life with Kate's more satisfying
With her transforming function into art.
We've had our share of arguments and crying,
But greater is the joy she brings my heart.

And so I am inspired to write this sonnet -
My world is more complete with her upon it.

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Tue 4th Apr, 2006


The problem with the world today is that it's very difficult for the Emptor to have any Caveat any more. In an age where I can buy a DVD and have it delivered to me without me leaving home, knowing what you're getting is a very difficult process. When you get a part that's shrink-wrapped into its box so you can't open it without paying the money, and the only way to know if it works is to assemble it completely and smother it with heat-sink goo, if you haven't already seen that exact model before then you're probably going to have to buy it to find out if it works or not.

The DVD I got of Robots! is a prime example. I'm sure that there are DVDs of this movie out there that have all their menus working perfectly; that don't have bundles of annoying ads for other productions (two of Garfield movies! Aieeee!). But how do you know? How do you try it out (even in a store) to make sure that what you're getting is exactly what you expect, even if you want to waste four hours of your time in a store (even if the staff would let you).

The minor gripes I have with Madagascar also apply here: fast, somewhat jerky motion, and a plot that doesn't seem to really know where it's going. And does everything have to dance? Hip-hop, breakdance style? The director commented that they were still refining the plot, and even the character models, as they went through animating the movie. This may explain it - but all this is really only a fairly minor niggle.

I still do enjoy it. It's a good, simple tale, I love seeing the mechanical world - anyone who's gazed at The Gravitram for as long as I have will enjoy the public transit system, and the characters are fun. I think the fact that 'big' names like Robin Williams, Mel Gibson, Samuel Jackson and Bruce Willis (among, of course, others) are recording voices for animated movies really does add a lot of extra chutzpah to the film. Keep it up, guys!

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Fri 31st Mar, 2006

Salt - a play about food.

I don't think I'm cut out as a viewer of modern theatre.

It's not the fault of the theatre itself, which tries new things, experiments with form and dialogue and material and so forth, to convey new ideas and challenge us in our coseted beliefs. But there's a part of me that just wants a good old Oscar Wilde play, or an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Yes, something with no subtlety whatsoever, where you don't have to labour over the meaning of everything because everything is imbued with meaning. And I call myself an intellectual.

Salt is a play about people's reactions to food and their relationships based on the sensual pleasures of eating, smelling, and cooking. It also deals with the topics of people going senile, relationships breaking up, and historical attitudes. It pulls together two very different characters: Megan, who doesn't think of herself as a 'food nazi' but grinds her own cinnamon in her own mortar and pestle, and her mother Laurel, whose idea of gourmet meals is to add a can of cream of corn to a bag of frozen potatos, throw some pre-grated cheese over it and bake it. In between these characters floats "the man", a person who transforms from Megan's ex- partner to her lover to Laurel's dad to an anonymous quoter of cookery books.

Half of my problem is that the whole play doesn't seem to talk about anything directly. I know this is a property of modern theatre, to which I refer my reader to my first sentence, and I suppose that at least with this play you can say that there is an explanation of what's gone on and why most things have occurred. But the beginning, where Megan and Laurel speak independently yet as if in a conversation, where there's not one but two 'other halves' of the conversation not being filled in at all, just started me on the wrong foot. Given that I was never going to be a fan of Laurel, whose disregard for her own daughter borders on spiteful sometimes and whose wilful rewriting of history in her own head to justify her own ideas causes more grief for others and, ultimately, herself, it was never really going to get better. But I did get through it.

I also find it challenging to face a person deliberately acting like a delusional seventy-year-old, when my father is increasingly struggling with everyday things that seem simple to me. Again, I have no problem acknowledging that it occurs. But on the one hand I find it hard to take that someone can be deliberately acting that way, like Ruth Cracknell's character in Mother and Son; and on the other I don't need another reminder that things could get so much worse. I have enough of a vivid imagination of what the future might hold, and I don't want to see another situation that I can't either rationally solve or escape from.

Not much of a play review, really. Still, the rest of the season at the Street Theatre (which Kate got a subscription to) includes Q.E.D., a play about the life of Richard Feynman, and Political Animals, another Shortis and Simpson affair which, if the last one was anything to go by, will be both musical and comic. Can't go wrong with that.

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Thu 30th Mar, 2006

Apres Vous

It's a French Farce. They're very good at it. It makes me cringe, all to visibly and to Kate's great embarrassment. I want to yell out, "No, don't buy 500€ worth of flowers in the vague hope that it will set up a meeting between a no-hoper and his ex-partner who doesn't really want to see him." In part because I feel like I'm one living the farce, sometimes, constantly saying "yes" to more projects and letting problems fester and get out of hand because I haven't the courage to sit down and solve them. I don't need any more of a reminder that sometimes my life looks like a disaster and I the wilful instigator of it.

But the acting is brilliant, the story clever, the women beautiful and the men masculine and French, and it's all rather neat. It's worth seeing.

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Wed 29th Mar, 2006

Teaching Set Dancing - the right way

I'm gradually building up a set of techniques to teach new sets, and more complicated ones. The methods I have so far are:

I suppose many of these ideas are useful not just to teaching dancing but in teaching any new activity.

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Sun 26th Mar, 2006

Where's the fairness?

The whole idea of atheism has been roiling in my head since I read the article linked from someone's blog on The article basically talks about atheism being the only approach to life that sees things as they are. All religions colour how life is by saying "it's OK, good things happen to you when you die" or "she might be having fun but she'll go to hell and then she'll be sorry." They justify good behaviour by reference to some arbitrary text or teaching. They take your reasoning and your judgement away and replace it with someone else's, which you're mostly supposed to trust to be right.

I'm not going to try to point out the silly things, the stupid things, the atrocities, the immense untold harm that religions all over the world do to their followers and/or people who don't believe (take your pick). Other people have done a far better job.

Atheism is the only principle which says "we must be responsible for our behaviour now". The only moral code we should trust is the one which we come up with ourselves. Our actions should only be judged by what they do now, not what reward we reap from them when we're not here to have to justify them. Sure, the Ten Commandments might be a good start, but let's not trust them just because of an old story. Let's trust them and live by them because they make perfect moral and ethical sense. Since nothing's perfect, we have to debate them, and by seeing where things are dark grey and where things are light, and everyone learning by actively thinking about it rather than just taking the ideas in on faith, everyone can see a much clearer picture of where their decisions take them and the society they live in.

But what's really getting to me is that Atheism seems to be the one choice that is tacitly assumed was left out of the Declaration of Human Rights. You're free to believe in something, even if it consists of 90% sexism and 10% dreams. But when you don't 'believe' in anything, then you have to justify it. You have to be constantly explaining why you chose to think about your actions rather than take the chinese whispers of principle that most organised religions have become (with each new book re-interpreting the old ones and rewording and editing the old doctrine to make it fit the new). I could say I belong to a religion that teaches people to be cannibals and to punish curiosity with death and I'd get a "That's nice, I'm a wicca". But say I don't 'believe' in anything and I have to justify it every step of the way.

And the worst thing about this is I have to justify it in terms of whatever religion the other person holds. It's like saying "You don't believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? But, like, everyone does! All the cool people do. Why are you so uncool?" I have to suddenly be able to quote chapter and verse to prove why I don't believe in what the other person believes. I can't win the argument, because that would be denying the other person's religion. But when I lose, I am implicitly saying "You've proved (to yourself, if not to the people around us) that your religion is justified. I cannot refute it. You win." It's stupid.

Things like the Flying Spaghetti Monster are there to make the religions of the world have to disprove that belief. That's a nice intellectual way of approaching the idea - try and prove that no religion is justified because one can't disprove the other. But again it doesn't matter, because the Declaration of Human Rights, when watered down sufficiently by the zealots and the Political Correctness Doublespeak Cabal, says that you can't actually say anything against another religion. And it doesn't matter because these people have never actually entered the arena, so to speak: they'll never take you on in a fair argument about the logical, ethical and moral reasons for their beliefs. If you don't believe as they do, you're just wrong and they don't need to justify it at all to themselves, which is exactly the people you're trying to convince.

And what happens at the far end of this spectrum is what you get in Kabul, where people want to put a man who converted from Islam to Christianity to death. This is a religion that's OK? You believe us or you die? We're supposed to tolerate that? They declare a fatwah on someone who says something a bit nasty about their religion - any person that kills that out-speaker is actually hailed as a hero. This is fair? This is just? These people don't respect the Declaration of Human Rights in the slightest. Why should their rights be respected? And yet they cling to this, and invoke the DoHR whenever their beliefs are threatened.

Hypocrisy is considered the greatest evil of all in that it is inconsistent: it applies one standard to the speaker and another to the listener. It also admits no challenge - the person cannot be challenged on their actions because of the very sin you accuse them of. They need not justify themselves to you because they have already justified their actions to themselves. It is the greatest evil because it is a deception of oneself, and it is most harshly punished because society requires consistency.

So don't ask me why I don't believe. Prove to me why, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, you still believe in whatever your doctrine teaches happened. Prove to me that your system of ethics has a complete consistency that relies on no external scripture for correctness. Prove to me that your stubborn insistence on teachings that make no sense or, at best, have to be so liberally warped as to have no residual meaning, is an application of logic and intelligence and not of blinkered self-deception and I'll yield. Until then, don't hide behind some convenient right to your own religion.

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Sat 25th Mar, 2006

It's harder than it looks. And it doesn't look easy.

As part of my "get out of the house and stop wasting time on the computer" plan, Kate and I went to a 'day school' for Scottish Country Dancing. This isn't quite the "great one-legged leaps" with arms above the head that is Highland dancing, but it is no less of a work- out. It's all about precision - lots of ballet terms like 'first position' and 'third position' float through the instructions, there's a comprehensive fifteen-minute warm-up and ten-minute warm-down bookending each class, and in workshops like this you're really expected to be going for precision rather than fun.

That said, I still think it's excellent. Partly because I learn how to actually dance SCD with style, rather than lolloping around like a sack of assorted limbs. Just keeping your head up and not looking at your feet can, somewhat paradoxically, make your steps better. And having to really think about putting your feet just so, and to do it again and again, and to be able to memorise the instructions of what to do next and join the two together, is difficult.

It's excellent for the age-group which was most represented at the workshop: the retirees. It does warm-ups and stretches, gets your mind and body working together, gets you meeting other people and having fun, and is a gentle yet persistent form of exercise that raises a sweat on me, half some of these peoples' age. If your parents are retired and are starting to get a bit dumpy, find a Scottish Country Dance class somewhere near you - there's one in Canberra every night of the week, for instance - and push them along. While you're there, have a go yourself. You'll enjoy it. And believe me: no one is uncoordinated enough to not be able to do it with a bit of practice.

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Thu 23rd Mar, 2006

Capslock cannot truly express my fangirly joy!

Another in the long string of movies I've placed on order at EzyDVD arrived today. I tore open the envelope and revealed Howl's Moving Castle, another in Hayao Miyazaki's string of animated classics. I'm still getting into Japanese Anime, and I think this is an excellent way to do it - brilliant animation, brilliant stories, and without the dodgy Fanservice, subtitles and inscrutable oriental plots of other more true Anime.

This is an adaption of a book by Diana Wynne Jones, which I have also read a little while ago. As such, from what I can recall it's not a perfectly accurate rendition of the book - I think the ending is a bit more twisted toward Japanese sensibilities. Given that I can't recall the ending or the subtle nuances of plot in the book, I don't think I'm really one to comment, though. I finished the book really wondering what had happened and why. The movie was a bit more straight forward, while still retaining the ambiguity that made it so interesting.

I won't attempt to summarise the movie. I think it does live up to its PG rating - I think the older of my four nieces (age 10) would probably cope but Megan, at 6, is going to be scared by some bits. But, in my view, this is why PG means Parental Guidance rather than Pleases Girls or Pretty Gruesome - it means that as long as an adult is there to say "It's OK" or to explain why some things happened the way they did, it's alright. Children only learn to be brave by learning that scary things aren't really that bad, and they only learn to be adult by observing adults in the same situation they've been in. And this is definitely a film (and a book) for kids.

The other thing I like about it is that it's a film with a message. In this age of Shark Tales and Treasure Planet, animations which dumb everything down and exaggerate everything up and spend more time painfully zigzagging toward the wonderful happy ending where everything works out, this is a movie which poses some questions and asks the viewer to think about them. An ongoing war which people seem only to be agitating for, not trying to get out of; the question of whose side people are on; looks being deceiving; the idea that some things are problems only to us while we let them be problems. These are things that the viewer has to work out - things that'll never be in a kid's movie done by a major studio because the hoary hags that sit on their thrones in the big studios think that children only like pabulum; they only want funny, silly stuff with more rapper slang than sensible dialogue. Eugh. Give me Miyazaki any day.

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Or: Why I need my head read.

I did a quick bit of hedge-trimming today. This involved me walking up and down to see the line, snipping things off, and leaping up to snip off the branches that were out of convenient standing range. Why, you ask, was I leaping up? Because I was too lazy to get the ladder. It was only a five-minute operation, after all...

It's only a Cotoneaster. Some day we'd like to replace it with a native. I think the Grevillea we've got in the front would be ideal - it's very prickly and apparently most people are allergic to it. If we had a problem with people wandering into our yard, which we don't that'd teach them a severe lesson.

There was a small family, or clique or whatever, of Superb Blue Wrens in the garden, including one I didn't see but Kate picked up as a male just going from non-breeding to breeding status. This means he goes from brown with flashes of blue to brilliant blue all over. Nature is wonderful. We're very lucky to have a garden that attracts them.

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Tue 21st Mar, 2006

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Went to see this at the ANU Film Group tonight with Kate, Trevor (brother-in-law) and our two nieces Kira and Angela (Trevor's daughters, you see). Unfortunately they're still struggling with technology troubles - they had got an alternate print that had three large reels instead of half a dozen small ones, but because one projector is dead and awaiting its costly technician to wander Canberra-ward, they had to show one reel and then take a five minute break to unthread the old reel and thread the new. This was surprisingly bearable.

It's been a long long time since I read the book, and as far as I can recall the movie is surprisingly faithful to it. It's reasonably paced, doesn't do the 'gripping thrill a minute' thing that they obviously strive for in Harry Potter (which is a mercy), and nicely free from American accents. Interestingly, they start with a bombing raid over London to show both the times and the characters, before you get to the old mansion with its large number of hiding places. It's a nice touch.

The special effects are wonderful - a very few times I (being the picky sod that I am for effects) picked up something not quite right. But the ability to have all these creatures, big and small, hideous and beautiful, hairy and feathered and horned and grimy, appear so convincingly real; so many directors must be wishing they'd had this technology. I remember going to see Tron, and being blown away by those effects - these days they can render that in real time... Tron had its 20th anniversary not too long ago, either.

The only incongrous bit, to me, was the age of the characters versus the storyline. Put simply, I just don't think like a twelve-year-old any more. Even Harry Potter, despite sharing the common theme that any old person could suddenly turn out to be fated by prophecy to bring down the evil empire, has Harry not wanting the fame or fortunes. Maybe I'm being too harsh - certainly the film doesn't have Peter or Sarah saying "Oh, we're the children from the prophecy, let's go off and slay the evil queen, then!" The sight of a fifteen-year-old boy drawing a sword and leading the army just doesn't quite have that ring of believability to me any more. Sad, when these things die in us.

I will probably be corrected here, but I see it as a good sign that there are production companies willing to make books into films and not bugger the story with a forty-tonne pile-driver. I have this hope that someone will go to Terry Pratchett and say, "You know that book 'Thief Of Time' you wrote? We'd like to do it, exactly as you wrote it." Or 'Mort'; the famous 'lose the Death angle' book. Or even 'Good Omens', which would be a lot easier to do and has more talk about it than any other pTerry work. That or The Belgariad by David and Leigh Eddings. I live in hope.

Have fun, Paul

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Only a matter of time...

One thing that gets on my goat is people who think the rules don't apply to them. People who think that getting in other people's way and taking lots of risks is their way of proving how great they are. People who think that laws are just around to irritate and annoy, rather than to save their lives.

So my goat was well and truly ridden hard this afternoon by a 'Lycra Lizard' cyclist in yellow jersey not wearing a helmet while riding on the road not five metres from the cycle path. The urge to say something to educate these pole-sitters that the rest of the world isn't going to always slow down and drive safely around them had finally got too much for me: I wound down the window and yelled out "Get a helmet!" I don't know if he heard me or not, because he was jacked into his iPod with headphones.

So congratulations, older moron! You've completed the Stupid Trifecta! Keep on riding around like you own the road, because someone else who also thinks they own the road - and is driving a tonne or more of heavy, cyclist-crushing car - is going to prove you wrong. And then your precious bonce isn't going to be so holier-than-thou. And your insurance is probably not going to pay for your medical bill, either.



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Make It Nice, Mr Sulu!

Just one final note: yes, I will be applying some styling to this blog to make it more like the rest of my home page. Maybe that'll actually encourage me to have some style for the rest of the page. Now, does Pascal owe me any favours... :-)

Have fun,


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So who is this Paul guy anyway?

I suppose you can find out most of this from my domain: I'm 34 years old; I live in Canberra, ACT, Australia; I work at the ANU doing Perl and C programming on ways to search and classify DNA; I teach Irish Set Dancing; I ride, rollerblade, ski and walk for exercise; I play computer, board and card games, as well as roleplaying using the GURPS system; I also do wood turning and woodwork at the ACT Woodcraft Guild; I live with my partner Kate (currently doing her PhD). We have no children, no pets, few debts, occasional arguments, more fun, and lots of stuff to do.

I won't try to list all the things I do here. You'll just have to keep on reading to find out. :-)

Have fun,


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Too Busy For Words - let's see if it's true...

A few things have finally moved me to create a blog.

One is reading the excellent Planet Linux Australia - the aggregator for Australian Linux bloggers. Few things inspire me more to get up and do something that to see a whole bunch of other people doing interesting stuff and talking about it. It makes me want to try to inspire other people, and add my voice to the community.

Another is the sheer quantity of ideas that I have. I'm not trying to puff myself up, but I've got to a stage where I just don't believe that some of the good ideas I've got should disappear off into the distant corners of my mind, to only be acted on in that mythical future where I have enough time to do everything I want to. It's too much to hope for that something I write will inspire someone else to actually get up and do something. But this is as good a way of getting in touch with people of like mind, or people who know more about the topic and know the solution to the problem I'm posing.

Further down the list is the desire to try to round out the body (perhaps somewhat literally) of bloggers. I seem to cross a lot of topics and be interested in a lot of fields - everything from woodwork to fractals to music mixing to Irish Set Dancing to programming. Everyone has their own little interests that they fear to mention at work, or at their social clubs, because of stereotypes and stigmas. Sometimes I think the best way to combat this is to talk about it - to stick it out in the open and say, "Well, what about it?".

And, perhaps lastly, to prove that nagging internal doubt wrong - that I don't have the patience or the energy or the time to keep a blog up-to- date. If not, then this really will be a blog that is Too Busy For Words.

Have fun,


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