Eric Lindsay's Blog 2005 April

Friday 1 April 2005

iPhoto Metadata

My avoidance of work behaviour today was to fire up iPhoto and title some of the nearly six thousand digital photos I've taken over the past 18 months. I already had detailed comments on pretty much all my digital photos, but hadn't decided what I wanted to do with titles. The batch processing mode sure helps speed up the classifying. Whatever else you think about digital photographs, the ease with which you can put them into (multiple) albums means they beat any shoebox full of photos that I have ever had.

Saturday 2 April 2005

Airlie Beach Markets

I walked to the newsagent for my morning paper, and then to the local markets to pick up fruit and vegetables. In our tropical climate most fruits don't keep for more than a few days after picking. However we do get a certain amount of exotic fruit in season. My daily movement doesn't involve using a vehicle. Indeed, when we moved here to the Whitsunday Terraces I argued against owning a car, on the basis that we could hire one from the seven hire car outfits on the main street when we needed one. Most people I know do need cars, and I wonder how long the oil will last.

Bob Hancock sent me an email relating this car story.

Any way I got side tracked with your BLOG and your comments about not owning a car on April 2 reminded me of a story that I have often told, particularly when I was campaigning to halve our fleet of two to one it goes like this: I had driven most of a Friday down to Sydney to visit a mate for a couple of weeks come Saturday morning being a non car owner in Sydney at that time he seized the opportunity to drag me out of bed to do the weekly shopping down at Double Bay Shopping Centre of all places but that was his local. So we drove round and round Double Bay through the public carparks a couple of times up and down the street searching for an elusive available car park space finally I spotted a chap with two brown paper bags of groceries under his arms (that should give you an idea of how long ago this was) and a very determined walk about him . This man was definitely going somewhere. Perhaps to his parked car I mused so I asked the obvious question.. Excuse me mate, are you going to put those groceries in the boot of your car and drive away thus creating a vacant car park? He stopped dead in his tracks slowly turned towards me and took great delight in explaining his current situation My friend, I have achieved the ultimate freedom! I've sold my bloody car! he turned and strode off very pleased with himself. I turned to my host, You better drive home I'll get a taxi home when I've finished shopping he said.

I knew immediately what Freedom he was talking about, I'd lived in London for two years without a car and wondered why I had so much spare money until in my last year there I purchased a second hand Dutch registered VW banger that had more parking tickets than paint work, so even with out paying for parking, registration or insurance.(only 3rd party) that heap still cost me a small fortune to run and maintain.

The End of Oil

Many people have warned about the end of oil, but I think the signs are now getting very clear. Not that I expect oil to run out during my lifetime, and there are some substitutes. The supply and demand constrains are now appearing, which means higher prices unless restrictions are applied.

Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, author of The Prize, says oil production over the next 25 years would need to increase 60%, from 80 million barrels a day to 130 million barrels a day. This is partly because of increased demand from India and China. Just as the USA has moved to secure its access to Saudi and Iraq oil, China has troops in the Sudan protecting its energy investments.

Oil price rises in the past have mostly been supply driven. The 1973 oil embargo by Arab nations. The 1979 price spike when the shah of Iran was deposed and Saudi Arabian production cut. The 1990 price rise came when Iraq invaded Kuwait. This time the price rise is driven by increased demand. OPEC can't do much to change the prices, despite announcements of production increases. Of course, an announcement of a 500,000 barrel a day increase isn't impressive when OPEC were already producing 700,000 barrels a day more than their target.

Hubbert's Peak is named after Shell geologist M. King Hubbert. In the 1960's he correctly predicted US oil production would peak in the late 1960's. Production follows a Bell curve, with the peak typically when half the exploitable oil in any reservoir has been produced.

The International Energy Authority forecast an oil peak in a few decades. However how does anyone make realistic predictions? Oil companies have a vested interest in overstating reserves, for stockmarket reasons. Likewise the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries will probably overestimate reserves. BP exploration consultant Francis Harper estimated production would peak next decades, with an estimate of total original oil resources of 2.4 trillion barrels.

Saudi Arabia can stabilise oil prices because it is the largest producer, and can turn up the tap. At least, in the past it has been able to turn up the tap. Ghawar is the largest single oil field in the world, and produced 60% of the oil from Saudi Arabia. The six largest Saudi oil fields are all over 30 years old. Matt Simmons, a US energy investment banker, warned the Hudson Institute that Saudi supplies may be near a rapid decline in production.

Why not just find more oil? Oil discovery (as distinct from exploitation) worldwide peaked in the 1960s. We discover new oil at only a quarter the rate at which we consume it today. The commercial value of oil and gas discovered by the 10 largest listed energy groups is below the cost of exploration. They spent US$8 billion for discoveries worth US$4 billion. Royal Dutch Shell spends US$1.5 billion, up from a five year average of US$1.2 billion. Oh yes, and there is also a skills shortage in the oil industry! Maximum production ever and there is a skills shortage. It sounds as if some people are not seeing the oil industry as a place to start their careers.

The Futures market sees oil prices staying high for at least a year, some even predicting US$100 a barrel, but what is the effect on the economy? A US$10 a barrel increase puts local prices up about 7c a litre. If pump prices are up 10%, or about 10 cents a litre, then the average motorist pays about A$15 extra a month. The average household (7.5 million of them) uses 160 litres of fuel a month. To put this in perspective, a 25 basis point interest rate increase by the Reserve Bank costs over A$30 a month if you have a A$200,000 home loan. So oil price rises dampen the economy just like interest rate increases. Consumer spending is about 60% of our economy, or about A$400 billion a year. Petrol these days is only about 3% of consumer spending. Each 10% rise drops other spending 0.3%, or the overall economy 0.2%.

Oil isn't as important to the economy as it was in the past, when it made up a higher proportion of the economy. Output now is much higher per unit of power consumed. Much of this is because what we produce is now different. Electronics don't need the power that iron ore production does. Plus the price of oil is lower than in the past, when adjusted for inflation. Oil peaked in 1980 at about US$100 a barrel in today's currency.

Fuel contributes about A$3 billion of taxes a year via the 10% GST, about 2% of government revenue. The GST flows through to state governments. The Federal government gets the even more considerable excise. In addition, they collect 40% of oil company profits via the petroleum rent resource tax.

Petrol price rises are a cost pressure. I don't own a car, so I see no direct effect. However the tradesman who uses a vehicle will notice it very quickly. Transport costs will rise. These all have an inflationary effect, just as rises in the price of any raw material has an inflationary effect.

Australia is very exposed to oil price movements. In the 1990's about a third of our oil was imported, with much of the rest coming from the declining Gippsland Basin off Victoria. However we will soon be importing two thirds. This affects balance of payments. Oil exploration is so expensive (A$30-40 million a hole) that there is a reluctance by oil companies to explore in remote areas. The Federal government allows 150% of exploration spending in frontier areas to be deducted against the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax.

New Zealand will introduce a carbon tax in two years. The responsible minister, Pete Hodgson, says the tax will add 6% to household energy costs, and 9% to business energy costs, including electricity, coal and oil.

Sunday 3 April 2005

Condom Abuse by the Pope

Pope John Paul dies exhausted and struggling to continue after a life of service, having been a massive influence on people of his faith and outside it. Meanwhile Robert Magabe at 81 continues in rude good health to destroy Zimbabwe, and kill off its citizens, after being elected again as President. Magabe wants to serve until he is 100, and looks in great shape. If the Catholic god exists, she has a weird sense of humour. But wait, perhaps it is justice after all. By opposing the use of condoms, Pope John Paul may well have condemned more Africans to death by AIDS than Magabe has had killed.

[On 7 May, writing in The Weekend Australian, Rosemary Neill pointed to senior church figures speaking out against the Vatican's deadly condoms ban. The National HIV-AIDS Program of Brazil said the Catholic Church's position is a crime against humanity. Neill says This [saintly] view of the late pontiff is only possible if AIDS victims in dusty shantytowns are abstracted to the point where their individual humanity is erased. Rather than belonging to the culture of life, they are condemned by religious zealots to the culture of awful, premature death.

[ Quoted in ANZAPA #226 ]

Energy for Tomorrow

Available energy is the most obvious sign of an advanced industrial society. The cheapest energy source we have in Australia is black coal power plants, at a little over A$35 per MWh, with natural gas next at A$40 per MWh. These figures include capital and operating costs. Capital costs of power stations are high, so you want them to run for a substantial time, perhaps 50 years. You also want them to run as close to 24 hours as you can manage (most are available 90% of the time), so you want them providing base load power. Operating costs for coal are around A$10-$15 per MWh, and for gas around A$20 per MWh. Coal works well in base load power stations, with plants starting with about 250 MW generation units, and more usually multiples of that. Coal doesn't work so well at handling peak loads. So it is hardly surprising that coal and natural gas are what we use.

Coal is actually reasonable efficient. The modern Milmerran plant in Queensland manages 38% thermal efficiency. Older plants are less efficient, but newer ones may manage a few percent better.

Unfortunately coal burning plants may release more radioactive materials than nuclear plants. The USA EPA say the average ton of coal contains 1.3 parts per million of uranium (0.71% of it U-235) and 3.2 parts per million of thorium. Back in 1982, US coal burning plants used 616 million tons of coal, and released 801 tons of uranium, 1971 tons of thorium, globally 2800 million tons of coal, 8960 tons of thorium, 3640 tons of uranium. The 111 US nuclear plants used 504 tons of nuclear fuel during the same year. The nuclear waste from coal had one and a half times the energy of the coal itself. These figures from W Alex Gabbard, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Science News, 1 Oct 1994, p 223). Of course, the nuclear establishment would say that.

If we were to give up coal as an energy source, then the only obvious candidate for replacement is nuclear, which we don't presently run in Australia. We do have extensive uranium deposits. Nuclear power plants would probably cost at least A$60 per MWh, substantially more expensive than coal. There would be major political resistance to using nuclear power, despite its widespread use elsewhere.

Why can't we use the alternative energy sources that the Green movement claim are so much better? The most general answer is that they don't work. A more directed answer is that electricity produced using them costs more than electricity produced by coal. Even more important, most Green energy sources can not handle base loads. Most alternative energy sources can only fill in around the edges of existing power sources.

There have been demonstrations using landfill gas and others using waste material that seem to produce energy at around A$60 per MWh. You can use up to 5% biomass in many existing coal power plants. This means chipped waste timber mixed with coal. Many sugar mills already use bagasse, the fibre remaining after sugar cane crushing, as a fuel. When used in power stations bagasse costs about A$70 per MWh. In cold areas co-generation plants that provide a local heat source as well as electricity can reduce generation costs for smaller plants.

It isn't often mentioned, but several towns in outback Australia formerly got their electricity from geothermal water extracted from artesian water supplies. This can emerge at high temperatures. 10 MW demonstration plants have produced power at under A$80 per MWh, and larger scale plants could get costs down towards A$40 per MWh. In areas that have appropriate geological structures, this is a possibility for some towns.

Hydro electric power is our most widely used Green power. We already account for much of the available energy of falling water, so there are limited opportunities for expanding hydro use. If you have sufficient water falling at higher altitudes, you can use hydro for base power, but except in Tasmania, it simply doesn't scale up. We do not have sufficient water. The great thing about hydro power is that it can be run any time, and you can turn it on very quickly. About 30 seconds after you open the valve. This makes hydro so good for assisting peak loads that we actually pump water uphill back into dams using power from coal stations during non-peak periods, just so we can reuse the water in hydro power stations. Hydro power costs over A$60 per MWh.

Wind power results in noticeable structures on skylines, but they don't scale well. A wind turbine typically is around 1 MW, so if you want to equal the output of a modern coal power station, you need 1000 wind turbines. Unlike coal stations, they don't run 90% of the time. They are lucky to run at full output 30% of the time. This means they present variable power outputs into the grid. This can be tolerated only as long as wind input makes up a very small proportion of the power generation capacity available. Certainly not more than 10%. Wind energy costs around A$80 per MWh.

Farmers tend to quickly grasp the concept of a cash crop. Schemes that put wind turbines on farm lands are likely to be accepted by farmers, if the profit sharing regime is suitable. Given the noise from wind turbines, you can expect protests from nearby towns.

Wind turbines are worth trying in remote areas, despite the cost. Isolated remote areas currently mostly use diesel power, with bulk fuel brought considerable distances. As diesel costs rise, wind becomes increasingly competitive. However remote areas tend not to account for much of the energy uses of a country.

There is an experimental wave energy plant being installed near Freemantle in W.A. My general impression of wave power is that it leaves a trail of broken prototype plants strung around the world. There are claims it can produce power at just over A$100 per MWh.

Solar is at present the least useful of all the alternative energies. There is lots of it. The sun provides 1 KW per square metre in space, or 1000 MW per square kilometre. However on Earth, with the sun not directly overhead, clouds, and night, you get only a part of that for typically less than 6 hours a day. Bulk solar cells are only about 10% efficient (expensive high quality ones peak at 20%). Solar cells presently use low quality end discards from silicon ingots produced for the electronics industry, but have now exhausted this resource. Buying high quality silicon in competition with the electronics industry costs many times as much. At present solar power costs at least A$120 per MWh.

There are solar power plans that make use of steam from sunlight, others for tall wind turbine plants. Experimental plants have worked, but there are few large scale examples. The fundamental problem with solar power is that it isn't a baseline technology. You only get power for a very limited number of hours per day, and that doesn't match demand.

We have no viable large scale energy storage scheme that could be matched to solar power production. Unless you had something like a worldwide energy grid doing load sharing (which has its own set of problems) solar power plants make little economic sense.

Small scale use of solar heat for hot water is however within reach, if subsidised. Solar hot water heaters are not uncommon on house roofs, thanks to government subsidies. The new heat pump based hot water heaters are an innovative example of using solar heat indirectly, and without roof modifications. Of course regular air conditioning is also an example of indirect use of solar energy, since only a portion of their energy use comes from the electricity they consume.

Monday 4 April 2005

Hydrogen Cars

General Motors have been displaying their 1900 kg Hy-wire concept car around the world. By starting from new, it includes some neat technologies, like the 25cm thick skateboard chassis holding fuel cells, batteries and the 94 kW electric motor that drives the front wheels. With no transmission tunnel or engine bay, the floor is flat. You can see the ground through the transparent nose of the body. The rear doors are hinged at the rear so there is no central door pillar. The seats sit on the chassis base.

The steering, throttle and brakes are drive by wire, with no dashboard. The control pod is on a stalk that can be positioned for use from the right or left front seat, and lacks a steering wheel. You have a twist grip throttle, with brake levers.

Now, if you could just get some hydrogen to fill the thing ...

Tuesday 5 April 2005

Who Works, Who Does Not

Over three quarters of a million Australians claimed to be available to start work within four weeks, according to an Australian Bureau of Statistics survey published on 11 March. Yet only 5.5% of the workforce (562,000 people) were listed as unemployed. Leaving aside a ridiculous international definition under which an hour of work a week makes you employed, this means these unemployed people were actively seeking work, and were available on less than one week notice. If you add these figures, that means the workforce could be 13%, or 1.35 million people higher. That is pretty astonishing.

Even if all these people were totally unskilled, and all had low productivity (unlikely, but possible) their addition to the workforce would improve the total productivity of the country. So in a time of low unemployment, and high demand for labour, why isn't someone seeking to employ these people?

Australia's minimum wage is 58% of the median wage. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) set the minimum wage at A$12 a hour, close to US$9 per hour, something low paid workers in the USA (34%) would love to get. It is much higher than the equivalent minimum in the U.K. (45%), most of developed Europe and Japan. It is the second highest in the 30 member OECD countries.

Would wages generally fall substantially if the minimum wage were lower. Of the approximately 1.5 million employees officially on AIRC award wages, only 150,000 are on the minimum wage. Minimum wages in Australia are dependent upon the actual jobs, rather than being a universal minimum as in the USA and the U.K. It isn't clear that wages would fall. Would previously unemployed people displace higher paid existing employees? Again, it isn't clear this would happen.

I earlier made mention of a motel being unable to afford to employ its cleaning staff over a holiday break because of penalty rates. This is an admittedly extreme example of high wages reducing available work.

What is clear is that there is a potential for employment at lower wages. If this were merely to produce the working poor situation of US cities there would be no point to it, and great social damage. However lower minimum wages in conjunction with appropriate welfare payments could potentially bring many more into the workforce, while still allowing transfer of income from the rich to the poor. Also, work seems to be good for most people.

Most people enjoy their jobs. I realise this isn't the correct Marxist ideological view of the downtrodden workers. Sydney University's Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Teaching did a quality of life survey that seemed to show work was a positive experience. People liked their colleagues, and found aspects of work interesting. Work provides a community for many people. It has hardly escaped notice that crime rates are higher in communities with high unemployment. Harvard economist Richard Freeman found firms with employee share schemes outperformed the FTSE index by 40%. Getting people involved with work pays dividends on all sides.

Wednesday 6 April 2005


Clive Newell emails:

Just noticed your blog. Related to a couple of things you wrote in March. Entertainment Industry, March 23. Copyright a few days later.

From Ars Technica in April 2005.

The relevant point: DVD net profit margin: 50-60%; VHS net profit margin: 20-30%; That's based on USA, with DVD @$20 and VHS @$10.

Why do they still make pre-recorded VHS?

And yes, there is almost no legal use for an iPod in Australia. In fact, the record industry has lobbied _against_ allowing such media shifting being made legal as part of implementing the US-AUS FTA.

See also, half a dozen or so articles recently that highlight the growing use of BitTorrent in Australia to get shows the TV networks don't show in a timely and/or regular fashion. (There was one every week in March in the local TV guide, The Age's Green Guide.)

The digital economy is global. Those that can't adapt will die. The old media empires are crumbling. It's just a matter of time.

Switching to Macintosh

I have just realised that I switched to an Apple Macintosh Powerbook from an old Toshiba running a heavily modified Windows 98 just over a year ago. The heavy modifications, involving 98Lite and removal of heaps of dangerous facilities was in response to the amazing number of Windows viruses, worms, spyware, and advertising popups that infest Windows. Sophos say over 98,000 of them, but then an anti-virus company would make high estimates. They also say 68 for the Macintosh, although these are for earlier Macintosh models I don't have.

I had tried to move to an IBM Thinkpad running Windows XP just over a year before getting the Macintosh. Windows XP rapidly convinced me I wanted nothing to do with Microsoft (or at least the IBM installation of it) ever again. I was never able to use the Thinkpad in a useful manner, although the hardware seemed rugged and well built. The Thinkpad now belongs to a friend, and is happily running BSD.

I certainly didn't know what to switch to, and was running out of ideas. I checked out Linux, since so many of my friends use and recommend it. I was able to get some pretty high class advice on whether Linux would suit my needs. Linux looks great for servers, however desktop use seemed both more limited and more complex to manage than Windows. I didn't believe it would save me any time as a desktop system.

That left me to either struggle along with my (already obsolete) Psion PDA plus and an old Windows. However while visiting the USA I noticed how many of my friends there were using a Macintosh, and all seemed happy with their choice. So while I was in Las Vegas I visited the impressive (I hadn't seen one of their larger stores) Apple store in Fashion Show Mall. Bought a Powerbook just before I left the USA (at a worthwhile saving over the Australian prices).

It is amazing how time flies when you are having fun with your computer rather than fighting with it periodically. I was sort of plunged into the deep end soon after moving my existing files over to the Macintosh. We drove around Australia, so for 70 days my only computer was the Macintosh. So I had to use it.

I started finding the iLife applications that came with the Macintosh were really handy. I hadn't initially thought I would use any of the iLife programs, as they were outside my standard (mostly lots of typing) uses of a computer. Soon I had 5800 digital photos neatly organised (for some subset of organised) in iPhoto, something I'd never managed on an previous computer (nor in my shoebox collections of snaps).

My classical CDs were already listed in a database on my PDA, and filed in order of composer. But actually having each track indexed (mostly automatically) in iTunes was actually really handy. I have about 300 CDs indexed now, Real Soon Now I'll add the rest. Ease of use and fancy playlists won me over, and soon my Powerbook was sending music via WiFi to an Airport Express connected to my stereo.

I won't even dwell on being able to make DVDs from camcorder video. Plus being able to view VCR and TV (and capture them) on the laptop screen via the camcorder analogue input. Garage Band impressed me so much I bought a cheap MIDI keyboard so I could more easily play with its music making abilities.

I am not saying the Macintosh hardware is perfect, because it isn't. Striving for fashionable design does sometimes compromise functionality. Pretty much all the current Apple models have some issues, minor or major. However consumer and PC magazine surveys (I don't bother with Macintosh magazine surveys, as I figure they are biased) have consistently given Apple better marks than other computer makers.

Apple's OS X operating system feels in some spots like a work in progress, despite its old Unix, BSD and Next heritage. This is reinforced by the rapid release of new versions (as distinct from upgrades) at 12 to 18 month intervals, which give Apple an income stream from the operating system. The thing is, each new version adds enough new or improved functions that paying to get them seems worthwhile to me. It doesn't hurt any that each one so far has run faster on older Apple computers. When was the last time Windows got faster? That speedup makes me feel that my computer isn't going to get closer to being a throw away when each new operating system appears. I can upgrade when I can't resist a shinny new toy, not because my old toy has stopped working.

You can't get equivalents of every Windows programs. Certainly MacUpdate and Version Tracker list over 12,000 programs. But there are niche areas where either nothing is available or the range is weak. GPS maps are an example. I've found myself reluctantly turning on my Windows laptop to use such programs from time to time, but pretty infrequently.

Mostly my Macintosh just works, like lots of Apple enthusiasts tell me they should. It has also put the fun back into computing, for the first time in way too many years.

Printing Costs

Techbuy sold me three HP ColourJet cartridges for the LJ2550 for A$415. Q3692A yellow A$126.55, Q3961A Cyan and Q3963A Magenta at A$131.55. Expensive business.

Thursday 7 April 2005

Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes

I touched on the merits of work a few days ago. However Edward Bellamy's 1888 book Looking Backward. 2000 to 1887 and its lesser known and even more turgid sequel Equality sees a socialist utopian future in which work has declined, and we lived in an age of leisure once we reach 45 years.

When I was a kid, a lot of Australians did work nine to five. Now it is only 7%. Of course, shops not family run were also closed except for nine to five, which made it hard to get things. Now a quarter of Australians work part of the weekend. The 35-40 hour week had been achieved by at least half the work force twenty years ago. Now only 30% do such a short number of hours. In 2002, 1.7 million Australians were working more than 50 hours a week, twice the figure for twenty years ago. Unpaid overtime is common, with 37% doing it, most of them voluntarily.

When you got a job, it was often for life. Now a quarter of all jobs are casual, only 55% of employees are in permanent jobs, and the rest are contract or short term hire. Three and four careers are common, with a dozen and more jobs. Despite this casual work syndrome, companies increasingly want to own your life. This might perhaps be justified when Harry Stoneciper steps down from heading Boeing after an affair with an employee. After all, favouritism might occur. However companies sack underlings for having blogs, or just for not being a 24/7 version of William H Whyte's organisation man.

Twenty five years ago more than half (well, 51%) of all households had a single breadwinner. Wages were expected to be sufficient for a single male wage to cover the costs of raising a family. Now only 30% of households have a single breadwinner, and participation in the workforce by women is 58% (which is still lower than in many other OECD countries).

Back in 2003, the Executive Director of The Australia Institute, Dr Clive Hamilton wrote a book, Growth Fetish, that points out the problems of thinking affluence is the same as happiness. He sees a post growth society. Downshifters seem to have realised this, as they reduce their working hours and their consumption.

We consume more in many ways. Queensland house sizes doubled since the 1950's. They grew on average in just ten years from 187 square metres to 244 square metres in 2002, a 30% increase that still continues. More carpets, more furnihsings, more everything. Even this isn't enough. There are now over 1000 self storage facilities in Australia for the overflow. Despite more possessions, the average number of people in households has continued to drop. In 2001 8.8% of people were living alone, against 5.5% in 1971. Lone person households were 22.9% of all households in 2001, up from 18.1% in 1971. 36.9% of people over 75 were living alone.

Lack of time after long hours at work leaves people less able to cope with larger houses, which leads to more middle class people employing cleaners and gardeners for a few hours a week. Reminds me of a mouse on an exercise wheel somehow. I guess that does help spread incomes.

Friday 8 April 2005

Printer Delivery

I collected replacement toner cartridges for our HP printer. Given the parcel from TechBuy was addressed correctly, I shouldn't have had to find out when Australian Air Express had delivered it (yesterday, while we were at home), who signed for it (not me obviously), and then go five buildings away to recover it. I am really tired of local couriers ignoring addresses and delivering according to their own convenience rather than delivering clearly addressed parcels to the customer they were paid to deliver it to.

Drop that Budget

We have a little while before the next Federal budget, so it will be interesting to see what lies make their way into it. Given the length of time he has (unwillingly) been treasurer, I guess we can blame Peter Costello. Peter will be telling us how fiscally sound the Howard government has been, in reducing the hundred billion dollar Labor deficit to whatever he will claim. Probably the claim will be no debts left, at least not once they sell the last of Telstra. I'm not sure that you can realistically claim to have increased your overall wealth, when you sell an asset to repay a debt, but I guess you can claim that net debts have decreased. It is like selling your house to pay out a mortgage. You do not end up ahead.

So what has happened with the net worth of the government? Has the net worth increased, decreased, or remained the same? And will any of the budget figures let us work that out for ourselves?

The hundred billion dollar Labor deficit that the Liberals were lumbered with in 1996 was actually A$95.8 billion. However when Labor took over from the Liberals in 1983, they inherited A$9.2 billion, so that makes A$86.6 billion (ignoring inflation). Back in 2000, the government net worth was minus A$41 billion. In government terms this isn't too bad, as governments typically owe more than they own.

How can a government have a lower net worth when they are recording budget surpluses and repaying debt? Other liabilities are the answer, and specifically unfunded superannuation liabilities. These now go up at least A$10 billion a year, and will probably reach A$100 billion in the term of this government. They were about A$66 billion when the Liberal coalition took over. Repayment of debt is seen as a below the linefinancing matter that does not affect the budget result. Superannuation is an above the line expense. If you reduce superannuation liabilities it reduces your budget surplus.

Now if you don't ignore inflation, then the value of your debt decreases about 3% a year (because the dollar value of the debt is worth less). However Commonwealth superannuation liabilities are linked to wages, so the real cost of unfunded superannuation liabilities increases.

Budgets are fun. Everyone should make one up. Just watch out for dodgy figures.

Saturday 9 April 2005


I hate mosquitos, even though most of the ones that spread disease rarely get more than 100 metres away from where they breed. Tagging mosquitos so you can check this distance is a story in itself. Mosquitos just love the home. All those little bodies of water in backyards.

Public health warnings here in the tropics say clean out backyard rubbish and empty all items that could contain water, which is where mosquitos breed. Discarded containers in back yards, a little water trapped in blocked or badly installed gutters. The move to water tanks in urban areas will increase mosquito breeding grounds. If a toothpick can go through a hole in a water tank cover, so can a mosquito.

What about bays and estuaries, I hear you say. Doesn't count. Virtually no insects can live on salt water, so being surrounded by salt water is just fine.

Dengue fever is spread by a bite from an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. Incubation period is 3-14 days, but mostly 4-7 days. Dengue fever comes in four strains, boringly labelled 1 to 4. There is no cure. The further north, the greater the chance of encountering dengue. There have been outbreaks in Charters Towers and the Torrens Straits, and isolated cases in Cairns and Townsville.

Symptoms can be so minor people don't know they have it, or they can be unable to work, unable to stand and doubled up with cramp. The fever is generally pronounced with copious sweating. Recovery is variable but typically 2 to 7 days. A second flareup of the fever can happen. The dengue versions we get in Australia are minor compared to some in Asia, which might be called dengue hemorrhagic fever.

Then there is Japanese encephalitis, first identified in Japan in 1935. It reached Australia in 1995, and killed two people in the Torres Straits islands when it arrived. It is fatal in 20% to 50% of humans, and can cause serious long term neurological and psychiatric damage in 50% of all survivors. Luckily it isn't well established in Australia, but all the conditions for its spread are present.

Japanese encephalitis is transmitted by mosquitos. Water birds such as egrets and herons can carry the virus long distances. Pigs, including wild pigs, are amplifying hosts, as the virus multiplies in their blood stream. Early symptoms are lethargy, fever and intestinal problems, followed by any of headaches, tremors, coma, convulsions and paralysis. There is no treatment, but there is an effective vaccine for travellers in rural Asia or wet season visitors to the outer Torres Straits.

We haven't even started on Ross River fever, West nile virus, Barmah Forest virus, Kunjin, Murray River encephalitis, and malaria.

Sunday 10 April 2005

Index Funds Poor

US fund managers averaged 2.9% under the SP500 since 1984, according to indexing pioneer John Bogle. He claims the average equity fund manager made 9.2%, against 12.2% for SP500. However 1.6% expenses, sales and turnover costs, expenses and so on run about 3% a year, which does sort of explain the figures. Fund investors in general earned less than 2.7% a year since 1984, or about a quarter of the index. On average people stay in bad positions too long, and then move to equally bad investments.

Investments are a zero sum game. If someone does better than the index, someone else must be doing worse. Investment funds look better than they should partly because of survivor bias. Failed funds are not in the figures, and funds tend to disappear because they made bad choices and provided poor returns. Phil Dolan of Macquarie Bank claimed that could make a 1% difference to the figures.

Monday 11 April 2005

Spammer Jailed for 9 years

In a wonderful piece of news for email recipients everywhere, Jeremy Jaynes (aka Gaven Stubberfield) of Raleigh, North Carolina was sentenced to nine years jail by Judge Thomas Horne in Loudon County, Virginia for felony spam. Jeremy sets a record as the first person convicted under the law. Jeremy was apparently sending out as many as ten million unsolicited emails a day. He had 84 million email addresses stolen from America Online.

About the only thing that would make me happier than a spammer going to jail would be if he was killed in prison by some other criminal who didn't like spam. Legalise the custom of duelling, so we have a quicker way to kill off spamming pests.

Internet Advertising

Internet advertising in Australia in 2004 was A$388 million, 64% up from A$236 million in 2003. That is about 3.5% of advertising spending. Search and directory was up 85% to A$127.5 million but slowing, classified ads up 53% to A$132 million, and general online up 59% to 128.5 million. Search and directory includes sites like Yellow Pages, and Telstra's Sensis search engine.

Free to air TV advertising remains the largest spend, at A$3.4 billion (up 11.3%). Newspapers were A$2175 million, up 12.05%. Radio was A$842 million (up 14.8%). Magazines were A$664 million, up 10.7%. Internet advertising is now bigger than billboard advertising, which at A$327 million is up 10.3%. these figures mostly released by the Commercial and Economic Advisory Service of Australia (CEASA)

Tuesday 12 April 2005

Broadband, bah humbug!

Broadband access in Australia reached 49.8% in February 2005, according to Nielsen NetRatings. This is well up from the 24.4% in February 2004, and less than ten percent of a few years ago. Initial uptake was very slow. I blame the slow uptake and delays in access almost entirely on Telstra protecting their more expensive business ISDN monopoly. Next question is when Telstra will stop claiming that 256kbps is high speed broadband, and actually allow access at better than sub megabit speeds. There is little reason most of us couldn't move to ADSL2 today, except for Telstra stalling.

Disclosure. I am still on dialup. If you travel a lot within Australia, as we do, you need a country wide local rate dialup connection. A broadband connection at home doesn't help one bit when you leave home. Telstra (and to a lesser extent, other ISPs) need to permit more flexible connection arrangements. Connecting to the internet via GSM or CDMA cell phone while in country areas is just plain ridiculous!

Wednesday 13 April 2005

Darwin Award candidates

I think we have some new candidates for the Darwin Awards, according to front page stories in the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Australian on Wed 13 April. This note is an amalgamation of all the stories I've seen to date.

Mac Cody (21) and his uncle Bradley Richards (40) bought a 31 year old 1974 Land Rover utility for A$3000. On March 14, the day before Cody was scheduled to appear in court at the small town of Carnarvon on coastal West Australia for damaging a faulty ATM, they left town. They were headed for Kununurra, a thriving northern WA town not far from the Northern Territory border, to look for fruit picking jobs in the Ord River irrigation scheme area. Instead of taking the relatively good (well, it was when we drove it in 2004) but longer bitumen road, they went inland through the Pilbara.

In a country noted for desolate landscapes, the Great Sandy Desert is one of the least forgiving, especially in hot weather. Of all the tracks in Australia the Canning Stock Route isn't the worst, but it is the longest. The 4WD Hino truck we used as a motorhome for a few years had been specifically built to handle the Canning (but it would not have handled the sand). It carried 500 litres of diesel in two tanks and 400 litres of water in two tanks. Vehicles need to be capable of 2000 km of rough conditions without repair facilities. Travellers on the Canning are advised to take at least 100 litres of water, and fuel for at least 1185 km. They are advised to inform police before leaving, and again when arriving in Halls Creek.

Cody and Richards apparently set out with 15 litres or so of water, the fuel in their fuel tank, and didn't advise anyone where they were going. They had a mobile phone, but no long distance communication such as VHS radio, no EPIRB and no satellite phone. They had no maps of the Canning (Hana surveyed the track a few years ago for their excellent Desert maps series which shows water 15 km from where the bodies were found). They had no GPS.

They got to the restricted area Parnngurr Aboriginal community 370km east of the mining town of Newman by 28 March, along what is mapped as an unmade minor road. They were the first visitors since December. They got a further 71km down the Talawana track (rated as 4WD only) when their car broke down. Their bodies were found on Friday 8 April by Moose Fry, a young jackaroo from Wongawol station.

A former neighbour in Warilla, coastal NSW near Wollongong, where they had left an empty housing commission flat 14 months ago, said both suffered from bipolar disorder and had received disability payments. I think they qualify for Darwin status, although they didn't do anything dramatic.

Thursday 14 April 2005

Cannabis plus COMT gene may mean psychotic illness

COMT is a gene that plays a part in the production of dopamine, a brain signal chemical that is known to be abnormal in people suffering from schizophrenia. COMT has two variants, valine or methionine. If you inherit two methionine variants, your rate of psychotic illness is about 3%, the general level in the population. If you are part of the quarter of the population who inherit the two valine variants it is the same 3%. However if valine variant people smoked pot in their teens, the rate of psychotic illness shot to 15%.

The 5 times greater risk of psychotic illness only occurs if you have a particular genetic structure, and you smoke pot. Either alone does not increase the risk.

The study tracked 803 Dunedin NZ people born in 1972-73 enrolled at birth in a research project. They were interviewed when 13, 15 and 18 about cannabis use, and tested for which variant of COMT they had. They were followed up at age 26 for signs of mental illness. The study was done by Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffitt of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London. The study will be published in Biological Psychiatry.

The study explains why smoking pot is so dangerous to some people, but leaves most people untroubled.

Friday 15 April 2005

Fat is Good

McDonald's have been downsizing for a while. Their stores that is. 719 closed in 2002, for example. Responding to customer pressure (and the threat of law suites) it also lists nutritional information on the wrappers of its foods. It is a real pity they have not responded to research showing that serving twice as large as appropriate meals to children results in them eating 15% to 25% more than they need. Oversize food portions is the major factor in overweight.

Computer Training Outdated Each Year

We are familiar with computers being superseded by new computers just about before you have a chance to buy. However market analyst IDC claims computer skills have a half life of a year. Each year your skills are only half as effective, leading to a need for continuous retraining. Contractors and small business are hardest hit, partly due to high training and certification costs, but mostly through lost time time on training. Programmers often need to know a half dozen or more languages to cope with some jobs, and may have learnt twenty or so discarded computer languages in the past.

I got out of computers in 1998, and almost certainly wouldn't be employable in the industry today. Very few businesses today care about designing electronics, chip level repairs, JCL, BAL, Algol, Fortran, COBOL, Pascal, Forth nor many of the procedural languages. Is anyone still using Ada, or APL, or Rational Rose? Writing HTML using vi is the mark of a laggard when web creation packages are available. I doubt many businesses need people to support Unix, nor write scripts in Perl, PHP or Python. Maybe there is work in Java or some variant like Enterprise JavaBeans. Maybe in object oriented languages starting with C++ and working through all its variants and IDEs.

I am certainly glad that my use of computers is now at the hobby level. I wouldn't like to be trying to keep up with enterprise level computing demands. This particularly applies to supporting Windows, which was a real mess when I left. It is a bigger mess now, in terms of complexity, although the available tools are much better. Well, for one thing, tools do now exist.

The other side of this is that personal computer systems increasingly have the abilities of large enterprise systems of a few years ago. We have cheap or free access to easy tools. These can create cartoons, animations, music featuring entire bands (or even orchestras), photo retouching and manipulation, magazine and other publications, film producing, DVD creation, and much more. Home systems can have terabyte file stores, extensive backup facilities, remote access, act as servers, and so on. Home computing can be as complicated as enterprise computing of a few years ago, if you want to go that way.

Saturday 16 April 2005

Above Board Stocks

Trevor Sykes in the Australian Financial Review last week related tales of recently deceased radical capitalist Gordon Barton. Barton was a great political stirrer, starting the Australia Party, the Liberal Reform Group, and the Australian Reform Movement. His newspapers Nation Review and Sunday Observer were among the most interesting of the radical left publications.

The story I liked best from Sykes was about 15 brokers who shorted the 20 cent stock of Antimony Nickel in February 1971. Barton held 18% after the float, and started buying heavily. Soon he owned 105% of the stock, thanks to the short selling. He promptly stuck the price up to $3. Alas, the Sydney Stock Exchange suspended the stock, claiming there was not an orderly market. Sykes claims seven of the 10 firms on the SSE committee were short sellers.

Sunday 17 April 2005

Fat is Good II

Fat must be good for us, otherwise franchise fast food chains selling healthy food wouldn't leave so much fat in their salads. We wanted a few salads to eat for our lunch during our flight, since the cheap airlines leave meals as an optional extra. Jean wanted Subway's Chicken and baby spinach salad, but it was not available. Dr Tim Crowe of Deakin University points out Subway's web site lists this chicken and baby spinach salad as containing 15 grammes of fat, and 1070kj. The Ranch dressing has 19g of fat, making a total of 34g of fat. In contrast, a McDonald's Big Mac has 24.9g fat. So eat something healthy. like burgers and fries. Less kilojoules, less fat, less salt. Isn't healthy eating fun?

Strata Property Management

The strata title apartment property management industry is consolidating. Strata was once the domain of home seekers, getting property title to an apartment on their way to affording a house on a suburban lot. Ownership of one apartment in a building containing a dozen or so apartments. New apartment buildings can reach 88 floors, with penthouses and even more ordinary apartments selling in the millions of dollars range. The demographic is changing. Retirees who don't want to care for a garden and who want a range of facilities. The rich, wanting position in the middle of the city.

Strata management used to be the province of semi-retired accountants and bank managers, cashing in on their experience to handle paperwork for body corporate committees. Now it is large corporations, handling many different large properties, and offering cheaper but less personalised service through economies of scale.

Although not at all the same thing, resort management (the people running the renting of units to holiday visitors) of these larger strata apartments is also moving away from family concerns. You have larger corporations running dozens of resort apartment buildings, with salaried onsite staff. The one taking over where we live runs a dozen buildings along the length of the north east coast.

Monday 18 April 2005

Environment Nazis

Green counciller George Copeland in Waverley Council near Sydney wants to prevent home owners from installing air conditioners without council approval. He rightly points out that there are power distribution and noise problems with air conditioning.

However noise is something where objective measurement of actual noise levels is available, so you could just have laws about allowable noise levels, without specifying anything about what makes the noise. Indeed, most councils already have laws about specific noise makers, limiting their hours of use.

Electric hot water systems will be banned under a state government plan, according to The Courier Mail (Thursday 7 April 2005, page 1). New dwellings will have to use more energy efficient (but more costly) gas, solar or heat pump systems. This scheme was floated at an Urban Development Institute of Australia lunch by Local Government and Planning Minister Desley Boyle. Government costings show new home costs would go up A$264 for natural gas to A$3177 for solar boosted systems. Natural gas isn't available in many new home areas.

Electricity supply is also something where consumers should be able to decide what they want to use. Price signals could discourage use in the critical peak demand periods, if smart meters were installed. Electricity supply is mainly a problem when there are heavy peak loads. Everyone gets home and turns on the air conditioner and the oven, and that sort of thing. Steady loads, the base load, are not as much of a problem, because you can design your system to supply that.

Returning to the Greens in Waverley, George also wants fewer swimming pools. The Greens always want to make life worse for people, all for their own good, of course. About the only good thing about the Greens' religion is that at least some of them actually follow their own hair shirt prescriptions.

Tuesday 19 April 2005

Misc Media

I was delighted to read forecasts that television's share of the global advertising market is expected to decline in 2007, although newspaper and magazine circulation is also declining. Digital video recorders are one technology making advertising less effective. Movement to the internet is another. Zenith Optimedia made the prediction.

I was also delighted to note Education Minister Dr Brendan Nelson raise a bunch of issues like dropping the top income tax rate of 47% to the 30% corporate rate, indexed marginal tax rates to infaltion, call for a debate on environmental friendly nuclear power, radical reforms of support for Aboriginals, and reject calls for a republic. Future issues for the Liberal party? More likely positioning as a policy wonk for a future grab for position.

Asteroid 2004MN4 should pass Earth at a distance of 24140 km to 40235 km in 2029. A 350 metre diameter asteroid strike would make most political debates pointless. Changes in its orbit make close passes possible in 2034 and 2035. When are we going to start supporting Spacewatch?

Wednesday 20 April 2005

Canberra Trip

We are travelling. This week we are in Canberra, at Rydges Lakeside. While Jean needs access to the internet, the expensive cable connection at this hotel only accepts one computer. I'm sure not paying $50 just to upload a blog! And don't talk to me about the wonders of WiFi when you travel, because the charges for that are way out of sight at the moment, unless you have a pressing business need. Besides, anyone who uploads with ftp over an open wifi link just doesn't get the idea of minimal security precautions.

Musing on Digital Cameras

We visited Ted's Camera store in Civic, Canberra, where we were attended by Hanna. I mention this because I was so pleased to encounter a shop where the staff member knew what she was talking about. Seems to me this is now rare.

Since we mostly (well, pretty much exclusively) take photographs to use on web sites and on the internet, the current trend to greater and greater resolutions isn't all that much use to me. Also, the smaller the pixel elements become as a result, the more problems you have it getting decent sensitivity out of them. So even 3 megapixels is overkill for me, and the 4, 5 and 6 megapixels cameras just waste memory card capacity.

My existing Pentax Optio camera works reasonably well, although technically the photos are not as good as some others, including the Kodak cameras we would never again buy (too fragile, and Kodak repair service sucks). The photos that I tend to fail to get are outdoor shots, mostly involve either inadequate magnification to enlarge a too distant object, or too much lag time between shutter release and photograph for moving objects, or second shot capability being too slow for repeat shots.

So I wanted at least 10x optical zoom (digital zoom isn't even worth considering). At that magnification camera shake is a problem. I wanted good optical image stabilisation, not digital stabilisation (digital cuts down your resolution while it fakes a steady photo). I also wanted fast first and repeat shots. At the moment that magnification doesn't fit with a compact camera, so the cameras will all be inconveniently large for carrying always. I can't see any way around that.

In addition, I wanted the camera to use AA batteries, since you can always carry spares if power wasn't available for recharging batteries. Finally, I preferred Compact Flash to any other camera card. If impossible to get CF, I'd reluctantly consider SD, but not any other type of proprietary camera card. I'm now considering some of the Konica Minolta Dimage cameras, as well as Canon.

Thursday 21 April 2005

Open Office Conference

We travelled to Canberra so Jean could attend a Linux conference, and I could attend a SF convention. Jean's Open Office mini conference is actually part of the larger Australian Linux conference.

The Networking CD Bookshelf by Various Authors

OReilly, 1998, 482pp, US$79.95 ISBN 1565925238 1565925238 Amazon link

Six books on CD. Great for saving space on the bookshelf, plus the text is searchable. I really like the idea, even if this particular text is now badly dated.

Friday 22 April 2005

Business @ The Speed of Thought by Bill Gates

Viking, 1999, 470pp, ISBN 0670886645 0670886645 Amazon link

Written with Collin Hemingway, director of executive communications at Microsoft Corporation, and subtitled using a digital nervous system. It covers using information as a business weapon. Microsoft does an amazing job at pulling the market its own way. It also reacts exceedingly quickly for such a large corporation, although such fast reactions are more likely when potential rivals arise. I don't see Microsoft as being very good at sweeping innovation, but they are very good at producing their own version of things devised by others. Their version is also often better looking and apparently smoother in operation.

Saturday 23 April 2005

Conflux in Canberra

This weekend I'm attending Conflux 2, a science fiction convention in Canberra. It was a coincidence that it started right after the Linux conference Jean needed to attend. Just a coincidence.

Coalescent by Stephen Baxter

DelRey, Dec 2004, 527pp, US$7.50 ISBN 0345457862 0345457862 Amazon link

His previously unknown twin sister was raised by a Hive cult that has thrived under the streets of Rome for two millenia. Now they plan to emerge and take over. This one was a seriously strange historical account of the rise of a hive culture among humans. I think Baxter has been reading about naked mole rats. Fascinating story however.

Sunday 24 April 2005

Superluminal by Tony Daniel

Eos, May 2004, 533pp, US$7.99 ISBN 006102026 006102026 Amazon link

Interplanetary civil war a thousand years hence leads to a battle for the future nature of humans, who have spread to the outer edges of the solar system. Director Ames controls Earth, and can not be stopped as his forces expand to the outer planets. Being human is considerably more complex in this time. There is the aspect, the physical biological body. The aspect is supplemented by the covert, the computing support and additional memory stores of that person. The pellicle, the nanotechnology that mediates interaction between aspect and covert. Then there are free convert AIs, with no physical form. Plus large arrays of personalities, mostly covert copies, but often with multiple clone bodies. Good old fashioned hard science fiction.

Monday 25 April 2005

Brisbane Overnight

We reached Brisbane on our return trip from Canberra, too late for the only flight home to Airlie Beach. With only one flight home a day, we are staying over an extra day for big city shopping.

Celebrating Warriors

We saw part of the ANZAC day cleanup in the streets. Lots of younger people celebrating, although there are few veterans left from the First World War now. While we record 20,000 people visiting Gallipoli, and a quarter million in the streets of Sydney (or so I read), it might be also a moment to pause and remember that if a million or two people celebrated and remembered our warriors and past wars, 10 million adults did not.

Politicians, most of them non-combatants, wrap themselves in the cloak of patriotism, and lead ceremonies. These same politicians lie to the public and the troops about why we go to war in places like Iraq. Sure, they are hardly likely to have us believe weapons of mass destruction. Sadam was a terrible dictator, and I don't for a moment regret that we had a part in his overthrow. We probably did save more lives there than we took. It is even possible, although unlikely, that Iraq will become a strong secular democracy, and the terrorist groups there will disappear (like they did in Ireland maybe).

The war was about oil, and our national interest. It was about getting our cut, and building up credit as a friend of the USA. It was about demonstrating to other nations nearby that we could unseat and destroy any of their monarchies or dictatorships. Several nations that overtly supported terrorism have changed their posture on it. There are fewer safe havens for terrorists (but then, terrorists don't have to hold territory).

When we look at our relations with other countries, friendship has nothing to do with it. Nations have interests, and allies, and influence, they don't have friends. They are not sentimental about the past. Maybe it is time for politicians to tell the truth about foreign wars. That we fight them for what our industries and politicians get out of them.

Maybe, just maybe, we should go back to having a clash of kings, instead of a clash of civilisations.

Tuesday 26 April 2005

Viral Intelligence by Don DeBrandt

Ace, Mar 2000, 376pp, US$6.99 ISBN 0441007163 0441007163 Amazon link

Viral intelligences from another world attempt to control inanimate objects, but now they also seek out life. Basically a comical comic strip done as a novel, which means lots of ideas thrown out, but not thought through. Light reading.

Wednesday 27 April 2005

Spin State by Chris Moriarty

Bantam, Dec 2004, 605pp, US$6.99 ISBN 0553586246 0553586246 Amazon link

Hard sf, where repeated ftl jumps eat away your memory, so you back it up in hardware. UN Peacekeeper Major Catherine Li returns reluctantly to her home mining colony, where her cloned twin has died in a mining disaster. Everyone has secrets, including the AIs. Chasing a killer can be dangerous. Part one.

Thursday 28 April 2005

Geodesica Ascent by Sean Williams

Ace, Feb 2005, 382pp, US$7.99 ISBN 0441012698 0441012698 Amazon link

Year 2388, and the enhanced humans of the Arc star systems resent the multiple bodied Exarch AIs that control FTL travel. An alien artifact may change this. Voidship pilots are also no longer entirely human, and they also have their agenda. Fast paced old fashioned hard science space opera. Great fun, from a team who have proven their ability at story telling.

Friday 29 April 2005

Innovation Festival

There was a magazine celebrating the Australian Innovation Festival in The Australian last week. Since I like gadgets I looked through it for some. Opdicom, a 9 person outfit in Melbourne, invented Disc Stakka, and took the prototype to data storage maker Imation. Invitech in Melbourne designed components, and Sanmina manufactured in Perth initially, then in Thailand. Disc Stakka is a USB powered CD and DVD carousel to store 100 discs. It comes with software to rapidly find the files on CDs. You can stack up to five units. I've often been tempted by that gadget.

Saturday 30 April 2005

iiNet Internet

Jean got an ADSL connection some time ago, in great haste, because she was repeatedly downloading 80 megabyte betas of Open Office for her work on the documentation. We had been pestering Telstra since the local phone exchange was ADSL enabled about ADSL connections that included a dialup number for use when travelling. Telstra didn't seem to be listening. Telstra, what is the point of doing customer surveys if you don't listen to what the customers need?

We eventually found that a rapidly expanding West Australian based ISP, iiNet, did have a country wide dialup number that their ADSl customers could use when not on ADSL. Jean signed up with them. I later heard from Craig McBride that Simon Hackett's Adelaide based Internode ISP did an even better deal on dialup. Given my memory of Simon's expertise on comms when he talked at UTS in the early AARNet days before DSL even existed in Australia, I would have been very happy to have used Internode, had I found their deal before the iiNet one.

I had a somewhat weird Dlink 300G ADSL modem available (picked up on spec someplace cheap), plus a filter, so Jean didn't have to wait for equipment to arrive, once her phone line was ADSL enabled at the exchange. We knew the Dlink should work, because a number of ISP were using this cheap model as their standard ADSL modem for sale to customers.

That was all very well for Jean's one Dell notebook connection, but the Dlink was only an ADSL modem. No routing, no NAT, no firewall. You could connect another computer, not simultaneously, and only after some delay. Jean's older notebook computer could be connected, if you disconnected the first and waited a short while for the DHCP to timeout. Given Jean got rid of that laptop during our Canberra trip, and her desktop computer doesn't look like it will ever boot properly, it wasn't a problem for Jean.

It also wasn't a problem for me, because dialup was fine for me. I don't download large files generally. I had my Airport Extreme WiFi access point running a modem connection to my phone line, and connected my Macintosh Powerbook wirelessly. My Windows desktop system was also unlikely to ever manage to boot again (the humid summer climate here ruins computers quickly, desktops especially), so I didn't need a second connection. My dialup connection was very convenient, although slow. However it did mean I was still running a second phone line, plus Telstra ISP fees, long past the time I had intended to change to ADSL.

The least costly solution would be the one I had originally planned. Phone splitter, with Jean's phone on the other side of the ADSL filter. Phone line to Dlink ADSL modem (which is what Jean was using). Then instead of an Ethernet cable to Jean's laptop, take the Ethernet cable to my Airport Extreme base station (which includes a router). Turn off DHCP in the Dlink, and let the Airport do DHCP for all our computers. Ethernet cable from the Airport base station to an Ethernet switch (I'd picked up an under $20 one while in the USA once). Ethernet cables to Jean's notebook, and any other devices that needed an Ethernet connection to the internet.

However although I had nice software to configure the Airport on my Macintosh, I wasn't at all sure about the equivalent from Apple for Windows. I could just imagine being away with my Powerbook, and Jean needing to reconfigure the network using tools that didn't work well under Windows. It seemed like a safer idea to replace three gadgets with an all in one.

So when I saw one cheap, I grabbed a Netgear DG834G combined ADSL modem, firewall, router, 4 port Ethernet switch and 802.11g WiFi access point. OK, getting the model with WiFi was certainly overkill, since I could have just connected the Airport to one of the Ethernet lines, but the cost difference was low. The model comes from a long line of Netgear products that are reputed to have most bugs squashed, so I was pretty sure it would just work.

On Friday I got Jean to write down her iiNet details. She had a doctor's appointment late in the afternoon, and I had scheduled a time critical doubled sided print run on the laser printer we also theoretically share. As soon as Jean left, I connected my computer to the printer and started printing. While there was no problem, the printing was even slower than I had anticipated (maybe the one item in colour was the bottleneck). By the time I ready for the second side print run I was real short on time. I'd connected the Netgear in place of the Dlink, and was ready to configure that, but was unwilling to take any chance of disrupting my printing run. Finally the printing was done.

I plugged my computer into the Ethernet, connected to the Netgear. A really nice computer independent configuration screen came up in the browser, with a helpful menu system. However I now discovered Jean had left me two passwords, not one. It also wasn't clear whether I needed just her login name, or that concatenated with the ISP name (most do not, but some do). Well, I tried all four combinations, and packaged up my printing for mailing in between waiting and hoping I could get an internet connection. The log files in the Netgear were helpful, but it wasn't clear why I wasn't getting the connection. I went through each of the four login and password combinations again, but they still seemed not to be working. I wasn't sure whether iiNet restricted the time between attempts to login.

I finally had to give up and rush off to the post office with my parcel so I could get stamps and catch the outward mail. I was absolutely furious. First chance at the network in ages, and I couldn't get it to work. Jean was in the main street headed back home as I rushed off, and I expressed my feelings about networks to her.

Shortly after I returned home (and reconnected the old Dlink), Jean gave me the correct password ...

Saturday morning, I went off to get a paper and breakfast, plus checked the market without being willing to buy (I'm a poor judge of readiness to eat, and we were shopping for only two days). Jean went off to the markets. A few minutes with the cables to put the Netgear in place of the Dlink. This time about 30 seconds was enough to get me connected. I changed the admin password for the Netgear. Set up WPA on the WiFi side. Tested the Ethernet connections for Jean's laptop, and mine. Both fine. Tested WiFi on my Mac. Seamless switch from one to the other. Total time, once I had the right password, a few minutes. This is how it should work. Next step is to harden the router firewall (but given Jean has been using a software firewall for ages, it isn't critical to get it working this instant), and see how much logging is available.

Moral. Most computer errors happen in the interface between the keyboard and the seat of the chair.