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Links February 2014

The Economist has an interesting and informative article about the lack of reproducability of scientific papers and the implications for scientific research [1].

Regina Dugan gave an interesting TED talk about some of the amazing DARPA projects [2].

Chris Anderson interviewed Elon Musk about the Tesla cars, SpaceX, and his new venture Solar City [3]. Elon has a lot of great ideas for improving humanity while also making money.

Smart Planet has an interesting article about Bhutan’s switch to electric vehicles [4].

Paul Piff gave an insightful and well researched TED talk about the ways that money makes people mean [5].

Maryn McKenna wrote an interesting article for Wired about what happens when the current anti-biotics stop working [6]. Unfortunately she lists increasing food prices as a consequence, really the unreasonably low price of meat is due to the misuse of anti-biotics that is causing this problem.

Linda Walther Tirado wrote an interesting article about being poor titled “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty Thoughts” [7]. It gives a real insight into the situation of people who are trapped in poverty. When someone who is as obviously intelligent as Linda feels that it’s impossible to escape poverty there is a real problem in the system. While Australia doesn’t suck nearly as badly as the US in this regard (higher minimum wage and better health care) we still need to improve things, I know people in Australia who’s experience bears some similarity to Linda’s.

Maxwell Neely-Cohen wrote an interesting article about peer pressure [8]. Some of the conclusions are dubious, but the ideas on the way the Internet changes peer relationships in high school are interesting.

An English pediatrician wrote an article for The Daily Beast about why he won’t accept anti-vac clients [9].

There are some decent people in the Liberal Party, Liberal MP Warren Entsch attacks Cory Bernardi on ‘gay obsession’ [10]. AFAIK we haven’t yet had a gay sex scandal involving a homophobic Australian politician…

Electric Car Charging in Melbourne

GoGet plug-in Prius chargingChargePoint Chargers

This morning I noticed some parking bays reserved for car charging in a car park at the corner of Sydney Rd and Glenlyon St in Brunswick (near Aldi). One of the parking spots was occupied by a Plug-in Prius from GoGet [1]. I didn’t even realise that you could get a plug-in Prius in Australia. The charging station is run by Charge Point [2].

The charging points are about 1.5m high and the cable is about 3cm thick (about as thick as the pipe used for filling a car with petrol), so it would charge a car much faster than could be done with a regular power point.

One big problem with the Charge Point web site is that they don’t give any information on pricing. They sell home charge points (which I guess means just an all-weather two-phase power point) but don’t give a price for that. They sell charge points that can be used by commercially but don’t give a price for them either. Also their infrastructure for billing is apparently based on companies installing charge points and setting a price for the service. Some charge points may offer free service (I guess staff car parks and some government agencies) and others will charge varying rates – none of which is available on the web site. Apparently they have an “online portal” which gives information on such things to registered users – so you have to register to discover what it costs. Of course hardly anyone is going to register before discovering the price, not even when registration is free. But while registration is free the web site demands the make and model of the electric car, so presumably one has to spend $40,000 or more on a vehicle before discovering the price and availability of charging it.

Charge Point can be used as an example of how not to design a web site that promotes a service, or at least how not to promote a service that is aimed at saving money (electricity is significantly cheaper than petrol so it’s of interest to people and organisations that want to save money). The Charge Point site seems to be better suited to showing that the concept can work than convincing people that they should sign up for it. It seems to me that the best thing that they could do would be to prominently display the average cost of all non-free charge points that are open to the public along with an explanation of the price of driving a desirable car (such as a plug-in Prius or a Nissan Leaf) with such an electricity cost.

The “contact” section on the web site only has a link for “careers”.

I don’t think it’s possible to get widespread use of electric vehicles without getting better information out there. It appears that Charge Point is relying on councils to do the work of promoting their business by installing their stations and reserving car parking as Moreland council has done in this case.

Fingerprints and Authentication

Dustin Kirkland wrote an interesting post about fingerprint authentication [1]. He suggests using fingerprints for identifying users (NOT authentication) and gives an example of a married couple sharing a tablet and using fingerprints to determine who’s apps are loaded.

In response Tollef Fog Heen suggests using fingerprints for lightweight authentication, such as resuming a session after a toilet break [2].

I think that one of the best comments on the issue of authentication for different tasks is in XKCD comic 1200 [3]. It seems obvious that the division between administrator (who installs new device drivers etc) and user (who does everything from playing games to online banking with the same privileges) isn’t working, and never could work well – particularly when the user in question installs their own software.

I think that one thing which is worth considering is the uses of a signature. A signature can be easily forged in many ways and they often aren’t checked well. It seems that there are two broad cases of using a signature, one is to enter into legally binding serious contract such as a mortgage (where wanting to sign is the relevant issue) and the other is cases where the issue doesn’t matter so much (EG signing off on a credit card purchase where the parties at risk can afford to lose money on occasion for efficient transactions). Signing is relatively easy but that’s because it either doesn’t matter much or because it’s just a legal issue which isn’t connected to authentication. The possibility of serious damage (sending life savings or incriminating pictures to criminals in another jurisdiction) being done instantly never applied to signatures. It seems to me that in many ways signatures are comparable to fingerprints and both of them aren’t particularly good for authentication to a computer.

In regard to Tollef’s ideas about “lightweight” authentication I think that the first thing that would be required is direct user control over the authentication required to unlock a system. I have read about some Microsoft research into a computer monitoring the office environment to better facilitate the user’s requests, an obvious extension to such research would be to have greater unlock requirements if there are more unknown people in the area or if the device is in a known unsafe location. But apart from that sort of future development it seems that having the user request a greater or lesser authentication check either at the time they lock their session or by policy would make sense. Generally users have a reasonable idea about the risk of another user trying to login with their terminal so user should be able to decide that a toilet break when at home only requires a fingerprint (enough to keep out other family members) while a toilet break at the office requires greater authentication. Mobile devices could use GPS location to determine unlock requirements, GPS can be forged, but if your attacker is willing and able to do that then you have a greater risk than most users.

Some users turn off authentication on their phone because it’s too inconvenient. If they had the option of using a fingerprint most of the time and a password for the times when a fingerprint can’t be read then it would give an overall increase in security.

Finally it should be possible to unlock only certain applications. Recent versions of Android support widgets on the lock screen so you can perform basic tasks such as checking the weather forecast without unlocking your phone. But it should be possible to have different authentication requirements for various applications. Using a fingerprint scan to allow playing games or reading email in the mailing list folder would be more than adequate security. But reading the important email and using SMS probably needs greater authentication. This takes us back to the XKCD cartoon.

Clothing and Phone Cameras

In 2012 I wrote about my jeans from Rivers that fit the largest available phones (and the smaller tablets) in their pockets [1]. Those jeans are still working well for me, I can add the fact that they don’t wear out quickly to the list of positive attributes.

Recently my sister asked for advice on getting a new phone, she was considering the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (the phone I’m using now) because it apparently takes better pictures than the Nexus 4 she’s using. I’ve used both those phones and I hadn’t noticed a difference in picture quality, but there is some variation in manufacturing and it could be that I’ve got a below average Note 2 and a better than average Nexus 4 – so I’ll assume for the sake of discussion that my sister would actually get an improvement in picture quality by using a Note 2.

If you have a phone that doesn’t have the picture quality you desire then one option is to buy a phone with a better camera, but you will be limited by issues of physics. A thin phone has a short focal length which means that the lens has to be small and therefore the amount of light that gets to the sensor is small. The Nokia Lumia 1020 has some of the best camera hardware that you’ll find in a phone, but it’s still only 14.5mm thick where the camera is and that will limit the quality a lot.

Any “compact” camera should be able to beat all phone cameras in terms of picture quality in most areas. The Samsung Galaxy Camera [2] is also worth considering, it has more features than a typical compact camera and good GUI that allows novice photographers to take advantage of it. Also being able to blog your photos directly from the camera could be a useful feature. But the big down-side of a “compact” camera is that it’s not that compact. Most people won’t find it convenient to carry a compact camera with them at all times and therefore they might miss a good opportunity to take a photo. The Galaxy Note series of phones also suffer in this regard because they are larger than most phones. If your phone won’t fit in your pocket and you have it in your backpack when on the move or on a bench at home then you will probably miss some good photos.

As I was at a Rivers store recently I tested my Note 2 in the pockets of women’s jeans. Rivers scored very poorly in this regard, one pair of women’s jeans had fake pockets (this is just wrong for working clothes) and of the rest only one pair could fit a Note 2. The pair that fit a Note 2 didn’t completely enclose the phone, one corner was sticking out, this would probably give a risk of having the phone fall out of the pocket and cause some discomfort to the wearer. I have a pair of shorts with similar size pockets and find it very annoying with the Note 2 in the pocket (for about 10 months of the year I wear jeans so this isn’t a big deal). Rivers jeans only count as “geeky jeans” for male geeks. It’s disappointing that with about a dozen different styles of women’s jeans there didn’t seem to be a single one with pockets of comparable size to the men’s jeans.

I had to recommend that my sister not get a phone from the Galaxy Note series if taking pictures is a priority due to the apparent difficulty in getting it to fit in a pocket and the probability that she would miss good photos due to this.

In past discussions of phone size there have been mentions of the possibility of getting clothing altered. Does anyone have a good experience in getting clothes altered to have bigger pockets or in the case of women’s clothing to have fake pockets replaced with real ones?

The Movie Experience

Phandroid has one of many articles about a man being detained for wearing Google Glass in a cinema [1]. The article states as a “fact” that “it’s probably not smart to bring a recording device into a movie theater” which is totally bogus. I’ve visited a government office where recording devices were prohibited, they provided a locker for me to store everything that could be used for electronic storage outside their main security zone, that’s what you do when you ban recording devices. Any place that doesn’t have such facilities really isn’t banning recording. The Gadgeteer has the original story with more detail with an update showing that the Department of Homeland Security were responsible for detaining the victim [2].

There are lots of issues here with DHS continuing to do nothing good and more bad things than most people suspect and with the music and film industry organisations attacking innocent people. But one thing that seems to be ignored is that movies are a recreational activity, so it’s an experience that they are selling not just a movie.

Any organisation that wants to make money out of movies really should be trying to make movies fun. The movie experience has always involved queuing, paying a lot of money for tickets ($20 per seat seems common), buying expensive drinks/snacks, and having to waste time on anti-piracy adverts. Now they are adding the risk of assault, false-arrest, and harassment under color of law to the down-sides of watching a movie. Downloading a movie via Bittorrent takes between 20 minutes and a few hours (depending on size and internet connectivity). Sometimes it can be quicker to download a movie than to drive to a cinema and if you are organising a group to watch a movie it will definitely be easier to download it. When you watch a movie at home you can pause it for a toilet break and consume alcoholic drinks while watching (I miss the Dutch cinemas where an intermission and a bar were standard features). It’s just a better experience to download a movie via Bittorrent. I’ve previously written about the way that downloading movies is better than buying a DVD [3], now they are making the cinema a worse experience too.

I sometimes wonder if groups like the MPAA are actually trying to make money from movies or whether they just want to oppress their audiences for fun or psychological research. I could imagine someone like the young Phillip Zimbardo working for the MPAA and doing experiments to determine how badly movie industry employees can treat their customers before the customers revolt.

Anyone who watches a Jack Ryan movie (or any movie with a Marty-Stu/Gary-Stu character) obviously doesn’t even want to experience the stress of an unhappy ending to a movie. It seems obvious that such people won’t want the stress of potentially being assaulted in the cinema.

In terms of economics it seems a bad idea to do anything about recording in the cinema. When I was 11 I was offered the opportunity to watch a movie that had been recorded by a video camera in the US before it was released in Australia, I wasn’t interested because watching a low quality recording wouldn’t be fun. It seems to me that if The Pirate Bay (the main site for Bittorrent downloads of movies) [4] was filled with awful camera recordings of movies then it would discourage people from using it. A quick search shows some camera recordings on The Pirate Bay, it seems that if you want to download a movie of reasonable quality then you have to read the Wikipedia page about Pirated Movie Release Types [5] to make sure that you get a good quality download. But if you buy a DVD in a store or visit a cinema then you are assured of image and sound quality. If the movie industry were smarter they would start uploading camera recordings of movies described as Blue-Ray rips to mess with Bittorrent users and put newbies off downloading movies.

Links January 2014

Fast Coexist has an interesting article about the art that Simon Beck creates by walking in snow [1]. If you are an artist you can create art in any way, even by walking in patterns in the snow.

Russ Altman gave an interesting TED talk about using DNA testing before prescribing drugs [2]. I was surprised by the amount of variation in effects of codeine based on genetics, presumably many other drugs have a similar range.

Helen Epstein wrote an interesting article about Dr. Sara Josephine Baker who revolutionised child care and saved the lives of a huge number of children [3]. Her tenacity is inspiring. Also it’s interesting to note that the US Republican party was awful even before the “Southern Strategy”. The part about some doctors opposing child care because it’s “the will of God” for children to die and keep them in employment is chilling.

Jonathan Weiler wrote an insightful article about the problems with American journalism in defending the government [4]. He criticises the media for paying more attention to policing decorum than to content.

Tobias Buckell wrote an interesting post about the so-called “socialised” health-care in the US [5]. He suggests that Ronald Reagan “socialised” health-care by preventing hospitals from dumping dying people on the street. I guess if doing nothing for people until they have a medical emergency counts as “socialised” health-care then the US has it.

Kelvin Thomson MP made some insightful comments about climate change, the recent heat-wave in Australia, and renewable energy [6].

Iwan Baan gave an interesting TED talk about ways that people have built cheap homes in unexpected places [7], lots of good pictures.

Racialicious has an interesting article by Arturo R. García about research into the effects of concussion and the way the NFL in the US tried to prevent Dr. Bennet Omalu publicising the results of his research [8].

Stani (Jan Schmidt) wrote an interesting post about how they won a competition to design a commemerative Dutch 5 Euro coin [9]. The coin design is really good (a candidate for the geekiest coin ever), I want one! Seriously if anyone knows how to get one at a reasonable price (IE close to face value for circulated or not unreasonably expensive for uncirculated) then please let me know.

When writing about Edward Snowden, Nathan says “Imagine how great a country would be if if it were governed entirely by people who Dick Cheney would call Traitor” [10]. That’s so right, that might make the US a country I’d be prepared to live in.

Andrew Solomon gave an interesting TED talk “Love No Matter What” about raising different children [11].

Aditi Shankardass gave an interesting TED talk about using an ECG to analyse people diagnosed wit severe Autism and other developmental disorders [12]. Apparently some severe cases of Autism have a root cause that can be treated with anti-seizure medication.

George Monbiot wrote an insightful article about the way that Bono and Bob Geldoff promote G8 government intervention in Africa and steal air-time that might be given to allow Africans to represent themselves in public debates [13].

Daniel Pocock wrote an informative article about racism in Australian politics and how it is bad for job-seekers and the economy (in addition to being horribly wrong) [14].

Aeon Magazine has an interesting article by Anne Buchanan about the difference between scientists and farmers [15]. She has some interesting points about the way that the lack of general knowledge impacts research, but misses the point that in most fields of study there is a huge problem of people not knowing about recent developments in their own field. I don’t think it’s a pipe dream to be well educated in humanities and science, but I guess that depends on the definition of “well educated”.

Brian Cox gave an interesting TED talk titled “Why We Need the Explorers” about the benefits of scientific research [16].

Yupu Zhang, Abhishek Rajimwale, Andrea C. Arpaci-Dusseau, and Remzi H. Arpaci-Dusseau from the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote an interesting paper about ZFS corruption in the face of disk and memory errors [17]. One thing to note is that turning off atime can reduce the probability of a memory error leading to corrupt data being written to disk, run “zfs set atime=off tank” to fix this.

The comedian Solomon Georgio celebrated Martin Luther King day by tweeting “I love you” to racists [18]. It’s an interesting approach and appears to have worked well.

Dr Suelette Dreyfus LCA Keynote

Dr Suelette Dreyfus gave an interesting LCA keynote speech on Monday (it’s online now for people who aren’t attending LCA [1]). One of the interesting points she made was regarding the greater support for privacy protection in Germany, this is apparently due to so many German citizens having read their own Stasi files.

The section of her talk about the technology that is being used against us today was very concerning. I wonder whether we should plan to move away from using any hardware or closed source software from the US, China, and probably most countries other than Germany.

We really need to consider these issues at election time. I have previously blogged some rough ideas about having organisations such as Linux Australia poll parties to determine how well they represent the interests of citizens who use Linux [2]. I think that such things are even more important now. Steven Levy wrote an interesting summary of the situation for Wired [3].

At the end of her talk Suelette suggested that Aspies might be more likely to be whistle-blowers due to being unable to recognise the social signals about such things (IE managers say that they won’t punish people for speaking out but most people recognise that to be lies). It’s a plausible theory but I’m worried that managers might decide to avoid hiring Aspies because of this. I wonder how many managers plan to have illegal activity as an option. But I guess that having criminals refuse to hire me wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Length of Conference Questions

After LCA last year I wrote about “speaking stacks” and conference questions [1]. In that post I did some rough calculations on the amount of conference time taken by questions and determined that anyone who asks one question per day at a conference such as LCA (with about 600 delegates) is going to be asking more than 1/600 of all questions. That doesn’t necessarily mean that someone shouldn’t ask more than one question in a day, but they should carefully consider whether their questions are adding value to other delegates.

Another issue that I’ve noticed is the length of questions which seems to be a separate problem and it seems that we should consider keynote speeches separately as they involve all delegates. The regular conference lectures involve 4 to 6 streams running in parallel which means that in aggregate more questions can be asked.

LCA has one keynote for each day including the mini-conf days, so that’s 5 keynote speeches in total. If each keynote has 20 minutes of question time (and most keynote speeches probably have less) then there’s 100 minutes of question time for the entire conference. For a genuine question (IE not a statement) that is non-trivial (anything that has a yes/no answer probably isn’t interesting to the whole audience) the answer is probably going to be about three times as long as the question. Given some overheads for applause etc that means that the amount of time spent asking questions would be something less than 20 minutes at keynote speeches over the entire conference.

If every delegate asked one keynote-speech question in the entire conference then that 20 minutes of questions would allow each delegate to spend 2 seconds asking a question. If 10% of delegates each asked one question and no-one asked a second question then each question could take an average of 20 seconds. Given the acoustic issues of asking a question from the back of the hall it seems unlikely to get a speaking rate of much more than a word a second, so 20 seconds of speaking would be in the range of 25 words (one tweet) to 50 words (if you speak at the typical speed of audio books according to Wikipedia). I think that audio-book speed isn’t going to work well so a question asked at a keynote speech should probably be of a length that would fit on twitter.

So if a question wouldn’t fit on twitter then maybe a blog post or a discussion after the lecture would be a more suitable option.

Before Asking a Question

I think that before asking a question at a keynote speech people should consider whether that question would fit on twitter. They should also consider whether it is strictly a question and whether it will be of interest to other delegates.

If your question is significantly longer than something that would fit on twitter then the next thing to consider is whether you are more important than other delegates. Because when someone asks more or longer questions than other people it will be interpreted as an implicit “I am more important than you” statement by many other delegates.

Some Disclaimers

Firstly I’m not making any suggestions here for people who run conferences. I’m making suggestions for delegates who are considering how they should act.

The next disclaimer is that the educational benefit of the conference has the priority. If you have a question that really helps other delegates learn something which takes a little longer to ask then that’s OK.

Finally I apply the same criteria to my own decisions. There were several questions I considered asking at the keynote this morning, but I decided that none of them met the criteria of being short enough and generally interesting enough. There is one issue I will discuss with the speaker privately and I’ll probably write at least one blog post related to the lecture.

Sound Device Order with ALSA

One problem I have had with my new Dell PowerEdge server/workstation [1] is that sound doesn’t work correctly. When I initially installed it things were OK but after installing a new monitor sound stopped working.

The command “aplay -l” showed the following:
**** List of PLAYBACK Hardware Devices ****
card 0: Generic [HD-Audio Generic], device 3: HDMI 0 [HDMI 0]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
card 1: Speaker [Logitech USB Speaker], device 0: USB Audio [USB Audio]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0

So the HDMI sound hardware (which had no speakers connected) became ALSA card 0 (default playback) and the USB speakers became card 1. It should be possible to convert KDE to use card 1 and then have other programs inherit this, but I wasn’t able to configure that with Debian/Wheezy.

My first attempt at solving this was to blacklist the HDMI and motherboard drivers (as suggested by Lindsay on the LUV mailing list). I added the following to /etc/modprobe.d/hdmi-blacklist.conf:
blacklist snd_hda_codec_hdmi
blacklist snd_hda_intel

Blacklisting the drivers works well enough. But the problem is that I will eventually want to install HDMI speakers to get better quality than the old Logitech portable USB speakers and it would be convenient to have things just work.

Jason white suggested using the module options to specify the ALSA card order. The file /etc/modprobe.d/alsa-base.conf in Debian comes with an entry specifying that the USB driver is never to be card 0, which is exactly what I don’t want. So I commented out the previous option for snd-usb-audio and put in the following ones to replace it:
# make USB 0 and HDMI/Intel anything else
options snd-usb-audio index=0
options snd_hda_codec_hdmi=-2
options snd_hda_intel=-2

Now I get the following from “aplay -l” and both KDE and mplayer will play to the desired card by default:
**** List of PLAYBACK Hardware Devices ****
card 0: Speaker [Logitech USB Speaker], device 0: USB Audio [USB Audio]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
card 1: Generic [HD-Audio Generic], device 3: HDMI 0 [HDMI 0]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0

Political Advocacy in Clubs

One topic that often gets discussed when it’s near election time is whether clubs and societies should be “political”. Some organisations are limited in what they can do, for example in some jurisdictions religious organisations can theoretically lose their tax exempt status if they advocate for one party. In practice any organisation that has a wide membership will have a variety of political views represented so a policy of directly supporting one candidate or party is likely to lose some members.

A common practice among some clubs is to send questionnaires to parties before elections. This might cause a policy change in the parties that do whatever it takes to get votes (as opposed to the parties who devise policy based on principle). But it also provides members a list of how the parties compare on the basis of the criteria that matter to the club.

I think that organisations such as Linux Australia [1] and the Linux Users of Victoria [2] should send such questionnaires and publish an analysis of the results. I previously suggested a few questions that could be asked [3], the last one received some negative comments for being too tabloid but the others got some agreement. But obviously there would need to be some discussion about which questions are in scope and how they should be asked. Such a discussion would take a while and would need to be started well before an election was called, I think if we start now we should be able to get it done before the next federal election is called.

There is one Australian political party that has a consistent record of having IT policies that are in line with the general aims of Linux Australia and which also has policies that meet the social standards that are generally agreed by most of the membership (EG opposing discrimination). But I know that there are some members of the Linux community who advocate various forms of discrimination and would vote accordingly so advocating for that party would get some negative reactions. But if someone wants to vote for a party that advocates discrimination against minority groups I don’t think that there’s any harm in providing information to allow them to vote for a pro-discrimination party that has a reasonable IT policy. In any case it doesn’t seem likely that we can get most of the membership of an organisation like Linux Australia to agree on what parties are unacceptable, so sending a questionnaire to all parties avoids that debate.

I would like to see this sort of thing done by LUGs for all state and territory elections. I will be involved in the process with LUV for the Victorian elections, but I have to just hope that my blog posts inspire people in other states and territories – if anyone has already started on this then please let me know. I will also be involved with getting this done for the federal elections with Linux Australia, hopefully this post will help get people interested in that.