Saturday, 12 December 2009

Airheads, engineering and "Character"

From out of the blue, an unexpected post!

Due to a combination of circumstances starting with a friend unexpectedly purchasing two new bikes, fed by my curiosity and ultimately allowed by an unexpected and hugely appreciated financial windfall, I have upgraded from my old 1994 Yamaha XJ600S Seca II, a wonderful little cheap bike and a perfect first bike, to a 1985 BMW K100RS, a cross-continent style high-speed tourer.

A key component in this decision was BMW's standard of engineering - seeing the condition that 25-year-old Ks are in, compared to my 15-year-old XJ, helped explain how the extra purchase price for a new Beemer gets justified.

And that helped lead to this current train of thought.

Wherever humans are bought together by machines, they will start to anthropomorphise, and words like "character" and "personality" will start to crop up. In the world of motorcycling, there are standards to go by: Italian bikes have character, Japanese bikes don't have much, and Hondas don't have any .

BMWs are not known for their "character". Yet Hermann, the K100RS, has several aspects that I regard as forming a personality - the quirkiness of the design, with the engine laid horizontal, for a start.

Then there is the vibration in the middle of the rev range, and the way that he is so eager to dive into corners despite his substantial ~250kg bulk, and then stay leaned over, stable and with only the lightest of touches needed to make adjustments, through as long as the sweeper lasts.

Then there is the way that the tank gets really hot, and on a stinking hot day will start to affect the performance of the fuel pump. Or the way that extra heat comes up between the edge of the tank and the edge of the seat.

Which brings me to my next point: "Character" is too often synonymous with "poor engineering".

Hermann is the best-designed vehicle I have ever owned. There are touches of brilliance that I'm still finding. As a safety feature, the clutch can not be pulled in while the side-stand is down, but if there is no weight on the side-stand, the clutch lever will retract it. The indicator switches, infamously unique to BMW, are actually easier to operate in really thick gloves than the all-in-one single switch on every other bike. Everything that needs regular or emergency access is incredibly easy to get to. The fairing is even more effective than it looks, and it looks effective. The mirrors are positioned so that your hands are in the slip-stream.

I could go on.

The point, however, is that there are very few instances where they got it wrong. You can argue with their choices, and say that they didn't make it sporty enough, or attractive enough (the answer to which is "Well, don't buy one then"), but most of the issues I have are only an issue in unpleasantly hot climates like a Queensland winter and do, in fact, make it an unbelievably good bike for cold climates such as, to take one at completely non-random, Bavaria in the middle of winter.

As a result of all this excellently well done engineering, BMWs are accused of being characterless, or having no passion about them.

This is what one friend of ours, who owns old Jaguars and a six-cylinder Kawasaki Z1300 in fantastic condition, said:

"I bought one of those when they came out, but sold it and kept the Z. They've just got no character."

Okay, so why not? He continued, without prompting:

"They just do everything well. It doesn't take any skill to ride one fast. The Z you have to work at. The brakes are woeful, for example."

Okay, so poor brakes give "character" and competence is "boring"? Does anybody else see a problem with that?

Now, I am quite familiar with the idea that a vehicle can be competent to the point of boredom, but I have issues with equating actual flaws with "character".

To me, Italian bikes have character because their styling is inspired or entertainingly quirky, their handling is praised by all who ride them, and they know things about exhaust notes which the Japanese are slowly learning. The fact that Italian bikes are traditionally built with variable quality, unreliable electrics and temperamental great engines is also part of their reputation, but I have issues with people saying "character" in an approving manner when they mean "flawed".

Which brings me to airhead BMWs. For the uninitiated, that means the R-series of horizontally opposed twins, cooled by air alone, that they built from the R32 in 1923, their first motorbike, until a new design of R-series twin with oil cooling was introduced in 1993.

Here's the thing: They look old. They not only look as though the engine dates from 1923, but as though the styling does as well. And that engine, which has a huge ships-prow crankcase housing, dominates.

But I can't stop looking at them and wondering what they'd be like to ride. They're quirky, which is a word I usually try and avoid using. And despite the fact that it can take a keen and experienced eye to tell them apart, there was very real progress made, with the R75 reputedly one of the fastest bikes in the world when it was new, and the R90S just plain magnificent.

I think they're one of the most interesting bike designs of the era, up there with the similarly weird cylinders-out-the-side Motto Guzzis, and I can see myself, in some so far unlikely cash-flush future, getting an R75 or even an R90S to enjoy on the odd weekend, or to tinker with.

Not only do they have character, but if they're looked after they will always work properly, and that's not something you can say about many bikes.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result" - road safety edition.

Excuse me while I rant about blatant idiocy in positions of power.
I am a motorcyclist. Anyone who has ever read this blog may have picked up on this.

This means that I have fairly strong opinions about other road users - if you put yourself in a position this vulnerable, with no safety cage around you and a much lower visual area from any angle, you either die or develop a deep and abiding distrust of everyone else. Why, only yesterday I had three people try to kill me on the ride into Uni - one truck pulled out into my lane too close in front of me, one car dived across into my lane and barely gave me time to brake before they collected my front wheel with their bumper, and one driver pulled away from its STOP sign in front of me while peering the other way looking for traffic in that direction.

Please note that I was not on something tiny like a postie bike - I was on a BMW K100RS which is, in anyone's language, on the hefty side.

So whenever I hear a report of a motorcycle accident in the media, I, being an informed reader, not to mention a Masters of Journalism student, read between the lines for the questions that the journalist didn't ask, and if the aricle says that the bike "struck a car which was pulling out of the shopping centre car park", you can bet that I will assume that the car was at fault and the rider, who admittedly may perhaps not have been paying maximum attention, was left without time to brake or dodge and his family can be consoled, at his funeral, by the knowledge that he was not at fault.

I am not, however, an apologist: I know full well that a great many motorcyclists take truly frightening risks regularly, and that the margins for crashing if you do are slim, and for dying if you crash, not much better.

But then we get this report of ignorant, knee-jerking, panicked policy making from the people presently in power:

Motorcyclists face zero alcohol limit (Courier Mail)

Now, I am all in favour of a zero alcohol limit for pilots, people who drive public transport, and surgeons. But just motorcyclists? Wherefor is your justification?

What we know is that the fatality rate for motorcyclists is ludicrously out of sync with their presence on the roads - the article quotes a fatality rate of 22% of the total, as against powered two-wheeled vehicles making up just 4.5% of all road users.

Ah, but why? Alcohol and speed are very easy things to both police and to blame, but what about being an idiot? What about people not paying attention and driving into another vehicle because they were distracted or not looking, disobeyed road rules, nodded off, had a vehicle failure, had an asthma attack, or misjudged the road and skidded, or hit a patch of oil?

And what about accident investigators who see a squid from a motorcycle tire (it's very easy to lock up the rear in an emergency braking manoeuvre) and tick the box that says "Excessive speed - at fault"?

The most recent comprehensive data for Queensland is from 2004 - this is how long it takes to collect, process, analyse and report on all the data. It can be downloaded as a highly inconvenient PDF from the Queensland Transport statistics page.

Let's just look at fatalities, because the official language and reporting never seems to mention the much greater number of accidents which merely cause property damage, pain and suffering, life-long cognitive or physical disabilities, unemployment and a massive drain on the health and disability care systems.

Out of 289 fatal crashes, 97(34% - one third, for argument's sake) involved alcohol or other drugs, and 52(18%) - less than a fifth - involved speed - please note that speed is not "exceeding the posted speed limit", it is "inappropriate speed for the conditions". Doing 80 in a 100 zone at night during a tropical thunderstorm may still be too fast, and registered as such if the reason you crashed was that your vehicle could not physically brake soon enough to avoid hitting the stalled car in front.

Alcohol/drugs was the most prominent contributing factor, but Inattention at 80(28%) and Disobeyed Traffic Rules with 79(27%) both outranked speed.

What was I saying about easy targets?

Lets look at the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) figures, shall we? And, for simplicity sake, I will only talk about percentages now.

Drivers - 54% of total. Motorcyclists - 13% of total. Hmmmm.

Now, 13% is still a higher proportion of fatalities than of registrations, and at greater than 50% it's much higher than the average, but it's sitll far less than 22% of all fatalities.

I can't seem to find a similar comparison for speed, however. Odd.

So let's look at the 46 fatal motorcycle crashes (with 48 fatalities): 59%(n=27) were single-vehicle crashes, and the motorcyclist was judged to be at fault in 35 out of 46 fatal crashes, which is 76% and, I suggest, far too low a number to be statistically solid.

The next figure is where life gets interesting: Most crashes occurred during daylight hours (67%), from Monday to Friday (52%). Now, what this says to me is: commuting - busy traffic, slow-moving, millions of near-misses every day and unlikely to be alcohol at all, unless there was an office party or sunset is really, really late. And the 48% on the weekend are likely to be a result of overcooking it in the mountains, but that is, of course, pure conjecture.

This suggests that BAC is only really a factor in extreme cases, and that it's simply that much easier to die when you have a drunken crash on a bike than if you're in a big metal cage, and the problem then is not "alcohol" it's "excessive alcohol", which is already illegal.

What's interesting here is that if the motorcyclist is automatically judged at fault in single-vehicle crashes, that means that out of the 19 multi-vehicle crashes, the other vehicle was most at fault in 8 of them. I put it to you that, with such low numbers, that is, as near as damn it, half. And yet I can't remember the last time I heard a police officer say "Drivers are being grossly negligent, and need to learn to look out." No, the closest I can remember is "Motorcyclists need to realise that they're difficult to see", which is tantamount to letting inattentive fools off the hook.

But to return to the article - the Police Commissioner didn't know about the no alcohol plan (uh, guys? Communication?) but had this to say about speeding:

"Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson said identification was an issue for police trying to enforce the road rules.
"Some really irresponsible motorcyclists as they go through a speed camera will even reach back and put their hand over the number plate so the motorcycle can't be photographed," Mr Atkinson said.
"So they're the ones in my view who are at a higher risk of death and injury and they're the ones we really need to stop.""

You what? "they're the ones in my view who are at a higher risk of death and injury"? On what do you base this base canard, Mr Atkinson? I have news for you: Physicists realised over a hundred years ago that heads wouldn't suddenly explode if you went much faster than a horse could run, and exceeding the largely arbitrary speed limit does not automatically equal death.

Now, I believe that a fair cop is a fair cop, and if you get caught speeding you should kick yourself for not paying attention and taking due care and attention - I have, myself, needed to do exactly that on four occasions, in total, to date (and yet never once on a motorycle). But equating an attempt to avoid detection while speeding with an increased risk of death appears, to me, to be a leap of logic that sales way over laughable into the rarified atmosphere of stupefied disbelief.

And then there's the response to detecting speeding - RFIDs. Radio Frequency Identification Tags. Oh, come on. We already know from experiments interstate that RFID toll passes don't work for motorcycles - so much so that in Queensland, the new no-cash GoVia (vomit) toll system waives tags for bikes in entirety, dong all identification via, wait for it, photographs of the number plate. Cars get charged a "video identification fee" if they don't have an electronic tag, but bikes don't, because that's the only reliable option.

And they want to get RFIDs working for a speeding bike, using portable equipment? Dream on, I say, dream on. The point about RFIDs is that they're not necessarily powered - otherwise, you have to rely upon people replacing the batteries, or wiring them into the bike. They are usually devices which reflect a radio signal and modify it with identifying information, which automatically halves the effective range.

So - we have a limited response to two safety issues, based upon low and therefore unreliable sample rates using data that is, CSI be damned, not possible to collect in a perfectly accurate and correct manner, and although a zero alcohol limit has the benefit of greater credibility, it's being highly discriminatory.

The United Motorcycle Council of Queensland was quoted as saying yes, that's fair enough, but how about zero tolerance for everyone else, as well?

The UMCQ is, however, not the united body of all motorcycling associations - take a look at the membership list and see what I mean - it starts with the Bandidos, and continues in much the same vein. The UMCQ has a vested interest in being nice to the police in public, and that journalist should be shot for calling upon them as a representative voice of all motorcyclists.

How about the MRAQ as a more legitimate, representative and politically active body?

And how about some reasoned discussion, and sitting down with the groups involved?

And how about considering the current training standards of all road users, while you're at it.

Article "Motorcyclists face zero alcohol limit" from the Courier Mail online.
Queensland Transport road safety statistics
Original launch report for the K 100RS, if you're interested.
Motorcycle Riders Association of Queensland

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

How you use a tool determines what tool you use, which determines how you use it...

I am a big fan of the fact (I'm not even going to call it a principle, concept or idea: It's a fact) that usage determines need.

I'm talking about mobile phones here, but any technology will do.

I, for example, am extremely unlikely to ever buy an iPhone, because recent usage of my  N95 has shown that I need a better camera, stereo speakers, a hardware keyboard, the ability to use it wearing gloves, and a better application finding system than scrolling through multiple screens. Oh, and multi-tasking.

I would also dearly love a QWERTY keyboard, and so when Nokia announced that the E71s replacement, the E72, would have a 5MP camera, I thought Yes!


I have recently got my hands on a BlueAnt Interphone, a bluetooth hands-free phone and intercom system for motorbikes.

I have been using this to play MP3s on the road, thanks to the N95, a power socket newly attached to the bike, and a car charger.

This is where life gets more complicated.

You see, the  N95 introduced a "dual-slider" design, which simply means that as well as the screen sliding up to reveal the number pad, it slides down (and the screen flips to landscape) to reveal four media control buttons: back, play/pause, stop, and forwards.

The thing is, if I put my phone in the map pocket of my tank bag, I have it in front of me, visible through the plastic map window, and, more importantly, I can press the media buttons through the plastic, provided I'm wearing light-weight gloves (which I don't, these days, it being winter here in sunny Queensland, and the morning temperatures getting perilously close to the freezing point of water at sea level).

I am almost certain that I couldn't do the same thing, accurately, with the E72s oh-so-very-compact and optical D-pad.

Which puts me in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, the natural next phone for me is therefore the N86, which is extremely nice and an improvement over the N95 in every way.

On the other hand, I would so very much like a QWERTY!

Damn it, my largely academic desires have become complicated again.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

"Predictive text" that actually is.

(This has been updated, because I was an idiot. For some reason, I attributed the software to the wrong company. Ah, the power of Twitter and a company that knows how to use it.)

Some time ago, I got unduly optimistic and went looking for a proper predictive text solution for S60, assuming that somebody had implemented one.

What I found was a couple of commercial betas and vague promises.

But there was one company, Keypoint Technologies, who are Scottish and therefore clever (seriously, have you any idea how many inventions pivotal to the creation of the modern world that Scotland can claim credit for?), that were making a trial of their solution available.

It was called Adaptxt, and I promptly went and tried it, and wrote of my experiences here, just barely over a year ago. It was ... Beta. Very, very beta.

Times move on, however, and programmers keep on working, and Adaptxt became a more mature beta, and it's time to give it another go.

So I am.

How it works, in a nutshell, is that instead of just working out possible options based upon what you've already entered and displaying that much of the first-choice possible word, it shows the rest of that word as well and lets you select it before actually finishing entering it. Which can save you considerable keypresses and, theoretically, time.

In addition, it displays the other possibilities in a pop-up menu, which allows the user to scroll down for a different option. Very nice.

The final piece of prediction is that it can attempt to predict several words in advance, theoretically (there's that word again) allowing you to finish an entire sentence by hitting Select > Select > Select ...

Does it work?

Straight away, my main complaints with the earlier model - not working well with dedit, in which text editor I spend rather a lot of my time - has been resolved. It works just as well in dedit as it does anywhere else. Notice I didn't say "perfectly", but I'll get to that.

There are two major problems left, both of which are hugely annoying.

Problem number one, the easier one to explain, is that it is a truly enormous RAM hog. On my N95, it can use up to about 10MB, which is not only startling for a text entry system, but also highly unpleasant on a phone which has about 20MB free if you're lucky. I opened a support ticket about that, and they assure me that they're working on it.

Problem number two is a little more subtle. You can't chose between the normal case options of Abc (first letter capital, then lower case), ABC (all capitals) and of course abc (all lower case). No, it decides. This is great with "I", and of course it knows about sentence starts, but otherwise ...

Names are generally okay, because they're usually in the dictionary with a capital first letter. But suppose you want to put a capital inside quotation marks, or a regular word is being used as a proper noun, or indeed anything else? How do you force it to enter what you want it to?

There are two ways: enter a new word into the dictionary, or: start a new line, enter the desired word, then go back and join the lines up again.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, highly annoying.

They claim, however, that they're working on that, as well. I have my fingers crossed.

What else doesn't quite work? Well, for me, the look-ahead prediction, which is claimed to learn from what you enter. This is probably, to be perfectly honest, because I will write anything and everything - twitter updates, this blog post, random fiction, emails - all on this phone, which makes predicting what I will type next difficult for me, let alone a tiny little piece of software.

What's brilliant? The dictionary is, get this, user-editable! Learn from this, Nokia!

Is it faster? Well ... Maybe. I haven't actually done any speed tests, but the time taken to examine the provided options, enter more text, scroll, select... Makes it feel no faster than using full T9. This, however, needs to be considered in light of my rather impressive T9 speed. The real advantage of Adaptxt is the key presses it saves, which may not save time but certainly saves energy, and is a lot more relaxing.

Unfortunately, they have, for a while, removed the menu entry which shows you how many key presses it's saved you, how many first-choice options you use, how many second-choice... etc. Which is not useful, but is very cool to know.

Will I continue to use it? Yes. It feels very relaxing, which is an odd reason to have, but it works for me. I will, however, be extremely disappointed if they don't release a new beta, and soon, with some significant updates in memory management and grammar options.

Would I pay for it when it comes out of beta?

That, I'm afraid, will remain to seen.

Monday, 20 July 2009

This has been awhile: Another Microsoft failure

I have been so successful at avoiding Microsoft products lately that they haven't had an opportunity to seriously annoy me.

But some people just have to try and drag me back in.

My work insists upon using Outlook Web Access for out of office email which, considering my at-home employment, includes me.

I have asked most of my colleagues to use my personal address, which has the added advantage that I check it, but I still occasionally get emails through Outlook and they occasionally have Excel files attached.

And this is where the story really starts or, if you prefer, the plot starts to smell like a two-month-old egg.

For Outlook Web Access, being a Microsoft product, attempts to display the Excel (a Microsoft format) file in-line. Which would be fine, although it works atrociously (by which I mean barely at all, it loses basically all formatting) but for one thing.

There's no option to download the attached file. I swear, there isn't, I've looked everywhere.

Which means no downloading it to work on, and, which is the big problem in my case, no printing a version which works.

The only option I have is to view it as a web page, which restores all the formatting by converting the Excel to HTML. Which is just silly, and not all that helpful.

Nice going, Microsoft. You fail at providing intranet email solutions.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Libel has no place in science

This is a slightly messy post, because I do not have the time to make a cleaner one.

The central problem is this: Libel and defamation laws (in Australian law, defamation is anything spoken and libel is anything printed, recorded or transmitted, but we can safely ignore that distinction) exist for the very important purpose of protecting the very valuable social and professional reputations of members of society. But, they are all too easily twisted into a tool for the suppression of dissent or criticism of those in power, or those who have the power of money or the ear of politicians or the courts.

These problems are well recognised - click the "FOE" (Freedom of Information) tag on the left to see a couple of other posts discussing this, or google the chilling effect of libel.

In terms of world libel laws, the UK and Australia are well recognised as being plaintiff-friendly (i.e., it's very easy to sue someone successfully) and the USA, buttressed by their First Amendment right to freedom of speech, is extremely defendant-friendly - if you try and sue someone, you'd better by really positive that you have a case.

In the UK, in recent times, Guardian columnist, blogger and qualified MD Ben Goldacre was sued by vitamin pill salesman Matthias Rath over statements made by Ben that he, Rath, was trying to sell a useless product to people who needed proper medical care. The Guardian, to their credit, backed Ben and the case eventually went in the right direction.

More recently, columnist, author and blogger Simon Singh has been sued by the British Chiropractic Association for saying that it, the BCA, was promoting therapies that had not a shred of evidence to back them up. There are many, many commentaries online about this. Google, or go to Bad Astronomer for a starting point.

The key problem is this: Singh, and Goldacre before him, are making statements of scientific truth - given therapies do, or do not, work. These claims may be correct, incorrect or partially correct under given circumstances, but they are statements which can be assessed scientifically. The statement that a given person or organisation is peddling bogus therapies is therefore dependent upon a scientific test.

The courts are most emphatically not the place where science should be determined. Not for evolution, not for homeopathy or mega-vitamin therapy, not for chiropractic "medicine". The BCA are using a legal trick in their suit - complaining not that Singh was accusing them of promoting falsehoods, but that Singh was accusing them of knowingly misleading the public, which is of course a claim which directly impacts upon their reputation.

Ignoring, for one second, the Evidence Based Medicine position that the BCA may not deserve to have a good public reputation, we can come to two either-or conclusions: Either chiropractic treatments are worthless, in which case the BCA is deliberately misleading, or speaking in ignorance, or: Chiropractic treatments are worthwhile, in which case Singh made an incorrect allegation either way.

Now: Wouldn't it be so much better for a body which claims medical authority to defend themselves on the basis of medical worth and scientific validity first, so that they can dump the full weight of bullshit upon Singh, rather than just "He's picking on me!"? Well, of course not - they know they'd lose.

Either way, the courts should not now, nor should ever, have any authority over science. Courts attempt to discover truth (of a sorts) via a given set of techniques. Science attempts to discover the truth via its own set of techniques. Occasionally, they look similar. Never, however, is a court the correct avenue for deciding what a scientific truth is. And the efficacy of chiropractic treatments is a matter of scientific truth.

Therefore, the button I have just added on the top left - Keep Libel Laws out of Science, by the British group Unfortunately, the layout may not be friendly to the width of the button.

I wish Singh all the best for his appeal against the atrocious preliminary ruling.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Notes from the N95: v6

Another, quite short, collection of random notes from the new smartphone, composed on the phone:

AppManager really needs to be able to filter by first letter, at the very least. It's so crude it looks as though they threw it together as a stop-gap and forgot to go back and fix it. "Broken gets fixed, mediocre lasts forever."

No facility to set appointments, memos or to-dos to repeat at set intervals, or to copy. What the fuck? Four years ago, my T630 could do that!

Massive credit, still, for letting you select the previous entry in the T9 options.

How can it lose a wi-fi interface it was using only two seconds ago, and have to search for it again? Repeatedly? This is REALLY ANNOYING.

If I send a txt to a number not in my phonebook, there is no way to then select that txt, and save the number. God dammit.

This is just plain stupid: the N95 has a dual slide mechanism, much hyped at release and re-used in just about every sliding Nokia since, that puts a line of audio player controls - stop, play/pause and forwards and backwards - at the top of the phone, accessed when you push the screen down. This also activates landscape mode. The thing is, although they apparently work as controls in the N-gage (what? Exactly) gaming application, they are otherwise stubbornly linked to the built-in media player. Which means that if you're in a third-party music player, or Nokia Audiobook player, which is a beta application written by a Nokia engineer who realised that if wanted a proper audiobook player he was going to have to write it himself, all that happens when you press one of the control buttons is that the media player launches. This is annoying enough, but what is totally ridiculous is that they don't work in the Voice Recorder application either, and that's part of the standard phone suite, not an add-on! Insanely, insanely, frustrating.

Essential free software installations:
  • Jbak TaskMan - The control panel that S60 should have built-in.
  • Active File - what the built-in file manager should be.
  • Dedit - Text editor - the world's most basic and useful utility. From the same programmer as TaskMan. Clever man, this Russian.
  • ShoZu - jack of all trades, master of none, but free and comprehensive. Just make sure it's what you want - it's too powerful to just use randomly.
  • Google maps - less annoying than Nokia Maps, has a neat non-GPS location finding trick using network towers (imperfect, but surprisingly good), and you don't need a subscription to get basic directions, but does use data.
  • Free iSMS - bringing Palm's threaded SMS to Symbian, by way of iPhone aesthetics.
  • Mobipocket Reader. Because it's just about the only option available.
I won't put in Opera Mini, because S60 is good and doesn't need replacing, unlike the built-in file manager. Opera is a nice adjunct, not an essential. N.B.: Most of the controls in S60 Web aren't documented. You'll need to do some googling.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Updated: Why feature-rich social networking clients for smartphones aren't really there yet.

(Edited to update: See below)

There is a beguiling seductiveness to the thought that, on a modern smartphone where the menu structure may be a little hectic already, you may be able to install just one multi-function client for all your social networking needs.

Have a care, however, should one of these clients try to attract your gaze with a come-hither look.

Jacks of all trades are frequently, as everybody who has ever paid attention to trite sayings well knows, not masters of any.

I have, or have had, ShoZu, Widsets and Snaptu installed, to cover the fairly limited set of Facebook, Twitter and Blogger. I have NOT given these an exhaustive workout, but by the time I'm finished you should see why that's not necessary for me to make my point.

The first problem is that Facebook, according to the folks at ShoZu when I asked them about this, does not release an API for commenting on items, so you're stuck with reading other people's updates, and can't say anything.

Another thing: I demand speed. I don't run programs all day so that I can glance at them when I feel like it, so they have to be fast to start. I don't have an unlimited data plan and, with an N95, I don't have an unlimited battery, either.

Let's get Widsets out of the way first, because I did. It's shiny, yes, but for a program with official support from Nokia, it's a slow pig to start, login and be available. The Facebook widget is pretty, and nice. The Twitter widget, however, doesn't work at all and, if the comments on the websites when I tried it were anything to go by, it hadn't been working for a while now. So, piss off.

Then there's Snaptu. It's java, starts much faster than Widsets, and is very clean and pretty. It's also a network client proper: only the one piece of software is installed on the phone, which makes the footprint small and means that when the program loads, it's available to use and isn't still trying to load data in the background. But it has one fatal flaw, even next to the inability to make comments on Facebook. It can't open links from Twitter. So, goodbye.

Then, and anybody who knows anything about social networking on mobiles will have been waiting for me to get here, there's ShoZu. The swiss-army knife of social networking clients, ShoZu makes available more sites than I knew about, or even wanted to know about. And it's the only Twitter client I've seen (at least, among the free ones) that lets you view individual feeds, not just the whole lot, so if there's someone you really don't want to miss out on reading, you don't have to.

However: ShoZu, being the most powerful of the lot, has the most problems. To start with, it refuses to die. Oh, sure, it has an option for "Run in background" which can be set to "no", but it doesn't bloody work. I've caught the naughty little fucker using my data connection while my back has been turned. ShoZu is a major reason I have KillMe installed.

And then there's the main problem - it's SLOW. Not to start, that's commendably fast, but to load content. It will sit while loading updates for EVERYTHING, and give you absolutely no notice of how fast it's going. Oh sure, it will put a star next to updated feeds, but only within Twitter, or Facebook, or whatever, and it sometimes gets that wrong.

Oh, and I can't seem to get the Blogger posting to work.

Edit: I forgot another issue. Because ShoZu has just so much to download every time it starts up, if all you want to do is load, fire off a tweet and close down (tweet by SMS doesn't seem to be available in Australia, unless I've missed something), it can take a fair old time for the twit to be sent, while it sits in a queue. At least, that's my experience. Another reason why it's only a great tool is you run it in the background, all the time.

To be honest, it would be a great tool if I wanted to run it all the time, (it can even geotag photos if your phone has GPS) or if I didn' have any feeds to download and only wanted to upload to Twitter, Flikr, Picassaweb, or whatever, but I do and I can't afford to, which means it's not the tool for me. It's simply too annoying.

So what am I left with? Well, Facebook's mobile site is actually pretty good, and Twibble, particularly the latest, very new version, makes a great little java Twitter client, because the Twitter mobile website is absolutely pathetic. There are other Twitter clients, and there are even mobile websites which reproduce Twitter, more powerfully.

There is of course a bigger problem here, quite apart from Facebook's mean approach to application developers. Those who try to do all things, must do all things, and spend just as much time on each of them. This is no less relevant in making software than it is in building cars, and sets the bar just as high for programs such as Widsets, where the widgets seem to be mainly developed by different individuals, as it does for programs like ShoZu, where the development effort appears to be much more coordinated and centralised.

Jack-of-all-trade programs also face the problem that if one component is sub-par, witness the Twitter widget not working, you can't just swap it for another, the way you can for a built-up collection of different tools.

They're a nice idea, but not quite there yet.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Random headline wool-gathering and commentary - 3

Greetings all,

Another collection of more-or-less random gems pulled from the news this chilly morning:

Vitamin supplements may cut benefits of exercise - New Scientist. Ha! Suck on that, supplement freaks! Question, however: What about eating fruit after exercise?

Via William Gibson's twitter (@GreatDismal): Cave Panting Depicts Extinct Marsupial Lion - LiveScience. That's rather cool.

Patient declared dead was actually alive - Courier Mail. Cue Monty Python: "I'm not dead yet!" "Yes he is!"

Violent inmate tricks hospital in escape - Courier Mail. For the love of Cthulhu, this is why you insist upon paperwork!

Cool! Zombie animals!

US Biker runs a red light, crashes into police car - Visor Down. You dickhead.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Apparently, reading really is outdated

The requirements for an ebook reader for a mobile phone would appear to be fairly simple:
  • It can read plain text files, html, and the old Palm pdb/prc would be nice. The ability to read zipped files would be nice, as well. Other formats, like mobi and lit, have more options but can all be converted into plain text, which is how files from places like Project Gutenberg tend to come.
  • It can remember where you were in the file from session to session.
  • Bookmarks.
  • A find utility would be nice.
  • A file browser, possibly with a library management feature.
And that's about it, really. Other, flashy stuff like putting a clock on the screen, or full-screen, or control of the phone's backlight, are all nice extras but none of them are core functionality compared to that little list above (unless you've got a touch-screen phone, like S60 5th edition, where the UI needs to be a little more clever).

So why the hell is it so hard to find a decent reader, when there are at least two already available for the comparative babe-in-arms iPhone?

The main poster-child is Mobipocket reader, or Mobireader, which hasn't been developed since 2007 and, because they've been purchased by Amazon, may never be developed again. It doesn't have a find feature, and it can't handle directories, so if you categorise your ebooks on your phone (or memory card) using nice, handy, convenient subdirectories, Mobireader will still present you with a huge list of everything under ebooks/.

For S60 phones, there is also Qreader, but it has been saying "will be updated soon" for about two years now, is nice but looks dated and has problems with different file formats.

The situation has become so bad for so long that Symbian Guru has started distributing a beta version of Mobireader which was released to testers in June 2007 and has never gone anywhere since.

Others have commented on how bad this situation now is.

So let's review what else we've got:
  • eReader: The interface is frankly awful, and Steve Litchfield couldn't even get it to find his test files, let alone open them.
  • iSilo: Commercial software, with their own format and a 30-day trial version so crippled that it's hard to tell if it would be any good if you bothered buying a licence.
  • Shortcovers: Developing a Symbian client, apparently. Already have iPhone, Blackberry & Android clients, all free. Promising, but no beta release yet, and I can't see if their client can handle multiple formats, or just theirs (whatever that might be).
  • Mobile Bookshelf: J2ME. Development has been "Suspended indefinitely" since 2005.
  • ReadManiac: J2ME. Development suspended due to lack of interest. The interface is incredibly crude-looking, which would be fine, but it asks for permission so many times when attempting to access the phone's file system that I got fed up and deleted it.
  • Book Reader by Tequilacat: J2ME. You have to create a JAR file containing the text of the ebook, and then put that on your phone. That is way too much like hard work.
  • ReadM: The home page appears to have disappeared, and although there are numerous download sites, development seems to have stopped sometime in 2006(?)
  • Wattpad: Free, but can only read files downloaded from the wattpad website, although the installed software can search the wattpad catalogue itself. Some books are from Gutenberg, most are pirated copies of commercial ebooks. Nice software, but only their files? Sod that!
  • Dedit. Technically, this is a text editor, but if you only want to read plain text files, it can be told to remember its position in the file. May as well use this, it is at least under development!
So. One powerful text editor, a bunch of java programs which haven't been touched in years, the best of the bunch hasn't been touched in years anyway, and a couple of limited and commecial programs which aren't worth the price over Mobireader which is, we have already established, ageing badly.

If Shortcovers ever do release a Symbian program (I've emailed them to express interest in beta testing, which they do invite people to do), it will be interesting to see how flexible it is.

Otherwise, the future looks rather bleak. You can play a thousand different games on an S60 handset, but try reading one book.

Edit: For what it's worth, I use a Nokia N95 - Symbian with S60 3rd edition, Feature Pack 1. Not the biggest screen, but not the smallest, and a good quality screen.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Some suggestions for bio-fuels

The world has gone biofuel crazy. Ethanol and biodiesel are apparently going to save the planet and our effluent ways of life.

The problem beings first, that ethanol is really nasty to engines that aren't engineered to cope, and secondly that we have to produce tonnes upon tonnes of biomass to convert into biofuels, and it's a loss-making sum at the moment.

We need oily plants for biodiesel, high-starch plants for ethanol, or some really clever genetic engineering or hunting of yeasts or bacteria to convert inappropriate substances to appropriate substances.

All of which has, of course, been happening.

I, however, would like to make a couple of suggestions for plants which should be investigated as source stocks, other than labour-intensive food crops like corn or rapeseed/canola:

  • Bamboo. Grows amazingly fast in the right conditions. Would need a bit of processing, I think.
  • Kudzu vine. Grows so fast that it frightens people into introducing biological controls. This strikes me as an opportunity, rather than a problem.
  • Aloe vera. Grows bloody everywhere, where it's not wanted, and fairly quickly. It's got to be useful for something apart from hippies rubbing it on their skin. I've got several patches if any processing plant wants to buy it off me.
  • Hemp. I mean, come on: People have been arguing this since before it was first outlawed - grows insanely quickly, in all sorts of conditions. And we're already really good at growing it hydroponically, so we save on farmland!
  • Grass. If we collect an entire suburb's weekly production of grass clippings, couldn't we fuel at least one Landcruiser?

Monday, 27 April 2009

Drivers die in hot cars

Road safety just never goes away as a news item. People continue to die in ludicrous numbers, the police continue to labour under the delusion that hiding speed cameras is an effective deterrent, and the media continue to not point out the obvious questions.

Take the article on the front cover of last Friday's Courier Mail: "Highway hoons on M1 race at triple the speed limit."

Now, obviously, nobody should be surprised if a small group of people decide that a wide, straight, well-maintained section of highway will make for a good bit of late-night fun. What's really interesting, however, is that these "hoons" claim to be "
middle-aged professionals and businessmen with the money to afford expensive modifications to their cars."

Question: If you can afford expensive modifications, can't you afford the entry fee for a track-day? Or, say, a dedicated race car and a competition licence?

Are you not, in actual fact, just embarrassed to admit that you can't go around corners very well?

And now we have this one: "Drivers dying in lone crashes, survey reveals."

Apparently, the police have investigated their crash data and noticed that just about half of all fatal accidents have been single-vehicle.


Superintendent Col Campbell's comment, that this
"may come as a surprise to those motorists who believed other drivers posed the only danger on the roads" is particularly fatuous.

Yes, most drivers certainly are labouring under the misapprehension that they're fine, it's everyone else who is the problem. But nobody is going to be surprised - if you're convinced that everyone else is an idiot, you won't be surprised that they keep crashing by themselves, will you?

Nobody is going to take these results as a warning to themselves, if they don't already think that they have a problem.

The really stupid part is this:

"We've looked at the causes of single-vehicle fatalities and they are the same causes as multi-vehicle crashes - alcohol, speed, fatigue, not wearing seatbelts, and you can throw inattention in there as well," Supt Campbell said.

I'm sorry, not wearing a seat belt is a cause of a crash, not a cause of getting hurt in the event of a crash?

Language such as this does not promote confidence in the authorities, it really doesn't.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Here's yet another opportunity for Twitter.

I have been working for a few months now as an after-hours Emergency On-Call Officer. Which means that whenever there is a risk to any of the clients my employer has around South Brisbane, and it happens after hours, I get rung.

Problems include clients getting sick, clients having a crisis when they don't have a rostered worker on, workers getting sick so they can't go to clients, and workers getting drunk and pretending that they didn't realise that they had a shift.

And, unfortunately, many of these calls come down to the unfortunate fact that our rostering system doesn't really work.

It doesn't work because it's too easy to miss that a shift hasn't been filled. It doesn't work because the people who also need to know, the On-Call Officers, aren't always informed when there's a change.

The first problem, of course, is that the entire system is run by people. But, of course, there are ways around that using automated technology.

The first problem is therefore that the entire system is run using Excel and Word.

Without naming names, I work for a pretty large and, indeed, statewide organisation. And one of their fairly large services still organises rosters using spreadsheets and word processors.

Which means that when the contact details for a worker are updated, they have to be updated in a minimum of three different places, which means that the third one tends to get ignored and is horribly unreliable.

Which means that there is no, that's
no system in place within the software to remind people that something hasn't quite worked.

Which means that it's possible to book a worker for conflicting shifts, if the worker had a brain-fade moment and forgot about the first one while being asked for the second one.

Which also means that last-minute changes aren't communicated to the people who get calls along the line of "Who's coming tonight?", find out that officially nobody is, and panic.

Oh, and there's another problem I forgot about: We used to have a laptop with a mobile Internet dongle which could be used to view current client rosters, to get the latest information ourselves. Except we can't now, because the IT policies changed and now they're not allowing confidential information to be accessed externally to an office.

So we're back to were we started.

The first possible solution that presented itself to me was a rostering system that stored all data in one place, could print out any different list as necessary from the same data that it only had to be updated once, could tell you who was banned from working with individual clients, who was available, who wasn't, and who had already worked their maximum allowable hours that fortnight.

Then, and this is the important part, whenever a shift for the current week is changed, it will send an SMS update to relevant mobiles, including the workers, the client and the On-Call Officers.

In the meantime, however, we need a stop-gap measure.

So here's a thought: Secure twitter.

Every time a senior worker puts the phone down and makes an update in the (Excel) client rosters, they can change into another window and type "Jane doing Fred this evening". Then, when the office closes and I start work at 4:30, I can log in (hell, even into the organisation's website) and see a run-down.

Slightly more permissible than accessing the entire rosters, surely?

Mind you, thinking about it...

How is this too different from a desktop application that sends multiple txts? And we
have those, surely.

Of course, the ultimate problem will remain: Getting the senior/office staff to actually
use the bloody thing.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Being reasonable as an offence against reason.

The ABC in Australia has started an interesting little panel question-and-answer program called, unsurprisingly enough, Q&A, in which highly experienced journalist Tony Jones moderates a panel of guests and fields questions from the website (in real-time, even) in text and video, and from the audience.

On it, this week, were Federal Minister for Telecommunications and Messing With it, Stephen Conroy, and also, among the others, way-far-right-wing newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt.

These two were key for two reasons: One, Conroy got sent more questions than Q&A had ever received on anything, ever, and never managed to give one straight answer in half an hour, and, two, Bolt is a warped travesty of a stereotype of a pundit.

The man managed to use most of the tools of illogic available to his kind: Misrepresenting his opponents and their arguments, warping the argument to suit himself, ignoring any counter-claim that he doesn't feel up to answering, cherry-picking facts, being annoyed when people throw him different cherries, and using the word "moral" as though it had an objective, concrete and unwavering meaning.

All of which would merely serve to provide one side of a debate, and prompt some good back-and-forth, were it not for the greatest sin of all:

Being reasonable.

You see, there is honour in honesty, and honesty in self-righteousness, and truth in bald statements. Yet being reasonable is to use the forked tongue of an insurance salesman to do the devil's work.

Beware, at all costs, these phrases:

  • "I don't want to appear [racist][sexist][whatever] but..." - This means that they're about to, but want some sympathy for being honest or for raising a painful point which people may sympathise with, at least a little bit. Be honest. Or, if you realise that you have to skirt tricky shores, be carefully exact.
  • "While I do concede that point..." - This is tricky, and can be used honestly, of course it can, but it often means "I don't agree with you, and I'm going to try and make you appear narrow-minded and stupid by being narrow-minded and stubborn."
  • "Surely nobody would argue that..." or "Nobody is really arguing that..." - This is usually used to make their side of the argument look more moderate, but can also mean that they are trying to discredit your position before you have a chance to state it. They are almost always wrong, and are avoiding the issue, which is what they are arguing.
  • "All I am saying is..." - There is no all you are saying. You are saying. This is often a weasle way out of listening to the details, coming up with a counter-argument, or indeed paying any attention at all. When you present the five reasons why science has settled on a position, and they say "All I am saying is...", they're not interested, so give them up as a lost cause. If you really believe that you have been misrepresented, say so. Acknowledge that they may have honestly misunderstood, and try and do something about it. If you want to scale back on your certainty, say something like "At present, I believe..."
  • "I haven't heard anything to convince me otherwise..." - This usually means "And I won't, because I refuse to listen to it." This is tricky, in light of what I said in the point above, so pay careful attention. It may be useful to assay a couple of the most common arguments, and see if they recognise them or not.
  • "Surely..." - Often expressed as "Surely you can see that..." or something similar, this is the most economical way of combining most of what is listed above, and is shorthand for "I'm a reasonable human being, I recognise my faults, and realise that I may be wrong. But I'm not, because I'm right, and you're wrong. Because I said so."
Here's a good, short tip: If they make your head hurt, appear to be saying only a third as much as they actually are, and you know they're wrong but can't quite work out why, then look for the above statements. They may well be using other tools of illogic, but if they appear to be baffling, then they're invariably piling on the bullshit.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Random headline wool-gathering and commentary - 2

First up this morning, we have this absolute gem:

"BMW driver follows satnav to edge of cliff" from The Register (tagline: "Biting the hand that feeds IT".

Why is it that I can only recall ever hearing these stories from the UK? What's wrong with them? Thankfully, he's on a careless driving charge.

Next up: "Trial aims to tame bad behaviour in classroom" from The Courier Mail. What's exceptional about this item is where it points out that not only are children being taught etiquette (ignore the one about milk after tea - it violates science and common sense), but that their parents are as well. I think I'll go with "By their fruits, shall we know them".

Next, "Former doctor accused of selling 'snake oil' cancer treatments", also from the Courier Mail. Now, (deep breath) there is no such thing as a "miracle cancer cure", okay? The closest we have is a completely successful surgical removal of a tumour that hasn't spread yet. If you go and buy a "miracle drug" that promises to cure cancer completely, without asking "So, why don't you have a Nobel Prize yet?" Then you may well deserve to find out that it's not detergent and toilet cleaner in it.

The ABC News Online gives us "China uses the pill to fight gerbil plague". I really don't think that this one needs any commentary from me. It stands by itself.

If you delight in freeze-frame photography, with pictures of bullets halfway through fruit, go to a gallery at the Daily Mail here. You used to need special equipment for this, now all you need is a digital SLR and a really good flash. My favourite would have to be the water-filled bauble.

The Australian allows a journalist to engage in heavy-handed righteous sarcasm in response to a comment made by a judge. Bad. Wrong. Just don't, okay? It makes you look petty, whiny and short-tempered. Basically, you have allowed yourself to sink far below your opponent's level. Please don't do it again.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Customer service - getting better

Having bitched and griped before the way that Nuance Communication delayed the commerical launchof T9Nav until a week after the beta period ended, I have to give credit where credit is due.

I bought T9Nav, one of my rare treats to myself, from Nokia's Appstore (sorry! Software Market!).

Today, I received an email directly from Nuance Communications, saying:

"Attached is the upgrade version of T9 Nav, version 2.0.1. We’ve fixed some issues with SMS indexing and recommend that you use this version instead of the original."

Okay, that's better. I was scratching my head and wondering what would happen if they ever did upgrade, and now I know.

Well done.

Friday, 20 March 2009

After the Internet, let's burn all the books. Nobody'll mind that, will they?

When I was in high school, and a keen but untutored debater, my team were affirmative in a debate on the topic "That censorship is an insult to the intelligent." At one point, one member of the opposing, negative, team pointed at various military hardware posters around the room and tried to use them as an example for a point he was making, but clearly didn't know what any of them were.

When I stood up, third speaker for my team (I always was), I went around and named each piece of hardware - helicopter or aircraft - to make the point that I was more intelligent than he was. I then used the story of how Tom Clancy had been threatened with a military court-martial as a spy because the details of anti-submarine warfare he had outlined in Hunt for Red October were so accurate. He had to take the military to his local library and show them how he had pieced together a plausable explanation from publicly available data. They let him off. Well, they had to (although today he might find himself in Guantanamo Bay before they had given him a chance to explain anything. That, however, is a different story).

Despite my inability at the time to remember the name "Tom Clancy", we won that debate and rightly so. Apart from being better debaters, we were right.

Censorship is an insult to the ingelligent, and it is an insult to voters in a democracy. Unfortunately, because so few of the people calling for it are actually intelligent themselves, it's got a good chance to get worse.

I am referring, of course, to the planned Great Firewall of Australia, the Berlin Wall dreamed up by Canberra, the national, mandated, non-opt-out, Internet filter.

I haven't said much in these pages, simply because I haven't much on anything over the past few months.

Every now and again, however, I get a head of steam up and feel that it is my duty to publicly insult the stupid.

I refer you to an article in the Australian entitled "Internet filter list of porn exposed".

Problem number one is that, as other commentators have already discovered and noted, it's not a list of porn at all. It's a lost of mostly porn, with the odd pet shop or dentist or poker or betting website thrown in for bad measure. So, shame on you The Australian.

This is the background:

The Australian Communications and Media Authority, the ACMA, maintains a list of sites which have been reported as offensive. This includes directly illegal content, specifically and most vocally child pornography, but also legal but reported-as-offensive-by-somebody content such as graphic anti-abortion websites, perfectly legal over-18 pornography, content which has been refused classification in Australian and is therefore not technically, actually, banned, and poker websites. That's the card game, not anything else you may think of from the pronounciation of the word "poker".

This list is used to create filter software so that, should families wish to download something from the government which restricts their internet viewing to only those sites not blacklisted by said government, which is a worrying sort of decision to make, they can do so.

The problem begins when the said government pledges to filter certain types of content for the entire country, whether or not you agree to this. They claim a mandate, of course, having won an election on the back of workplace and industrial relations laws and thereby clearly having been given carte blanche over telecommunications. If you can't see that perfectly obvious link then think of the children.

The list has, in a triumph of decency over paternalistic, fascist politics, been leaked to the website wikileaks which has, ironically, itself been put on the list for having leaked the lists used in other countries, and is available here, which is to say , and also, for good measure, at

Now: The ACMA says that the list is bogus. It may well be.

However, I don't wish to discuss the contents of that list, which are frequently hilarious, but the response to the list's release.

Let us dissect the Australian IT article itself.

Opening paragraph: "THE Rudd Government's plans for a nationwide internet filter are in jeopardy after its top-secret blacklist of banned web pages was leaked."

Excuse me? In jeopardy how? How on earth will people knowing what's on the list, affect the possibility of filtering the contents, apart from making somebody look like an idiot?

Moving on to paragraph two: "The list, published on the internet, reads like a White Pages of porn and its release has provided a handy guide for young people to access the very material the Government wishes to banish from their eyes."

I call time out for being an idiot. This isn't reporting, it's tabloid journalism. Here's another way to access a huge amount of the very material which the Government is trying to banish:

The White Pages at the very least tries to be comprehensive. This isn't even a decent yellow pages - the very idea that any list with less than about a million entries could possibly be any sort of comprehensive guide to anything on the internet is laughable.

Paragraph three: "The secret blacklist, which was leaked to the whistle-blower website Wikileaks, is purportedly the same list the Australian Communications and Media Authority distributes to vendors of approved internet filters to ban offensive material -- such as child pornography, bestiality and violence."

Violence is offensive? Since when now? Is on the list? Or how about

"Senator Conroy has said he plans to use parts of the ACMA blacklist to block Australian internet users from accessing pornographic and violent material. Now the secret list has been made public, it is more likely it will be used by interested parties as a pornography database of unheralded proportions."

You have got to be kidding me. Who the hell wrote this tripe? Mitchell Bingemann, have you ever even been on the Internet?

"Child protection group Child Wise said whoever published the blacklist had opened up a pandora's box of porn."

No, sorry, the Internet did that.

""Every 15-year-old boy in thecountry is going to be after this porn list," said Child Wise chief executive Bernadette McMenamin."

I hate to break this to you Bernadette, but most 15 year olds masturbate, fart, tell each other filthy jokes and already know far more about their current tastes in porn than they could ever get from this list.

"Yesterday's disclosure of the blacklist could also jeopardise efforts to block access to offensive material as the perpetrators will now know they were tagged by the secret list."

Oh, who the fuck runs a child pornography website and doesn't already assume that they can be tagged?

I find the scariest part of this whole sordid mess of irresponsible journalism and rank head-in-the-sand squawking to be in the final paragraph (emphasis added by me):

"ACMA threatens fines of up to $11,000 a day for linking to sites on its secret censorship blacklist and said Australians caught distributing the list or accessing child pornography sites on the list could face criminal charges and up to 10 years in prison."

What the fuck? In other words, distributing a list of URLs is punishable in this country? How the hell did that happen?

In addition: How about everyone who's been fined puts their URL into a hat, and we can rebuild the list from first principles, hmm?

I'll leave the final word to Wikileaks themselves, as quoted in the article:

"While Wikileaks is used to exposing secret government censorship in developing countries, we now find Australia acting like a democratic backwater," the website notes.

"History shows that secret censorship systems, whatever their original intent, are invariably corrupted into anti-democratic behaviour."

And that, my friends, is why this must never be allowed to happen.
Further information:

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Computers and customer service

I have just paid my electricity bill to Origin.

Quite apart from the sense of piercing pain that this always promotes, I noticed a few things about the automated phone system.

First of all, it doesn't make you talk to it and it's quite quick and efficient. So kudos there, then.


You dial, it is answered almost immediately, and it says "To continue, press 1."

You what? Dial, wait two seconds, have to do something else just to do something else?

All right, moving on...

Enter biller code, reference number, amount to pay, credit card details  (all of them) and then... It reads it all back to you, so that you can check, and it does two things:

Number one, is it picks up a bad asian accent and says "three hundred dollar and sixty cents". Not "dollars", but "dollar".

Which amused me, mildly.

Number two is that when it reads you back your reference number, it messes it up.

The number is printed in the form "012 857 ..." and so on. In triples, which is a fairly standard way of doing things because triples are easy for the human mind to chunk numbers into to make memory easier. It is read back, however, as "01 28 57 .." - doubles. Which throws you a loop and leaves you momentarily unsure about what you're reading, therefore making it quite difficult to check that you got it right the first time.

Which isn't helpful.

But, having said that, it is just about the best telephone billing service I've ever used.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Sensible medical reporting from surprising sources.

I am quite surprised to find myself mildly impressed by the Courier Mail.

Not an improved standard of journalism or decreased tabloidship - we're not that lucky.

They do, however, throw themselves behind awareness-raising and fund-raising for young carers, and now we have measles.

Over the past few years, the anti-vaccination madness which has seen the UK spiralling into an epidemic, and the USA lose its near-eradicated status as US-resident adults and children are hospitalised, has reached Australia. There have always been conscientious objectors, of course, but they haven't really been a problem because with so few of them, there's a herd-immunity effect - they're not likely to meet someone with measles, or rubella, or what have you, so they're not likely to become infected. So they won't get sick.

So they won't realise just what they're missing.

They're learning, however.

There have been recent outbreaks of diseases such as whooping cough and measles in small pockets around Australia, frequently in traditionally "alternative" (read: hippy) communities in otherwise attractive places like the hinterlands of both the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, on either side of Brisbane.

So they're learning what these diseases can do.

Some people, however, already know exactly what having measles means. Laine Bradley contracted measles before the immunisations started, at age 10 months, and was blind and unable to walk until she died at the age of 12.

Her mother, a nurse, spoke to the Courier Mail, who printed the story and who spoke to the Australian Medical Association and who ran a neat, reasonably tightly written piece with decidedly below-par levels of sensationlism.

This is more than I usually expect from that outlet, and I congratulate them.

Link to the Courier Mail article "Laine Bradley's mum joins measles outbreak debate"

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Shock: Personalities affect lifestyle choices

Vaughan over at the always good value Mind Hacks has found a study which claims that People who buy dog breeds recognised as being "vicious", tend to be arseholes themselves.

I paraphrase, of course.

Basically, a psychologist has used an anonymous online questionnaire (hmmm...) of uni students, assessing criminality and various personality traits associated with being a not-nice person, and correlating that data with reported breed of dog owned.

Setting aside the various problems with anonymous online surveys, the study found that people who buy Dobermans, Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, Wolf-mixes (not wolfhounds), or Chow-Chows (what?) are more likely to show more, more violent and more varied criminal behaviour, and are more likely to exhibit psychopathic and impulsive personality traits.

At first, and indeed second and third, glances, this looks like another study which has clarified an issue, probably needed to be done, but didn't really add anything new, did it? I mean, really.

The sort of person who owns a Doberman chose to own that Doberman. A person who thinks that an ugly, potentially risky brute like a Pit Bull will make a good pet is unlikely to be the sort of person who volunteers at the local soup kitchen, are they?

I'm not suggesting for one second that everyone puts as much careful thought and consideration into breed selection as my partner did when she settled on Irish Wolfhounds, but, I mean, really.

Ownership of the sort of dog which is banned by local councils or perilously close to being banned by entire countries, is unlikely to be an entirely innocent choice.

Either people want a violent guard dog, which may indicate that they have enemies, a severe dose of paranoia, or just generally don't like people, or; they want a symbol of toughness because  tattoos, obsessive gym physiques and a badly modified Commodore are no longer enough, or; they want a dog which will frighten people, or; well, add your own.

The problem here, the big problem here, is that dogs tend to become dangerous to humans only when threatened (including entering their territory), provoked (which basically means: threatened) or trained. Even Irish Wolfhounds, a breed regarded as being good with children because their temperament is so goofy, can become truly frightening if trained for pig hunting. Any large breed will automatically do more damage if they do attack people than a chihuaha will, and if a dog has been bred for characteristics which are good for hunting or fighting, such as tenacity or jaw strength, they will of course cause untold more damage.

Size and breed will make the difference between a badly trained dog being an annoying little shit, or a killer.

Sadly for many of these breeds, which can be highly intelligent, loyal and devoted, their reputation has made them preferred dogs for arseholes, which reinforces their reputation.

Which at least gives us a nice, obvious visual warning sign to go with the car, the bumper stickers and the T-shirt.

Link to Mind Hacks article Psychological characteristics of vicious dog owners

P.S.: Might I suggest that the title would be less entertainingly ambiguous if it were "Psychological characteristics of the owners of vicious dogs".

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

I'd like to think that the Church had a limited life expectancy, instead.

Now, this makes me really angry.

Church contests age expectancy of brain injured Myles Hill (Courier Mail)

That's not a very helpful headline, so let me give you the synopsis:

Myles Hill, now 17, suffered a serious brain injury while boogie-boarding at the Southport School in 2003. The Anglican Church, who I can only assume are responsible for the school, are denying culpability, pointing the finger of blame at so many other parties that one wonders if they're trying to snowball the court into submission.

I mean it, it really is ridiculous.

But, and here is the point that makes me see red, they are trying to limit the amount of damages claims by claiming that he won't live for very much longer.

To remind you: I have worked with brain injury. I dealt, day in and day out, with families who are facing inadequate care because they can't afford it, because the compensation funds ran out early. I have been at large meetings where services from different branches of public and private, health and disability and law and insurance, all agreed that a major problem with compensation payouts is that people with brain injury live longer than courts expect.

In fact, Disability Services Queensland have identified this issue, and the resultant need for publicly funded services, as a crucial one that needs to be addressed. Papers discussing PhD research on this issue are available from the Articles section of Gitana Consulting's website.

So, the fact that a Church, a pack of hypocritical bastards who have the gall to go on records as saying:

""While we respect the legal mechanism and the process, the church's focus is one of compassion and pastoral care," he said. "Our prayers and thoughts remain with Myles and his family.""

The fact that this church is pointing the finger of blame at everyone else and accusing the family of not being able to care for Myles, is saying "Oh, he's not going to live for very long, so the enormous emotional trauma you've already suffered and the added trauma of us telling you this is irrelevant, really, because someone with really high medical care needs isn't going to live long enough to need help", that is a candidate for a Scumbag Of The Year award.

It must be so easy to be religious, and claim that merely thinking happy thoughts instead of actually doing anything discharges all responsibilities, duties of care, and expectations of compassion. Useless pricks, the lot of them, living like a bloated appendix on the rest of society.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Community needs to understand mental health, before commenting on it

I direct you to the ABC Online article Community urged to weigh in on forced mental illness treatment.

The gist is that a parliamentary committee in Tasmania has heard that the community needs to debate when it is okay to force treatment on someone who has a mental illness.

Michelle Swallow from the Mental Health Council, which is an advocacy group, so therefore Michelle is someone who is paid to represent people with a mental illness and, in more basic language, be a shit-stirrer, thinks that the individual should be able to decide unless they are considered a threat to themselves or others.

Umm... Excuse me, but I thought that was what the law currently is anyway?

Most states have a two-tiered system for "forced" (which is called "involuntary") treatment of someone with a mental illness: An Involuntary Assessment Order, which is usually 48 hours during which the individual can be collected by police, taken to a secure facility and detained while a psychiatric assessment can be conducted upon them, and; An Involuntary Treatment Order, during the course of which they may either be in a secure facility or in the community, but have to take prescribed medication until such time as the order is revoked or not renewed.

It's a little bit more complicated than a GP deciding that someone with a case of depression needs to be locked up if they don't want to take their medications.

Michelle continues, to say that there is a gap in the law which does not require a GP to specify why they have ordered involuntary treatment.

Really? Now that would be interesting.

Let's have a look at the law in Tasmania, available from Austlii, here.

Section 15 states that a police officer or authorised person may, using their judgement, take someone into protective custody. Well, just about everything to do with the police involves judgement, so if there's a problem here, it's one of training and supervision of police officers.

Section 16 states that the person taken into custody must be taken ASAP to an authorised assessment centre, the assessment centre must be notified within 2 hours and the person must be assessed and either released or have an involuntary treatment order written up within 4 hours. Now, honestly, 4 hours? Try getting seen within 4 hours if you turn up to emergency with any condition less serious than haemorrhaging blood or developing cyanosis.

So how about treatment, then?

Sections 24 through 30 deal with involuntary admission to hospital.

Section 24 covers admission, and I'm going to copy it verbatim. Are you ready? Here we go:

"A person may be detained as an involuntary patient in an approved hospital if –
(a) the person appears to have a mental illness; and
(b) there is, in consequence, a significant risk of harm to the person or others; and
(c) the detention of the person as an involuntary patient is necessary to protect the person or others; and
(d) the approved hospital is properly equipped and staffed for the care or treatment of the person."
See? Criteria. Right there. Spelled out.

The people who may make this order are given in Section 25, and basically amount to an authorised officer, which means someone appointed by the Minister (and more detail than that I am, unfortunately, unable to give), or the ill person's guardian.

Interestingly, Section 26 states that a medical officer at the approved care facility has to approve the application for admission. An initial order has to specify all the whos and wheres, and, crucially, a statement against all the points covered in Section 24. You may like, at this point, to go back up and read those four points. An initial order for admission has to specify the who, the why there's a risk of harm, the why the detention is necessary, and that the nominated hospital can actually do so.

Well, that all makes sense, doesn't it? Would you care to clarify, Michelle?

I'm thinking, and this is only a guess, mind you, that there are two separate issues here:

One, this paperwork is often not explained to the patient, who rings the Mental Health Council with a complaint, or; two, this is just an excuse to get a debate happening because either liberties are being taken, or because that's the MHC's job.

In my experience, working in both Tasmania and Queensland, there are a lot of often quite worrying or even scary people wandering about who should be on an involuntary treatment order, preferrably in a lock-up, and that most people with a serious mental illness who come to the attention of services such as drop-in centres or the MHC, deny their illness and believe that they are being persecuted, or are part of a government experiment, or are being made worse, or.... Well, fill in the blank, really.

No system is perfect. Particularly with mental health, where all assessments are judgement calls and there is no testable pathology and all criteria are behavioural and either observed (massively open to interpretation) or reported (massively suspect, in far too many cases), no system ever can be perfect

Yes, sure, the community needs to have a say in law and policy. But leave medicine the hell alone, and let the doctors do their job until the law itself is changed. The community interfering in medical decisions is a road to nightmare. Measles epidemics, say, or the suicide of someone with schizophrenia who was denied treatment on religious grounds.

Link to the Mental Health Council of Tasmania
Link to the Mental Health Act (1996) for Tasmania, on Austlii.

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