Thursday, October 28, 2004

's Pretty!

Yesterday, as part of my research into how to use web tech. I stumbled across the CSS Zen garden: a pretty cool demo site that demonstrates the power of separating form and function, while allowing various graphical artists to show off.

The main site consists of one html page. The idea is to manipulate the appearance and layout as much as possible by means of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

So: the information is fixed. How it is presented is up to you. You can:
  • choose from a variety of submitted layouts, or
  • download the site to your PC and mess about yourself, or
  • submit your own work (make sure it works on 'standard' browsers, though!)
However, I have to say that I think it a bit of a cheat that different images are allowed. If a picture's worth a thousand words, how many html tags is it?

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Titan On the Beach?

Looking at the pictures of Titan that Cassini has just been transmitting back to Earth, it's hard not to speculate what those light and dark surfaces represent.


We'll have to wait and see what the enhanced closeups look like!

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Il Giardino Armonica

P and I had a rare excursion out on Tuesday night: Il Giardino Armonica was performing as part of the Musica Viva series.

Early baroque played on period instruments...
Early style string instruments may not have the projection of their more modern counterparts, and they are a bitch to keep in tune, but they have a much more mellow sound to them.

The conductor of this group also doubles as a recorder player. Recorder playing such as you don't hear in the average music school classroom!

We'll be dropping our subscription to Musica Viva next year. Not enough time, and the program's not that enthralling.

It's a pity.

The real pity is that Emma Kirkby's part of the program next year... which says something about the rest of it. Oh well, we can try for tickets to that one when they are made available to the general public.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Interlude: (Cre--e-ack!)

(aka: hiking, trekking, rambling, tramping...)

Call it what you will, it's a wonderful outdoor activity. Unfortunately, little Missy is not yet old enough to be taken on a decent hike and looking after her takes precedence at the moment (ie: she requires a bit more TLC at age 2 than she will at age 5 (?!)). Consequently, I haven't been on a bushwalk for over a year.

...until yesterday when, having received leave of absence from P, I joined a group of 14 Boroondara Bushwalkers, and went for an 18 km walk in the Bunyip State Park east of Gembrook.

Melbourne is blessed in that very remote spots are only a couple of hours drive away from a sprawling metropolis of ~3 million people. In fact, they're not places you'd be advised to go on your own: people tend to vanish without trace if they do...(nothing sinister in that, just plain lost!) If you're a member of a walking club, however, then it's a different matter: you have the backing to go to interesting and out of the way places!

This walk was no exception; featuring a wide range of habitats (and spring flowers!). After starting from the tall mountain ash stands around Dyers picnic ground (redwoods have competition!), we moved into more open, stunted, woodland where white heath and blue dampiera were to be seen in profusion. Further up the hill, the trees picked up again, and native pea formed a golden haze between the trunks. A few grass trees and banksia were also to be seen (as were black cockatoos). Reaching the ridge, we encountered tree ferns on the southward side (away from the sun). After lunch at the 'four brothers' rocks, where we had a magnificent view across the black snake valley, we took a steep descent back down. The main cause for drama was a creek crossing, which had a bit more water than during the preview. Half the group had gotten their feet wet before someone located a more promising log crossing. It was here that someone encountered our one and only leech for the day (ichy things, but mostly harmless!)

Today, I am feeling a trifle stiff and footsore. (you don't do this sort of thing after a year of relative inactivity without some side effect!)
But the gain was definitely worth the pain.

Yes, it's been too long...

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Fog of War

No, I'm not talking about the Iraqi situation, although this piece got kicked off by a posting on News From Baghdad. I'm talking about the other war that is being waged today: the one for the US Presidency.

What happened was that Jay received an email. It purported to be from someone who witnessed a local speech by one of the presidential candidates and how the residents were basically trampled by the PR machine surrounding said candidate. I won't say which one it was supposed to be, because it is irrelevant: the email is unsubstantiated, and is probably a form of 'spam' designed to smear reputations.

The recent Australian poll was a non-event to most people. So this incident, plus a few other hints I've been receiving about how the US elections are being conducted (eg here) are quite alarming. Apart from the emotions generated by casualties in Iraq, I suspect that the one man executive approach is exacerbating the situation, as well. Clearly, the adversarial 'winner take all' approach to democracy has the capacity to breed a lot of grudges and general bad feeling. David Brin published a very thoughtful article a while back on one way of limiting the damage. I wonder if Kerry or Bush have read it?
(...Just went to get the Brin link for the above article and found this. Bloody hell, if he's come out swinging ...!)
The internet is a wonderful tool: it allows true freedom of expression by anyone who has access to it. Either by emails, by posted websites, or by blogs like this one.

And yet, it is just a tool; one that can be used for darker purposes: viruses, spam. Misinformation.

How to use it well is not to use it in isolation. Don't accept one source of information. Corroborate. Seek opinion. It is the ability for 'many eyes' to repudiate innaccurate or just plain propaganda.

Take Wikipedia: an online encyclopedia wherein any one may contribute about anything. It has been derided by its rival: Encyclopedia Britannica as being worth what you pay for it. Why? Because there is no requirement for scholarship: no need for references. On the face of it, this would seem an essential requirement for a general reference. And yet, the fact that anyone can contribute and correct means that mistakes can be removed. It has been suggested that someone try and put a deliberately false and misleading piece in Wikipedia... and see how long it lasts.

It seems that the war of realfacts vs goodfacts is hotting up. Truth may be the first casualty, but will it be the final victim?

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

We Have Roses!

...Unfortunately, we don't have photos, yet. Hopefully, in the next week or two (ditto the wattles)!
I'll update this blog when I get 'em developed. Meanwhile, consider this a placeholder
The last couple of years have not been particularly kind to the roses in our garden. A severe drought in SE Australia plus a few unseasonably hot spring days (I mean, 40+ degrees in February, OK. But October/November? Not nice to spring shoots!) has meant very few blooms.

However, the outlook seems a little better this year. We have actually had some rain worthy of the name and the garden has appreciated it (water storages still look a bit battered though).

One thing I'm pleased to see responding is the white banksia rose we have at the back. A couple of years ago, this was a feeble twig in the dirt that didn't seem to be going anywhere. Then, last year it took off and started doing what it was meant to do: cover the trellis on the archway. This year it has even decided to blossom

It makes a nice complement to the 'Anastasia' red climber we've got on the other side of the arch. This one has been a success from the first. Smells nice, too! (a vital prerequisite, according to P)

Ah, yes! The arch! We wanted some sort of feature to the rear courtyard, and thought an archway over the entrance would look good. The choice was a bit limited, however: the metal and wire things on display at the local hardware warehouses (ie Bunnings) just looked tacky. Eventually, we saw a nice wooden arbor which gave the effect we liked. However, as a piece of carpentry, it looked a bit ad hoc and, looking at the price tag, I snorted that I could do build something like that for less...

So, why don't I? says P.

Me. And my big mouth!

Several weekends of choosing timber, cutting timber, painting timber, and putting the pieces together, and we had a pretty decent, custom built arch (with useable seats). It probably did work out a fraction less in terms of materials, but that doesn't include my time!

Oh, well! I had fun!

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Tools of Mischief

In one of my earlier blogs, I touched on the current furore over software patents and wondered whether anyone was making any suggestions to fix the problems.

Now, Groklaw has posted a fairly reasoned article by Craig A. James on this topic. He lays out the problems with the current US patent system, as he sees it, and then makes some suggestions about what to do about it.

James makes a couple of very good suggestions (limiting patent lifetimes, requiring that a patent be actively developed to stay valid, disallowing retrospective damages), but others aren't very practical. Nor, I think, are some of the examples he presents for allowing patents particularly good ones. (So Zantac prevents stomach ulcers, eh? It also represents a lot of investment: an investment that nearly prevented someone from investigating further and discovering the real cause of the problem: H. Pyelori bacteria, which can be cleared up by a cheap course in antibiotics.)

To be honest, my view is that, whatever their historical value, patents have become nothing more than tools of mischief and outright extortion.
  • A system where it is just about impossible to tell whether you can blow your nose without risking litigation (' a method of clearing the mucus from sinuses via compressed air...') is plain wrong.
  • A system that disallows others from adding improvements ('if we could compress the air by pinching the nose...') is plain silly.
  • A system that allows certain types to sit back and extort others who've put a lot of independent effort into a problem (' I want royalties on all those hankies you've been producing, buster!') is plain malicious.
No, I think patents should be scrapped. Completely.

But let's be realistic: the revolution isn't going to happen anytime soon (and, as inspirational as they may appear, I don't think many students of history would recommend revolutions as the way forward!). If the patent system is to be fixed at all, then the work has to start somewhere. James' article is a good a spot as any.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Election Day II

The previous post started off as a few bits of whimisical prose, and grew. (I don't think I'll be giving up my day job anytime soon!)

Anyway, as you might have heard, Australia had an election last Saturday.
To summarise the results:
  • The Lib/NP incumbents increased their vote noticeably, and will probably get control of the senate for the first time in twenty years.
  • Labor is left looking decidely silly as a result (expect a few internal dogfights in the next few days)
  • the Australian Democrats imploded. No surprise there (and no relation to Kerry!). They used to have an air of credibility but, when their own leaders defect to another party, or go independent, or go on the booze, you know they've got an image problem!
  • the greens did OK with a slight increase in votes. They probably picked up a few disaffected Democrats
  • One Nation died, as did Pauline Hanson (she seems to have got a few more votes than her old party, though!)
  • 'Family First' may get a senate seat and hold the balance of power in the Senate
A disappointing result, from my view: I guess my concerns aren't those of others.

Still, it's done! Live with it!

Actually, the outcome was not really surprising. What was surprising was that the coalition incumbents increased their vote noticeably, and will probably get control of the senate...possibly with the help of 'Family First'.

I think you can guess at the agenda of people who preach about family values! Something of the right wing Christian persuasion? Not that there's anything wrong with family values, of course. Just so long as you take a peep under the caring, sharing image occasionally, to see what cockroaches are lurking.

But this is just cheap insinuation. I should (and will) let FF actions speak for themselves, because that's what a democracy's good for: get the protagonists up on stage, give 'em enough rope and see what they do with it. If they hang themselves, well and good. If they can swing it, that's OK, too!

And, if what they manage to swing is accepted by the audience come the next election, it's as much a reflection on the audience as anything else.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Election Day

We gather on a gloaming shore,
to face a calmed, indifferent ocean.

We gather, as we have before,
by darkness and the deep.

For, on this day, the Spirit moves:
I cast a stone upon the waters,

As others do: take up their shot,
and throw them out to sea.

What matters it that some cry 'Here!'?
'Throw here! That a base foundation may be laid!'

The pebbles tossed sink 'plink!' into the void,
leaving only ripples as a gleaming clue

For, as they move upon the calm, dark surface,
those small waves catch the little light they can,

Catch, and throw, and catch again. The light is spread:
a brief illumination by which to see.

No, it matters not, the places where we choose to throw.
Simply that we do

Friday, October 08, 2004

Eye of The Storm

A recent News From Baghdad piece attracted a few flames.

Actually, the piece itself was pretty inoffensive; it was comment asking why Jay didn't mention women serving in the army that caused the eruption of opinion.

The interesting thing was, the piece was almost forgotten in the ensuing melee and sniping.

To quote the chorus from a song I once heard:
... and it's on!
All reason and logic are gone.
Winning the fight,
won't settle who's right.
It's sad; and it's true;
...and it's on!
That about sums it up!

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

The Free Lunch

There's no such thing! Or so we're told.

As I majored in Physics in the far off long ago, I' m inclined to agree with that sentiment. Conservation of energy is a pretty ingrained concept.

(Or maybe it's just natural laziness! ;-)

So, no free lunch, as I:
  • install Linux as a dual boot on my home PC
  • work with Python
  • use Google to look up all sorts of items of interest
  • read online books
  • download some mp3 tracks (not that I do, actually)
  • write another entry in this 'blog.
...Wait a second! What's going on here?

Who's paying for all this???

(It sure isn't me!)

Reading the news (another freebie) , I see I'm not alone, as traditional capitalists puzzle over how to make a buck out of this phenomenon. The hip and with it dismiss their frustrated rants with smug comments like:
'those suits just can't grok it!'
Well, I 'm not entirely sure I grok it either, and I'm not a suit, and I know where the word 'grok' originates.*
The greeting sentiment at the GNU site reads:
'Free as in Freedom'
Others proclaim the Open Source movement to be:
'Free as in speech, not as in beer!'
In other words, the sentiment is that it is a right to be able to give away your code. It's OK to have others look at your source and tweak to your own ends. However, this doesn't mean you can rip it off and pass it off as your own software. Nor does it necessarily mean you can use this code commercially.

Actually, it seems that most OSS offerings are free in both senses. The developers presumably got what they wanted out of it, and are happy to share their achievements with others.

I can appreciate that there's a certain pride of craftmanship in presenting a solution for others to share and, in a sense, this is part of the answer to my question. You use. You should contribute. (Might do just that, one day)

Other sites request a tip via eg: PayPal. I don't mind the sentiment here, just the means...

That doesn't answer the question fully, though: who pays the hard cash for the maintenance of online hosts like SourceForge, Tigris, OSF, BlogSpot. etc etc?

Advertising? Ah! I suppose that is one answer. You get to do what you want in return for having to endure someone's pitch on whatever.

But I'm not fully convinced. I, for one, filter out most ads without even thinking about it. I can't believe they have a sufficiently high take up rate to make it pay (I'm talking online ads who presumably pay up front costs to the sites for the privilege: I know the outlay on spam is next to nothing, so it needs barely any response to make it worthwhile)

The ruminations will continue ...
* grok: a martian word whose literal meaning is 'to share water' but whose deeper nuances would take a whole book to explain: a book like 'Stranger in a Strange Land' by Robert Heinlein

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Rumours of...

News from Baghdad is a literate and well considered view of a soldier's life in Baghdad.

I don't agree that the Iraqi invasion should have gone ahead under the terms it did, but I certainly have nothing but admiration for the people who go about their jobs in such circumstances.

If Iraq ever does become known as 'another Vietnam', at least let's avoid compounding one mistake with another by taking it out on the troops!

Monday, October 04, 2004

Openness: Maybe I do have a clue!

Tim Bray made a recent reference to the cluetrain manifesto
Looking at it confirmed my suspicions that my own musings on Openness were nothing new... and that I was on to something. To quote the opening paragraph on the website:
A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.
I may be alone in my thoughts still, but it's nice to know I'm not completely alone in my thinking.

(Synchronitic aside: I did a double take when I saw the name of one of the authors. Christopher Locke, eh? Having read the Ender series by Orson Scott Card, I think this is just the sort of thing Peter Wiggin would write about ;-)

Friday, October 01, 2004

Has Google Lost Its Innocence?

Google seems to have been put under the spotlight recently for blocking certain feeds for their news service to China. Not a good idea for someone like Google to do. Bear with me while I tell you a story...
Google put on a seminar at Melbourne University a few months ago. I attended because there were rumours flying about that they were thinking of starting up a centre in Melbourne. (sounded good: I'm Bored and I managed to crack the oddball and obscure recruitment drive they had a while back :-).

The seminar concentrated on how their search farms and page ranking worked. Along with a few gosh! wow! statistics about Google's day to day operations (eg: they've got so much RAM chugging away that the parity checkers can detect disruptions due to solar flares!!) were a few comments on how the strategies they adopt to prevent third parties from 'loading the dice' in favour of their own website.

It made me wonder about their commitment to impartial presentation of data. What checks do they have in place to ensure that somebody doesn't allow a 'tweak' to be allowed? I concluded that, on the whole, Google staff were aware of this possibility, and that's where I left it; I thought the implications pretty obvious...
... until I picked up on this piece via Tim Bray's Ongoing blog.

China is probably the last great bastion of centralised authority on Earth. I think its commitment to control of the internet is comparable to the Three Gorges dam on the Yellow River: a vast undertaking with an ultimately futile action. I think that both typify the Chinese Government's mindset: they can't think of doing anything else, because they only have one viewpoint.

By electing to block certain newsfeeds to its China service, Google may add a few sandbags to the levies, but that's all. And maybe they realised this when they agreed to do so in order to get any sort of service into China. It all comes down to a bit of pragmatism on the part of Google.

But, like the decision of the US supreme court to disallow the disputed and crucial Florida ballots along party lines, this will have ramifications going to go to the heart of what Google is about:
" organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful"
Now, the news service isn't the search engine. It is a filtered and refined variant of it and, if you think the feeds provided start off by presenting an impartial report, you are very naive. The power of such newsfeed services relies on their ability to concisely present many eyes for you to look at a particular issue with and decide on for yourself. If the provider starts to selectively blind these eyes, then it is the provider that has lost it's impartiality.

Not you, not the internet, but Google.

I'll end by quoting from memory Sir Thomas Moore chastising his betraying ex-secretary in 'A Man For All Seasons':
'It profits a man nothing to sell his soul for the world: but for Wales..!'

(Mind you, the Melbourne centre still sounds good!)