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A Better University

I previously wrote about the financial value of a university degree [1], my general conclusion is that the value is decreasing for most fields of employment that don’t have a legal requirement for a degree. In the past I wrote about some ideas for a home university [2], basically extending the home-schooling concept to a university level.

I recently read John Scalzi’s post about being poor [3], many of the comments address the difficulty of getting to college and how it impacts career possibilities. From reading that it seems that my ideas about a “home university” are mostly based around what middle-class people can afford. Also getting a job afterwards will probably be a lot easier for someone who was born into the middle classes.

It seems to me that a large part of the problem with the university system is the expectation that they will both provide for academic research and train people for jobs. Dr. David Helfand has some great ideas for running a university to give the higher education that a university is supposed to provide rather than the work training that most universities actually provide [4]. His ideas aren’t theoretical, they have been implemented and proven to work. Note that Dr Helfand’s talk starts slowly, the second half is the best (for those of you with short attention spans). The fact that most people think of a university degree in terms of getting a job seems to be a failure of the university system to fulfill it’s original aim.

If Dr Helfand’s ideas take off then it would really address the problem of universities not educating people. But that still leaves the issue of job training.

Is a Degree Mandatory?

I think that to some degree people expect that a university degree is necessary job training even when it isn’t. I wonder what would happen if it was generally agreed that the right thing to do was to search for a job between the end of high school and the start of university, then anyone who got a suitable offer could defer their university course and see what career success they could achieve without it. When I was at school the general idea was that after completing year 12 everyone just had a holiday until the start of university as the entire point of school was to get into university. While hiring managers prefer candidates who have degrees they also prefer to hire people who will accept a lower salary, so hiring an 18yo with no degree may give better value than a 21yo who has a degree.

I believe that making university degrees more accessible has reduced inequality which is a good thing. But making degrees mandatory (which is widely believed by high school students and thus is the situation that they have to deal with) contributes to greater inequality. While university doesn’t cost much by middle-class standards it is still expensive for poor people.

If a university degree wasn’t considered to be mandatory then the number of people employed to teach at a university level would be smaller. This would hopefully mean that the average skill of university lecturers would increase (I hope that the least skillful lecturers would be the ones to find work elsewhere).

Preferring Not To

I’ve just read Bartleby the Scrivener which is a short story about a scrivener who refused to work saying “I’d prefer not to”.

It reminded me of some situations in the computer industry. I’ve never seen a single case where someone preferred not to work when everyone around them (colleagues and management) wanted them to work. But then the incidence of having an entire team and management wanting to work efficiently isn’t nearly as common as one might imagine.

In some cases it’s desired that someone not work, such as a former colleague who was hired as a sysadmin but did nothing but change backup tapes (a few hours work per week). Not having him login as root improved the general reliability of the servers but it was fortunate that we never needed to restore from backups…

One time I had a colleague who preferred to spend most of his time in the office searching the Internet for videos of street fights. I have often told colleagues that I would prefer them to work, but in the case of a guy who’s only hobby is street-fighting I decided to let it go.

Managing people can be difficult, particularly for someone who doesn’t like disagreements. Some managers that I’ve reported to seemed to prefer not to manage in an apparent attempt to avoid disputes. One time when I complained about a colleague not even having a suitable computer to permit doing any work a manager responded with the rhetorical question “what do you expect me to do?”. That manager didn’t do any annual reviews of staff for over a year, he only eventually did some reviews because he was told that his scheduled promotion was on hold until he got them done. I got the impression that at least two levels of management preferred not to work at that company.

Sometimes it just gets weird though, such as the occasion when I was the only member of a team and the manager who was supposedly managing no-one but me never seemed to have time to have a meeting with me. But he didn’t want me to bypass him and talk directly to other people in the company, so he preferred not to work and not to have anyone else do his job.

Most of the companies that I’ve worked for in a full-time capacity didn’t seem to have any effective technical interviews (note that I’ve mostly worked for financial companies and ISPs not free software companies). So it seems that anyone with minimal computer skills who wants a well paying job could just send out a CV to a bunch of recruiting agencies, get interviewed by enough companies to eventually hit one without a technical interview process and then find a job that doesn’t require work.


The Wikipedia page about Bartleby the Scrivener [2] suggests that Bartleby was depressed. I wonder how much of the lack of performance I’ve witnessed has been due to depression. There appears to be a strong correlation between work environments that cause depression and people preferring not to work.

Maybe managers should be considering how to make work less depressing to try and get more effective employees (in terms of quality and quantity of work). One example of this is the sysadmin team death spiral I’ve witnessed where no-one can automate solving problems (EG by cron jobs to manage resource usage and analysis tools to find minor problems before they become major problems) because everyone is dedicated to fixing things that break needlessly (EG systems crashing due to lack of disk space). When people start getting control over recurring problems and automating things then the work becomes increasingly about solving problems and less about implementing the same manual processes every day/week and it’s more fun and effective for everyone.

At the BoF on depression at LCA 2013 one delegate stated that many companies have people in HR who can arrange support for depressed employees. Apparently if you are depressed and you work for a company that’s large enough to have a HR department then it can be beneficial to talk to HR about it. That probably works well in the case where an employee is depressed but the company is working well. But in the case where the company isn’t working well it seems unlikely to help.

David Graeber wrote an interesting article about “Bullshit Jobs” [3]. He goes a bit far, I don’t think that late night pizza delivery is a bullshit job and actuaries are useful to society. But his points about the existence of useless jobs are reasonable.

Management Levels

I sometimes wonder whether there is some benefit in establishing social norms about working and then having management take little interest in how it happens. If a team works well together then management could just set deadlines (which would be negotiated with employees who know what’s possible) and let the team work out how to do it. Then instead of having one manager for each team of ~10 people who theoretically tracks what everyone is doing you could have one manager for a dozen teams who just tracks overall team performance – essentially remove a layer of management.

Valve is famous for having no formal management structure and for getting things done, unfortunately that apparently allows school-style cliques to block actions [4]. But I think that the Valve experiment is useful and provides some ideas that can be used by other companies. Maybe if instead of requiring consensus of the entire company for hiring decisions they only required consensus of the team things would have worked better.

Of course another down-side to such things is that hierarchical management can be good for avoiding discrimination and bullying. The article I cited about Valve compares it to high-school. It could be that Valve employees were all nice people who only hired other nice people. But if similar systems were implemented in many companies then some would surely end up being like a typical high school with all the bullying and mistreatment of minority groups that entails.

Michael O. Church wrote an interesting article in which he divides employees into four categories, “loser”, “clueless”, “psychopaths”, and “technocrats” (note that he didn’t invent the first three names) [5]. In his model the “clueless” category includes most middle-management. I think that there are some problems with Michael’s model and I’m not arguing for a “technocracy” (which is how this post might be interpreted in terms of his ideas). But I think he demonstrates some of the real problems in the way companies are managed and in his model the “losers” prefer not to work as long as they can get paid.


I don’t have any good solutions to these problems to offer. It seems that the best we can hope for is incremental change to make work less depressing, to have the minimal amount of management, and to avoid “bullshit jobs”.

Links November 2013

Shanley wrote an insightful article about microagressions and management [1]. It’s interesting to read that and think of past work experiences, even the best managers do it.

Bill Stone gave an inspiring TED talk about exploring huge caves, autonamous probes to explore underground lakes (which can be used on Europa) and building a refuelling station on the Moon [2].

Simon Lewis gave an interesting TED talk about consciousness and the technology needed to help him recover from injuries sustained in a serious car crash [3].

Paul Wayper wrote an interesting article about reforming the patent system [4]. He also notes that the patent system is claimed to be protecting the mythical home inventor when it’s really about patent trolls (and ex-inventors who work for them). This is similar to the way that ex-musicians work for organisations that promote extreme copyright legislation.

Amanda Palmer gave an interesting TED talk about asking for donations/assistance, and the interactions between musicians and the audience [5]. Some part of this are NSFW.

Hans Rakers wrote a useful post about how to solve a Dovecot problem with too many files open [6]. His solution was for a Red Hat based system, for Debian you can do the same but by editing /etc/init.d/dovecot. The use of the /proc/N/limits file was interesting, I’ve never had a cause to deliberately use that file before.

Krebs on Security has an interesting article about Android malware being used to defeat SMS systems to prevent bank fraud [7]. Apparently an infected PC will instruct the user to install an Android app to complete the process.

Rick Falkvinge wrote an interesting article about how to apply basic economics terminology to so-called “Intellectual Property” [8].

Matthew Garrett wrote an interesting post about the way that Ubuntu gets a better result than Debian and Fedora because it has clear fixed goals [9]. He states that many people regard Fedora as a “playground to produce a range of niche derivatives”, probably a large portion of the Fedora and Debian developers consider this a feature not a bug.

Ming Thein wrote an interesting article about the demise of the DSLR [10].

Bruce Schneier wrote an interesting post on the detention of David Miranda by the British authorities [11]. It’s mostly speculation as to why they would do such a thing (which seems to go against their own best interests) and whether the NSA even knows which documents Edward Snowden copied.

Jaclyn Friedman wrote an interesting article on Mens Rights Movements (MRAs) and how they are bad for MEN as well as for women [12].

Rodney S. Tucker wrote an insightful article for the IEEE about the NBN [13]. Basically the Liberal party are going to spend most of the tax money needed for a full NBN but get a significantly less than the full benefit.

Lauren Drell wrote an interesting article for Mashable about TellSpec, a portable spectrometer that communicates with an Android phone to analyse food for allergens [14]. I guess this will stop schools from banning phones.

Katie McDonough wrote an interesting article for Salon about the Pope’s statements about the problems with unchecked capitalism [15]. His ideas are really nothing new to anyone who has read the Bible and read the news. It seems to me that the most newsworthy part of this is that most Christian leaders don’t make similar statements.

Daniel Leidert wrote an interesting post about power saving when running Debian on a HP Microserver [16]. Most of it is relevant to other AMD64 hardware too, I’ll have to investigate the PCIE ASPM and spin down options on some of my systems that are mostly idle.

Failures of Intelligence Agencies

There’s been an ongoing news issue related to the NSA that I’m not going to directly comment on, Charles Stross has one of the more interesting comments about it [1]. One of his major points is that any success at government secrecy relies on the type of work environment that existed 40+ years ago. Corporatism has killed government secrecy – now it’s a matter of time before corporate whistle-blowers start seriously leaking documents.

One article that Charles links to is an interesting and insightful blog post Adam Curtis wrote for the BBC about the many failures of MI5 [2]. I think that everyone is aware of their biggest failures but from Adam’s article it seems that they have only failed and never succeeded in anything. I wonder whether ASIO is any better, it’s probably not (the Wikipedia page notes the involvement of MI5 in creating ASIO). It seems that the best way of achieving the goals of ASIO and MI5 would be to disband those organisations and assign regular police to do such work, after all it’s been proven that British police are better at catching spies than MI5.

Bad Advertising of Protoplast

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

In early 2010 I wrote about Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, I gave a picture of the wrist brace and a description of the process of creating it [1].

A few months later I wrote a follow-up about how the wrist brace had helped me, at the time I was anticipating wearing it at night for the rest of my life [2]. But my wrist has continued to improve. Nowadays I never wear the wrist brace and hardly even think of it. I am a little more careful about posture than I was before, but mostly it has no impact on my life. I think this counts as a full recovery.

At the time I was mildly interested in buying some thermo-plastic of that type to make things, but the only source I found was Jaycar which sold 100 grams for $14.95, Jaycar prices have now dropped to $11.50 for 100 grams or $89.50 for a kilo but it’s still expensive [3].


When looking at the sites that link to my blog I saw a site advertising “Protoplast” which is a type of thermo-plastic that can be used for making things [4]. Protoplast have more reasonable prices, E30 ($AU42.75) for a kilo and their web site offers better prices for anyone who purchases 10kg or more (good for hackerspaces etc). As they post no further than Belgium they aren’t an option for me but they do seem to make a good offer, better than Jaycar offers in Australia.

Protoplast is probably a good product, but I think that their advert is misleading. While it is probably possible to make a wrist-brace similar to mine with Protoplast it’s a fact that my wrist brace was not made with it. My wrist brace started out as a flat sheet of plastic which could be formed to the final product without being melted. Converting a packet of plastic granules (as sold by Protoplast or Jaycar) to a sheet to even start work on such a wrist brace would take some work.

To make a sheet of plastic out of beads sold by Jaycar or Protoplast you would ideally completely melt the plastic, if you just softened the plastic then it wouldn’t be as strong as using a pre-made sheet. During the time that I wore the wrist brace I probably repaired it more than 30 times, this wasn’t particularly difficult to do, I poured boiling water over it to soften the part that cracked until it became tacky and then pushed it together again. But the result was significantly weaker than the original due to the difficulty in welding the broken sections together. I ended up cutting some strips from less important parts of the wrist brace (the part nearest to my elbow) to reinforce the weakest part which was between my thumb and fore-finger. That section ended up being about three times thicker than it was originally while also not being as strong as it was originally. I also had difficulty in making it flat so it wasn’t nearly as comfortable as the original version.

It seems rather misleading to include the picture of my wrist brace on a site advertising plastic which wasn’t used to make it and which probably couldn’t be used to make something that looks as good with the same ratio of strength to mass. But with a suitable disclaimer indicating that the user probably can’t get the same result it would be OK to give it as an example of what could be done.

I can imagine someone using a product like Protoplast to make a wrist brace that can hold a mobile phone, that can be worn with a watch, or has other features that aren’t offered by medical staff.

License Issues

The license for my blog doesn’t permit people to just copy pictures, it’s a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike based license [5]. I am interested in supporting companies that make interesting products and anything that can help people with medical issues is also of interest. So I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a free license for a picture from my blog to be used in the way that they used it (with a link back to the original blog post). But I would want a description that informs readers that it’s not an item made with their product, merely something similar that can be used for inspiration.

Aldi Changes, Cheap Telcos, and Estimating Costs

I’ve been using Aldi as my mobile phone provider for two months now since Kogan was shut down [1]. Now Aldi have cut the transfer quota on their “Unlimited” plan from 5G per month to 2.5G per month. The most charitable interpretation of this would be that Aldi got a lot of former Kogan customers who needed the 6G per month that Kogan offered and that forced them to make changes to remain profitable. But the most likely possibility is that with less competition Aldi can just offer less for the same price.

This isn’t a huge problem for me, in two months on Aldi my biggest month involved almost exactly 2.5G of data transfer. But it’s annoying to lose something and it’s enough to make me consider other options. Also some of my relatives are looking for new plans so now is a good time to research the options.

Other Pre-paid Options

Lebara offers “Unlimited” plans that start at $30 per month and offer 1.5G of data [2], this compares well to the “Unlimited” plan of $35 per month from Aldi which has 2.5G of data (depending on whether 1.5G is enough).

Amaysim has an “Unlimited” plan that includes 4G of data for $40 per month [3]. If you make lots of phone calls and transfer more than 2.5G of data per month then that would be a really good deal.

Lebara uses the Vodafone network and Amaysim uses Optus. Neither of them compare to the Telstra 3G network if you want access outside major urban areas. I had Virgin (Optus network) work well for me for years and Three (their own network now part of Vodafone) work well for many years before that. But data transfer is becoming more important to me and the Telstra network is a major feature of Aldi.

Lebara has one of the wost web sites I’ve ever seen and Amaysim isn’t much better. Aldi is great, they just provide all the key data in one page. Aldi and Amaysim have Android apps that can be used for recharging and viewing the balance, Aldi’s app works well but I haven’t been able to test the Amaysim app. Lebara doesn’t even have an app.

Generally Lebara doesn’t seem to have anything going for it unless you want to make lots of calls to other Lebara customers, you want to make calls to certain other countries where Lebara has very low international rates, or unless you need a plan with “unlimited” calls but don’t need more than 1.5G of data.

The following table summarises the costs of the three pre-paid telcos.

Telco Flagfall Cost/min (Australia calls) SMS Data Cost/Meg Data Increment Credit Expiry and Minimum 30day Data Packs
Aldi 0 $0.12 $0.12 $0.05 1M 1 year $15 2G=$15
Lebara $0.29 $0.15 $0.15 $0.05 1K 90 days $10
Amaysim 0 $0.12 $0.12 $0.05 1M 90 days $5 1G=$10 2G=$20 4G=$30

Post-paid Options

Virgin’s cheapest offer is $20 per month for $200 of calls (at $0.98/min + $0.40 flagfall) and 200M of data [4], they currently have a special offer of an extra 1G if you sign up before the 18th of November. Virgin have a long history of periodically offering special deals so if you want to sign up with them some time in the next few months it’s best to poll their web site and wait for a deal.

The TeleChoice Global Liberty plan is a slightly better deal of $20 per month for $500 of calls (at $0.97/min + $0.40 flagfall) and 1G of data which also has free SMS [5].

TeleChoice Global Rebel Texter is a plan for $15 per month that includes $200 of calls and 200M of data and free SMS [6]. They also have a $10 per month plan which charges $0.22 per SMS, which would be bad value for anyone who sends 1 SMS per day.

At Aldi rates if you spend $15 per month on 2G of data and $5 on calls then you will get 41 * one minute calls as opposed to $200/($0.98+$0.40)==145 * one minute calls with the cheapest Virgin plan. It seems to me that there is little possibility for those two $20 post-paid plans (which seem to be two of the best value plans currently available) to compete well with the pre-paid options from Aldi and Lebara. Even if you have the same usage pattern every month there are only particular patterns which make the Virgin or TeleChoice deals most appealing options, for example if you need to make more than 40 minutes of calls but less than 145 minutes of calls then Virgin will look good. TeleChoice Global Liberty looks good if you make between 40 and $500/($0.97+$0.40)==365 * one minute calls.

If you only need a small amount of data transfer (less than 200M billed in 10K increments) then the TeleChoice Rebel Texter plan would look good as the Aldi 1M increments matter for small amounts of data transfer. But I don’t think that many people are in that situation, even my mother in law can’t easily stick within 200M of data transfer.

Measuring Phone Use

The first program I used for measuring phone calls is the Call & SMS Stats app from the Android Market [7]. I wouldn’t recommend this to technical users as it demands a lot of access to the phone (including reading SMS, accessing the phone storage, and sending data to the Internet), but it’s good for less technical users. For my use I prefer Call Meter 3G from the F-Droid repository [8]. I trust the Call Meter 3G program more because it’s source is available under the GPL and it also has the convenient feature of adding up the costs of the calls, SMS, and data used.

According to Call Meter 3G I’m using less than $20 of calls and SMS per month, so if I continue my current use with a 2G data pack every month from Aldi instead of buying a $35 “Unlimited” pack and don’t use more than 2G of data then I’ll save at least a few dollars every month. My wife makes fewer calls so I’ve already moved her phone away from the “Unlimited” plan and I’ll move my phone later if it looks like it will save money – she will now use my phone for making calls when we are together so the “Unlimited” plan may become good value when we share it.

The Case for Aldi

Aldi offers competitive options for phones for most levels of usage. While there are some post-paid plans which are better in some areas such as the ones from TeleChoice Aldi has the benefit of flexibility. A phone with Aldi can have it’s plan scaled up or down easily with no penalty fees.

For a phone to be usable for an entire year the cheapest option at the moment is Aldi which has a $15 recharge that lasts for a year. The next best option seems to be Amaysim with a $5 recharge that lasts for 90 days.

Saving Money

In the past I’ve been used to SMS being significantly cheaper than phone calls. When I was on Virgin and calls just over $1 per minute ($0.98 per minute plus the flag-fall) and SMS were $0.28 which made a simple question and answer cheaper by SMS than calling. But with Aldi charging the same for a 1 minute call and sending an SMS a simple question and answer will cost half as much if it’s done with a call so SMS isn’t a good deal. Also I’ve started using Google Hangouts to communicate with my wife instead of SMS as extra use of Hangouts is essentially free (we both have it running all the time for Ingress related communication anyway). The financial incentive now is to use Google Hangouts to replace some calls.

One down-side to saving money in such ways is that it restricts usage of the phone. While moving from SMS to Google Hangouts (or any other instant-messaging system) isn’t any great cost having to reduce the number of calls does. The ability to talk for as long as you want without bothering about cost is something that’s worth paying for.

I Hate Telcos

For most things that I spend money on I wouldn’t invest much effort to try and save $10 or $15 per month. Even when doing research that will help my friends and relatives and random people on the Internet I probably wouldn’t take so much time for a small saving. But the Telcos seems to avoid competing as much as possible which is obvious from the way that they increase prices and decrease services at the same time. Also most Telcos seem to have a business model that is based around exploiting customers, they have confusing terms in the contracts that make it very likely for customers to go over the included usage and hit penalty rates and charge unreasonable prices for the phones that are bundled with a telephony contract. I want to reduce the amount of money I pay to Telcos as a matter of principle.

Aldi is better than most Telcos, they have clear terms that are explained on a single web page [9], and they have an Android app to show the remaining credit that can reduce the risk of excessive fees if a 2G data block is used. Aldi sells phones in their stores at low prices, the phones that they sell aren’t the highest quality but the customer gets what they pay for and the warranty return policy is good. But we still need to find the best options so that market forces will encourage Telcos to make more reasonable offers.

Links October 2013

Wired has an interesting article by David Samuels about the Skybox, a small satellite (about the size of a bar fridge) that is being developed to provide cheap photographs of the Earth from low orbit [1]. Governments of major countries will probably try to limit what they do, but if they can prove that it’s viable then someone else from a different jurisdiction will build similar satellites.

Alice Dreger gave an interesting TED talk about the various ways that people can fall outside the expected genetic sex binary [2].

The short film “Love is All You Need” has an interesting way of showing the way that non-straight kids are treated [3].

The Guardian has an interesting article by Ranjana Srivastava about doctors and depression [4].

Don Marti wrote an interesting post about believing bullshit as a way of demonstrating group loyalty [5].

Zacqart Adam Green wrote an interesting article for the Falkvinge blog about the way that the Ouya gaming console can teach children about free software and political freedom [6]. Read more at [7]. It’s a pity that the Ouya is not conveniently sold outside the US and the UK, with shipping it would probably cost a lot more than $99 in Australia.

Tim Chevalier wrote an interesting post for Geek Feminism about the unintended consequences of some codes of conduct [8].

Tim Chevalier wrote an interesting Geek Feminism post about Wikipedia describing how the Neutral Point Of View is a way of representing the views of people in power [9].

Ramin Shokrizade wrote an interesting article for Gamasutra about the “Free 2 Play” (F2P) techniques [10]. The concept of F2P games is that the game can be installed for free but requires regular small payments to make the game easier, apparently some people pay $3000 per year or more.

The TED blog has an interesting interview with Jack Andraka, a teenager who invented a new test for pancreatic cancer (and also ovarian and lung cancer) that is cheaper, faster, and less invasive than other tests [11]. The blog post also has a link to Jack’s TED talk.

Thinkpad T420

I’ve owned a Thinkpad T61 since February 2010 [1]. In most ways it’s a great system and it still does most things that I require, even though it inspired my post about how modern laptops suck [2].

Problems with my T61

The biggest ongoing problem with my T61 was the heat production, I’m not sure how much of it was due to the CPU producing heat and how much was due to the cooling system not removing it fast enough. But any serious computation for even a relatively small amount of time caused it to get close to thermal shutdown. But as I mostly use my laptop for reading email, a SSH client, and coding (for which the big compiles are done on servers) that didn’t force me to replace it. The next problem was the battery life, it’s expected that laptop batteries degrade over time so it wasn’t a surprise that after 3 years my T61 battery only lasted for about 15 minutes. A final problem is the screen which didn’t seem to be as bright as it used to be, it’s annoying but doesn’t compel me to buy a replacement.

T61 Failure

But in July my T61 stopped working, it appeared to be either the power supply or something internal related to power, it had been running but was suddenly powered down after being left alone so for some reason power wasn’t getting from the wall to the laptop. I initially thought that it was the power supply at fault and investigated the price of a new PSU and a new battery as well. The Lenovo online store [3] charges $71.90 for a new PSU and $113 for a regular capacity battery or $156 for an extended capacity battery (50% more power). So based on the assumption that the PSU was faulty that meant a cost of $185 or $228 (maybe more if postage is included) to get the old Thinkpad going again. I could probably get the parts cheaper from somewhere else, but I’m hesitant to buy batteries from sources that aren’t reliable in case I get one that’s been used.

Buying at Auction

I ended up buying a refurbished Thinkpad T420 (product ID 4236-J73) from Grays Online [4]. It was refurbished and cost me $306.35 including delivery. $306.35 for a new laptop including PSU was a much better deal than buying a new PSU and battery for $185 or more. It turned out that the PSU wasn’t broken (a different PSU also didn’t work with it) but then my Thinkpad T61 just started working again, presumably it has some intermittent fault related to power and needed to be replaced anyway (I use my laptop for work and can’t have it fail randomly).

One significant problem when buying a Thinkpad is that the model numbers aren’t specific to the hardware specs. According to ThinkWiki the T420 model ranges from a 2.1GHz i3 to a 2.8GHz I7 CPU, from 160G to 500G hard drive, and has either a 1366*768 or a 1600*900 display [5]. Auction sites almost always specify the size of a hard drive and usually the exact CPU speed doesn’t matter much for an auction purchase (2.1GHz is fast enough for most things). But the display resolution is a big deal, in this case Grays had multiple Thinkpads on offer with the same description and the same price so bidding on one with high resolution was quite important. Lenovo has a web site for discovering Thinkpad specs, this is the current link for it (it changes periodically) [6]. At that page you can specify the “TYPE” AKA “PRODUCT ID” that is printed on the back of a Thinkpad (and usually included in an auction listing) in the search field that’s currently described as “QUICK PATH” and get all the specifications. Lenovo really do a great job of providing all the details for their products (including ones that were obsolete years ago). But it’s unfortunate that their web site sucks, there should be a single URL for such things that’s easy to find and they shouldn’t use cookies to track which model you are looking at because it makes it really difficult to research two different models.

Comparing T61 and T420

I upgraded my new Thinkpad to 8G of RAM because RAM is really cheap. I bought it with 4G of RAM which didn’t seem to be quite enough as the hard drive is slow for paging (my desktop with 3G of RAM and a SSD performed well for similar tasks). Now it’s running really well, my new Thinkpad is a lot cooler than the old one (not being broken is a good thing).

My T420 has a screen resolution of 1600*900 which was a little disappointing initially when going from 1680*1050 (18% fewer pixels and 2% fewer than the T41p I used previously). But having a smaller screen means that the Thinkpad is a lot smaller and lighter. My T61 didn’t fit in most backpacks and laptop bags and was unreasonably heavy, it’s the type of laptop that looks good on a spec sheet but doesn’t seem so good when you carry it around for a few hours. Not only is the T420 a lot smaller and lighter than the T61 but the power supply that shipped with it is a lot smaller and lighter too. I might have spent $72 a few years ago to buy a lighter PSU if I knew that was an option.

Cost of Ownership

Thinkpads are getting so cheap at auction that I’m tempted to buy myself an X series as well. When a $300 item can last several years (my T41p was from some time before 2006, my T61 was from 2010, and my latest is from 2013) that brings the cost of ownership down to something like $0.25 per day. If I bought myself a Thinkpad X series (ultra light) as well at auction then I would be looking at maybe $0.50 per day for my laptop use which would give me the option of taking a light laptop to a conference and a bigger laptop for spending a day at a client site.

LUV Hardware Library after 20 Months

20 months ago I started the LUV Hardware Library [1]. The aim of the project is to provide a repository of free spare parts for computers for the use of club members. People who have parts that are good but which they can’t use can donate them and others who need such parts can take them.

Some people have criticised my choice of the name “Hardware Library” because the word is associated with borrowing while with my Hardware Library it is expected that noone will return the item that they take. The Wikipedia page about libraries is worth reading, my interpretation of that is that the essential aspect of a library is that it is a public collection of items that are useful for study and that borrowing is just one thing that can be done. A book library could consist of a service of printing free books on demand (anyone could do this with access to The Gutenberg Project [2] and a printer) or of just making them available to download. Many libraries don’t allow books to be borrowed, they just allow them to be studied and copied in the library. Also every general public library has reference items that can’t be borrowed, it’s typical for a library to have a full encyclopedia which is not available to be borrowed. Also with the Hardware Library people feel obliged to give something if they take something (as happens with a geocache), so there is an issue of returning something.

My main aims with the Hardware Library were to save people money on parts and to help the environment by reducing the need to buy new computers when old ones can be upgraded and remain in service. My next aim was to help people learn about hardware by providing free parts, when a mistake has no financial cost people are more willing to experiment and will learn more. I believe that those aims have been achieved.

More Successful Than Expected

One thing that surprised me is the social aspect that developed. I had expected that most people would just find some parts that they need and not look at it again for some months. I had also anticipated that some people would poll the Hardware Library every month in the hope that a part they needed might appear. I didn’t expect that people would look through it every month because they just like looking at old hardware. I also didn’t expect groups of people to hang out by the Hardware Library to discuss various issues related to PC hardware and Linux.

During the breaks in the main meeting the location of the Hardware Library often becomes a focus for discussions of various issues related to Linux and hardware. I think that this is really advancing the aims of LUV [3] and I think that members of other LUGs should experiment with similar projects.

Starting this didn’t require any special skill or authority. I just started bringing a briefcase full of parts to meetings and offering them to whoever was interested. Any member of any LUG can do the same. To start something like this you wouldn’t even need a collection of parts, you could just bring a box and ask for donations.

Links September 2013

Matt Palmer wrote an insightful post about the use of the word “professional” [1]. It’s one factor that makes me less inclined to be a member of “professional” societies.

The TED blog has an interesting article about Wikihouse which is a project to create a set of free designs for houses to be cut out of plywood with a CNC milling machine [2]. The article also links to a TED talk by Alastair Parvin of the Wikihouse project which covers many interesting things other than designing houses.

An XKCD comic has one of the best explanations of bullying I’ve ever seen [3]. If you aren’t familiar with XKCD then make sure you hover your mouse over it to read the hidden text.

The Fair Phone is a project to develop a smart phone starting with conflict-free resources and with fully free software (not like a typical Android build) [4]. It’s an interesting project and the price and specs seem within the normal range – so you’re not paying a huge premium for a conflict-free phone. Unfortunately they only have one model with a 4.3″ display, if they had a competitor for the Galaxy Note then I’d be interested.

Patrick Stokes wrote an insightful article about why “I’m entitled to my opinion” is a bogus argument [5].

Jim Daly wrote an interesting TED blog post interviewing Rishi Manchanda about “Upstream Doctors” who look for the root causes of medical problems rather than just treating the symptoms [6].

Brian Krebs wrote an insightful article about the value of a hacked email account [7]. If you are trying to convince your users to use better passwords then this should help.

Ron Garrett wrote an insightful series or articles on morality hooked on the premise of whether it’s wrong to torture kittens [8]. Part of his conclusion is that people who believe it’s wrong to do such things tend to be more capable of working in large groups and forming a productive and efficient society.

The TED blog has an interesting post by Karen Eng summarising Andreas Raptopoulos’ talk about using autonomous drones to deliver parcels in parts of the world that don’t have usable roads [9]. Delivering parcels (which would start with medical supplies but would presumably move on to commercial transport) by drone is apparently really cheap. Being cheaper than building roads isn’t going to be difficult but it seems that they are going to make it cheaper than paying people to deliver parcels even if the roads were built. The main web site about this project is, they are hiring electrical engineers. Here is the link for Andreas TED talk [10].

The TOR blog has an interesting article by Emily Asher-Perrin comparing the different houses of Hogwarts [11]. It’s an insightful article about personality attributes and gives more information than is available in the movies (I’d read the books if I had time).