Wednesday Mar 16, 2011


This is the last entry to appear on, any further ones will be elsewhere... maybe oracle... or (just so long as I can remember that password!)

Thursday Sep 11, 2008

Blog moved....

For various reasons, some of which are spelt out in my knew blog, some of which are not but are implied by it (such as my logins to now just not working from my laptop), I think this will be my last blog entry here (for a long while, anyway.) I just can't implicitly support some of the changes that have happened to logins on through continued use of it.

So for continued ramblings on work and other matter, see you all at (just so long as I can remember that password!)

Monday Aug 11, 2008

First piece of the new USSR falls into place.

For just over 15 years now, the group of nations that sprouted up after the downfall of the USSR and the Soviet empire have been enjoying a period of self determination and relative peace. But recently, things have been changing in Central Europe and its relations with Russia.

In the last 24 hours, we've started reading about a conflict in Georgia, supposedly between rebels in South Ossetia and the Georgian army. Being next to Russia, Russia has stepped in to "help". But who are they helping - Georgia or themselves? It's not clear.


Russia supplies much of the former Eastern Bloc with oil via the Druzhba pipeline. This includes countries which have become quite good friends with the USA, such as the Czech Republic.

Last month on the xth of July, 2008, the USA signed a treaty with the Czech Republic for the contruction of a radar facility to direct missiles planned for deployment in Poland - ostensibly to protect against rogue states in the middle east from launching attacks at the USA. Something that Russia wasn't particularly fond of.

In the days that followed, oil supplies from Russia dropped, without any official word being give as to why. Whilst the Russians cited technical problems, the proximity of the two events doesn't fool anyone. As if this wasn't enough, towards the end of July, oil supplies dropped further, to 50% of its pre-treaty volume.

So what's that got to do with the price of fish, you might say?

Now the question to ponder, is the conflict in Georgia a result of the fallout of diplomatic relations between the USA and Russia surrounding its radar facility in Poland and the Czech Republic? Will Georgia be just the first brick to fall? With the USA caught up in the middle east mess that it made, there's little it can do to help countries such as Georgia. But hold that thought: if the USA or NATO/EU forces were to enter Georgia, what would they do and who would they be shooting at? Would it be the first time that it was East vs West? How will Russia respond if NATO/EU request that they provide peace keeping troops for South Ossetia and that the Russians withdraw?

While the USA has ferried back 2000 Georgian troops from Iraq, much to the outrage of Russia, claiming that the USA was not helping, it would seem that perhaps this might be the limit to which the USA can do something. The conflicts it has embroiled itself in throughout the Middle East are taxing its military muscle and budget, something that Russia is probably well aware of. So if you were Russia, looking at a collection of rogue states around your border that had abandoned you to become friendly with your once enemy and that once enemy was now looking weak, wouldn't you look to capitalise on the situation?

Whether it is by coincidence or not, on August the 20th, Czech TV plans to present footage of the 1968 Russian invasion. Looking at what is happening in Georgia today, it feels like we're in a time loop...


Sunday Aug 10, 2008

Playing God with the Weather

One of the official Chinese news outlets for English, Xinhua, writes about how Beijing disperses rain to dry Olympic night. Sounds clever, doesn't it? But is this more a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face?

Rain, in Beijing, as in many other cities, performs two roles:

  • provides water to everything on the ground and
  • "washes" the air.

So, by making the opening ceremony rain free, they've all but guaranteed the rest of the event to have lower air quality. How do I know this?

I've lived in Beijing during this time of year and the air on morning/day after a rain event is always much nicer than it was the day before.

So why is it so humid in Beijing? The prevailing wind direction from most weather patterns that affect the city is onshore (wind blows from the sea to the land.) During summer this brings lots of hot moist air from out over the ocean, over the land until it meets the mountains that border Beijing, trapping it. About once every 2 weeks they get a westerly wind pattern and all that crap gets blown out to see - clear skies usually last less than 48 hours.

I'm sure the only people who are surprised about the condition of the air in Beijing are the IOC folks that haven't spent any real time in the city and lapped up whatever the Chinese told them. The Chinese people won't be, anyone who has been to Beijing won't be, athletes maybe (because they've been duped by the IOC.)

So the buildup of bad air continues and one is left to wonder if the Chinese authorities will insist on playing God (and make things continually worse) for the entire event or will let nature look after itself.


As has been reported today, rain over the weekend has washed away some of the smog. Maybe the organisers of the opening ceremony should offer an apology to the cyclists for denying them some cleaner air.

Saturday Aug 09, 2008

Evil Google vs Evil Microsoft

I suppose a lot of people are starting to ponder and comment on this so let me just join in all those that are...

Google often espouses the motto Do No Harm, giving an impression that it cares about what it does and the world around us. It is, however, a corporate entity, out to make money, just like Microsoft.

In IT circles, Microsoft is the company everyone loves to hate and while in many places you won't never be fired for buying Microsoft, it's just as likely in that same place for people to bitch about Microsoft. Why do we hate Microsoft? Software quality aside, they have employed and gotten away with business practices that many other companies wish they could. They force us to use their products and make it hard for competitors to develop software that can compete on an equal footing with it. Thus they're evil and we all hate them.

Google, on the other hand, doesn't sell software per-se, it sells advertising. In order to make the sale of that advertising relevant, they need to have some clues as to what we might be interested in. No good giving us ads for surfboards if we're in Nevada browsing the web for car engine parts. The more they watch what we do, the more they can learn about us and ideally make the advertising better, right? While this is all done in a somewhat subversive manner at present, through the use of cookies, web bugs, etc, how many people would say "yes" to someone looking over their shoulder while they surfed the 'net, just so that they could hand them better adverts?

Not content with just providing search capabilities, Google has reached out and gotten involved with mapping. Google earth is a great product, letting you zoom around the globe like a bird. Free of advertising, right? Not now. In the beginning there was very little location data. Now when I fire it up, by default it is showing me where motels are, places of interest, etc - advertising. Ugh. Get it off my map! But they haven't stopped here with their mapping - they've taken to the streets in cars and gone about taking photographs everywhere they can. In doing this, they, as a company, have quite clearly crossed the "evilness" line: they've ignored "no tresspassing" and "private" signs and ventured onto private property, without permission.

While some might want to blame individual drivers for going where they shouldn't, ultimately someone higher up the food chain has made a call about where to go and where not to go. From comments being made on the WWW, their stance appears to be "photograph as much as we can get away with." As a business, the way in which Google approaches what they do is starting to sound a lot like Microsoft and rather than play nice with everyone, they're out to exploit whatever and whomever they can.

So while we've all been focussing on how evil Microsoft is and looking to Google (perhaps) to save us from Microsoft, I'm starting to wonder if this is really a good idea. If I was faced with having a choice of free software from Google that came with ads or paying Microsoft for it (without ads), I think I'd have to give the finger to Google and pay Microsoft for it. Whilst Microsoft may have nefarious business practices in order to get their goods to be #1, they don't drive up and down streets invading the privacy of me and everyone else on the planet. The evil of Microsoft stops at the shopfront (or the DVD/CD.) The evil of Google knows no boundaries.

So rather than having one large, evil, mega IT corporation to hate, maybe we now have two of them...

Saturday Jul 26, 2008

Is Qantas on a trajectory for diaster?

On Saturday the 26th of July, 2008, a Qantas plane experienced rapid decompression and was forced to descend to 10,000' before an emergency landing at Manilla. When this was first announced, there was speculation of whether it was a bomb, was it bad maintenance or just metal fatigue. While some comments on the Internet have talked about things being "blow upwards" into the passenger area, that doesn't mesh with the reports I've read. However it was somewhat scary to read that the oxygen masks failed to work as they should...but perhaps, just perhaps, this fits in with later comments...

In Australia, the union that the people who work on the planes belong to was quick to bring up the question of whether or not it was cheap overseas labor that could be blamed. Unfortunately not so. The plane's recent service history points to all work being done at home.

Today another article appeared, mentioning that Qantas has been asked to inspect all of the oxygen bottles on all of its aircraft. The reason why: those very bottles are normally located very close to where the hole appeared on QF30. Oops. Wonder if the bottles were a bit old?

Whilst perusing, I came across another report that details an incident in February 2007 involving a Qantas plane:

- in summary, Qantas changed its procedures in a manner that introduced a risk that led to a problem, specifically:

  • A recent revision to the company refuelling procedures had extended the time between the required fuel water drain checks. (Safety issue)

Now to me that looks like the type of change you would implement to cut down on your operational (maintainance) costs, correct?

How many other changes has Qantas made, in recent years, that are similar in nature to this that have the potential for introducing a failure that leads to catasrophe? And is the QF30 flight another symptom of this kind of change?

Sounds to me like there are and possibly embaressing questions that need to be put to Qantas...

Disclaimer: I'm a Qantas frequent flyer and wherever possible attempt to fly on OneWorld flghts...well...maybe that's up for review now... many of those flights are over large expanses of water with no airports anywhere close by...

In a further update to this incident, oxygen bottle fragments have been found suggesting that indeed one of the oxygen bottles did explode, leaving the question how and why.

Friday Jul 18, 2008

The changing face of the FSF

When I first started out using the Internet, there was a small collection of machines at MIT where anyone could login as a guest to compile and run software. These were the part of the GNU project. It was free access to machines and disk space that you might not otherwise have, at the time. This was circa 1990 - before the WWW - and the most common method for downloading software, at that time, was via ftp. Some people would buy CDs of free software because it was cheaper/quicker/easier than downloading 600-700MB on a tail of the Internet, by modem.

Almost 20 years later and the default interaction with the FSF and GNU project is via the web. And what a difference it is. Today when I go to a web page to try and download free software from it is all Donate to the FSF or Buy our distribution. Oh dear. I'm sure if I point my browser at an ftp URL, I won't be plagued with such nonsense, but the fact remains that the focus of the FSF and its GNU project has visibly changed from being a conduit for free software to give us money. To see what I mean, visit and read down to the How to get GNU software. Buy or download and please donate. Sounds more like shareware than freeware.

What used to be about free software now appears to be about commercial software. What used to be about people donating their time to something they love doing now seems to be about employment.

It is somewhat ironic that in the past, the mantra of FSF/GNU was that software should be free and you shouldn't have to pay for it - programmers who work on it would have other real jobs. It would seem that the FSF/GNU have had a rather substantial change of heart, given the blatant self advertising (for money) their web pages now do.

One might be lead to believe that perhaps the success of GNU software has now lead to the project becoming corrupted by its success: everywhere out there people are using GNU software to make money, so why shouldn't the project itself get some of that reward?

How long then, until the FSF becomes a part of or itself a for-profit organisation?

Thursday Jul 17, 2008

GPLv4 anyone?

First, I should state that I am not a lawyer and nor have I any training or schooling in law.

Over on one of the NetBSD mailing lists for its users, netbsd-users, someone from outside posted an email declaring that they were creating GPLv4 such that it was more compatible with using software freely. The initial email CC'd lots of interesting parties. As one might expect, RMS chimed in with the predictable response.

This made me stop and think. Why can't someone call something they create the GNU GPL? Or more to the point, is there anything stopping me from creating a document and calling that GPLv4? I summarised these questions in a followup email to Richard's reply, to which there is no response yet.

For the sake of curiousity, I went and had a look at the section of the license that allows you to upgrade to another version. It reads like this:

    This program is free software: you can redistribute it and/or modify
    it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by
    the Free Software Foundation, either version 3 of the License, or
    (at your option) any later version.

This paragraph is interesting on a couple of grounds:

  • 1. The use of "the License" could possibly be argued to be ambiguous as nowhere in the document itself is the term "the License" defined. It is common in legal documents to see something like this: ...the GNU General Public License (hereafter referered to as "the License")... or even to define the term "License" in a similar fashion to the manner in which Program and others are defined much higher up in the document.
  • 2. The reference to "any later version" is again potentially ambiguous. Do all GNU General Public Licenses have to have from the FSF? Why can't I write my own GNU General Public License? Furthermore, this phrase refers directly to the License which is not clearly defined so if we're not sure what that means then this also has no meaning.

Question is, if you have a couple of loose ends like that, can you thereafter unravel the entire GPL or use them as grounds for defense against litigation for an alleged infringement of the GPL?

The catch here is that this is a legal document and as such, precise wording and phrasing is required to ensure that the correct meaning is conveyed. It may be that the use of English here isn't vague in some courts of law (or to some people) but put a couple of laywers in court to fight over the GPL and I'm sure that the meaning of ambiguous phrases like this would be entertainment for them for days.

I suppose the real question to ask here is what is to stop anyone from authoring anything titled GNU General Public License Version 5 and thereafter claim it is a later version of the GNU General Public License, originally written by the FSF? Can you imagine if Microsoft found a way to legally author a later version of the GNU GPL that could be used in place of the existing GPL?

In case you have forgotten, I'm not a lawyer and all of the above is just my personal opinion having spent 30 seconds looking and thinking about it. Well maybe less than 30 seconds - I try hard not to think about the GPL, it makes me want to vomit.

Another twist on this is what exactly does Free Software Foundation refer to? The document doesn't define that, either. Does this mean that in a country where there is no entity called the Free Software Foundation that there are limitations on enforcing the GPL? Again, what if Microsoft were to register an organisation known as the Free Software Foundation in Nigeria or some other unobvious country? I'm actually curious if it is possible to register such an entity separately in California to Massachusetts? Or is the register for foundations country wide?

Monday Jul 14, 2008

Is McCain the perfect idiot president for the USA?

In a recent story titled McCain Completee and utter netwit, I was made aware that one of the current contenders for the office of President of the United States is effectively computer illiterate.

There are a couple of gob smacking aspects to this. First is that he is a senator in the current government and appears to make no use of the Internet himself. Obviously many of his drones, err, I mean staffers, can take care of many tasks himself but the reality is he is disconnected from the modern age. Many of us have parents or grandparents who are more technically savy with computers than this guy. It is frightening to think that he is so dependant on others. And to say "Everyones reads Drudge" ... sigh. More likely Drudge got lucky once and now everyone on Capital Hill looks at it. He'd do a much better job by paying attention to websites such as Wikileaks. The next big story won't appear on Drudge first.

But perhaps more importantly, he is glaringly disconnected with the modern age. The Internet is already part of everyday life for tens of millions of Americans and in some cases (like moi :) replaces the role once played by the TV. Heck, I wonder if he even has his own mobile(cell) phone? Or does he have an aide to manage that for him too? And perhaps he doesn't even go to the stalls in the bathroom alone either and needs someone to clean him up afterwards?

So will this stop him being elected? Heck no. There's the Amish communities that live in pockets of the USA are choose to live an evenless technical life. That's not to say that they will (or will not) vote for him, just that there is a really huge spectrum of lifestyles in the USA and that some people will find solace in McCain's choices.

In a country that is filled with Christian fundamentalist groups, and other religious groups (like The Family), that lobby the government and pull strings, it would seem that being connected with God is more important than being connected with the present day world that we live in.

But the United State of America is a democracy, thus if the Americans want they can choose to vote for a continuation of Republican policy to hasten the slide down.


So I'm elitist. Or am I? Yes, the Internet is a tool, just as the phone, car, TV, etc are. Would it be appropriate to elect a President that was unfamiliar with all of these? Perhaps one that couldn't drive?

The most significant danger that we face, all of us who use the Internet, is politicians who do not understand the Internet passing laws about how it should be operated and used. Admittedly this is no easy task as the Internet is constantly changing, evolving, making it hard for even those that work with it to keep up. And how do politicians respond? Bills such as the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act), proposed bills such as he ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement). Having people unfamiliar with the Internet in power poses a very real threat to how it will function in the future. Can you imagine if the luddites such as those that work for the RIAA and MPAA were to be elected to the Whitehouse or Capitol Hill?

Now maybe it is a tall order to expect someone in the President's office or even Government to be familiar with every aspect of everyone's life in the USA, but the Internet is fast becoming as peculiar as the phone. Which is to say that it really isn't all that peculiar and as the backbone of more and more services, it is becoming unavoidable.


If a person wishes to be more connected with God than modern day life then they should do that in the correct way: become a monk or otherwise a member of the church. From time to time that is a calling I find very tempting because it would allow me to be free of many materialistic trappings that I must also pay hommage to.

Politicians don't live in a monestary or in the service of the church, they live in service to us. While political leaders are often sworn in by a member of the clergy, it is really with every one of their constituents that they should be swearing an oath to, regardless of which way they voted (or not.)

Thursday Jul 10, 2008

Israel, Iran, USA, Oil and WW3 - what day do you predict?

In the last week, Iran has been testing some its missles, commentators in Israel and Iran have been discussing how they're not sure where all the correct places are to bomb (in order to put a halt on Iran's nuclear program) and the price of oil has been doing a roller coaster ride.

With a bunch of old men in various positions in both Israel and Iran (and possibly the USA too), it seems inevitable that there is going to be some sort of military action, so the question becomes when and not if.

Now add to that the possibility of Iran striking back, possibly including targetting the USA (if the USA doesn't join Israel first up), then we now have Iran vs Israel & USA. Those odds would seem stacked against Iran but given the USA's commitment elsewhere (i.e. Iraq and the trouble it has had there), it isn't in a position to do much on the ground in Iran unless it is willing to give up Iraq. What are the odds on the USA will increase its exposure in the middle east? Not likely but that will more likely be influenced by the Jewish community here in the USA - what strings can they pull if Israel doesn't want to go it alone.

Now if the USA joins the fray with Israel (because Iran decides those naval vessels close by are inviting targets), who else is likely to join in Iran's cause? Syria? Others? Russia and China have both resisted the USA in the UN Security council when the USA has pushed for hard sanctions or outcomes on Iran, so one has to wonder to what extent they will pitch in. On the Russian side, they're in the process of supplying one of their most advanced air defence systems to Iran, so there's an obvious friendship here. A point to note is that the commentary on an Israel/USA attack on Iran's nuclear program is desirable before the completion of that air defence project in order to increase its chance of success.

So it would seem that the pieces are now being arranged on the board for some sort of skirmish.

There are two potential wildcards at play here - both the American and Iranian administrations in power are not at all popular with the public at large in their respective countries and at least one has a similar problem on a global scale. The political cost (if it is at all cared about) for voluntarily joining any fray vs Iran is quite possibly too high, but retaliation could be sold. It seems highly unlikely that Iran will strike first, but retaliation might sell - or even be necessary.

So, for you gentle readers, I've got two questions:

  • 1. What day do you believe Israel will attack Iran?
  • 2. Will this attack escalate to World War III?

Somehow I feel like I should offer a prize to whoever gets both of these questions right, but I'm not sure that any prize for a pair of answers except "never" and "no" is really the sort of prize anyone should offer.

In closing I'll comment on this and its coupling with oil. It should be without a doubt that any attack on Iran is going to further threaten oil supplies and thus drive the price further up. Already the USA is sending $700 billion per year out of the country to pay for oil... if the country isn't broke already, at that rate how long before it is? With the GDP of the USA being 60% made up from consumer spending, if the balance continues to tip towards more money being spent on oil, can the USA afford for there to be any conflict in the middle east that results in an increase of the amount of money devoted to filling up their cars and trucks?

Sunday Jun 15, 2008

MPAA, Movies and Me.

In a recent proposal to the FCC, the MPAA has signaled its intent to exert greater control over the way in which we interact with its products: movies. Whilst some are crying foul of this, is it really a step in the right or wrong direction?

Consider for a moment that for an adult to attend the movies, in the cinemas, the cost is somewhere between $10 and $20 for a ticket. You end up in a seat that may (or may not) be perfect for watching it (some seats are more equal than others) on the big screen and being able to experience the movie the way it was intended - on the big screen - complete with sound effects, etc. It is my opinion that this is the only venue worth paying such a fee to be entertained by a movie - unless you've got $100,000 to $500,000 to build a dedicated home theatre room (bear in mind you've got to have a room dedicated to do this to do it properly.) That leaves DVDs, often costing $30 to $40 or more, somewhere in the wild. But why do we buy DVDs? To watch a movie at our leisure. I'll add that buying movies is different to buying music because you can enjoy music while you're doing other activities, such as eating, cooking, cleaning, reading, programming, gardenning, etc. Movies you need to make time to watch. This leads me on to the next point.

When we purchase a DVD, we purchase the ability to watch a movie whenever we want, as often as we want. It is my personal experience that most DVDs sit on the shelf or in the cabinet for some large amount of time after we've watched it once or twice before it gets viewed again. I say "most" quite deliberately because there are always some that we watch more than once and when bought for kids, they may be watched many times. But if we are to stop and think about it, do we get our money's worth out of the DVDs we buy? Is the convenience to watch a movie once or twice worth that much? Especially given that today, DVD movies come packed with adverts and banner messages that we must endure to get to the main event - unless we have a device such as Kaleidescape's movie player where we upload movies and can then access them directly (no banners!) - but they're not cheap and have earned the ire of Hollywood.

So convenience is of value to us but now that we have high definition TV content and HDTVs, so is higher quality content. Consider that once a movie is released on DVD, its value to TV stations is diminished and this is the current pattern: cinemas, DVDs then broadcast television. If the last two are reversed and movies are broadcast with high definition content via your cable or satellite broadcaster, then the use of DVRs to store a movie has the potential to make it easy for movie pirates to transfer the content to a DVD (or the Internet) and rob the studios of revenue. Not an attractive thought, for them, so they'd like to disable the DVR recording capability. Good? Bad? Hmmm. If my opportunities to watch a movie are limited to the times at which they're played then yes, it is bad, but if I have video on demand, what's the problem - as long as it is priced reasonably.

And this is the rub. Apple has shown that if you price music at an attractive level, then people have no problems buying it in digital form. We've yet to see that approach for movies and we must consider, what is a movie worth to watch? Does one assume that there will always be more than 1 person watching it thus justifying a price tag of $10 or more to watch it now rather than wait for the DVD or broadcast, free-to-air, tv? But if you wanted to watch it now, wouldn't you just cough up the cash to watch it at the cinemas? (I know that's what I do!)

The downloading of movies from the Internet is attractive for a couple of reasons:

  • price - it is perceived to be free but in all seriousness, one needs to break up the cost of the internet connection and electricity, not to mention the DVD disc it is burnt to (and perhaps your time) and apportion some of that to find the true cost of a downloaded DVD movie. It might not be $10, but it is definately not $0.
  • giving it to the man - it gives the little guy a chance to thumb his nose at the big guy (the movie houses)
  • convenience - quite often the movies in DVD format on the Internet are free of banners and adverts that get in your way of watching the movie, thus the person watching the movie feels like they're watching the movie, rather than being spammed with advertising junk.

Looking at that list, the MPAA and its cohorts should be able to spot something of value: convenience but only if it is priced right.

In May last year, Arstechnica ran a story on Comcast working on a simultaneous movie release service that would cost between $30 and $50 per film. This is an indication of someone not understanding what the price should be but now that we're 1 year on and the MPAA is talking to the FCC about DVR interaction with content for HDTV, maybe it has been slowly cooking in the background. Hmmm. Some of the comments doing the rounds on various websites are that if this model works then it might become a preferential venue to cinemas and lead to more cinemas closing. But if that happened, there would be no opening night, no red carpet and no celebrities in public. Significant? Maybe not, but those things do add a certain buzz to movies being released.

At the price of around $0.99 or so per movie, pay per view kind of makes sense - so long as you can pause it while you answer the door to pay for the pizza or visit the bathroom (or some other high priority interrupt such as your parents Email/Internet isn't working and you're their helpdesk.) If you can't do that, well, what's the point of watching it at home? Now if said movie comes with ads and other junk at the front, I'm not likely to be interested but how much extra would I pay to not have them present? Now that's something to think about. Well, after some quick thinking, anywhere from $1 to $2. So now my somewhat old movie, say Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, is going to cost me $2 or $3 to sit down with my friends or girlfriend or whoever for a couple of hours. In doing so, I've saved the movie house fabrication costs of the DVD, printing costs for the DVD, distribution costs of the DVD and possibly promotion and other bits and pieces. You can see now why it is beneficial for Amazon and TiVO to get together in this market.

The key to all of this is the cost to watch the movie - it has to be priced such that I won't think that maybe I should wait for the DVD or some other avenue. While this might upset a lot of people, if movies came as self-destruct entities (they will play from start to end, once), this probably takes care of a large segment of the market. The care that needs to be taken here is to make sure that consumers understand they're buying a right to view the movie, much like they buy a movie ticket, on one occasion, not that they're buying the movie to own/use. The wrinkle in the plan of only viewing it once is the unpredictable reliability of the system that the consumer is using. At $30-$50, a failure of their system that interrupted play and destroyed their one-time token would cause a lot of complaints. At $3, it becomes less of a concern - so long as the failure rate is very low (lets say under 5%.)

So in pursuing the right to restrict DVR usage with HD content on new releases, I think the MPAA is taking some good steps down the road of a sensible business model - so long as they price it right and properly educate people that they're doing something similar to buying a movie ticket but in their own home. If it is then priced appropriately (learn from Apple!), they might just have a winner...

Thursday Jun 05, 2008

Has Google become too popular?

Tonight, as I'm searching for something very specific on the Internet, Google is being singularly unhelpful. I look at the first page of what it has listed and, in my mind, none of them have anything to do with what it is I'm seeking. For example, I'm looking for something about some posters in Australia, so I click on "pages from Australia" (because I specifically went to "") and what is the first url returned in my list: Hosted in and about someone in California. I mean w.t.f?

Another pet peeve of mine is that from time to time, when I do a search, my results are cluttered by "ebay things". Hello google, if I wanted to search for things on auction at ebay, I'd go and visit ebay.

So I'm left wondering, is Google now too successful to continue to be the great search engine it once was (and thus will become more yahoo like over time)? Or did that happen some time ago and that it is only the simple searches that I've been doing since that have hidden this from me?

Tuesday May 27, 2008

Americans getting on 2 wheels in favour of 4

In a story titled "No Radical Change Yet", Jim mentioned that Americans are still getting to work the same as they have been. Alas, there is already a change in the works: people are buying scooters to replace the car as the means to get to work. While there has been more coverage of this recently (see below), the issue first popped into the papers back in 2004 - "U.S. Scooter Sales Thriving With Gas Prices High".

So change is afoot, as evidenced by just this story, Vespa sales are on the rise, where a local Vespa dealer (in Ohio) has sold as many scooters in one month (April 2008) as he did in all of 2007. And it is happening throughout the country - Milwaukee: Vespa Scooter Sales Soaring On High Gas Prices.

But there's one other catch here: the sales, at present, are all occurring during the American spring/summer. In some of these states, such as WI and OH, use of the scooter during the colder months comes with additional challenges: the roads are more slipery and you're more exposed to the elements.

All figures below are in US Dollars.

So what are the economics involved? If the car is kept and the scooter added to the stable, there's an outlay of around $2000-$4500, depending on the model of scooter and local taxes. You may also need to get a motor cycle licence (add in some lessons plus the cost of the test.) For the sake of simplicity, lets say that the new price of super-inflated fuel for your car is $4/gl and the old "ok" pice is $2.50/gl. Some people report spending $80/week (vs $50) with the new prices, for me, it is now around $50 (vs $31.) For those now spending $80, the additional outlay is $1500/year. Given that the price will not go down between now and 2016 (8 years), the simple math is to say $32,000 is the cost of fuel over the that period. If a Vespa can do a week of travelling for $10 where the car is $80, that's a saving of around $3500/year, assmuing that maintenance costs are the same (and they may not be) - see below. Insurance also needs to come into play here, but I have no idea what this will be nor do I have any worthwhile references. To cut to the chase, the $4500 scooter may take upto 2 years to break even in cost effectiveness if the price of fuel remains the same. If the price of gas continues to increase, and there is no reason to suspect it won't, then the time frame for cost recovery comes in. If you can sell the car and live with only a scooter, then the equation shifts dramatically in favour of the scooter. (Corrections made)

But it isn't necessarily a bed of roses either, as one owner in San Francisco has found out, with their blog "Vespa Lx150 total cost of ownership". And lets not forget something else very important - safety.


Saturday May 24, 2008

Is America ready for what's coming?

This morning over breakfast, I heard a cook in a restaurant comment that a large container cooking oil had risen in price from around $13 to over $60 and that a bag of flour and risen from $8 to over $30 (if I heard right and a blog post here seems to suggest it's not far wrong.) Last year the minimum wage went up about 12% and this year it is set to do the same ($5.85 (2006) -> $7.25 (2008)) In a recent article in a Nevada newspaper, the state was casting doubts over its wage rise for state workers due to a drop in its revenue - a cost of living increase of 4%. Question is, how would those people make do without it?

What's the root cause? Hard to say. The price of gas is not tipped to drop until at least 2016 as the futures market for oil has already sold supply to that date at current prices. But maybe that is a dream and the more realistic picture is the price of oil is not ever going to go down to where it was. The oil honeymoon is over.

So what has this got to do with the title? America, as a nation, runs on oil. There are a few hold out examples, such as New York City, Washington DC, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco (city area only) that have functional mass transit systems. Expand the view to, for example, the entire San Francisco Bay Area, to places such as Silicon Valley, San Jose, there is barely any worthwhile public transport. Now get out to some of the other populous cities, such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, etc, there is a bus system that kind of works, but anything else...where's your car man?

It would seem that the basic cost of a lot of things is going to rise this year and next, perhaps pushing many into poverty. But something that cannot be missed is the amount of money that these rises are going to take away from the average person on the street, giving them less discretionary spending. This won't necessarily show up in the US GDP figures, as people will still be spending the same (or more) money but the fraction that goes to transport and food will increase, meaning something else will have to give.

A shift away from driving (too expensive) and maybe smaller portions of food (keeping cost dost.) Is America ready for that? Or will it go for the same size food portions, albeit more expensive, and find more fuel efficient vehicles and keep on polluting?

For further reading:

Thursday May 01, 2008

Recovering postgres data

For a while now I've been toying around with postgres at home and from time to time, I seem to have reliability problems. Those problems do not appear to be postgres's, rather it is likely they are due to the operating system (NetBSD) or hardware (a small & cheap HP box.) Whatever the cause, what I see is postgres refusing to access data because an index file is borked or some other internal meta data file is borked and it refuses to load any data. My data was there but it wouldn't give me access. Grrrr....

With files of a couple of gigabytes in size (yeah, small, I know), it seemed obvious that the data was still there - somewhere. Using some standard tools such as strings and hexdump showed that the data was all there, intact, I just need to work out how to get it out of the files. With some experimentation, I had managed to work out a good amount of how it worked but still ran into a few problems. Then I saw a pointer to another utility, pg_filedump, that worked on the data/index files in postgres. The key to making real progress was looking at the header files for postgres that defined its data file formats. I had, up until this point, been refusing to do this, intent on reverse engineering as much of the data format as I could (this was to make the task challenging - just looking at the source code seemed like cheating.) After finding the header files, I started over and life was a bit easier.

The result has been something of a success. Not being content with the easy sailing, I've left priting out tuple data to what I could make sense of in the binary files. The only important types I haven't been able to decode yet are time, timestamp and date.

There is a bold warning at the top of the man page in this file for a very good reason: if the database has crashed and will not start up, there is no way of knowing what the status of your data really is. In a risk free environment, you would recover data from backups and rebuild the database from that point. This program requires you to make an educated guess about the sanity and correctness of the data that it retrieves: if you want to reuse it. i.e. no dba worth anything would ever use this with production data - that's what backups and application log files are for.



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